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The life and times of the last ‘Great White Hope’

The legacy of boxer Tommy Morrison, who died this week

Soon after Jack Johnson successfully defended his world heavyweight title against Jim Jeffries in Reno in 1910 in a fight which sparked race riots across the US, boxing’s perennial search for the next so-called Great White Hope was born.

Plenty of potential champs and pointless chancers came and went in the wake of Johnson’s victory, most bringing back-stories colourful enough to put them straight in the pages of history if only they had the boxing ability to back up such boasts.

There was an Englishman called Victor McLaglen who crossed the Atlantic at the age of 18 to chase his fortune in the silver mines and honed his fighting style in winner-takes-all camp brawls.

There was the wild former child hobo Stanley Ketchel, who could certainly fight, and came close to knocking Johnson out despite the enormous weight discrepancy which came with being a former middleweight champion.

Such was the slew of colourful characters who came and went in search of instant fame, it was almost a disappointment that Johnson’s eventual conqueror should come in the shape of a lumbering and rather uninspiring Kansas farmhand called Jess Willard.

With Willard’s win over Johnson in 1915, the search for the first Great White Hope could finally be shelved. But by the mid-1990s, with the riotous Mike Tyson era fading and Lennox Lewis starting to swat all-comers with nonchalant ease, the hunt was revived.

As Great White Hopes go, Tommy Morrison seemed made-to-measure. He was a former high -school linebacker, a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a booming left hook.

Like Willard he hailed from the mid-west and claimed cowboy ancestry — in Morrison’s case, the unsubstantiated claim that he was a distant relation of the great Hollywood actor John Wayne, which earned him the nickname “The Duke.”

Morrison himself had become a Hollywood star even before his professional career had taken any shape, appearing alongside Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa’s protege Tommy Gunn in the 1990 film Rocky V.

Unlike the unassuming Willard, however, Morrison had not learned to control his urges outside the ring.

In a chilling portent, the Sunday Times writer Hugh McIlvanney wrote in a 1995 preview to his world title challenge to Lennox Lewis: “Morrison’s life story resembles a particularly lurid country and western lyric.”

By that stage, Morrison had been crowned WBO champion with a points win over ancient George Foreman, but squandered a $7.5 million pay-day against Lewis scheduled for 1993 when he was knocked out in one round by unknown Michael Bentt in his second defence.

Morrison’s second loss — there had been no such disgrace in his first career defeat to tough Ray Mercer two years previously — sent him spiralling out of control. He sought solace in drink and women, and there were always plenty of both on hand.

So plentiful were the latter that at one point Morrison unintentionally found himself married to two women, both named Dawn, at the same time.

But such was the promotional value in Morrison that it was well worth his connections keeping faith — for the time being, at least. They squeezed Morrison back into shape and a career-best stoppage of Donovan “Razor” Ruddock in 1995 finally earned him his shot at Lewis.

Morrison was hammered in six rounds, and just four months later he was given the shocking news that he had failed an HIV test prior to a scheduled fight against a journeyman called Arthur “Stormy” Weathers.

Morrison told Larry King: “I’m convinced that I probably contracted this through living a very promiscuous lifestyle for about two-and-a-half to three years ... I walked around for a little too long thinking I was bullet-proof.”

Morrison conceded that, at the age of 27, his fighting days were over, although he did return briefly and controversially in November 1996 to score a one-round win over Marcus Rhode in Japan.

The acolytes, not to mention the girls, were long gone. He was left to face his illness very much alone. He served time in prison on drugs and weapons charges and squandered what remained of his boxing purses. As the cash ran out, Morrison’s conviction grew that he had fallen victim to a false diagnosis.

“The more research I did the more I found out what I’ve been told was absolute bull,” Morrison insisted in 2007, just before launching his comeback at the age of 38.

Refusing to retest under the jurisdiction of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, the one-time stadium-filler was consigned to life on the sport’s margins.

He returned with a two-round win over a hapless novice named John Castle at the Mountaineer Casino in West Virginia in February 2007.

Increasingly, Morrison sought to convince all those who would listen that he had beaten the virus, if indeed, he had ever had it at all. He spun stories of healthy lifestyles and obscure syndromes. He declared he was in the process of making “the greatest comeback in boxing history.”

In another telling incident, he regaled a reporter from the Kansas City Star with a tale of how he once — for once — avoided trouble by teleporting himself out of a Missouri bar.

“Things like this don’t work for anybody that doesn’t believe it,” Morrison told the reporter. “Do you believe me?”

Speculation, inevitably and sadly, continues to sweep the internet over Morrison’s cause of death. As if it really matters. Morrison is best remembered as the blond-haired kid with the big punch — the former college linebacker whose only real fault was being fired to fame too soon.


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