Tommy Morrison‘s career reached its pinnacle on a hot June night in Las Vegas, when he stepped into the ring and beat George Foreman to become heavyweight champion.
It reached its nadir when he tested positive for HIV three years later.
The last 20 years of the brash boxer’s life would be defined by extensive legal troubles, erratic behavior and mounting health problems. Morrison would later claim that he never tested positive for the virus that causes AIDs, even as he was hospitalized during the last days of his life.
Morrison died Sunday night at a Nebraska hospital. He was 44.
His longtime promoter and close friend, Tony Holden, confirmed that “the Duke” had died, but his family would not disclose the cause of death. Morrison and his wife, Trisha, continued to deny that the former champion ever had HIV during the final years of his life.
“Tommy’s a very stubborn person and he views things the way he wants to view things. That’s his right and privilege,” Holden said. “All through his career, him and I would come not to physical blows but disagreements on certain things. We always ended up friends. That was Tommy.
“That’s the way Tommy took off after he was told he was HIV-positive,” Holden added. “When he first was told, I was taking him to seek treatment and to different doctors around the country. And then he started research on the Internet and started saying it was a conspiracy. He went in that direction and never looked back.”
The controversy, along with Morrison’s rapid decline, overshadowed a stellar career.
Morrison was a prodigious puncher whose bid to fight in the 1988 Seoul Olympics ended at the hands of Ray Mercer, who later dealt him his first professional loss. Along the way, Morrison became such a recognizable face that he was cast in “Rocky V” alongside Sylvester Stallone.
Morrison won his first 28 professional fights, beating faded champions such as Pinklon Thomas along the way. He hit it big at the Thomas & Mack Center in the summer of 1993 — a unanimous decision over Foreman, then in the midst of his comeback — to claim a vacant world title.
As with so many things in Morrison’s life, the good was quickly followed by the bad.
Morrison was in line for a high-profile bout with Lennox Lewis when he was upset by unheralded fighter Michael Bentt in Tulsa, Okla., not far from where Morrison was raised. He was knocked down three times and the fight was called before the first round ended.