- PRODIGAL HEAVYWEIGHT: ESPN's "Tommy" takes a look at the tumultuous life of the late WBO champion and Arkansas native Tommy Morrison.
By all rights, Arkansas ought to celebrate Tommy Morrison more as one of our many prodigal sons. Maybe his boxing career simply wasn't long enough; the meaningful part of it was finished by the time he was 27. Maybe it was that, five years after he was born in Gravette, his family left Benton County and moved 20 miles across the Oklahoma state line. Could be that the reason for his sudden retirement in 1996 was his positive HIV blood test before a big fight in Vegas.
Or it could be, as the new ESPN documentary "Tommy" — part of the network's "30 For 30" series" — chronicles thoroughly, he just wasn't the most likeable athlete, or person. A prolific womanizer who couldn't stay out of the bars long enough to get the most out of his considerable talent as a brawler, Morrison still managed to win two heavyweight world titles, the first over George Foreman in 1993. If anything, the mind reels at what the dude could've accomplished if he had seen just a bit further into the future and kept his head down. Says one trainer in the film: "All I wanted him to do was train and not have sex with seven women a day, and not hang out at the bars every night."
But Morrison was built like an ox, had country-star good looks, won instant fame at 21 as Tommy Gunn in "Rocky V," made what must've seemed to a kid from Gravette an absolutely unspendable fortune, and was, to be perfectly fair, at least 99 percent indestructible. (The documentary tells of a fight in which he broke both his hands, got his jaw broken, and still finished the fight, mouth hanging open and bloody in victory.) You can't really blame a guy for turning that stereo up to 11 every day of his hard-punching life. When his HIV was revealed, health authorities in Kansas City — where he'd been a notorious goat — opened a public switchboard for women to call if they were concerned they might've caught something from him.
Morrison died in 2013, more than a decade after getting popped in Northwest Arkansas for a DWI and for being a felon in possession of a weapon, and going to prison for the first time. By the time he rounded 40, court video shows a gaunt man with wide, sunken eyes, probably relaying to a judge only the untruths he also told himself. Friends and family in the film (its co-directors, Gentry Kirby and Erin Leyden, did a fantastic job of gaining access to their sources) consistently describe Morrison as a guy incapable of taking responsibility for his actions, and with a knack (or a pathology, one might say) for juggling multiple long-term girlfriends. He was living a story on some hidden plane of reality since he was 15, lying to get into unlicensed 21-and-up boxing events. That he famously, and rather heartbreakingly, convinced himself late in life that he didn't even have HIV, that the virus itself was a hoax, seems all too plausible.
Yet you can see why trainers and promoters and family would gravitate to this raw, mad talent who forever promised to turn himself around. When Morrison was on, he was on. And it's impossible to watch "Tommy" without a sense of loss for the fast-burning brute. Maybe he hasn't cleared the same hurdles as John Daly, another Arkansas athlete anti-hero, but we should respect the walking folk tale that was Morrison. The dude's mother, Diana, beat a murder wrap and home-tattooed boxing gloves on his arm when he was 10. He married two longtime girlfriends back-to-back — one in Vegas, one in Mexico — both of whom were named Dawn. He won his first 28 fights before he ever got knocked down, by Ray Mercer. He'd pass out in bars and be driven home in the back of a pickup. He was an American badass, so damn intense, in fact, that the only thing he couldn't survive was being Tommy Morrison. Arkansas, love your boy already.
"Tommy," available for streaming on the ESPN app, will make its broadcast premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27, on ESPN2.