The Last Great White Hope A biography of the rise and fall of a fighter who gleefully let his excesses eat him.

The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison

By Carlos Acevedo (2022, Hamilcar Publications) 232 pgs. with bibliography, no footnotes or index

Born in Gravette, Arkansas, January 2, 1969, Tommy “The Duke” Morrison grew up in the small town of Jay, Oklahoma, where his life was clearly rooted. When he was ten, his mother encouraged him to take up fighting, first in Toughman contests and later in amateur boxing. Declining a football scholarship to college, the athlete focused, instead, on boxing. Morrison’s chosen career allowed him to experience celebrity status in Las Vegas, New York, even Hollywood. The earnings from his professional bouts also provided him the means to experience an intermittent life of excess, after which he invariably returned to Jay, Oklahoma, to more comforting roots—his mother and small-town life. The taste of the limelight, however, and the allure of a crown led him to a never-ending search for eternal fame and dumped him into an addiction to drugs, a twenty-four-seven night-life, steroid use, and full-blown AIDS—the sum of which ensured that the one-time world champion and one-time movie star would die young. He succumbed to organ failure on September 1, 2013, in a hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. He was only 44, but his body was completely used up.

Pop culture will forever remember Tommy Morrison for two things: his unanimous-decision win over George Foreman in 1993 for the WBO Heavyweight Championship, and for his co-starring role with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky V. What writer Acevedo makes certain in this book is that Morrison will also be remembered for his fantastic lies and crazed behavior.

Morrison’s professional boxing career began in 1988 after an amateur career in the Golden Gloves. It was a police sergeant in Kansas City who gave the young boxer the moniker “The Duke,” after hearing the story of how Morrison’s uncle, Marion Morrison, once met John Wayne. The uncle and the famous movie star shared their geographical backgrounds and concluded they might be related. The actual genealogical connection was never verified; but because every boxer needs an imaginatively defining ring name, the connection to the established star made for wholesome publicity.

In 1990, the young gun’s undefeated record caught the attention of Sylvester Stallone, who was casting around for another Rocky story. Stallone plotted an ending story for Rocky V that rings true for so many aging boxers. Rocky returns from Russia to find that his manager has signed a power of attorney to the accountant, and the accountant has lost all of Rocky’s assets in risky land deals. Rocky is dead broke, and with a diagnosis of brain damage from his last fight. He is forced to retire and return to his roots in Philly to manage a boxing gym. A potential boxing champion, Tommy (Morrison) Gunn, shows up, asking to be trained by the famous Rocky.

The official record for Morrison’s boxing career is impressive: 48-3, with forty-two knockouts. But as author Acevedo reminds us, boxing is a sport of smoke and mirrors, where records do not tell the full story. Most of Morrison’s bouts were selectively matched with tomato cans, long shots, semi-retired fighters, and come-back journeymen, in order to pad the record.

Author Acevedo devotes only a few pages to the B-rated movie, calling it “Schmaltzy, over-acted, poorly scripted, and burdened by an outlandish soundtrack.” (26) His comparison of Morrison to the Gunn character is summarized by “a strange frisson … (with) parallels between the character of Gunn … and Morrison whose life began to unravel less than three years after his brush with stardom.” (26)

This reviewer, however, would have liked the author to explore in more detail the “strange frisson” that actually presaged Morrison’s life. For example, Gunn, the rising contender in the movie, announces he is from Oklahoma with a series of forty-five wins. (Morrison would, in fact, later accumulate forty-eight wins.) Rocky houses, trains, and tries to motivate the young boxer. Gunn explains his personal motivation: “My old man used to drink and come home and beat me and mother. When I get in the ring, all I think of is him.” This dialogue sounds hauntingly biographical. (Morrison was from a broken home. Is this what truly motivated him in the boxing ring? Is this what gave him staying power, his endurance, his “heart”?)

Another character in the movie is the scheming promoter, George Washington Duke, a slimly disguised Don King who offers to promote Rocky for a come-back match in Japan. When Rocky refuses, Duke lures Rocky’s fighter, Gunn, into Duke’s camp with women, cars, and big fights with big paydays, something Rocky is unable to provide under the circumstances. (Morrison was easily influenced by money and women; his boxing life would be influenced by Don King; and, strangely enough, Morrison would, at the end of his career, fight in Japan.) Promoter Duke sees money to be made from a “Great White Hope” fight. (Morrison would be promoted as a “Great White Hope,” an epithet he disliked.) At the end of the movie, Gunn’s skills fail to give him a win in a street fight with an aged-out fighter (a symbolic reminder of Morrison’s actual record).

During the filming, Tommy Morrison’s power was evident when two stuntmen suffered serious injuries from Morrison’s devastating punch. Although Morrison swore under contract to throw his punches at 30 percent, one stuntman suffered a broken orbital bone and another a broken jaw. This reviewer believes that the movie provides a powerful, biographical gem of a look at Tommy Morrison before (or possibly at the onset of) his demise, something the writer might have pursued in more detail.

Morrison returned from Hollywood with a taste of celebrity and a body bulked up by twenty pounds from suspected steroid use.

Morrison returned from Hollywood with a taste of celebrity and a body bulked up by twenty pounds from suspected steroid use. Los Angeles in the mid-eighties was a concentrated hub for steroid use for both straight and gay males, particularly those with money and who aspired to movie roles. It is possible, as Morrison claimed later, that this is where he first contracted HIV in 1989, from shared needles. He also established a dislike for homosexuals.

The official record for Morrison’s boxing career is impressive: 48-3, with forty-two knockouts. But as author Acevedo reminds us, boxing is a sport of smoke and mirrors, where records do not tell the full story. Most of Morrison’s bouts were selectively matched with tomato cans, long shots, semi-retired fighters, and come-back journeymen, in order to pad the record.

From his beginning in the professional ranks, the smaller-than-usual, impulsive heavyweight was considered a pain-in-the-ass by his trainers. Noted manager, Bill Caton, tried to market his good-boy, good looks. But those good looks only attracted more women of questionable repute. The reality was that the boy from Oklahoma was drinking, drugging, and carousing with many, many women. Caton concluded, “he was a womanizer beyond anything I’ve ever known.” (129) Morrison’s various management teams and failed contracts for big fights dissipated into lawsuits. At one time, Morrison had a “fake lawyer pressing his case, a promoter (Pete McKinn) a few years from becoming a felon, and a co-trainer who had once been a dentist.” (190)

It was not until after thirty-three fights that Morrison went beyond six rounds. In Reno in 1992, Morrison met Joe Hipp, a Montana southpaw. In the melee shown on Wide World of Sports, Morrison’s jaw and right hand were broken. Hipp was “outworking a weary Morrison,” when, in the ninth round, Morrison came back with an uppercut and then a combination left-hook-and-uppercut which ended the battle. (49) Morrison was back in the boxing limelight, destined for something big.

By 1993, Heavyweight Champion George Foreman was well into his comeback, and considering Morrison. In the young fighter, Acevedo explains, Foreman “found a pay-per-view opponent who had not only shown a wobbly chin but had also been the subject of several news features about anxiety and stage fright.” (54)  Foreman considered Morrison a safe bet. Morrison touted the generational gap. Foreman was twenty years older and thirty pounds heavier. The championship match was hyped. From bell to bell, Morrison darted in and out and around the ring avoiding close contact with Foreman. When Morrison did land his KO-inducing left hook, Foreman shrugged it off. After twelve rounds of “Foreman plodding and Morrison fleeing,” the unpopular decision went to Morrison. Foreman was disgusted, but Acevedo justifies the decision: Morrison “dug into the canvas and shot hooks that seemed to ricochet off Foreman. Another heavyweight would have toppled from these punches…Whatever his limitations, Foreman was no walkover, and Morrison had beaten him, with a few rounds to spare.” (57) Morrison was a heavyweight champion.

After initially refusing, he took the test, and failed it. Morrison was about to see his “future vanish.”

The Duke was promised a bout with Mike Tyson, after Tyson’s release from four years in prison. The fight everyone wanted to see never materialized. Instead, Don King gave Morrison a fight for February 10, 1996 with a no-threat cruiserweight, Arthur “Stormy” Weathers. A few days before the fight, Morrison was asked to take an HIV test. After initially refusing, he took the test, and failed it. Morrison was about to see his “future vanish.”

From his experience in boxing, Morrison learned that shenanigans pay. After his HIV diagnosis and years of treatment for the disease, Morrison began touting the faulty conclusion that he lived a healthy life, was HIV free, that the previous tests were wrong, and he would never consent to taking so much as an aspirin for anything. All the while, Acevedo reports, “he was consuming methamphetamine, shooting up Adderall, snorting cocaine, smoking cigarettes and cigars, getting arrested frequently for DUIs, and once … even taking Special K, a horse tranquilizer that left him in shambles.” (191)

Morrison’s HIV status rendered him a social expatriate and destroyed any hope he might have held for future fights or cashing in on his boxing and movie celebrity. Instead of earning millions of dollars, he would settle into his last act, “bouncing from motel to motel, from one meth cookhouse to another, from woman to woman, virtually forgotten.” (176)

His lies continued. While Morrison said his was living a monogamous life, Acevedo tells us he was, in fact, since 1994, living a bigamous double life. He would spend the weekdays with Dawn Gilbert in Tulsa (whom he married twice) and the weekends with Dawn Freeman on his ranch in Jay.

As a writer who knows just about everything there is to know about boxing, Carlos Acevedo summarizes Tommy Morrison’s skills as a boxer. He tells us that Morrison had a mediocre defense, was susceptible to right hand punches, had a squared stance to his opponents, lacked consistent training, and was susceptible to nerves. His ring aspirations were to cash in on championship fights he could not win. But Acevedo says that Morrison was more than a “White Hope” in a Black and Latino-dominated sport. He had accurate, rapid-fire combinations (that finished Joe Hipp). Morrison could attack the body with a combination right-to-the-body, right upper-cut. And, his left hook was one of the best in the business (as seen in fight films and the fictional Rocky movie). What was undeniable about Morrison was his “heart,” something lacking among his peers, Acevedo says, in his clever prose, “Morrison was someone who had to be nailed to the canvas before he lost.” (198) Lastly, he was always a box-office name and pay-per-view draw, a TV boxing staple, and a hero to Middle America.

What Morrison’s misfortune did accomplish for the sport, Acevedo explains, was to “shine a brief light on the potential dangers of HIV and sports” which led to “a broad discussion about mandatory testing in boxing, an industry with limited oversight, a lack of universal standards, and an ethos of grift/graft that frequently taints the regulators themselves, who are often little more than political appointees and beneficiaries of cronyism.” (133-134)

What was undeniable about Morrison was his “heart,” something lacking among his peers, Acevedo says, in his clever prose, “Morrison was someone who had to be nailed to the canvas before he lost.”

As one of the best boxing writers working today, Acevedo’s descriptions of fights are action-packed, technical, and artful. His writing provides readers with an immersive experience into a sport that few today ever get to experience firsthand. And while his prose is wonderful, the book’s organization is unorthodox and challenging.

The book has no table of contents. It is simply organized as “Part I” and “Part II,” (Morrison’s eight years of sport before HIV and his life after his HIV diagnosis), basically forming two chapters of approximately one hundred pages each. The actual text of each part is organized using asterisks, as many as three per page, to signal time changes, subject shifts, and various contextual notes. The book would have greatly benefited from a standard table of contents, organized by chapter titles chronologically or by significant events in Morrison’s life. Such title guideposts would help to emphasize the subject matter, organize important segments of time, and aid in the overall readability and memorability of the text. Such an amorphous structure is taxing, and accounts for some redundant segments which the editor should have caught. In addition, an index would have greatly benefited readers and future researchers. Other than the cover of the book and the inside page, there are no photos of the boxer, in his youth, in training, with other boxers, or from a movie still. Photos are expensive today, and this independent publisher would have had to balance the costs of photos against the costs of the book.

These editorial items are mentioned only to forewarn readers about the organization of the book, but not to discourage readers from delving into the nitty-gritty of the text and savoring the style and details of a thoroughly written account of a fascinating boxing figure who reached the pinnacle of success only to drop into the bottomless pit of excess and denial which would, sooner rather than later, devour his talent and take his life.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!