The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison, by Carlos Acevedo (Hamilcar, 232 pp., $18.99)
Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing, by Carlos Acevedo (Hamilcar, 232 pp., $27.95)
For the writer living by his or her wits, identification with the lonely and misunderstood passion of the boxer seems almost inevitable. A long tradition of ambitious boxing journalism, anchored by A. J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science, Norman Mailer’s The Fight, and Donald McRae’s Dark Trade, pushes past the purse wrangles and the disputed decisions to the deeper problems of why some men choose to fight for a living and the forces inside and outside the game that thwart their quixotic dreams. The violence of the ring expresses something elemental in our natures, something that needs intellectual courage and the right language to understand.
Carlos Acevedo is a keen student of the technical aspects of a sport that, despite its raw physicality, swiftly exposes the untrained. Beyond that, though, he is interested in its deep history, in mining the past for what is uniquely instructive in a gladiatorial contest that strips human nature bare. In this, he is a worthy successor to all those who have tried to honor in words the inarticulate striving of the ring.
Acevedo’s first book, Sporting Blood (2020), was a collection of lithe sketches of fighters who have mattered to him. His just-published second, The Duke, is a biography of the late brawler Tommy Morrison. Morrison died of AIDS at 44 in 2013, almost exactly 20 years after he defeated George Foreman to hold (briefly) a share of the heavyweight title. He was a media sensation as much as a boxer, best remembered by the casual fan for his role as Sylvester Stallone’s protégé-turned-nemesis in Rocky V. Like his fictional “Tommy Gunn,” Morrison lived a heedless, anti-heroic, and occasionally grotesque life, with a natural penchant for bad behavior accelerated and amplified by substance abuse. The problem Acevedo faces is how to write an edifying portrait of a man who did not much respect himself or anyone else and whose life would seem to invoke the cliches of rural poverty, alcoholism, and violence.
Tommy Morrison was raised principally in Jay, Oklahoma, and started boxing in local tough-man contests at the age of 13, fighting grown men in unregulated events at carnivals and county fairs. His amateur career is not well-documented, but his rare combination of speed and punching power must have made him a fearsome opponent despite desultory training habits and some defensive flaws that he never corrected.
Jay is about an hour south of Commerce, hometown of Oklahoma’s greatest sports hero, Mickey Mantle. Both Mantle and Morrison grew up determined to use sports as a way out of poverty. Both grew up to be womanizers and relentless abusers of alcohol. (Ever true to the vices of the age, Morrison was also a prolific user of hard recreational drugs and steroids.). Mantle, however, was redeemed in later life, chastened and humbled once the destructive urges had left him. Morrison did not live long enough to find redemption, nor does he seem to have had much interest in being redeemed.
Morrison turned professional in 1988 as the most marketable of boxing commodities—a white heavyweight with blue-collar origins and power in both hands. His early professional record reflects careful management directed more toward future paydays than developing a fighter who could compete for long with the best in the sport. “Morrison epitomized the smoke-and-mirror world of boxing,” writes Acevedo, “where the line between athletic event and consumer fraud is often thinner than a lightbulb filament.” Morrison ultimately did win a share of the heavyweight title, earning a seven-figure purse in the process, then shockingly lost it less than five months later to the relatively unknown Michael Bentt, a diffident ex-Olympian who fought only once more as a professional.
Morrison was diagnosed with HIV in 1996 and was effectively banned from boxing. He was inactive for a decade, then returned for two cynical comeback fights in West Virginia and Mexico before retiring for good. He spent his later years making increasingly bizarre claims that he had never tested positive, that he did not have HIV, and that HIV does not cause AIDS. By largely refusing the standard antiretroviral therapy, he became the agent of his own demise, and he died in 2013, “finally bedridden, a fading silhouette, unable to speak.”
Acevedo lingers over the contradictions in Morrison’s character, providing as honest a portrait as his subject is ever likely to receive. Morrison was a violent drunk, but he was also approachable and generous with fans. He gave away large sums of money to people down on their luck. His dominant characteristics, though, were poor impulse control and dishonesty, both no doubt worsened by his substance abuse and the brain damage he suffered in the ring. Fame also magnified his character flaws—and a peculiar kind of fame it was, in a 1990s boxing culture just this side of professional wrestling. Morrison, who Acevedo tells us “was born on a moral crossroads,” was probably always going to lead essentially the life he did lead. The millions he earned in the boxing ring changed the scale of his exploits but not their nature.
“Disillusion,” Acevedo writes, “is as much a part of boxing as the jab is.” Acevedo is lured by the enigma of self-destruction, which, in boxing’s case, involves fighters whose talents might have lifted them above the degradation and hopelessness they were born into but who had something nested in their psyches that proved their undoing. This was certainly true of Tommy Morrison. It is also true of many of the fighters Acevedo sketched in Sporting Blood: Aaron Pryor, the dominant 140-lb. champion of the 1980s who wound up a pitiful addict on the streets of Cincinnati; Eddie Machen, a skilled but troubled heavyweight of the 1960s who fell out of a window and died at 40; and boxing’s ultimate dark star, Sonny Liston, dead of a heroin overdose in a Las Vegas hotel room six years after losing his title to Cassius Clay. Acevedo tells us what boxing does to people. “Disability, desolation, murder, dementia—these are the occupational hazards of a dark art, like the deadly plunge for wire walkers.” He also tells us why fighters can’t walk away. In an essay on the charming but erratic Albuquerque lightweight, Johnny Tapia (1967–2012), he quotes William S. Burroughs: “Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.” We hurt ourselves for reasons we but dimly comprehend, and boxers do that more than most. “Sadism,” Acevedo has written, “is an essential part of boxing. So is masochism.”
Hype aside, how good a boxer was Tommy Morrison? Acevedo concludes that while Morrison was defensively flawed and undisciplined in his training, he was a tough, dangerous opponent even for the division’s best: “A fine athlete, Morrison had, along with Evander Holyfield, the fastest hands of any heavyweight since a prime [Mike] Tyson . . . There was also the undeniable potency of his left hook . . . Finally, Morrison showed the kind of heart often lacking among his peers . . . [he] epitomized the archaic phrase “dead game.”
In his brief prime, Tommy Morrison proved that he could fight. Like so many of Carlos Acevedo’s subjects, what he couldn’t do was live.
Photo by: The Ring Magazine via Getty Images