FORMER heavyweight opens boxing camp

Saturday, August 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PICKLES GAP, Ark. (AP) _ At a lakeside camp complete with punching bags, a weight room and a dollar-rental copy of ``Rocky V,'' former heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Morrison is ready for a second chance outside the ring.

HIV-positive, he wants to change after life as a crime-ring enforcer, drug user and prison inmate.

Morrison, a native of Jay, Okla., has opened a $1,000-a-week training facility for anyone interested in boxing. Since July 1, the 32 campers _ one from as far away as California _ have included children, a cancer survivor and a university sports team mascot.

``It's a boxing camp, but for a lot of people it's a spiritual training camp, too,'' said Morrison, who invites campers to bring a Bible. ``People are surprised at what they get as far as the personal attention and spiritual attention.''

Morrison left a Little Rock community detention center in February after serving time there and at Texarkana for drug and weapons charges. He is relying on camp income until he finds a publisher for his memoirs.

``I'm not really in it for profit; not going to get rich off of it,'' he said. ``As long as they're coming, I'll be here. It will get me by until the book deal materializes.''

The book will be titled: ``Knocked Down But Not Out: A Second Chance to Make a Lasting Impression.''

``They're expecting a memoir book about all of my wildman days,'' he said. ``And it will be some of that, but it will be a real spiritual book.''

Growing up, Morrison said he was abandoned, abused and used as an enforcer for an Irish gang. He was convicted of drunken driving in 1997 in Kansas and Oklahoma, then caught with drugs and a weapon in northwest Arkansas in 1999.

He was briefly the heavyweight champion of the world, scoring a 12-round victory over George Foreman on June 7, 1993, for the WBO title. In his first title defense, Michael Bentt knocked out Morrison in the first round.

In October 1995, Lennox Lewis knocked out Morrison and, four months later, Morrison found out he had the virus that leads to AIDS.

As he served time at Texarkana, Wanda Fincher took an interest in him. She is the camp cook and nurse _ and the camp is on her property 30 miles north of Little Rock.

``I thought somebody better straighten this guy out,'' said Fincher, wearing a bright yellow apron while preparing a tuna salad lunch for the campers. She copied Morrison's prisoner number from a newspaper picture and wrote him. The two struck up a friendship.

During a prison visit, ``there were all these people shouting dollar signs at him,'' but Morrison chose Fincher to edit his book, she said. When he was released from prison, they decided to start the camp.

``Right when I got out I wanted to get reunited with my family and kids, but I can't go to Oklahoma right now,'' Morrison said.

Morrison's wife Dawn and his two children live in Oklahoma, but he won't go to Oklahoma because of an unsettled drunk driving fine.

Fincher renovated her estate for Morrison. A guest house became a 10-bunk dorm, a tool shed is now a theater for watching Morrison fights on tape, her garage is a weight room and the porch has two heavy bags, a speed bag and a double end bag.

``It didn't take any time to do it,'' said Fincher, who splits the campers' fees with Morrison. ``That's why it seemed meant to be. When we thought of it, it just fell together.''

In the bunk house, a copy of ``Rocky V'' sits on the poker table, a $1 rental sticker still attached. Morrison played a brash young fighter in the 1990 movie.

The camp theme is ``Taking Care of Business'' and the logo features a flash of lightning under the letters TCB, the same logo as the trademarked ``TCB'' at Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.

Morrison isn't afraid that his HIV status will scare parents considering the camp for their children.

``Someone who would be afraid of that would be completely uneducated,'' Morrison said. ``It's not like you can get it from sweat.''

Morrison said he is feeling fine, and is taking HIV drugs.

``I will have to have somebody to help with the camp because I get tired,'' he said. ``I'm keeping it in check.''

University of Arkansas-Little Rock mascot Rebecca Roberts, 17, is attending the camp to improve her hand-eye coordination.

``It's a great workout,'' said Roberts, who will be a freshman. ``Especially for a mascot with the heavy uniform.''

Morrison stays with the campers all week, waking them at 6 a.m. for a daily run.

``I'm gonna be here every day,'' Morrison said. ``I went to Muhammad Ali's boxing camp when I was 10 years old. Where was Ali? He never showed up until the last day for an hour or so to take pictures and sign autographs.''