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Book Review

Literary Notes: “George Dixon” by Jason Winders




BOOK REVIEW by THOMAS HAUSER — George Dixon was boxing’s first Black world champion.

“For a decade leading into the twentieth century,” Jason Winders writes, “few Black men were as wealthy and none were more famous. To a Black culture cementing its first national heroes, Dixon was the single-most significant athlete of nineteenth-century America. He fought constantly as a professional – maybe against a thousand opponents in his lifetime. While most were exhibitions against rather faceless foes, a hundred or so of those bouts were chronicled by both Black and white presses. A half dozen came to define an era.”

In George Dixon: The Short Life of Boxing’s First Black World Champion, 1870-1908 (University of Arkansas Press), Winders gives readers a well-researched, well-written, entertaining account of this remarkable man.

Dixon was born on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on July 29, 1870. Quite possibly, one of his grandfathers was white. Sometime in the 1880s, the Dixon family moved to Boston.

Dixon fought his first fight at age sixteen. Writing about him one year later, Winder notes, “He was just a kid. Thin lead weights slid into his shoes between his bare feet and leather soles so he could climb above one hundred pounds and legally be allowed to compete. He had the body of a boy – thin, gangly, with arms slightly longer than his diminutive frame should have allowed. At first, he fought at 108 pounds. As the years went by, he developed into a genuine bantamweight and fought at 112 pounds. Then he went up to 116 pounds, then to 118, and then to 122, all apparently without suffering any loss of skill.”

There are few visual images of Dixon in combat. Contemporaneous written accounts suggest that, at his peak, he had remarkable defensive skills, excellent timing, superb footwork, an uncommon ability to judge distance, and an educated left hand. He was blessed with courage, patience, the ability to endure punishment, and an iron will. His training regimen was sophisticated for its time.

A handful of fights were of particular importance in Dixon’s storied ring career. On June 27, 1890, having journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean, he knocked out British bantamweight and featherweight champion Nunc Wallace in Soho, England. That raised his profile exponentially. Nine months later in upstate New York, Dixon knocked out Cal McCarthy in a rematch of an 1890 draw to claim to the American portion of the featherweight crown. Then, on July 28, 1891, in San Francisco, he knocked out Australian bantamweight champion Abe Willis.

“His bout against Willis,” Winders writes, “would solidify Dixon as the greatest fighter – not just Black fighter – of his division in the world. With this victory over Willis, George Dixon became the undisputed world bantamweight champion, the first Black man to earn a world boxing title. And it all happened before his twenty-first birthday.”

Then, for good measure, Dixon knocked out the newly-crowned British featherweight champion Fred Johnson in Brooklyn on June 27, 1892. That further solidified his kingdom.

These triumphs came at a time when boxing was becoming ingrained in America’s national consciousness. The Police Gazette, with a weekly circulation that ran as high as 400,000 copies, was America’s most popular tabloid magazine. Editor Richard K. Fox relied heavily on the sweet science to sell the publication. In 1889, roughly sixty percent of its headlines dealt with boxing. Now, with Dixon at his fighting peak, the Police Gazette called him “the greatest fighter – big or little – the prize ring has ever known.”

Winders puts the importance of those words in context: “Perhaps today we read over words like ‘slave’ and ‘master’ too easily. But the mindset that fueled centuries of this thinking did not die with the stroke of the Great Emancipator’s pen. It was deeply embedded in American culture. Just a generation before the Dixons arrived in the United States, the Black body was nothing more than a tool of labor, an expensive shovel or plow horse used and abused by a white master. Now a Black man was asserting his manhood by way of sport, beating white men with his near-bare hands, rising to heights higher than any man his size no matter what color. Dixon stood as champion, inspiration, among the wealthiest and best-known men in the country. More than a fighter, Dixon came to represent hope.”

That said; in truth, Dixon regarded his celebrity standing as belonging more to himself than to Black America. “In the ring,” Winders writes, “he was a hero to the Black man. But he lived in a white world rather contentedly.” Dixon’s manager, Tom O’Rourke (who took half of Dixon’s earnings) was white. Dixon was married to O’Rourke’s sister. Dixon was widely admired for his ring skills. But equally important to the narrative, he was not regarded as a threat. “Much of his widespread acceptance,” Winders notes, “hinged on his smaller-than-normal stature.” And despite being married to a white woman, he had always “known his place” in society. Tom O’Rourke, Winder recounts, was often “quick to make mention of that in the press.”

In all his research, Winders was able to find only one instance in which Dixon was reported as speaking publicly about his meaning to Black America.

On May 22, 1891, Dixon was honored at the Full Moon Club in Boston’s West End, the center of the city’s Black community. Speaking to an audience of mostly young Black men, he declared, “I have always tried to do my duty. I have never yet entered the ring but that I was conscious that I was not only fighting the battle for myself alone, but also for the race. I felt that, if I won, not only credit would be given to me, but that my race would also rise in the estimation of the public.”

“This moment,” Winders observes, “among the thousands of mentions of Dixon in the press of the day, is an outlier. Never again in the reporting did he speak about a ‘duty’ to his race. Certainly, his actions in the years that followed were not in line with what Black America expected – or needed – from him. Never political or bombastic, rarely confrontational or rebel-rousing, Dixon never embraced his race duty more publicly than this moment.”

In September 1892, Dixon further solidified his importance when he participated in a historic three-day fight festival called The Carnival of Champions at The Olympic Club in New Orleans.

On September 5, Jack McAuliffe knocked out Billy Myer to retain the world lightweight crown. More famously, on September 7, James J. Corbett dethroned John L. Sullivan to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. In between these two fights – On September 6 – Dixon defended his world featherweight crown against Jack Skelly.

Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had been the slave trading capital of the United States. Now, a Black man and a white man were exchanging blows there. And the battle was waged before spectators of both colors.

“Among the earliest arrivals for the Skelly-Dixon bout,” Winders writes, “were Black spectators for whom a large section on one of the upper general admissions stands had been set apart. It was a first for the club – an amazing sight in the heart of the former Confederacy. Among the crowd of two hundred Black men were prominent politicians and regular men lucky enough to snag a ticket. Five thousand people had filled the arena. City councilman Charles Dickson, a prominent member of the Olympic Club, welcomed Dixon into the ring and then warned the crowd that the upcoming contest was between a Black man and a white man in which fair play would govern and the best man win.”

Dixon knocked out Skelly in eight rounds. His fame and the adulation for him would never peak that high again.

The Carnival of Champions showcased Dixon in a way that he hadn’t been showcased before. “Until that moment in New Orleans in September 1892,” Winders observes, “Dixon was an insulated fighter. Then he landed in the middle of forces already in motion, forces still lingering from the after-effects of slavery and the Civil War. All of those forces would gain strength that summer and continue through Dixon’s lifetime as societal forces shifted to a more aggressive approach toward limiting Black opportunity. Shielded from those forces for years, Dixon would soon experience them head-on without the protection of the white world in which he inhabited. The Carnival of Champions was not a moment when George Dixon changed the world. It was the moment when Dixon left his sheltered existence and became part of it.”

“Immediately after the Dixon-Skelly bout,” Winders reports, “Olympic Club members regretted pairing the two.” Olympic Club president Charles Noel publicly stated, “The fight has shown one thing, however, that events in which colored men figure are distasteful to the membership of the club. After the fight, so many of the members took a stand against the admission of colored men into the ring as contestants against white pugilists that we have pretty well arrived at the conclusion not to give any more such battles. No, there will be no more colored men fighting before our club. That is a settled fact.”

In the same vein, following Dixon-Skelly, the New Orleans States editorialized that there was “inherent sinfulness” to interracial fights and complained that “thousands of vicious and ignorant negroes regard the victory of Dixon over Skelly as ample proof that the negro is equal and superior to the white man.”

Meanwhile, as the forces of repression were pushing back against gains made by Black Americans during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, Dixon’s ring skills were eroding. In addition to competing in official bouts, he was fighting in hundreds upon hundreds of exhibitions as part of traveling vaudeville shows.

“In advance of the troupe arriving in town,” Winders recounts, “a notice was posted that fifty dollars would be given to any person who could stand up before Dixon for four rounds. During these engagements, Dixon met all comers and often fought fifteen men irrespective of size in the same night – an immeasurable toll on his small frame.” A newspaper in West Virginia noted, “Dixon is meeting too many lads in his variety show act. His hands cannot certainly be kept in good condition with such work. He has used them so much in these four-round bouts that they are no longer the weapons they were.”

As for official fights, Winders reports, “Noticeable cracks in Dixon’s once spotless technique were developing. Dixon’s speed was waning. His punches were no longer beating his opponent’s attempts to block. His grunts were louder and more emphatic as blows that would once find empty space were now landing squarely on his face.”

Lifestyle issues were also becoming a problem. Again, Winders sets the scene:

“When it came to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, Manhattan’s Black Bohemia embodied the newer and more daring phases of Negro life. On these streets, visitors found a lively mix of vice and vitality with clubs packed nightly with free-spending sporting and theatrical people, as well as those hoping to catch a glimpse of those famous patrons. The area had become a national symbol of urban depravity, noted mainly for its gambling houses, saloons, brothels, shady hotels, and dance halls that stayed open all night. And while few boxers of this period were residents of New York City, they all found their way to Black Bohemia. Dixon began to frequent Black Bohemia and, by the time he became a regular, he was bleeding money into the district’s many establishments. The ponies got some; George couldn’t resist craps; and then there was booze to be bought at high prices for everybody. And he drank. Dixon would tear off $5,000 as his share of a win and it would disappear, one way or another, in a few days.”

“Dixon got rid of his money faster than any fighter I ever knew, except myself,” John L. Sullivan noted.

Dixon lost his featherweight title to Solly Smith in 1897 but regained it the following year. Then, on January 9, 1900, he fought Terry McGovern at the Broadway Athletic Club in New York. McGovern administered a brutal beating. The fight was stopped by Dixon’s corner in the eighth round.

“I was outfought by McGovern from the end of the third round,” Dixon acknowledged afterward. “The blows to my stomach and over my kidneys were harder than any I ever received. I entered the ring as confident as ever, but after going a short distance, I discovered that I was not the Dixon of old. My blows, although landing flush on my opponent, had no effect.”

After Dixon-McGovern, The Plaindealer (a Black newspaper in Topeka, Kansas) editorialized, ” The race has no gladiator now to represent it. We are in darkness, for Dixon’s light has been put out.”

On March 30, 1900, less than three months after losing to McGovern, Dixon opened a saloon called the White Elephant in the heart of the Tenderloin District. He was a poor business manager and his own best customer. Prior to fighting McGovern, he’d said that the McGovern fight would be his last. It wasn’t.

The White Elephant failed and Dixon kept fighting. Over the next six years, he engaged in 77 official bouts, the last of them on December 10, 1906. According to, he won only thirteen of these encounters. Overall, credits him with having participated in 155 recognized boxing matches with a final ring record of 68 wins, 30 losses, and 57 draws. In Dixon’s era, when a fight went the distance, there was often no declaration of a winner.

Meanwhile, Dixon began drinking more heavily. As Winders writes, “He increasingly celebrated his victories with or drowned his troubles in alcohol. That led to numerous confrontations with police. His personal demons were clashing with public sentiment toward Blacks in the wider society. His celebrity no longer shielded him. In public, he was prone to violent outbursts and fits of rage. In private, he was beholden to his own dark vices. Few Black men were as pitied, and none named more frequently from public square and pulpit as a cautionary tale of modern excesses.”

In due course, Joe Gans succeeded Dixon as the most famous and successful Black boxer in the world. After defeating Battling Nelson on September 3, 1906, Gans made a show of publicly offering Dixon a job as head bartender at a hotel that he owned in Baltimore. But the job never materialized.

“I never heard anything from Joe about going to Baltimore,” Dixon said later. “I guess he was advertising his show when he said that. But his hotel would sure look good to me right now”

“It isn’t what you used to be,” Dixon told an interviewer. “It’s what you are today. The men who followed me in the days of prosperity can’t see me when I am close enough to speak to them.”

On January 4, 1908, Dixon was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York.

“He was wasted and worn,” Winders writes. “To the doctors, he famously said he had ‘fought his last fight with John Barleycorn and had been beaten.’ His condition became worse and continued sinking. He died at 2 p.m. on January 6, 1908. He was thirty-seven years old. His funeral service in Boston was the largest funeral gathering for a Black man in the history of the city.”

Winders has done an admirable job of recounting George Dixon’s life. He places people and events within the context of their times and brings names in dusty old record books to life. He writes well, which is a prerequisite for any good book; does his best to separate fact from fiction; and is sensitive to the nuances of his subject. He also avoids the pitfall of describing fight after fight after fight, focusing instead on the ones that mattered most. Readers are transported back in time to the Olympic Club in New Orleans for the three-day Carnival of Champions in 1992. Dixon’s sad beating at the hands of Terry McGovern in New York in 1900 is particularly well told.

Winders also performs a service by stripping away the myth of Nat Fleischer as a reliable boxing historian.

“Much of Dixon’s story,” Winders writes, “has been left in the hands of Fleischer. Although he is an icon to many, not all are enamored by Fleischer’s ability to recount the past. His research and record keeping leave much to be desired. His biographies and record books are rife with errors.”

Winders then approvingly quotes historian Kevin R. Smith, who labeled Fleischer’s best-known writing about Black boxers (the five-volume Black Dynamite series) as “heavily flawed,” called some of his other offerings “downright ludicrous,” and declared that Fleischer was “unabashed in his use of poetic license, making up sources and fictionalizing events when unable to unearth the true facts.”

Less than a year after Dixon died, Jack Johnson journeyed to Australia and dethroned Tommy Burns to become the first Black man universally recognized as heavyweight champion of the world. “Historians want to start with Johnson,” Winders writes, looking back on that moment. “But why not Dixon? By ignoring him, we have lost the point where the story of the modern Black athlete in America begins.”

One reason many chroniclers start with Johnson is that so little about Dixon is known. “Historians,” Winders acknowledges, “have placed Dixon at the forefront of boxing pioneers, but they often don’t seem to know why beyond a few lines related to his ring resume. Outside of some isolated examples, sport history – indeed, Black history – rarely celebrates his accomplishments. There is an odd silence in his isolation. Dixon sits tantalizingly, even frustratingly, close to us – just over a century ago. Surely, his life should be too recent to be lost to time.”

Winders has done his part – and then some – to save us from that loss. George Dixon: The Short Life of Boxing’s First Black World Champion, 1870-1908 is as good a biography of Dixon and portrait of boxing in that era as one is likely to find.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is His next book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Book Review

Christy Martin: Fighting for Survival / Book Review by Thomas Hauser




More than any other fighter, Christy Martin was responsible for legitimizing women’s boxing in the public eye. She was also a closeted gay woman married to a man who physically and psychologically abused her for years before stabbing her multiple times, shooting her in the chest, and leaving her for dead on their bedroom floor. Fighting for Survival, written with Ron Borges and published by Rowman & Littlefield, is her story.

Martin was born in Mullen, West Virginia, on June 12, 1968, and grew up in the coal-mining town of Itmann. Her father was a miner. “All you need to know to understand the limits of Itmann,” Martin writes, “is your cellphone won’t work there.”

When Christy Salters (her name before she was married) was six, she was sexually molested in the basement of her parents’ home by a 15-year-old cousin who forced her to perform oral sex on him. Other than her future husband, she didn’t tell anyone about it for 37 years.

She was a troubled adolescent. “I started associating drinking with popularity,” she acknowledges. “I was running around with thirty-year-olds when I was still a teenager. I sold speed to friends of my parents. I was a bad kid doing things I shouldn’t have done.”

She was also gay.

Christy had sex with a girl for the first time when she was thirteen. In high school, she ventured back and forth between the sexes.

“I wasn’t together at the time when it came to totally understanding my own sexuality,” Christy acknowledges. “Can I be straight if I try? Should I be who I am or try harder to please everyone else? You doubt sometimes the direction you’re going. Other times, you’re totally sure. I’d been with men and women in high school so I’d say I was bi-sexual at that time. But to me, being in a relationship with a woman was easier. It was always where I was most comfortable.”

In towns as small as Itmann and Mullens, people talk,” Christy continues. “I knew they wondered about me. It is exhausting hiding who you are from your family and your friends and the world around you. You’re always afraid someone knows the truth. You may tell yourself you don’t care. But if you really didn’t care, you wouldn’t be hiding what you’re doing or what you’re feeling, would you?”

Coming out wasn’t an option. Christy’s mother was vehemently homophobic, a view shared by many people in that corner of the world. “Put it this way,” Christy says. “You weren’t coming out in Itmann, West Virginia. Not unless you were planning on leaving the same day.”

Then, to further complicate matters, Christy got pregnant at age 21. Chris Caldwell had been her “sort of boyfriend” since they were in fifth grade. As the years passed, they saw each other from time to time.

“One night,” Christy remembers, “we went out as friends, had a few drinks, and had drunken sex. I was in love with Bridget [her girlfriend of the moment], so why did that happen? I was selfish, that’s why. There’s no other explanation. I never told my parents. I didn’t want the added pressure of them saying they’d raise the baby while I finished school, which I know my Mom would have done.”

So she chose to have an abortion.

“It’s one of those things that will always bother me,” Christy writes. “But it’s the decision I made. I still feel guilty about it. But I made a choice and I had to move forward.”

Meanwhile, Christy found a safe haven in sports. Despite being only 5-feet-4-inches tall, she excelled in basketball, averaging 27 points and six rebounds per game during her senior year of high school. In her junior and senior seasons, she was designated first team All-State.

“I had a pent-up rage inside about having to hide that I was gay from the world as I knew it,” she recalls. “You’re so angry that you can’t be who you want to be and you can’t change who you are. You’re trapped and it makes you mad without understanding what you’re really mad about. In sports, it’s acceptable to be overly aggressive so you can let some of those emotions out in a safe place. At times it even gets rewarded.”

That led to boxing.

“I’d been going to Toughman shows for years with my friends and family,” Christy reminisces, “and always wondered what I’d do if the bell rang and I found myself standing all alone in one corner of the ring.”

Then, at age nineteen, she saw a poster inviting women to participate in a “Mean Mountaineer” tournament.

“That,” Christy recalls, “is how, on October 1, 1987, I found myself standing in the wings at the Raleigh County Armory wearing a pair of 16-ounce boxing gloves and leather headgear, waiting to try something I knew nothing about.”

But Christy Salters had an advantage over the other women in the tournament.Many of them were muscular,” she remembers. “They looked stronger than me. But I was in better condition and I was an athlete. Most of them were just tough girls.”

Christy won her first fight by decision and, the next night, came back for more. In the finals, she knocked out an opponent who was heavier and five inches taller with a single punch.

“She wasn’t staggering around and kind of woozy,” Christy recounts. “She was out and the crowd went into a frenzy! It was awesome. I could feel the adrenaline rush from the crowd, and that was it for me. I was hooked on boxing. The first thing I thought of when they gave me the champion’s jacket and the $300 [prize] was, ‘When’s the next one?'”

Soon, a boxing ring was one of the few places where Christy felt safe.

“I won’t sugarcoat what boxing is about,” she writes. “You don’t find too many well-adjusted prizefighters. We all have our demons, something driving us to run toward pain when human nature says run away. You don’t find many fighters who weren’t spawned out of some kind of dysfunction. If you’re normal, whatever that means, you’re not likely to choose a sport that involves getting hit in the face.”

But Christy continues, “I loved boxing more than anything in my life. The ring was where I could be me. In the ring, who I chose to love didn’t matter. I felt able to get out my frustrations and the anger that was locked up inside me. It was okay for me to go in there and be as aggressive as hell and as competitive as I wanted to be. They might laugh at us on the way into the ring. But if we fought hard and did some damage, they’d cheer us on the way out. They didn’t care if you were gay or straight. Whatever it was that drove you to fight was fine to the people watching as long as you could fight. I just wanted to be a boxer. It became all that mattered to me. For too long, I didn’t have control of anything but the 20-by-20-foot area inside those ropes. Maybe that’s why I loved it in there so much.”

On September 9, 1989, at age 21, Christy turned pro. “Women’s boxing was not yet a truly legitimate sport,” she acknowledges. “It was still a freak show, but at the time I didn’t give it a thought. I just wanted to fight.”

Soon after, her promoter suggested that a man named Jim Martin become Christy’s trainer. On March 20, 1992, Christy Salters and Jim Martin were joined together as husband and wife. Much more on that later.

By the end of 1993, Martin had 19 wins as a pro against a single loss and one draw. Then she was brought to the attention of Don King who signed her to a contract calling for five six-round fights a year at $5,000 a fight. Prior to that, she’d been making roughly $500 per fight and her biggest purse had been $1,200.

Christy’s inaugural fight with King was a first-round knockout of Susie Melton on January 29, 1994. Five more victories followed. Then, on December 16, 1995, King matched her against a sacrificial lamb named Erica Schmidlin who was making her pro debut. As expected, Martin won on a first-round knockout. That night marked a turning point because Christy’s bout was on the undercard of Mike Tyson vs. Buster Mathis Jr.

Martin fought on Tyson undercards six times. Those fights, she says, “were my stepping stones to a world I never knew existed – the big-time side of boxing.” Tyson, she writes, was “like a magic carpet ride for me, providing a platform to show my skills and a huge audience that turned me into someone I never thought I could be.”

After destroying Schmidlin, Martin defeated a no-hope opponent named Melinda Robinson and Sue Chase (who would end her career with a 1-23-1 record). The Chase fight was significant because it was on the undercard of Felix Trinidad vs. Rodney Moore at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas and was televised by Showtime – the first time that a fight between women boxers aired nationally in the United States. That was followed by a first-round knockout against another no-hoper named Del Pettis.

Then, three weeks later, everything changed. On March 16, 1996, Christy was matched against an Irish boxer named Deirdre Gogarty on the undercard of the rematch between Mike Tyson and Frank Bruno on Showtime-PPV.

Christy was a natural 135-pounder. Two hours before the weigh-in, Gogarty (who would finish her career with 8 wins in 13 fights) weighed 124. After stuffing rolls of quarters into her bra, socks, and underwear, Deirdre tipped the scales at 130.

A 60-53, 60-53, 59-54 beatdown followed. But Martin was about to become famous, not because she won but because Gogarty broke Christy’s nose. It gushed blood throughout the fight. Writing for the Associated Press, Ed Schuyler later called it “the most lucrative bloody nose in the history of boxing.”

“That fight,” Christy says, “turned in a matter of seconds from being an event that was being laughed at and ridiculed in the arena to one that absolutely thrilled people who were watching. That drippy nose and the uniqueness of the story of the husband-and-wife fighting team [by that time, Jim Martin was Christy’s husband] turned me into a national phenomenon.”

In the weeks that followed, Christy appeared on dozens of national television shows and was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.


“You could not get any bigger in the world I was inhabiting than to be on a Sports Illustrated cover,” she writes. “And there I was, staring back at myself from every newsstand in America. You dream about some things, but other things are so big you don’t even think about them happening because just the thought would be ridiculous. That’s what being on SI’s cover was for me.”

After beating Gogarty, Martin defeated Melinda Robinson for the second time followed by a first-round knockout of Bethany Payne. Then she signed a new contract with Don King calling for a minimum purse of $100,000 per fight. All told, she fought 27 times over the course of eight years with King as her promoter. Writing about a memorable moment in their relationship, she reveals, “Don did try to proposition me once in Venezuela at a WBA function. I asked him to go into another room because I needed to talk to him and he came on to me. After he made his pitch, I laughed and told him I only wanted to fight my way to the top. He started cackling and said, ‘You’re already at the top.’ Then he came to hug me and poured his drink down the back of my dress.”

After leaving King, Christy fought eleven times over the course of ten years. But the good part of her career was over. Her record in those eleven fights was 5 wins, 5 losses, and a draw. Age and a higher level of opponent had caught up to her.

The worst of the defeats was a fourth-round stoppage at the hands of Laila Ali in 2003. Laila was six inches taller than Christy and outweighed her on fight night by at least twenty pounds. Christy’s announced weight of 159 was as phony as Deirdre Gogarty’s had been seven years earlier. Why did she take the fight? For a $400,000 purse. And to use her word, she was “massacred.” The fight ended when she took a knee and chose not to rise before the count of ten.

Looking back on that night, Christy writes, “I was totally embarrassed and ashamed. I’ll never get over it. I’d be more accepting of losing to her if I’d been knocked out or took a beating for six more rounds. To quit on my knees is not who I was.”

Virtually all boxer autobiographies focus on a fighter’s ring career. This one does it better than most. But what separates Fighting for Survival from other fighter autobiographies is the horrifying nature of Christy’s life outside the ring coupled with the brutally honest way in which she recounts it.

When Ron Borges met with her to discuss the possibility of their working together, one of the first things he told her was, “I’m not interested in working on a dishonest book.”

Neither was Christy. Later, as she began opening up about the horrors of her life, Borges counseled, “You don’t have to tell me everything bad that happened.”

But she did.

“I’ve never dealt with anybody who was more open about her life than Christy Martin,” Borges says. “There were times when we had to stop because the memories overwhelmed her. I don’t think I could do what she did with me. But Christy really believes that she survived the murder attempt and everything that came before it as part of a larger plan. And her goal now is to reach as many victims of abuse as possible.”

Christy’s decision to marry Jim Martin (her trainer) was a watershed moment in her life. He was 24 years older than she was. Why did a gay woman marry a man old enough to be her father?

“I have to admit, I was intrigued by him and his boxing stories,” Christy writes. “Now that I’m free and looking back thirty years, it makes no sense. But when I remember the girl I was then, a naïve kid from Nowhere, West Virginia, I can understand what I did. I wasn’t attracted to him. I was never passionate about him. The night Jim Martin proposed to me, I was ill-prepared to do what would have been best. I wasn’t strong enough to declare to the world who I really was.”

“When we first got married,’ Christy continues, “I was still a little confused about my sexuality. Deep inside, I knew I was gay. I spent a lot of years trying to figure out how I felt about that. But the longer we were together and the better I understood who I really was, the more it weighed on me. So there I was; a closeted gay woman athlete in a sport that barely existed with a boyfriend older than my Dad. All my passion came out in the gym because there was none at home. We got along all right in those days because we had boxing in common and that was our main focus. I’d say, in those years we were married, I was really asexual. It got to the point where I didn’t care about sex at all. I wanted to be in love with someone but I replaced that desire with a love for boxing.”

Christy’s rise to stardom after the Gogarty bout threatened to upend the applecart.

“I was now a gay woman in a phony marriage suddenly under the microscope that is the American hype machine,” she recalls. “Thankfully, it was the American hype machine before social media. I have a lot of things to be thankful for. And the absence of things like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the like back then are some of them because, had they existed, I would have been ‘out-ed’ long before Jim put a bullet in my chest and destroyed my hiding place.”

Also, Christy reminds readers, “Part of the boxing sell for us was that I was a married woman, trained and managed by her loving husband, so how could I be gay?”

The deception came with a heavy price attached. Christy says that, without her knowledge, her husband skimmed large amounts of cash off the top of her fight purses. There were what she describes as “almost daily emotional beatdowns.” And at times, Jim was physically abusive. “But when the abuse is mostly emotional manipulation,” she explains, “you see it differently. You question what you can do to fix things. You start to think he’s right about you. You’re the problem. It often takes a long time before you realize who the victim really is. That’s the kind of emotional control someone can have over you. You know you should leave, but you’re ashamed of the situation you’re in and afraid of the consequences if you go.

“A lot of women end up in similar situations to the one I was in,” Christy continues. “We stay out of fear, out of obligation, out of believing it’s all we deserve. The brave ones don’t stay. But would an openly gay female get the same chances I got if I wasn’t hiding who I really was? I hadn’t seen anyone who did, and I wasn’t about to risk it all to find out. I was a lesbian locked in a sham marriage designed to protect me from a sporting world I’d come to believe would never accept me as I was. [So] you compromise. You lie. You hide. You try to fit into a world that isn’t your own creation. You accept things you never thought you’d accept. You replace boxing for love and try to equate financial success with personal happiness.”

It didn’t work.

Writing about her husband, Christy states, “Protecting his wife never factored into his thinking. I was just a human ATM machine to him. He kept telling me I’d become a star and make him a lot of money but until that happened we needed another way to supplement what the fights brought in. And Jim came up with quite a solution. He wanted me to fight men in their hotel rooms. He said he’d heard there were guys who got off on it and they’d pay me to beat them up. When he first suggested it, I hollered at him, ‘Bitch! Get a job!’ But it didn’t take him long to convince me to do it, like he did with so many things I wish had never happened.

“The first time was in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale,” Christy remembers. “I’m in this guy’s room, ready to fight, and all he kept trying to do was grab me and hold while I beat the bejesus out of him. The guy seemed to like it. Go figure. When it was over, we took his money and left. I felt like a prostitute must feel the first time. I felt dirty. I knew that hadn’t been about boxing. It was a sex thing from the start for the guy. I said I’d never do it again. But of course, I did. When you need money and all you have to do is go punch some guy around in his hotel room, it’s easy to find an excuse to do it again. The second time, it was easier to accept. I still didn’t feel right about it but you find ways to justify it. I told myself, whatever it is for the guy, it’s just boxing to me. Every time I did something like that, I left a little piece of myself back in that room. A piece of my dignity had disappeared.”

Christy’s unhappiness and confusion caused her to cross over other lines of propriety as well. Prior to fighting Andrea DeShong, she labeled her opponent a “dyke bitch.”

“I said what I said,” Christy admits. “I should never have done it. But I did.” Making matters worse, she later told DeShong, “I’m going to put something on you that your girlfriend can’t get off.”

“It was another part of my self-destruction,” Christy acknowledges. “I paid a price for those kind of statements and still do to this day with some people in the gay community.”

She also got into a fistfight with a woman in a parking lot and wound up paying $30,000 to settle a lawsuit that arose from the incident.

Worse, she got hooked on cocaine.

“My whole life, I’d been against using drugs,” Christy writes. “I tried marijuana in high school but I didn’t like the high. Same with speed. Tried it. Didn’t like it. So I stuck with drinking to excess instead. But as my life and my career unraveled, so did my resolve. One night, Jim came home with a baggie and dropped it on the table in front of me. He said that a fighter announced he was done with cocaine and there was the proof. I took the bait. The bag sat there for a day or two, looking at me. I didn’t care about myself and I hated Jim and what my life had become. What did it matter if I tried cocaine just once? I was alone the night I finally grabbed that baggie and opened it. I snorted a line and it was like the first time I knocked someone out and the crowd went crazy. I loved the feeling it gave me. At first, I only did it on Friday nights and weekends. Pretty soon, it was Mondays too. Then it became every day. It took a month until it had me. Pretty quickly, I’d do anything for coke. Jim would do it occasionally with me but mostly it was me, alone in the house. I was also taking pain pills for all the injuries I’d had in boxing and drinking, too. I overdosed so many times I should be dead. Basically, if I was awake in those years, I was high.”

Christy was hooked on cocaine for more than three years. Then, through the muddle that her mind had become, she had an epiphany.

“I was walking through my house, high, when I saw my reflection in a mirror and stopped dead in my tracks. I thought, ‘You really look like an addict.’ At that moment it hit me. What was looking back at me wasn’t Christy Martin. It wasn’t the Coal Miner’s Daughter. It wasn’t the WBC world super-welterweight women’s champion. It was a drug addict. That’s what I’d become. I immediately went and did a line to try and erase that thought but it wasn’t the same. By the next day, I’d decided things needed to change and I had to be the one to make the change. That day, I realized if I bent over and did one more line of cocaine, I’d do it until I was dead.”

Then Christy told Jim that she was going to leave him.

“Five days later [on November 23, 2010],” she writes, “stone cold sober, I was lying on my bedroom floor with a bullet in my chest, stab wounds all over my body and blood everywhere. I was finally free, if I didn’t die first.”

Jim Martin was tried and convicted of attempted murder in the second degree and sentenced to a minimum of twenty-five years in prison. He won’t be eligible for release until 2035.

After recovering from the attempt on her life, Christy had two more fights and lost both of them. She also suffered a stroke while in the hospital undergoing surgery for a broken hand after the first of those two encounters.

“I stayed in ICU for a week,” she recalls. “When I finally left, I couldn’t walk right, talk right or see right. My words were slurred and I had double vision which remains a problem for me at times to this day.”

She needed a cane to get around. But she was allowed to fight again. “The California State Athletic Commission [which oversaw the bout] didn’t have a clue,” she notes.

But Fighting for Survival has a happy ending. Martin has steered clear of cocaine for more than a decade. And in 2017, she married Lisa Holewyne. Their marriage is unique in that, on November 17, 2001, they had fought each other at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas with Christy winning by decision.

“I was one hundred percent sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Lisa,” Christy writes. “And five years later, nothing has changed. I was surer of that than anything in my life, including my decision to give over my life to boxing. I still love boxing but it isn’t my first love anymore. Lisa is.”

Fighting for Survival is written the way Christy fought. Straightforward and don’t hold anything back. It goes beyond being a boxing book and is as honest as any autobiography I’ve read.

There’s an art to capturing another person’s voice, and Borges has it. One never gets the feeling that he’s putting words in Martin’s mouth. Rather, he’s helping her organize her thoughts and putting them on paper. There’s no need to over-sensationalize. The facts are lurid enough.

Christy is active today in working to combat domestic violence. She also promotes fights in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Florida. Summarizing her journey, she writes, “Let’s be clear about one thing. Trust and believe when I tell you, this is not a victim’s story. Although a lot of folks might see it that way, it is not a victim’s story at all. It’s a survivor’s story.” And she adds, “I’m not looking for a pity party for Christy Martin. A lot of things that happened in my life before I was free to be me were great and I wouldn’t trade them for a different path because this is the path I had to walk to be who I am today. All I’m saying is, you don’t have to go as far down that road as I did to be free.”

One wishes her well on the journey ahead.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Book Review

Book Report: Jim Tully’s ‘The Bruiser,’ an American Classic




Summertime is reading season. In olden days when the leading Sunday papers had a separate book review section and vacationers carried books in their carry-ons, the advent of summer unleashed a flurry of enthusiastic book reviews. In this spirit, let us submit Jim Tullys’ novel “The Bruiser” for your consideration. It’s an old book, first published in 1936, but as a panorama of the prize ring — warts and all – it stands up well if you like your fiction with a lot of pulp.

The protagonist is Shane “Wildcat” Rory who claws his way out of hobo jungles to become the heavyweight champion of the world. True, that sounds like a hackneyed Hollywood “B” movie and the comparison is fair, but the book is also chock-full of insights that could have only come from the pen of a man that had been immersed in the prizefighting subculture.

About The Author

The son of a ditchdigger who came from Ireland at the age of 10, Jim Tully was born in 1886 in St. Marys, a former Indian trading post in Western Ohio. Jim’s mother died when he was five and he was sent to a Catholic orphanage in Cincinnati. He left there at the age of 11 to work on a farm and then, while still in his mid-teens, he took to wandering about the country, picking up odd jobs here and there. When he hopped a freight, whatever money he had was sewed into different parts of his clothing. In the hobo jungles, his pals called him Cincinnati Red.

Tully’s formal education stopped when he left the orphanage, but he was an inveterate reader who spent many hours in public libraries. He was never comfortable with the term “hobo” — folks used it interchangeably with the word “bum” – and in his reminiscences of those days insisted on identifying himself as a “road-kid,” his term for an adventurous vagabond.

In Kent, Ohio, where Tully set down roots for a while, he found employment working over a blast furnace in a factory that made chains of the sort that one might find attached to the anchor of a boat. Kent is near Akron where Tully had his first documented prizefight. Lore has it that he heeded the call for a volunteer when one of the boxers on the card was a no-show. Many professional boxing careers actually started this way.

An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer said Tully had 30 pro fights. Boxrec has been able to document only three, the first in 1909 on a card that featured future Hall of Famer Johnny Kilbane, and the last in 1914. The true count is probably somewhere in the middle. In those days, outside the biggest cities, many papers didn’t publish on Sundays and, if they did, the paper was put to bed early. A Saturday night boxing show went off too late to make the cut and by Monday, unless one or more of the combatants had a big local following, it had lost its news-worthiness. Fights in the hinterland that made the national news wire rarely included anything about the undercard.

The hero of “The Bruiser” matures into a heavyweight, but Jim Tully, five-foot-three and stocky, was likely in the junior lightweight class. With a mound of red hair straggled in all directions, he looked like many fighters of the period when the great majority of white boxers were Irish. Photographs of Tully as a young man call to mind Mickey Walker, the original Toy Bulldog.



The Book

“The Bruiser” opens on a miserably wet night in a railroad yard. Rory, then eighteen years old, crosses paths with a black boy of about the same age who has just competed in a battle royal. They repair to a saloon before going their separate ways. The boy has adopted the ring name Torpedo Jones and he turns up again later in the book as an opponent that Rory must defeat to earn a shot at the champion.

Shane Rory’s manager, Silent Tim Haney, is a stock character in boxing fiction, a wizened ex-pugilist who knows all the tricks of the trade. Silent Tim’s great ambition is to take a raw fighter and build him into a heavyweight champion. He had been close on two previous occasions, near-misses that taught him that maneuvering a fighter into a world title is a process “more delicate than assembling a watch.”

In an earlier day, Silent Tim had managed Jerry Wayne. In his prime, Wayne had been a great ring artist: “He’d move in the ring like he had wings on his shoulders and ball bearings on his feet.” But he had taken too many punches and gone “slug-nutty.” (The Jerry Wayne character is plainly based on former lightweight champion Ad Wolgast with whom author Tully purportedly sparred. Wolgast was in and out of sanitariums before he had his final fight and spent the last twenty-eight years of his life locked up in a California insane asylum where he spent his waking hours plotting his comeback.)

When Rory visits Jerry Wayne in the institution where he has been locked away, it preys on his mind and it impacts his performance in his next fight, a loss that sends him back to the drawing board. The fear of winding up like Wayne or like Gunner Maley, another character in the book – “walking on his heels up and down North Clark Street, punchin’ shadows” – impels Rory to eventually walk away from boxing in the fashion of Gene Tunney, at the pinnacle of his hard trade with a wholesome girl by his side and with all of his faculties intact. (Tully reportedly wanted a grittier, less formulaic ending but was overruled by his publisher.)

“The Bruiser,” Tully’s eleventh book, was dedicated to “my fellow road-kid Jack Dempsey.” Tully, who wrote dozens of profiles of famous people for serious publications and for cheap Hollywood fan magazines, had written a profile of Dempsey for a 1933 issue of American Mercury and would include a profile of the Manassa Mauler in his final book, “A Dozen of One,” portraits of 13 well-known people including the boxer Henry Armstrong and the fabulous raconteur Wilson Mizner who once owned a piece of Stanley Ketchel, the fabled Michigan Assassin.

Tully wrote for the masses but his admirers included many writers whose bent was more highbrow, notably H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, but also Langston Hughes who introduced Tully to “Hammerin’” Henry Armstrong, and Gerald Early whose 1994 book, “The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture,” received a National Book Award.

Early wrote the foreword to the 2010 reissue of “The Bruiser” from Kent University Press. He had this to say regarding Jim Tully: “Few novelists captured the contradictions of his country so simply or so honestly in the metaphor of the pure, fatalistic, and merciless community of bruising. His work deserves to be rediscovered.”

The reissue was the handiwork of Mark Dawidziak, a TV critic for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Paul J. Bauer, a Kent, Ohio, book dealer who were busy co-authoring a biography of Tully. The book, titled “Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, and Hollywood Brawler,” also published by Kent University Press and with a foreword by Ken Burns, was released in 2011.

Jim Tully had developed Parkinson’s disease when he died in 1947 at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles at age sixty-one.

Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher ( or via Amazon.

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Book Review

Book Review — “The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison”




Tommy Morrison was born in Gravette, Arkansas, on January 2, 1969, and lived in Oklahoma for most of his life. He fought in countless toughman contests, had three organized amateur bouts, and turned pro in 1988. Over the next seven years, he compiled a 45-3-1 (39 KOs, 3 KOs by) ring record, the high point of which was a 118-109, 117-110, 117-110 decision over George Foreman in 1993 to claim the vacant WBO heavyweight throne.

In Foreman’s next fight, he knocked out Michael Moorer to annex the WBA, IBF, and lineal heavyweight titles. In Morrison’s next fight, he was knocked out by Michael Bentt in the first round.

Morrison’s other losses were brutal “KOs by” at the hands of Ray Mercer and Lennox Lewis. During the course of his career, he knocked out faded versions of James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, Joe Hipp, Carl Williams, and Razor Ruddock. As a postscript, between 1996 and 2008, he scored stoppages over three particularly inept opponents after having been diagnosed as HIV-positive. He died in 2013 at age 44.

The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison by Carlos Acevedo (Hamilcar Publications) chronicles Morrison’s life.

“Morrison,” Acevedo writes, “came from a broken home. He was a secondhand son, passed from here to there, from nowhere to nowhere bound, wherever he would stick. His father was abusive. His mother once beat a murder charge. His brother would spend fifteen years in prison for rape. And Tommy? His mother first made him use his fists when he was five years old.”

“I was the guy your parents warned you about in high school,” Morrison cautioned.

The Duke is divided into two parts. Part I deals with Morrison as a fighter. His early ring record was fashioned against a collection of hopeless opponents. Then Bill Cayton took over as lead manager and Tommy graduated to a higher grade of stiff. Cayton built Morrison brilliantly as an attraction. He propagated the deceit that Tommy was a distant relative of movie star John Wayne and was instrumental in landing Morrison the role of Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. Cayton also used his skill and economic power to ensure that Morrison was featured on high-profile boxing telecasts.

At times, Morrison struggled in the ring. “He was,” Acevedo writes, “especially susceptible to right hands. And when he opened fire, he often did so squared-up to his opponent which made him a big target and left him exposed to counterpunches.” Moreover, Morrison trained less rigorously than he should have and burned the candle at both ends. “Let’s put it this way,” Cayton said. “Tommy Morrison makes Mike Tyson look like a monk.”

But as Acevedo notes, “Morrison worked the body with zeal, often doubling up hooks with either hand after landing to the rib cage. His signature right-to-the-body-right-uppercut combination was both lethal and often unexpected. In close, Morrison could surprise an opponent from either side with damaging shots. There was also the undeniable potency of his left hook. And Morrison showed the kind of heart often lacking among his peers. Morrison was someone who had to be nailed to the canvas before he lost.”

It was inevitable that Morrison would come to be spoken of as a “Great White Hope.” To his credit, he did his best to avoid making race an issue. “It’s kind of sad,” he told the Kansas City Star. “To be honest, it’s a big advantage being white. There aren’t that many white fighters around. But I’d prefer to stay away from that because it’s racist.”

By 1991, Morrison had run his record to 28-0 with 24 knockouts. Then Cayton matched him against Ray Mercer for the WBO heavyweight title. It was a mistake. For three rounds, Morrison dominated the action, pounding the granite-chinned Mercer with sledgehammer blows. Then Tommy ran out of gas and, in round five, was knocked unconscious.

Undeterred, Cayton rebuilt Morrison’s credibility, matching him in fights that resulted in seven wins and a draw over the next seventeen months. That led to a two-million-dollar payday against George Foreman in a 1993 bout for the WBO heavyweight title that Mercer had vacated after beating Morrison. Fighting against Foreman with uncharacteristic caution and in excellent condition for one of the few times in his career, Tommy emerged victorious.

The world was now Morrison’s oyster. He had a belt and was a big name in the heavyweight division. A deal was made for a title unification bout against Lennox Lewis that would pay Tommy a minimum purse of $7.5 million. But first, Morrison wanted an interim fight against a walkover opponent in Oklahoma. The walkover opponent was Michael Bentt.

KO by 1.

“All fighters reach a peak,” Acevedo writes. “A point at which the rigors of training and the punishment received in the ring combine to break them down. For some fighters, particularly aggressive ones such as Morrison, short peaks are the rule. [After the Bentt fight], it was clear that Morrison was beyond his best days. Over the span of two years, from October 1993 to October 1995, he was knocked down ten times. And Morrison compounded these issues with a torrid nightlife, a lax attitude toward training, and a dependency on steroids that likely had an adverse physical effect on him.”

Ah, yes. Morrison’s night life.

Part II of The Duke deals with Tommy’s life outside the ring. In his later years, he would use cocaine, crystal meth, Adderall, and Special K. In the early-1990s, he was a drinker. And alcohol fueled his temper.

“Morrison,” Acevedo writes, “was the kind of drunk who would pick fights in public and reject outright the concept of a designated driver. He could also become violent when under the influence.”

A drunk Morrison slashed an exotic dancer with a broken beer bottle in Kansas City. She sued. According to John Brown (Morrison’s co-manager), the case was settled for $100,000.

Morrison pled guilty to simple assault and public intoxication in conjunction with another incident and was fined $310. He was also arrested and pled no contest to two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery stemming from an altercation at a party given by Tammy Witt (the mother of his son, Trey). In that instance, Morrison received a suspended sentence, was fined $600, and ordered to perform thirty hours of community service.

But the drinking was nothing compared to the women.

“In the wake of Rocky V,” Acevedo recounts, “Morrison had become what John Brown called a ‘Bimbo Magnet.’ At the peak of his stardom, between the premiere of Rocky V and his upset loss to Michael Bentt, he lived out an adolescent fantasy that might have been the rudimentary plot of a teen sexploitation film. His life was truly a wild one. Wherever Morrison went, he trailed yearning women behind him. They shadowed him at personal appearances, before fights, after fights, in lobbies, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Few celebrities, even minor ones, spend their nights partying in Kansas City or Jay [Oklahoma] or Iowa. But Morrison had little interest in the bright lights of New York City or Los Angeles. The local whirlwind he created in small towns was more than enough for him.”

“His attraction to women was more than anything you can imagine,” Bill Cayton told a reporter for the Vancouver Sun. “He was a womanizer beyond anything I’ve ever known.”

“It was unbelievable,” Morrison said to Sports Illustrated. “It was all right there. You could feed yourself as fast and as much as you wanted.”

Then everything changed. For the worse.

Much worse.

On February 10, 1996, Nevada State Athletic Commission executive director Marc Ratner announced that, for medical reasons, Morrison had been scratched from a fight card scheduled for the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino that night. Ratner declined to specify what the medical issue was. Five days later, at a press conference held at the Southern Hills Marriot Hotel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Morrison addressed the issue with candor and grace.

“First of all, I’d like to thank everybody for being here today,” Morrison said. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t be here in person on Monday when Tony [promoter Tony Holden] informed you of what the present situation was. At that time, I felt it was more important to be with my family. Since that time, I’ve taken action to have more extensive tests run. I was informed just a little while ago that those tests do in fact confirm that I have tested positive for the HIV virus. There was a certain point and time in my life that I lived a very permissive, fast, reckless lifestyle. I knew that the HIV virus is something that anyone could get, but I also believed the chances were very, very slim. I thought that the real danger of contracting this rests in the arms of those who subject themselves to certain types of lifestyles – addicts who share needles, people who practice a homosexual lifestyle. I honestly believed that I had a better chance of winning the lottery than contracting this disease. I have never been so wrong in my life. To all my young fans out there, I’d ask that you no longer see me as a role model but see me as an individual who had an 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.”

That was laudable. But within seven months, Morrison had pivoted 180 degrees. He had come to believe that HIV was a hoax and that the drugs developed to fight it were, in fact, designed to kill patients. In Acevedo’s words, “like so many other fanatics, [Morrison] ignored facts and substituted intuition for verifiable science.”

Now Morrison had a different view of his own medical condition. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in all this medication,” he said. “I’ve chosen not to take it. See, I don’t think that HIV causes AIDS. Some of the research I’ve read and some of the doctors I’ve talked to – there are still a lot of unanswered questions. It hasn’t been proven scientifically to my satisfaction that HIV leads to AIDS. It’s the medication that’s killing people. You unravel the little piece of paper in the bottle and you read about the side effects and they match identical with the symptoms of AIDS. HIV’s never been proven to cause AIDS. HIV ain’t never killed anybody.”

Thereafter, Morrison repeatedly denied that he was HIV-positive. But as Acevedo notes, “A lawsuit [instituted after Morrison’s death] brought to light dozens of documents revealing medical records that repeat over and over the fact that Tommy Morrison had HIV. These records include prescriptions, credit card statements, test results, memos from physicians, expert testimony, even psychiatric intake notes. The evidence that Morrison had been living with HIV for years is overwhelming.”

The end game for Morrison was long and ugly, marked by alcoholism, drug abuse, and uncontrolled aggression. But as Acevedo states, “Nothing about his carnal lifestyle – reckless, aimless, remorseless, seemingly bottomless – is as shocking as the willingness of dozens of women to risk a potential death sentence by sleeping with the most famous carrier of HIV outside of Magic Johnson.”

In Acevedo’s eyes, Morrison was now a menace to society.

He was also a bigamist, having married two different women (Dawn Freeman and Dawn Gilbert) in 1996. He would marry for a third time in 2011, two years before he died.

Meanwhile, again and again, Morrison was getting arrested. Twice in 1997 on charges ranging from driving under the influence to carrying a loaded firearm while under the influence of intoxicants, On December 20, 1997, he was sentenced to six months in prison (later reduced to thirty days). The following year, he was arrested again; this time for driving under the influence, destruction of private property, running a red light, and driving with a revoked license. In 2000, he pled guilty to myriad charges and was sentenced to ten years in prison with eight years suspended. He was released after fourteen months.

Morrison also subjected himself to cosmetic surgery that amounted to self-mutilation. As recounted by Acevedo, “In June 1999, Morrison underwent a series of surgeries for chest and biceps implants in Tulsa with nightmarish results. When the last procedure was over, Morrison and Landon [a friend] checked into a motel for a brief recovery period. That was where Dawn Gilbert found Morrison, looking like the creation of a Hollywood-style mad scientist.”

Landon told Gilbert that the doctor had used implants for the biceps rebuild that appeared to be shin guards bought from a sporting goods store. “As disturbing as his new implants were,” Acevedo notes, “the most shocking part of his appearance was the multiple tubes that now protruded from his body, each attached to one of the four bags surrounding him. Tubes came from each armpit and each bicep, and the bags contained a yellowish gunk and blood.”

Yet bizarrely, Morrison continued to fight. On November 3, 1996 (less than nine month after first testing HIV-positive), he’d been allowed to enter the ring in Tokyo and scored a first-round knockout over Marcus Rhode. Then, after a decade-long absence, he returned to boxing and stopped two no-hope opponents in West Virginia (2007) and Mexico (2008).

And all the while, his mind was rotting away.

“When he was only in his mid-thirties,” Acevedo writes, “Morrison was already exhibiting classic signs of pugilistic dementia. Slurred speech, forgetfulness, scattered thoughts, a scanty attention span. He increasingly suffered from paranoia. His IQ was measured at 78, which placed Morrison on the borderline for mental disability. Anyone who had heard Morrison speak after fights or read his interviews knew that he was an eloquent young man capable of expressing himself in complex sentences. By the time he hit rock bottom, that was no longer the case.”

Morrison, Acevedo continues, “also suffered from the burnout effect of methamphetamines. And in the early 2000s, he was diagnosed with HIV-related encephalopathy. Combined with his career as a prizefighter, these afflictions left him with a tenuous grip on reality. ESPN interviewed Morrison in 2000 while he was serving out a term in a Texarkana lockup for a variety of drug-related charges. In his orange prison garb, Morrison looked like he had just returned from a week-long crank binge in Arkansas swampland. He was heavy-lidded; some of his teeth were missing; he spoke haltingly; many of his answers were rote; his hair had thinned into a wispy comb-over. And he seemed delusional.”

Fast-forward to 2011. Morrison was arrested twice more on charges that included felony possession of controlled substances and misdemeanor possession of paraphernalia for use. Acevedo recreates what followed:

“The sports world is shocked to see the latest mug shot of Tommy Morrison, an image that seems to foreshadow death. Only forty-two years old, Morrison resembles a vagrant who has just returned from a harrowing ordeal. A video of his court appearance is even more disturbing. Morrison looks like a cross between a confused little boy and a senile old man. He is haggard, ashen, bewildered.”

At that point, the criminal justice system applied what Acevedo calls “pragmatic mercy.”

“Simply put,” he writes, “Morrison is unfit for prison. He is, by then, unfit for anything. In less than two years, he will be dead.”

In evaluating The Duke, one should begin with a thought from Acevedo himself who cautions, “Any biographical narrative is bound to raise questions of veracity. The life of Tommy Morrison more so, perhaps, because of how much of it took place in half-light. Toughman contests, club fights in Wichita and Great Falls, orgies in rattletrap motels, stints in jail and prison, and night crawling with tweakers from crash pad to crash pad across the Southeast. By nature, Morrison seemed drawn to subterranean pursuits.”

That said, Acevedo writes well. His tale moves briskly through Morrison’s life from his hardscrabble origins to his self-destructive end. The recounting of Morrison’s ring career doesn’t have the depth and nuance of some of Acevedo’s earlier writing about boxing. And there are times when he gives Morrison less credit than Tommy might deserve as a fighter.

But The Duke comes to life in Part Two. The material dealing with Morrison’s spiral into oblivion outside the ring is powerfully written and informative. Acevedo shows here that he’s a very good writer.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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