Declan Ryan reviews the Carlos Acevedo book about Tommy Morrison, the heavyweight who lived every day like he always knew his time was up
A PIVOTAL moment in Tommy Morrison’s career – the concussive end of his fight against Ray Mercer – serves in some ways as a fitting encapsulation of his too-short, troubled, hi-octane life. As Carlos Acevedo, in his new biography of Morrison The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison puts it: “The barrage begins with a right hand, a left, and a thudding right to the body. From that point on, the violent finale is inevitable.” Morrison, on that night in 1991, in Atlantic City, took too many shots, the referee far too late stepping in – as so often, those charged with looking out for Morrison’s safety failing in their basic duty. He was in too deep, also, untested, still green, operating beyond his level of him against a demonstrably dangerous Mercer, former Olympic champion, no comparison to the easy touches against whom Morrison had built his padded record.
Acevedo’s book focuses on the brutality, the darkest episodes of a life bounding in them. There was violence a long way back, an abusive father, all dressed in black and with an aversion to sunlight, his often physical insistence that he be allowed to stay in the dark, glass eye and all. Morrison’s mother suffered broken bones and repeated infidelities until snapping, in 1973, and accidentally killing one of her husband’s lovers. She was aiming for him. Having bumped around small-towns in Arkansas and Oklahoma she eventually left Morrison’s father and relocated with her sons from Ella to Jay – to Huckleberry town. Morrison’s earliest exposure to boxing had come as part of the family stock in trade, his father, uncle and brother having formed a team – of sorts – Wolf Creek Boxing Club – or, to a degree, indulged the ‘instruction’ of Morrison Snr, himself a non-participant, at least in any regulated violence.
It wasn’t only at home Morrison learned to fight; for a modern figure, Morrison’s background had more in common with Jack Dempsey or Stanley Ketchel than most of his athletic peers; competing in the ungovernable world of Toughman contests as a teenager, what Acevedo rightly diagnoses as a story rich in the American Gothic, taking place in “the half-light” of illicit activity, in stark bar light. There’s plenty of foreshadowing here, not only in the moment where Morrison first sees the black lights, against Mercer – all of it leading to years in the unforgiving hinterland, after a short-lived brush with genuine glamour, celebrity, glory even. Morrison didn’t so much explode as drift, and sink, further and further from the lucrative mainstream of the sport to its farcical margins. This being boxing, and specifically heavyweight boxing, he was n’t deluded in believing – however low his stock of him might have sunk, following the loss to Mercer, or later to Michael Bentt – that he was always one left hook away from a resurrection. There was also, as Acevedo demonstrates, something in him that was always drawn to the edge rather than the brightest, most unobjectionable, epicentres, “he seems at home in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the boxing substrata”. It would be, for much of his career, the only home he knew. By the late 1990s, “All the fame that Morrison had, [was] now gone, replaced by a twitch permanent midnight”.
Morrison’s ring nickname, “The Duke”, came about via the somewhat fuzzy notion he was distantly related to John Wayne, but his real obsession – another inheritance from his father – was Elvis Presley. There are minor parallels, albeit at a much diminished wattage, with the small town boy who became other peoples’ cash cow, who could n’t restrain certain of his appetites from him, however much harm they might cause.
Morrison came up hard, but in one of the most insightful aspects of the book Acevedo makes clear that there was a paradox surrounding his background, yet another factor in what would become a tragedy of its kind. Not only did Morrison come of age far from the urban sprawl, with its promises of boxing programmes, high-end gymnasia and solid infrastructure but – when he began to demonstrate his lethal left hook, his capacity for making tills ring – he announced himself as a rare commodity: a white American heavyweight who could really fight.
From the beginning of his pro career there were tussles over his development – influential figures such as Bill Cayton, Peyton Sher and Kevin Rooney came and went; those who left and those who stayed quarrelling over how best to season their potential lottery ticket, wary of risking their ultimate payday by facing anyone with ambitions larger than a modest paycheque.
Morrison had more self-awareness, at least at the beginning of his career, than he is credited with. He recognized that he had limitations – especially when he saw a clash with Lennox Lewis (however well-paid) on his immediate horizon and made the decision to try to further his education first, only to run into Michael Bentt’s right hand.
He also knew he was better than the standard-issue ‘Great White Hope’ – to his credit, dismissing the notion’s racist overtones, but also bristling at the idea he was making waves solely because of his pigmentation. He had handspeed perhaps matched only by Evander Holyfield, among his immediate rivals; he carried genuine, concussive power and – although he would only learn this later, after the hype bubbles had begun to burst – he had the unteachable quality of being “dead game”. He had grown used to enduring pain early, and it would prove to be one of his only enduring companions of him.
Morrison’s problem was that he was good enough to get himself hurt – too good not to roll the dice, or have them rolled on his behalf, when there were huge sums on offer for fighting the elite, Lewis, Foreman and – once he re- entered the fray – a tantalizing whiff of the great Mike Tyson dividend. Acevedo is good on this aspect of Morrison’s downfall, of his overreaching and his being exposed – in his greatest tests – as a “semi-skilled worker”, who wasn’t a natural but whose style was drilled in the gym, later than it might have been, a mixture of shyness, indiscipline and tension combining to stiffen his legs, drain his tank, and leave him more vulnerable than dangerous in his defining moments. He was The Duke, but for money, for ambition, both his own and other peoples ‘de him, he had to eventually walk among members of the higher-ranking heavyweight aristocracy.
One charge leveled against the genre of biography is that a writer can, potentially, overwhelm us with their subjects’ day-to-day itinerary, drowning us in detail and losing the blood and press behind it all – as one critic wrote of an old Hemingway biography, “no man is a hero to his valet, and this book makes valets of us all.” Acevedo swerves this adeptly, cutting to the heart of Morrison’s matter, focusing on action – he has plenty on which to focus, of course – but it’s hard not to sense his moral distance from him for Morrison peeking through at times.
This is most pronounced when it comes to the fact Morrison in his wildest partying years – his bacchanalian excesses that would ultimately cost him more than just his edge in the ring, or his stamina in later rounds – preferred to be a big fish in the small , hometown pond, chasing the women of Kansas’ “not especially fast lane” even when he carried the allure of Hollywood, having starred in Rocky V, or the status of heavyweight champion, (or belt holder, at least) after his best win , over George Foreman.
Acevedo – at times – can barely disguise his contemplation and frustration at Morrison, at what he lost and the manner in which he did it: a forgivable view, given the later years especially, spent dissembling, deluding himself and others and falling in and out of drug use, criminality and other seriously questionable behaviour. Words such as “depraved”, “loathsome” and “bitter” occasionally stud the narrative, however, and the default setting is one of annoyance, of anger, even at times when it isn’t entirely merited.
Acevedo quotes from critic Katie Roiphe’s condescending portrait of Morrison: “There was something unlikeable about Tommy Morrison – some of the violence and the trailer park, the self-interest and the appetite – that showed in his face”, and there’s something diagnosable in her sneer that makes one uncomfortable at times, largely because it was a taint that followed Morrison around even in the good days – his own trainer once telling him he had the “body of a truck driver”.
Acevedo is too good a writer to let his dislike of his subject tip him over too far into bias, or at least too often, or for too long – mostly he lets the jawdropping action of Morrison’s years of sexual enthusiasm, speeding (in every sense ) and drift into surrealism do the talking. He is also capable of winning phrase-making, giving us images that cut to the bone: on footage of a teenage Morrison in a Toughman contest, he “looks almost cherubic (mullet notwithstanding), he wears a T-shirt/black cutoff shorts combination, he could be dressed to go to a barbecue or for an afternoon on a dirt bike”; elsewhere – of his heartthrob credentials, he possessed “outsized celebrity in the heartland, where his libido had resembled a land spout for years”.
The second half of the book is an exercise in dark farce, and darker misery – Morrison, after his HIV diagnosis, unraveling into heavy drug use, bigamy, prison and denial, ill-judged and borderline criminal comebacking; years of MMA (sort of), meth and parallel monogamies.
Tellingly, Acevedo says “nothing was ever enough” and if the bare facts of Morrison’s later rap sheet makes for distressing reading, in some ways it seems almost as inevitable as the finish of the Mercer fight – the long shadow of the equally surreal highs of the earlier years, when his undoubted drawing power in the Flyover states and god-given punching power lifted him to an altitude for which he didn’t possess the lung capacity.
For all Acevedo’s distaste, the magical thinking – however flawed, or pitiful – doesn’t seem so inexplicable when you consider Morrison had come all the way from teenage bar brawling to Hollywood and heavyweight triumph – if events as implausible as those could once have happened to him, what, in the end, would one more miracle be, added to the pile?
Of course there would be no great restoration and for all the off-grid attempts to swerve the inevitable blood test required for any bona fide ring return Morrison would have to face the truth of “everything he’d lost, which was everything”.
Acevedo concedes that Morrison was far from being all villain, noting his regular – if erratic – generosity, financial and in other ways, his loyalty to those who stood by him, his talent that was almost but not quite enough to take him to the most rarefied places. In a neat piece of description post-Mercer, Acevedo – deliberately or otherwise – sums up what Morrison learned from boxing, the most accurate diagnostic tool of an optimist’s limitations: “Morrison had strayed far away from Oklahoma. Maybe too far. The stars out here, seemingly within shooting distance of the Atlantic Ocean, are illusory, they are light-years away and may already be dead.”
Voted in his high-school yearbook as “least likely to survive”, the Morrison we find here is many things at eleven, but not all of them can be straightforwardly condemned, even at their unhinged worst, given where the fantasies first began, in Wolf Creek, in the dark or the bar light.
Acevedo demonstrates a great class when drawing a discreet veil over the last days of Morrison’s foreshortened life, the fate he couldn’t outrun despite the false hope he found in some of the more deceptive corners of medicine, or the internet; after all the chaos, excess and sensation it’s a quiet gut-punch, as are the last words, ceded, rightly, to the man himself: “All the things that were going to happen”, Morrison once said, “they never will” .