Being Tommy Morrison's son

MIAMI, Okla. -- His daddy's life was violent, disturbing and R-rated, and that was on a normal day, but Trey Lippe's mom swore their son would live an average boy's life. He'd play with Transformers, run through the aisles of Wal-Mart looking for Ninja Turtles and toss footballs in a fenced yard. He'd carry her name, to keep him safely out of the public eye. But ultimately that didn't matter because his daddy was Tommy Morrison. When Morrison was diagnosed with HIV, a group of parents wanted to ban the little boy from kindergarten because they were convinced that he would infect them all. "Mom, am I sick?" he asked Cristi Lippe.

He was healthy and fine, but life would never be normal. Every child, especially a boy, needs to know his father. And that's when things got strange.

Perhaps the best story Trey Lippe has to tell about his dad is kind of fuzzy. He was 4 or 5 years old, far too young to understand fame, eccentricity or what made Tommy Morrison tick. The story involves a leopard, or maybe a cougar -- Tommy had both in those days, so let's just call it a large, exotic cat. Morrison, at the height of a boxing career that earned him millions of dollars and countless female admirers, had his son over for a visit one day when, for some reason, he decided it would be funny to place him in a cage, alone, with the cat. It was enormous to a little boy, but was also declawed and defanged, a detail Morrison declined to mention to his son. The cat closed in, opened his mouth -- and licked Trey, sandpaper tongue on baby-soft skin. Morrison couldn't stop laughing. The kid couldn't stop crying.

Nearly 20 years later, Lippe still has questions about his dad, but he believes he knows why his father put him in that cage. He wanted him never to be afraid.

* * *

On Feb. 15, in a smoky Oklahoma casino somewhere off Interstate 44, Trey Lippe made his professional boxing debut in front of about 1,000 cowboys, mulleted gamblers and starry-eyed fans looking for the next Great White Hope. The fight wasn't publicized much outside the eastern part of the state because, if word spread that Tommy Morrison's son had taken up boxing, it would've drawn far too much hysteria for a young man who didn't know how to jump rope six months earlier.

Lippe looks as if he came straight out of central casting, with a rock-solid body and boyish good looks that came from his father. A few hours before his debut fight, he walked through the lobby of the Buffalo Run Casino, and Morrison's old trainer, Doug Dragert, got goose bumps. "I could've sworn up and down," Dragert says, "that it was his dad."

The reasons for Lippe becoming a boxer at 24 would be obvious if this were a movie, such as "Rocky V," which Morrison starred in so many years ago. He'd be doing it for his father, to better understand him by following the same path. To make him proud. But Lippe insists he's fighting for himself. He waited tables at a steakhouse before this, sold discount clothing and worked construction 10 hours a day, a job that made him good money, but then he was too tired to spend it. Lippe, a former college football player at Central Arkansas, said he was at a crossroads in his life and missed being an athlete. That's why he's doing this.

So maybe it's merely a coincidence that he decided to pursue boxing late last summer, as Morrison lay dying in a hospital bed in Omaha, Nebraska. Lippe reached out to Tony Holden, Morrison's old promoter, to hear stories about his dad and the good old days. But he also wanted to ask Holden what it would take to become a boxer. Holden hadn't seen Lippe since he was a tiny kid. He immediately tried to shoot him down. "The industry is in the toilet," Holden told him. He could waste four years on it, get nowhere, then ask, "What have I done with my life?"

Shortly after Morrison died on Sept. 1, Lippe got ahold of Holden. He told him he was going to fight with or without his help. Holden sighed. He said he'd help him.

It hasn't been easy, working alongside a ghost. Holden and Morrison grew up together, two young men finding their way around the ring in a golden time for heavyweight boxing in the early 1990s. Tony was Tommy's big brother. He told him what to do, and Morrison, in turn, usually did the opposite.

Being around Lippe is both exhilarating and sad for Holden. In one of their first meetings last fall, just after Morrison's death, Lippe walked into Holden's office and saw a poster of his dad on the wall. Holden told Lippe that his dad loved him. He used to talk about him all the time. And then they cried like babies.

This wasn't going to be like the old days. Holden laid down strict rules when they started: No entourages, no womanizing, no cellphone the day of a fight. If Holden didn't think Lippe had what it took to be a fighter, he'd have to quit.

But Holden sees something in the 24-year-old who is starting way behind his father. He sees someone who will listen.

"The timing was -- perfect, you know?" Holden said after a pause when asked why Lippe is boxing.

"I have no doubt he's doing it for himself. I just feel like he's been inspired by his father."

Lippe's first opponent would be Kris Renty, a 21-year-old from Oklahoma City with an orange hi-top fade and a background in mixed martial arts. Renty had one professional fight under his belt, a knockout victory.

Seven hours before the fight, Holden, Dragert and trainer Peppe Johnson went over Lippe's final preparations.

"You're a banger," Dragert said. "He can't touch you."

Everyone around Lippe seemed nervous. Dragert went on and on with stories about Lippe's dad. There was the time Tommy beat Bobby Quarry, and Morrison and Dragert hugged and shared a glass of champagne in a hotel room, just before the victory party, and Morrison looked at him and said, "We're back," because he always gave credit to his team, the collective "we." There were stories about his stinky feet -- they were so rank that Dragert would tie his shoes together and hang them out the window -- and about how Tommy always wanted to be Elvis, so he could take care of his friends.

"What kind of music do you like?" Dragert asked Lippe.

"Rap," he said, and Dragert groaned.

He told him he needed to listen to something relaxing before his fight, something that wasn't rap, and Lippe just smiled. Holden thought that the stories were too much and that they wore Lippe down. He wanted to tell Dragert to stop. But as the fight got closer, Holden noticed something. Lippe appeared to absorb it all in a peaceful manner.

He put on a pair of trunks, replicas from his dad's fighting days. On the belt, in giant letters, it said, TOMMY. Holden had to walk out of the room when he saw Lippe hitting the mitts, in the trunks, because he was starting to cry. "I miss him," he said of Morrison.

The second-to-last fight on the card was finally over, and Lippe walked to the ring. Holden put his arm around him. He told him to stay calm, keep his hands up and think defense. And Lippe did exactly the opposite.

* * *

Tommy Morrison, even in his adolescent days, was like a bottle of Mad Dog. You knew that he was bad for you, that he was trouble and would leave you with a massive headache, but you just had to have a swig. Cristi sat next to Morrison in Mr. Sherman's class in middle school. Morrison was unlike any other boy in the school. He had a tattoo. He drove a car. He was 13 years old.

Cristi couldn't stop staring at his tattoo, and finally, Morrison asked what she was looking at.

"Is it real?" she asked.

"Well," he said, "what do you think I got it out of? A Cracker Jacks box?"

She was Cristi Rader back then, daughter of Ken Rader, who just happened to be the principal of Jay High School. Her family, of course, worried about her hanging out with Morrison, especially when he dropped out of school for a while to work with his father.

But Cristi, a sassy jock and an All-State basketball player, couldn't stand it when someone told her she couldn't do something. It made her want it even more. And Morrison, no doubt, liked that spunk. They'd go fishing together; they'd hit a speed bag together.

They were on again; they were off again.

On their first date, he took her to see "Rambo," which was fitting because Cristi loved Sylvester Stallone. Her basketball team used to run out onto the court to the song, "Eye of the Tiger." They didn't know then that in a few years Morrison would be playing the character Tommy Gunn in "Rocky V" with Stallone.

For 15 years, Morrison had her heart, even when she knew he shouldn't.

"Let me just tell you," she says, "he had a way. He was smooth, and he did have a heart. He was a good person. He just had a lot of demons -- I guess issues. I don't ever want to put his mom down or his dad down, but he had a hard life.

"We loved each other as much as we knew about love at that time. He never knew how to let go. Nor did I."

Cristi says she had a full-ride basketball scholarship at Connors State College in Warner, Oklahoma, but she couldn't quit Morrison. At the start of her sophomore season, she noticed that something was off. She couldn't hit a basket and kept falling down. She figured she had the flu, so she went to the school nurse, who told her she was pregnant. She called her parents.

"That went over like perfume on a skillet," she says.

But they supported her. Trey arrived via C-section on Sept. 27, 1989. Cristi went back to school a week later. Her basketball days over, her only goal now was to get a degree so she could take care of him. Trey went to day care, to a couple who were called "Ma" and "Pa," and Cristi started sobbing during a class. She felt horrible for leaving him.

"I just knew he was wondering where I was," she says.

* * *

Tommy was her soul mate, but Cristi was eventually able to let him go. He had a lot of soul mates. She got her degree from Northeastern State University, landed a teaching job in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, and eventually met Mark Lippe, a former tight end at the University of Tulsa. Lippe, a football coach, provided stability for Trey.

He had two dads. Mark was the authoritarian, the one who pushed him on the football field. Tommy was the overgrown kid. He was never out of Trey's life, although he did drift like the wind over the plains. He bought presents for Trey, when he was boxing and still had money, and played Nintendo with him. Cristi learned to get along with whomever Tommy was seeing at the time.

Tommy had two other sons, Kenzie Witt and Tristin Duke Morrison. Witt, who's 23, also recently began pursuing boxing and is expected to fight sometime in the next year.

Years ago, for Father's Day, Tommy sent Mark Lippe a card. He thanked him for raising Trey.

"He was my dad," Trey says of Morrison. "But really, he wasn't. ... It was kind of like we were best friends. I mean, he gave me dad advice. He made a lot of mistakes. He told me a lot about the wrongs not to do. That's how people learn. You can learn from somebody else's wrong."

Trey was 3 when Morrison, at the peak of his career, beat George Foreman for the WBO heavyweight title. He kept a breakneck schedule back then, with far more fights than the average boxer of his stature, because Morrison's camp wanted to keep him busy and out of the bars and trouble. There was little room in his life for Trey, and it was probably for the better. His life was no place for a kid.

Trey saw his dad fight but was too young to process it. All he remembers are the bright lights and his dad holding him in his arms.

People close to Morrison say he wanted to be a good father. Cristi knew it. But there was never a good time. Not when he was fighting, not when he reluctantly retired in February 1996 after he tested positive for HIV. His life was a mess after that. His entourage was gone; people wouldn't go near him for fear of catching AIDS; and Morrison slipped into an abyss of drugs and loneliness.

"Tommy had snakes in his head," Holden says. "There's never an excuse not to be a good parent. And Tommy knew he failed. [He just] wasn't there for him."

He'd call up and say he was coming to his football games, and oftentimes, Cristi would intercept the call because she wanted to make sure he was actually coming. She reminded him of when they were in high school and Tommy used to cry in the parking lot after football games because his father didn't show up to watch him play. "Don't you do that to Trey," she'd say.

When Trey got a scholarship to Central Arkansas to play football, Morrison used to ask Holden to go to games with him. He was proud of his son. He wanted him to be a boxer and offered to train him numerous times. But Trey put it off because he was playing football. And then it was too late.

It is unclear when Morrison stopped taking his HIV medication -- he repeatedly denied the existence of HIV in the years after initially admitting he had it in '96 -- but, according to Morrison's friends and family, he was "out of it" mentally in the final few years of his life. He was gaunt; he constantly lost track of what he was saying; and his speech was slurred.

"He would just ramble on and on," Cristi says. "I don't know how to describe it, but he just wasn't sharp like he used to be."

Two years ago, Mark and Cristi took Trey to see his father in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Morrison was very sick by then. He could speak, Cristi says, but not very clearly. He knew who they were, and tried to be cool and crack jokes. "It was heartbreaking," Cristi says. It was the last time they saw him.

* * *

For years, Holden insisted that he was retired from being a boxing promoter. He was very close with two fighters, Morrison and a super middleweight from Kansas City, Missouri, named Randie Carver.

Carver was articulate and bright and brought a 23-0-1 record into a Sept. 12, 1999, bout with Kabary Salem at Harrah's Casino in North Kansas City. Carver was head-butted repeatedly, was knocked down in the 10th round and lost consciousness. He died two days later.

Holden cannot deal with losing another fighter. Especially not Tommy's kid. So Lippe's debut fight, the day after Valentine's Day, was almost unbearable for Holden. What if he didn't have it? What if he got knocked down? What if he got killed?

By this time, they had spent so much time together, Lippe had become like a second son to Holden. Holden even let him do odd jobs for him -- driving him around Oklahoma -- to supplement his income.

Holden worried he was going to have a breakdown before the fight. "God," he said to himself, "don't let me lose it tonight." But he couldn't help it. The kid looks so much like his dad; they just lost his dad; and here he comes out in those trunks. Trey is 24 years old. Tommy beat George Foreman at 24.

The bell rang, and Lippe came out aggressive and reckless with little interest in protecting himself. He was knocked down 30 seconds into the fight.

Lippe saw the ropes, but he couldn't hear anything. The hit, he claimed, didn't hurt. He popped back up, then peppered Renty with a series of power punches. He overpowered Renty, whose eye was nearly swollen shut by the end of the first round. The fight was stopped at 1:48 in the second round.

Morrison's mother, Diana, was in the crowd. She sobbed as she watched Lippe celebrate.

Holden wasn't as enamored. He told Lippe that he did just about everything wrong, that he made it a slugfest, that he went into the ring looking for a knockout and tired himself out. He gave him a C-minus grade. He also knew that Lippe was nervous and would learn from it.

Lippe told him that he felt his dad when he was walking to the ring. He felt as if Tommy was there with him. Holden said he felt it, too.

* * *

Lippe will fight again Saturday at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma, facing Dee Burchfield in a four-round bout. It will be Burchfield's first professional fight. Holden says he's more concerned with getting Lippe time in the ring than seeing how he matches up against opponents.

He has already noticed a huge difference between Tommy and Trey. With Lippe, there is no Jekyll and Hyde, no sweetheart and screw-up rolled into one. He's steady and seemingly without distractions, at least for now. He has learned from his father, and from his own mistakes.

Lippe was kicked off the football team his senior year at Central Arkansas after he repeatedly showed up late for meetings and let his grades slip. When football was gone, he was lost.

Clint Conque, his former coach, says Lippe was never a bad kid. He said the team hated to lose him. He was passionate about football, was a ferocious hitter at defensive end and, according to Conque, was one of the team's hardest workers. Problem was, Lippe didn't always carry that intensity into the classroom.

In his three-plus seasons at Central Arkansas, he never talked much about his father, although his teammates knew he was Morrison's son.

"I don't know why he didn't speak about his father more," Conque says. "I don't think it had anything to do with embarrassment or pride. I'm sure he was really proud that his dad fought for heavyweight champion of the world. I just think Trey's a private person.

"But when he got out on the football field, he played with a chip on his shoulder, with great passion, great violence. When he hit you, you knew about it."

Lippe says he hated it when he was a kid and his friends used to ask him about his dad. They always wanted to talk about the bad stuff. Inevitably, the same question came up over and over. Did he have HIV? They never asked what he was like, if he was a good person. Lippe will always believe that he was.

"Yeah, I wish I could've spent more time with him," Lippe said. "But I enjoyed what I had with him. I wish I could've had more. Am I doing this to make him proud of me? That's a plus. But this is something I've gotta do with my life. I think I could be good."

Shortly after they teamed up, Holden suggested making a few nods to his lineage, and Lippe was hesitant. He didn't want to be cashing in on his name, but then Holden said that Tommy would've loved it. So now every time he fights, an announcer will bellow a name that's bound to draw attention. Trey Lippe Morrison is entering the ring.