Tommy Morrison died Sunday night of an undisclosed illness. But for all intents and purposes, he died of denial.
In 1996, Morrison was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In 1997, he told me he was still having unprotected sex with his first wife.
"I'll trust an attorney before I'll trust a doctor," he said.
I'm not sure how many wives he ended up with (I lost count after the fourth), but nothing ever changed. His last wife, Trisha, recently told ESPN.com's Elizabeth Merrill that they, too, had had unprotected sex. As far as Tommy was concerned, his HIV never existed. He searched high and low for rogue doctors who would assure him he was fine, who would clear him to go back to boxing. He was nothing without boxing, nothing without sex -- so he looked the other way.
He tried AZT for a month and threw it in the trash; he thought the HIV therapy drug taken by most HIV patients was propoganda. His family staged an intervention to get him back on meds, but he cursed at them and said, "I will lay down and die before I take any drugs." Magic Johnson tried to reach out to him in 1996 -- the same Magic Johnson who is thriving 22 years after his own HIV diagnosis -- and Tommy Morrison plum ignored him.
"I remember talking to Magic the day I announced I had HIV," Morrison told me in 1998. "He was preaching, 'Do what your doctor tells you.' Well, I didn't have a doctor then, so I got down on my knees and I prayed. Every day, I was like, 'God, what do I do?' Hell, I saw myself dying. And then I started getting all these books in the mail, and they all said, 'Don't worry about it. Just live your life.' So that's what I did."
Morrison was a distant relative of John Wayne. But the problem was he lived his whole life like he was in the Wild West. His mother gave him his first tattoo. And his father gave him his first woman -- at a strip club when Tommy was 14.
They entered him, as an eighth-grader, in "tough man" contests. In other words, his parents essentially signed him up for bar fights. That's how he made his name. That and setting fire to his high school football field when he was cut from the team.
The best thing he had going was his blue eyes, his blond hair and muscles on top of muscles. He moved to Kansas City, got a promoter and entered the fight game. Morrison would later admit to me that he was on steroids, but Sylvester Stallone couldn't take his eyes off of him and cast him as Tommy Gunn in "Rocky V."
As a writer for the New York Times, I later watched him defeat 44-year-old George Foreman in Las Vegas for a heavyweight title. That night, while they were clenching seconds before the final bell, Foreman whispered to the new champ: "Don't curse in public." Morrison must not have heard him.
He would later be arrested for multiple DUIs and was always allegedly profane with the police officers. Morrison and Stallone had had a falling out by then. So had Tommy and his trainer. But Bill Cayton was his manager, and had Morrison not been diagnosed with HIV, Cayton was about to get him a deal to fight Mike Tyson. The hype would have been through the roof, or at least through the MGM Grand.
But after the diagnosis, Morrison became a pariah. His words were mumbled and nonsensical. His family assumed he contracted HIV from a dirty steroid needle, but there was no discussing it with him, no discussing anything with him. Before the new millennium, he bought a cave, convinced that the world was coming to an end at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. That's where he slept on Dec. 31, 1999 -- delusional then, and obviously in the years to come.
He had a good heart. That was never the issue. He was friendly, would talk to any kid. But he would also talk to animals, too. He once did an interview with me with his cat in his arms.
He died Sunday at the age of 44, the same age Foreman was when Morrison beat him for the title. Hopefully, he finally took George's advice. Hopefully, Tommy Morrison wasn't cursing at the end.