How HIV Denialism and Stigma Knocked Out Champion Boxer Tommy Morrison

Tommy Morrison
Tommy Morrison

It's barely been two minutes and Tommy Morrison is exhausted. Drowning in the thin Wyoming air, Morrison gasps for breath as he shuffles about the ring, his leaden legs barely leaving the canvas as he stalks his Weeble of an opponent who is operating at about half speed. His once lightning-quick jab looks like it's being thrown underwater and Morrison's left hook, which was once one of the most feared in the fight game, couldn't punch a hole in a piece of drywall.

Morrison tugs at the front of his trunks -- the sign to the Weeble that it's time to stop wobbling and finally fall down -- and throws a left jab followed by a straight right that sends his opponent to the canvas, where he stays only briefly before trying to get up and making a comically exaggerated flop back down on the mat. Getting up again and this time staying on his feet, the Weeble is cleared by the referee to continue, which he does for all of three seconds before Morrison hits him with a left hook that barely connects, but causes the fat man to plummet back down to earth. And with that, the fight, and Morrison's fighting career, come to a merciful conclusion -- 13 years after an HIV diagnosis threw Morrison's life into a tailspin from which he would never recover.

In boxing, a fighter's "chin" refers to the ability he has to take a punch to the head and keep swinging. Having a strong chin isn't so much a matter of heart or desire, but of genetics -- in much the same way that some people only survive a few months without treatment after an AIDS diagnosis while others can live for several years. Morrison didn't have too strong a chin in the ring, but he was blessed with a chin made of pure granite when it came to living with HIV.

Diagnosed in 1996, at the apex of a career that seemed poised to turn him into one of the biggest names in boxing, Morrison fought back against the notion that, untreated, his HIV would develop into AIDS and end his life. The fighter, who initially appeared to understand the gravity of his infection at a teary-eyed press conference immediately following his diagnosis, quickly fell into a deep and intractable pattern of denial that would kill him 17 years later.

Born and raised in the Southwest corner of the Ozarks, Morrison grew up in an environment straight out of Winter's Bone. He lived a more or less hand-to-mouth existence as a child with an abusive father who set up his first sexual encounter at a strip club when Morrison was 14, and a mother who gave him his first tattoo and entered him in tough man contests with grown men when he was in middle school. After he turned 18, Morrison went to Kansas City where he became a regional Golden Gloves champion and nearly qualified for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. However, despite his ferocious left hook, it was Morrison's Playgirl good looks that would initially make him famous.

While scouting talent for Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone came across Morrison and quickly became convinced that he was perfect for the role of Tommy Gunn, which was second only to Stallone's Rocky in terms of billing for the film. With his chiseled body and head of gorgeous curly blond hair, Morrison was a natural choice and it turned him into a star overnight, even though the movie was widely panned.

After filming was over, Morrison resumed his boxing career and ran roughshod through the heavyweight ranks, racking up a record of 48 wins (42 by knockout), three losses and one draw. One of those wins, and the crowning achievement of his career, was the defeat of a then 44-year-old George Foreman for the WBO heavyweight title. At the time, no one could have predicted that Morrison, who had been dubbed by some as the Great White Hope that would save boxing in America, would be out of the fight game less than three years later -- a pariah in the sport he once was poised to own.

Shortly after he was diagnosed, Morrison took Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) to treat his HIV. After about a month, he cast it aside, decrying it as little more than medical propaganda, and turned to his faith and straight-up denial as his main avenues of combatting the virus. That same year, Magic Johnson -- who at that point had been taking HIV meds for four years and was doing so well that he was able to make a brief comeback with the Lakers and finish 12th in the NBA MVP voting -- did his best to convince Morrison to listen to his doctors and follow their instructions. Morrison didn't listen to Johnson and, without the stabilizing influence of boxing, his life became a shambles. In the span of five years, Morrison got four DUIs and was charged multiple times with drug and firearm charges that would eventually land him in prison for two years.

In an interview given as he was gearing up for his ill-fated comeback to the ring, Morrison talked candidly about the stigma and isolation he felt in the aftermath of his positive diagnosis. "Some of my best friends that I grew up with wouldn't even wave at me going through town," Morrison remembered, raising his brow in disbelief even after a decade had passed.

The gym he worked at didn't want to keep him on. People were afraid to use the weight machines after him because of ignorant fears that his sweat would somehow give them the virus. With that type of reaction to his diagnosis, it's not hard to understand why Morrison would convince himself that his tests had been false positives or that he had been cured of his HIV. Even at the very end as he lay dying -- bedridden, intubated and on a ventilator -- Morrison refused to accept that he had HIV.

Morrison was one hell of a fighter. The only problem was that he spent the last 17 years of his life fighting the wrong fight.