Tommy Morrison was one of the hardest hitters of his generation and was potentially one punch away from the most lucrative fight of his life – against Mike Tyson – when his world flipped upside down.
A distant kinship with Wild West legend John Wayne meant Morrison went by the name ‘The Duke’ in the ring and he immediately captured the imagination like the legendary actor did.
Tommy Morrison played the villain in Rocky V
At the age of 14, his mother entered him into ‘tough man’ contests.
He moved from Arkansas to Kansas City to pursue a career in boxing and ended up getting as far as the National Olympic Trials, where he was defeated by eventual 1988 Gold medal winner Ray Mercer.
With his bleach blond hair, enviable physique and brutal knockout power, the slugger looked every inch a superstar and he got the opportunity to pursue that dream in 1989.
Sylvester Stallone watched one of his fights and decided to cast him as ‘Tommy Gunn’ in Rocky V, with Morrison taking a six-month break from his promising career.
The story centred around country boy Gunn arriving on the boxing scene with nothing, winning it all and then losing it again – perhaps forecasting Morrison’s real life sad demise.
Morrison had amassed 28 wins by the time he faced Mercer again, in 1991, with their brutal back-and-forth battle for the WBO heavyweight title ending in the fifth round and resulting in Morrison’s first defeat in the ring.
But his star power had not diminished and, with legendary promoter Bob Arum guiding him, Morrison got another shot at the heavyweight crown against 44-year-old George Foreman in 1993.
Refusing to get into a brawl with the far bigger and more cumbersome opponent, Morrison boxed safely from a distance to become the WBO heavyweight champion.
Morrison lands a clubbing right on Foreman’s chin during their fight
With the world at his feet, it seemed as though Morrison had the potential to go on and achieve all the fame and fortune boxing had to offer.
But, unlike a Rocky movie, the champion was about to find out how cruel the sport can be.
His second defence against Michael Bentt – four months after beating Foreman – in his adopted hometown of Tulsa in Oklahoma was a genuine shock – a true upset in the heavyweight division so accustomed to drama.
Just days before the fight, talks about a unification fight with WBC champion Lennox Lewis had reportedly begun. Yet the unknown Bentt had not read the script and dropped Morrison three times en route to a first round stoppage win.
Virtually unknown fighter Bentt caused a seismic shock in heavyweight boxing in Morrison’s home town
It was reported to have cost Morrison $7.5million and accusations about his private life were beginning to filter into the world of boxing.
Morrison began the long climb back to the top by stopping Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock in June 1995 to finally set up the fight with Lennox Lewis in October, though his purse now was smaller by 80 per cent than it had been before the Bentt fight.
The bloody beating he took from the Brit did not tell the full story; Lewis was quick to praise Morrison, calling him ‘one of the hardest punchers I ever met’.
Incidentally, Mercer also backs up this claim from their two meetings, insisting Morrison hit harder than Lewis.
Lewis credits Morrison as being one of the hardest punchers he ever faced
However, the star power of ‘The Duke’ was not diminished after the defeat and he signed with Don King to face Art Weathers in February 1996 – a tune up fight before a scheduled meeting with Mike Tyson.
But the fight with Weather and subsequently Iron Mike – which would have been worth a fortune – never happened.
It was announced that Morrison had tested positive for HIV. He disputed that he had the virus but it brought an end to his boxing career, aged just 27.
Morrison has always maintained the result of the test was incorrect and the Nevada Athletic Commission lifted his ban from boxing in 2006.
He briefly made a return to the ring a year later, winning two low-key fights, before calling time on his career for good.
Morrison’s wife, Trisha, has continued to fight to clear up the untruths around her husband’s HIV diagnosis – even after his death from organ failure in 2013 aged just 44.
Rocky had nothing on his life.
Life was anything but a Rocky movie for Morrison, who died at the tender age of 44