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RIP Tommy Morrison, Who Once Thought He Was Bulletproof

Bernard Fernandez

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The post-mortem assessments of the boxing career of former WBO heavyweight champion Tommy “The Duke” Morrison – who died late Sunday night in an Omaha, Neb., hospital after a prolonged illness, at the too-young age of 44 — will probably run the gamut of semi-praise (he was very good, but not quite good enough to be truly elite, as also was the case with Gerry Cooney and the late Jerry Quarry) and semi-derogatory (think Duane Bobick and most of the American heavys who have masqueraded as contenders in recent years).

Morrison’s wife, Trisha, whom married him in 2011, was at his bedside when her husband lost his final fight. She said the cause of death was Guillain-Barre Syndrome, not HIV, which Morrison tested positive for in 1996. Other sources indicated it was from respiratory and metabolic acidosis and multiple organ failure.

Truth be told, Morrison was closer to Cooney and Quarry, who very well could have been champions had they come along in a different era (like now), than to, say, Bobick, who had some skills but whose accomplishments never quite measured up to the overly lavish hype that accompanied his meteoric rise, and equally rapid fall. The prevailing view of Bobick now, through the prism of historical perspective, is that he was almost entirely a media creation undeserving of the buzz he created for a brief spell.

Morrison (48-3-1, 42 KOs) captured the vacant WBO version of the heavyweight title by outpointing 44-year-old George Foreman on June 7, 1993, in Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center — admittedly in a bout in which he went against his usual bombs-away philosophy to play hit-and-run with the lumbering but still heavy-handed Big George. Morrison’s critics, and there are many, will also point out that he got hammered in matchups with Lennox Lewis, Ray Mercer and, yes, even Michael Bentt. It’s difficult to imagine even past-their-prime versions of the indisputably great heavyweights being cuffed around quite so soundly as was “The Duke” – a reference to Morrison’s claim to being a distant relative of John Wayne – in those bouts.

But Morrison, who also was notable for his prominent role as “Tommy Gunn” in Rocky V, the fifth and weakest installment in Sylvester Stallone’s iconic movie franchise, also showed flashes of what he was at times, and might have been had his beard been stouter and his lifestyle less reckless. Like basketball superstar Magic Johnson, Morrison had an insatiable appetite for making sexual conquests, many if not all of the unprotected variety, and it led to his career basically ending when it was announced on Feb. 15, 1996, at a press conference in Tulsa, Okla., that he had contracted the HIV virus that leads to AIDS. It should be noted, however, that the first notification of Morrison’s passing did not specifically mention a cause of death.

But, like Magic, who despite his shocking diagnosis and forced retirement from the NBA went on to be a member of the 1992 Olympic gold-medal-winning “Dream Team” in Barcelona, Spain, Morrison never could find peace, prosperity and flashes of glory following his revelation of being HIV-positive. Oh, sure, he did go on to fight three more times – TKO thrashings of Marcus Rhode (in 1996), John Castle (2007) and Matt Weishaar (2008) – while insisting he wasn’t really sick, that the original diagnosis was incorrect and, if it had been when made, he somehow had miraculously “healed” himself. But his actual accomplishments, health and life prospects never approached those of Magic, who today remains a remarkably fit, multimillionaire part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Most tragedies-in-the-making, it would seem, really do turn out tragically. Magic Johnson is the apparent exception to that reality, and Tommy Morrison is not, as are the vast majority of life’s designated victims who find that their bodies, no matter how well-maintained, can betray them if the wrong microscopic virus invades a flesh-and-blood host.

But Morrison, at his best, could whack with the best of them. His weapon of choice, as was the case with Joe Frazier and Cooney, was a murderous left hook that could make strong men collapse like a dilapidated building before a wrecking ball. You say he was on the wrong end of one of the most emphatic knockouts ever, his fifth-round blowout by WBO titlist Mercer on Oct. 18 1991, in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall? Anyone who saw only the highlight-reel footage of that fight’s ending will remember only that, but those who were in the house – and I was at ringside – know that he had unmercifully clubbed Mercer up to the point, late in Round 4, when his gas tank simply emptied. That bout is less an indictment of Morrison’s finishing ability than it is a tribute to Mercer’s ability to soak up punishment like a sponge and still will himself to victory, a quality for which Rocky Marciano, Matthew Saad Muhammad and the late Arturo Gatti are enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Morrison could, at times, be his own worst enemy. He frequently clashed with his exasperated trainer, Tommy Virgets, who never could get his recalcitrant pupil to be as judicious in his behavior outside the ring as, say, a Bernard Hopkins. He went for a quick payday in his Oct. 29, 1993, fight with Bentt in Tulsa, Okla., despite knowing that he was in line for a fat $8 million payday to face Lennox Lewis. Bentt caught the overconfident, underprepared Morrison cold in the first round and stopped him, the date with Lewis sailing out the window. He did wind up mixing it up with Lewis two years later, on Oct. 7, 1995, in Boardwalk Hall, but the time in between did not serve him well, and Lewis starched him in six rounds, flooring him down four times.

But while his occasional stumbles underscore his human frailities, mention should also be made of the fact that Morrison could and frequently did look sensational when he had everything working, like in those first 3½ rounds against Mercer and in winning displays of power in stoppages of Razor Ruddock and Carl “The Truth” Williams.

One is only left to wonder how things would have turned out for Morrison he exercised a bit more restraint in his personal life, which might have adversely affected his performance inside the ropes.

It all went south, and fast, for Morrison on Feb. 10, 1996, the very day he was to have swapped punches with journeyman Arthur “Stormy” Weathers at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, on the undercard of a defense by IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad against “Rockin’” Rodney Moore. But the Morrison-Weathers fight was suddenly canceled because of the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s ruling that “The Duke” had been placed on “indefinite medical suspension.” There was immediate speculation — accurate, as it turned out — that the suspension owed to Morrison having tested positive for the HIV virus. At the time, Nevada was one of only three states, Arizona and Washington being the others, that required professional boxers to be tested for HIV.

Five days later, in a crowded hotel meeting room in Tulsa, Morrison confirmed what was already widely suspected. Too many close encounters with female admirers had put him down harder than Lewis or Mercer ever could.

“This is a disease that does not discriminate,” a somber Morrison said as his parents, promoter Tony Holden and Virgets watched with equally long faces. “That’s very, very clear to me now. It doesn’t matter if you live in a drug-infested ghetto in New York City or on a ranch in Jay, Okla. (where Morrison was raised). It can jump up and bite you no matter where you’re at. And I’ll tell you something else. It doesn’t matter what color you are. It doesn’t have a favorite color.

“To all my young fans, I’d ask that you no longer see me as a role model, but as an individual that had the opportunity to be a role model and blew it – blew it with irresponsible, irrational, immature decisions … decisions that one day could cost me my life.

“I thought I was bulletproof. I’m not.”

Virgets told a tale of other opportunities that Morrison faced and, obviously, frequently took advantage of. “I can remember on a number of occasions Tommy doing autograph sessions when there might be 1,000 or 1,200 people go through. At the end, he’d come over and hand me 15 or 20 notes that were handed to him by women. They had names, addresses, phone numbers, little messages that I’d rather not repeat. It was unbelievable.”

Not that any of this hadn’t been forewarned years earlier, as Morrison’s penchant for pleasure-seeking was becoming increasingly obvious. His former promoter, Bill Cayton, said in February 1994 that the fighter “has the physical tools to be the best heavyweight in the world, but he finds it hard to, uh, resist certain temptations.”

Cayton also noted that while Virgets, a no-nonsense sort, had Morrison for two hours of training every day in preparation for an upcoming fight, “Tommy was partying the other 22.”

As it turned out, Morrison’s humbled sense of penitence was short-lived. He wanted back in boxing, and despite being prohibited from fighting in the United States because of the suspension, he wangled a spot on the undercard of a Nov. 3, 1996, show in Chiba, Japan, about 25 miles southeast of Tokyo, headlined by George Foreman’s scheduled 12-rounder against Crawford Grimsley. Foreman won a unanimous decision, while Morrison took out Rhode in one round.

Showtime boxing commentator Bobby Czyz, for one, questioned the wisdom of allowing Morrison to fight anywhere in the world, given his medical situation.

“I know the odds are thousands-to-one against the disease being transmitted in the ring,” Czyz said in September 1996. “But a slight chance is not the same as no chance. Why would anyone want to be in the AIDS lottery?”

For most of the next dozen years after his wipeout of Rhode, Morrison argued that he deserved the opportunity to ply his trade, just as Johnson was allowed to during his brief return to NBA play and in Barcelona. He pointed to his own chiseled 6-2, 225-pound physique as proof that he was no disease-ravaged shell of his former self.

There were those who wanted to believe he was correct in his optimistic self-assessment. Morrison actually was supposed to return to the ring, at 42, in a Feb. 25, 2011, six-rounder against neophyte pro Eric Barrak (3-0, 2 KOs) in Montreal. But the Quebec boxing commission asked Morrison to take still another blood test to ascertain to its satisfaction that Morrison was, as he had so loudly proclaimed, really HIV-free.

“I’m living proof that HIV is a myth,” Morrison had said at the time the bout was scheduled. “All the things that were going to happen, didn’t. Medical mistakes happen all the time and people are misdiagnosed.”

The fact that the Morrison-Barrak fight never came off at least suggests that the results of that other blood test demanded by the Quebec commission did not support Morrison’s claims of a clean bill of health. Morrison’s death just 2 ½ years after his final comeback bid was rejected – and more recent photos of him depict someone who clearly was in physical decline – comprise a sad final chapter of a book that began on such a promising note.

All that can be said is that Morrison’s past appears to finally have caught up with him, and the bright future that should have been his was destined to remain somewhere over the horizon.

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The Return of Wednesday Boxing Evokes Memories of a Golden Era

Arne K. Lang

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There’s a Wednesday card on the boxing docket this week. The card, which features several undefeated up-and-comers of the sort usually found on Showtime’s developmental series, “ShoBox: The New Generation,” will play out at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles and air on Fox Sports 1.

Not to be out-done, “ShoBox” is returning. The long-running series, which suspended operations in March in obeisance to COVID-19 restrictions, returns on Oct. 7 with a show emanating from Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino. The contestants in the main go of the four-fight card, Charles Conwell and Wendy Toussaint, have identical 12-0 records.

It just so happens that Oct. 7 is also a Wednesday. And these upcoming Wednesday shows transported this reporter back to his boyhood when boxing was a fixture on radio and television on Wednesday nights. The Wednesday series sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer ran from 1950 to 1960, airing the first five years on CBS and then on ABC.

Fights were all over the TV dial during the 1950s, not that there was much competition. The Big Three — NBC, CBS, and ABC — ruled the airwaves with DuMont a very distant fourth and cable television well off into the future. (For a time, the short-lived DuMont network aired boxing shows on Mondays.)

When televisions first came out, they were a big-ticket item. In 1948, RCA’s cheapest model sold for $395. That’s the equivalent of $10,400 today. By 1954, the cost of the least expensive model had declined to $189 and it came in a bigger box, with a 17-inch screen compared with the 13-inch screen that was standard six years earlier.

With the cost of the coveted contraption beyond the means of many wage earners, saloonkeepers cashed in. Boxing fans flocked to the neighborhood tavern to get their boxing fix. The saloonkeeper could write off his television sets on his taxes as a business expense.

Those were the days, and I date myself, when every town had a TV repair shop and the repairman, like the family doctor, made house calls.

The Wednesday Night Fights were a spin-off of the Friday Night Fights on NBC. The matchmaker for both series (through 1958) was the International Boxing Club which was headquartered at Madison Square Garden. The president of the IBC was James D. Norris (who would come to be seen as a puppet for mobster Frankie Carbo, but that’s a story for another day).

James D. Norris inherited a vast fortune from his father, Canadian businessman James E. Norris. The elder Norris was a big wheel in the sport of hockey and had a financial interest in the arenas that housed NHL teams in Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. He made these arenas available to his son and the Wednesday fight cards moved around, unlike the Friday fights which were pinned to Madison Square Garden.

Both series would eventually venture out at times into virgin territory, but the Wednesday series was the trailblazer. The first nationally televised boxing show from the West Coast was a Wednesday affair. Jimmy Carter defended his world lightweight title against LA fan favorite Art Aragon, the original Golden Boy, at the Olympic Auditorium on Nov. 14, 1951. Aragon had upset Carter in a non-title fight 11 weeks earlier, but Carter took him to school in the rematch, winning a lopsided decision.

The Friday boxing series, which took the name “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,” would come to be more fondly remembered, but once the TV became a living room staple, which happened fast, the Wednesday series drew higher ratings. This was predictable as more folks stayed home on Wednesday nights than on Friday nights. And although the Friday series had a larger budget, some of the most important fights of the era were staged on Wednesdays.

One of the highlights of the 1951 season was Ezzard Charles’ world heavyweight title defense against Jersey Joe Walcott at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. It was Walcott’s fifth crack at the title and he was considered ancient at age 37, but he avenged his two previous losses to Charles with a thunderous one-punch knockout.

Carmen Basilio appeared in The Ring magazine Fight of the Year in five consecutive years (1955-1959). The first two — his second meeting with Tony DeMarco and his second meeting with Johnny Saxton – were televised on a Wednesday.

Although he would be quickly forgotten, the Wednesday series brought Bob Satterfield a cult following because of his unpredictability. He certainly left an impression on octogenarian boxing writer Ted Sares who recently named Satterfield his all-time favorite fighter.

To conjure up a portrait of Satterfield, think Deontay Wilder and then fix Wilder with a glass jaw. Satterfield, whose best weight was about 182 pounds, was a murderous puncher, but during his career he was stopped 13 times.

LA’s Clarence Henry and Pittsburgh’s Bob Baker were ranked #3 in the heavyweight division when they ventured to Chicago to tangle with Satterfield, Henry in 1952 and Baker the following year. Henry knocked out Satterfield in the opening round. Satterfield hit the canvas so hard, said a ringside reporter, the resin dust flew up.

The Satterfield-Baker fight would also end in the opening round. Baker out-weighed Satterfield by 34 pounds, but Satterfield flattened him. Later on, in a non-Wednesday fight, Satterfield knocked out Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in the third round. Williams, 33-1 heading in, was the larger man by 25 pounds.

One bet on or against Bob Satterfield at one’s own peril.

The Wednesday Night Fights had a nice run before the series was cancelled and supplanted in its time slot by “The Naked City,” a critically acclaimed police drama series. Perhaps the return of boxing on Wednesdays augurs well for another mid-week boxing series, but we won’t hold our breath.

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Erickson Lubin Wins, But Misplaced His Hammer

David A. Avila

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Erickson Lubin misplaced the hammer but found a way to victory over Terrell Gausha by unanimous decision in a slow-developing WBC super welterweight eliminator on Saturday.

Lubin (23-1, 16 KOs), a southpaw slugger, was unable to lower the boom on Gausha (21-2-1, 10 KOs) at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. But he did enough in a tactical battle that only activated into a real fight in the later rounds.

Back and forth the two super welterweights mostly feinted and fired blows at each other’s guard. Few managed to pierce for scoring blows and those that landed were mostly to the body.

“It was a chess match. I respected what he had, he was trying to counter what I had. My trainer was telling me to be cautious and not get hit with anything stupid,” said Lubin, whose trainer is the respected Kevin Cunningham.

Gausha, 33, was the more accurate puncher but fired less than Lubin. Though he seemingly scored more often with counter rights, the scarcity of his blows allowed Lubin to control the pace of the fight.

It wasn’t until the mid-rounds that Gausha stepped into a slightly quicker pace. In the 10th, a short right connected and wobbled Lubin who covered up.

“I knew I had hurt him, but he was able to recover,” said Gausha, 24, who tried to finish off the hurt fighter but was unable to land another scoring blow.

“I’m in shape and I was able to recuperate,” Lubin revealed.

It was still unclear who was winning the fight. In the 12th and final round Lubin stepped up the pace and connected with a crisp right hook that clearly snapped the head of Gausha. But he fought his way out of the dangerous corner.

After 12 rounds all three judges scored it for Lubin 115-113, 116-112, 118-110.

“Gausha is a tough competitor, he’s at the top for a reason,” said Lubin. “I feel I beat one of the top 154s and I’m going to keep doing that.”

Gausha was classy in defeat.

“I take my hat off to Erickson Lubin. He was the better man tonight,” said Gausha.

Lubin now awaits the winner between Jermell Charlo and Jeison Rosario who fight each other next week for the WBC, WBA and IBF super welterweight titles. Showtime will provide the title match on pay-per-view.

Featherweights

Former IBO featherweight titlist Tug Nyambayar (12-1, 9 KOs) floored Cobia Breedy (15-1) twice in the first two rounds but struggled the rest of the way to win by split decision. One judge scored it 115-113 for Breedy and two others for Mongolia’s Nyambayar 114-112 and 114-113.

Nyambayar knocked down Breedy with a counter right cross in the first round and then floored him with four rights and a left hook in the second. After that, Breedy was the busier fighter and no one was able to take control.

“Boxing is boxing. It was a tough fight,” said Nyambayar.

Welterweights

In a solid match Philadelphia’s Jaron Ennis (26-0, 24 KOs) was able to find out exactly where he stands against real competition and stopped the unstoppable Juan Carlos Abreu (23-6-1, 21 KOs) in the sixth round by technical knockout in their welterweight showdown.

More than just a knockout win, Ennis discovered that he can indeed take a punch from an elite level puncher.

Nobody questioned whether Ennis had boxing skills or athleticism and power, but nobody knew if he could take a punch. They discovered it as Abreu was able to connect in the fourth and fifth rounds. The Dominican fighter pulled out his tricks and connected several times with sneaky rights and lefts. Ennis remained standing.

Abreu was looking to trade bombs with Ennis in the fifth and sixth round and paid the price in getting delivered to the canvas with a pretty right counter uppercut. He survived. But in the sixth a slew of punches along the ropes sent him down again. He beat the count again but during a fierce exchange he was floored a final time at 1:06 of the sixth round. It was the first time Abreu had ever been stopped.

“I feel I put on a wonderful show and got the knockout,” said Ennis. “I feel I showed the division I am here.”

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Fast Results from the MGM Bubble: Pedraza Outclasses Molina Plus Undercard

Arne K. Lang

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The featured bout on tonight’s card at the MGM Bubble was a match between 2008 Olympians. It was a competitive match on paper, but Jose Pedraza turned in one of the better performances of his career while turning away Javier Molina who just wasn’t in Pedraza’s league tonight. The fight went the full 10 with the judges voting for the Boricua by scores of 99-91 and 98-92 twice. A former two-division belt-holder who looked very comfortable in his second start at 140, Pedraza boosted his record to 28-3. Molina, who had won five straight coming in, falls to 22-3.

Pedraza was manhandled by Gervonta Davis in 2017, outclassed by Vasyl Lomachenko in 2018, and upset by Jose Zepeda last year, but showed tonight that he still has plenty of mileage left on his odometer. Josh Taylor and Jose Carlos Ramirez each own two pieces of the 140-pound title, but Pedraza seems to have found a new gear at age 31 and is nipping at their heels. However, Pedraza also hankers to renew acquaintances with Zepeda and that will likely come first.

In the 10-round heavyweight co-feature, Efe Ajagba’s higher workrate carried him to a 10-round unanimous decision over Jonathan Rice. The scores were 98-92 and 99-91 twice.

Ajagba, the Houston-based Nigerian making his first start under the Top Rank banner, advanced his record to 14-0 (11) but was underwhelming. Rice, the terror of Tijuana taxi drivers, fell to 13-6-1 and solidified his reputation as a useful gatekeeper.

Robeisy Ramirez, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Cuba who now resides in the Miami area, improved to 5-1 with a unanimous 8-round decision over Puerto Rico’s Felix Caraballo (13-3-2). Both appeared on the inaugural MGM Bubble card with Caraballo, fighting for the first time in the U.S., suffering a sixth-round stoppage at the hands of Shakur Stevenson. Tonight’s uneventful fight saw Ramirez on cruise control as he won by scores of 79-73 and 80-72 twice.

San Bernardino junior middleweight Leo Ruiz improved to 8-0 with a 6-round unanimous decision over Cancun’s Rodrigo Solis (4-5-1). Both fighters had a point deducted in round five; Ruiz, 21, for low blows and Solis for spitting out his mouthpiece. The scores were 58-54 and 59-53 twice.

In a fight that wasn’t on the original schedule, Houston super middleweight Christian Montano improved to 10-0 (7) with a 6-round unanimous decision over St. Louis’ Ryan Adams (7-4-1). A three-time national amateur champion, Montano, who is of Columbian descent, had knocked out seven of his previous opponents in the opening round. He looked poorly conditioned tonight but yet won every round on two of the scorecards.

Lightweight Bryan Lua, who hails from the town of Madera in central California’s agricultural belt, returned to the ring after a 27-month absence and scored a one-punch knockout over Chile’s Luis Norambuena. A left hook did the damage, bringing the bout to a sudden conclusion at the 2:27 mark of round two. Lua, (6-0, 3 KOs) won two of three over Ryan Garcia as an amateur. It was a quick turnaround for Norambuena (4-7-1) who lost a 4-round decision in this ring last week.

The first two bouts on the card showcased the newest members of Top Rank’s “Kiddie Corps.” Kasir Goldston and Jahi Tucker, 17-year-old welterweights, launched their pro careers on a winning note.

Goldston, a southpaw from Albany, NY, opened the show with a 4-round unanimous decision over Wisconsin’s Isaiah Varnell (3-3). The scores were 40-36 and 39-37 twice.

Tucker, who trains in the same Long Island town that spawned Buddy McGirt, put away Alabama’s Deandre Anderson (1-2) in the opening round. Anderson came out winging, but the precocious Tucker picked him apart. Referee Robert Hoyle stepped in and stopping the mismatch at the 2:56 mark. As an amateur, Tucker was ranked #1 at 138 pounds while still a sophomore in high school.

Photo credit: Mikey Williams for Top Rank

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