Boxer Goes From Champion to Inmate

Monday, May 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) — In moments of victory, Tommy ``The Duke'' Morrison used to stand in the ring with his big red boxing gloves raised triumphantly over his head.

Now he stands with his hands clasped behind his back, the humble posture required when an inmate leaves his room at the Southwest Arkansas Community Punishment Center.

The man who once was No. 1 is now inmate No. 610788.

Morrison, whose boxing career came to a sudden halt when he tested positive for the AIDS virus, is now serving a two-year prison sentence for drug and weapon charges.

Morrison overcame a dysfunctional childhood — abused and abandoned by his father and used as an enforcer in a crime ring — to star in a movie alongside Sylvester Stallone, compile a 46-3-1 professional boxing record and beat George Foreman for the World Boxing Organization's heavyweight title.

Now he's back where he started — mixed up with crime, bitter about his circumstances and longing to be in the spotlight.

From a window in his 20-foot-by-10-foot prison room on the fourth floor of a converted hospital, Morrison can see a pole with an American flag. He once wore boxing shorts sporting the stars and stripes, back when he draped a huge WBO title belt over his shoulder for photographers.

At 6 feet 2 inches and 218 pounds, Morrison is still around his fighting weight. But his blond hair, once cropped short, has formed waves while in prison and his smile now is capped with a mustache.

To talk to a reporter, he is led hands behind his back to an interior room on the first floor. He has been there before, when questioned by prison officials about what they describe vaguely as some troubles.

Morrison, speaking softly, insists he is innocent of the drug crimes that brought him here, claiming he lied when he pleaded guilty because he thought it was the easiest solution.

Morrison was suspended from boxing after he tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus shortly before a scheduled fight against Arthur Weathers in February 1996. At the time, Morrison said he likely contracted the disease through a promiscuous sex life.

In prison, the 31-year-old Morrison now brags about his wild past, comparing his sex with an ``astronomical number'' of women to lifting weights and running.

``Sex became a part of my conditioning program, I'm serious,'' Morrison says. ``It was just all the time ... three different women a day for seven or eight years...''

Morrison has changed his story about how he believes he contracted HIV, now connecting it to steroid injections. But he says he never shares needles, and never used dirty ones.

``I didn't get it sexually,'' he insists. ``HIV is just a dead piece of skin, that's all it is. Every time you pierce yourself with a needle, you are putting the microbes in your body, these little pieces of dry skin ... That's exactly how I got it.''

Doctors say Morrison's dead-skin theory is nonsense, and some think he is in denial about the way he contracted HIV.

Morrison says his first sexual encounter came at age 13 with a 17-year-old baby-sitter. That was about the same time he dropped out of school for a year in Jay, Okla., and went to live with his father, who had separated from his mother.

He got into tough-man contests — brutal fights with few rules — did construction jobs and worked for his father and associates forcibly collecting money for what Morrison describes as Irish gangsters.

``There was a time I used to think that being a faction of an organized crime situation was cool,'' Morrison says. ``You say, `Here's the deal, you owe this much money and what do you plan on doing? Get on top of that behavior there son, and if you don't, I'm not responsible for what's going to happen to you.' I didn't necessarily always have to be the one to do it, just inform them of where they live, where they hang out, who their friends are, where their kids are.''

Work was the best relationship he had with his dad. At home, Morrison says, his father would beat him with a chair, lamp, ashtray or whatever was nearby when he became angry.

The Morrison family moved between small towns in Arkansas and Oklahoma, often living in a trailer, three children in one bedroom. His parents were frequently apart.

Diana Morrison ended up raising Tommy and his two siblings largely alone. Tommy was a ``bright child'' but a ``sneaky one,'' she says, and she warned him to beware of the big-city limelight when he left to become a professional boxer in Kansas City, Mo.

``It was a mother's gut feeling,'' she says from her home in Jay. ``I kind of had a feeling what was going to happen, and that's why I ragged at him so much, all this partying and such...''

Morrison fathered two sons by different women whom he never married. Both sons are now 10 years old. He sees one son occasionally, the other seldom. He doesn't talk with his father anymore. His mother still visits. His older brother is in prison in Missouri for rape.

Yet through his family, Morrison learned the skills that propelled him to prosperity. All Morrison males boxed, including his grandfather, who later gave up the sport to enter the ministry. Young Tommy fought in his first boxing match at age 8. He won a Golden Gloves competition in Kansas City as a senior in high school and competed in the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, losing to another future professional, Ray Mercer.

Abandoning a football scholarship at Emporia State University in Kansas, Morrison turned pro and within three years had his first shot at a world boxing title, against Mercer. He lost again, but gained some advice from Foreman, who said he took hour-long runs to build endurance. Morrison started following Foreman's routine.

``Little did I know down the road I would end up fighting him, and the advice he gave me is what got his ass beat,'' Morrison says.

Morrison's 12-round victory over Foreman gave him the WBO title on June 7, 1993. But in his first title defense, Morrison was knocked out in the first round by Michael Bentt in what Morrison had intended as a tune-up for Lennox Lewis.

His comeback was blunted when Lewis knocked him out in October 1995 — about four months before he learned he had the AIDS virus. He fought one more time, a one-round victory in Japan in October 1996, but any future bouts in the United States would not be sanctioned because he is HIV-positive.

``My life has been very much a roller coaster ride,'' Morrison says. ``Not just the boxing part, not just the acting part, just my childhood, what I was into at a young age and the things I was exposed to, it's just very abnormal.''

Out of boxing and out of things to do, Morrison began hanging out with old friends — and getting into trouble. After being sentenced to probation on an Oklahoma drunken driving charge, Morrison was stopped by Fayetteville, Ark., police in September 1999.

Morrison says he had lent his new Corvette to a friend to install a stereo system and was driving home after retrieving the car. The cocaine police found in the car was not his, he says, and he didn't know it was there. But the gun police found — that was his, he says. He collected guns and frequently carried one.

``I didn't do anything wrong,'' Morrison says. ``I'm guilty by association more or less, but I'm pretty bitter about the whole thing.''

Morrison says he feared his arrest would send him back to prison for violating probation on his drunk driving case. He thought about fleeing the country, he says; but instead, he pled guilty, hoping his sentence in Arkansas would also count toward his Oklahoma probation violation.

Morrison was sentenced to 10 years in January with eight years suspended. With credit for good behavior, he could be released as soon as Dec. 19.

At his sentencing, Morrison told an Arkansas judge he intended to turn his life around, even speaking in schools after he served his sentence.

Now in a minimum-security prison, Morrison has a more profitable goal. He hopes to sell his life story as a book or movie. In fact, he wants to play himself in the film. After all, he likes to remind people, he had a big speaking part as a boxer in ``Rocky V.''

Morrison now says he is angry that he agreed to go to prison. He claims prosecutors led him to believe he could get a job and wear his own clothes. Instead he's wearing a banana-yellow uniform while picking up trash or cutting grass once a week.

So he wears a yarn necklace with a black and green cross and clips another cross to his pocket — not so much for their symbolism as to show that he can.

Morrison considers the prison's mandatory drug abuse classes a waste of time, saying he has used marijuana and methamphetamine but never was a drug addict.

And he is upset that prison officials refuse to put a television, tape recorder and laptop in his room and turned down his offer to buy a $6,000 weightlifting machine for the sparsely equipped recreation area.

Prison officials are against him, he claims, always trying to connect him to all kinds of trouble because of his popularity among other inmates.

Prison supervisor Dan McGuinness says it's not the case, adding Morrison has ``had a few minor adjustment problems'' but is doing better. When hit by another inmate, for example, Morrison did not strike back, McGuinness says.

But Morrison feels the pressure of prison mounting inside him.

``I feel like I'm being paid back for every bad thing I ever did by being here,'' Morrison says. ``They bring you in here and try to tear you down to a piece of dirt on the floor, and when you have a problem with that, they don't know how to handle that. If you have any pride at all, they try to strip you of it.''

But Morrison is not ready to relinquish his pride.

``When you get to a place like this,'' he says, ``there is no place to go but up.''