Morrison medically cleared to fight Thursday

Heavyweight Tommy Morrison has dreamed of this day for years -- the day he could box again.

More than a decade after he was indefinitely suspended following a positive HIV test on the eve of a 1996 fight in Las Vegas, that day is here. He has been cleared to return to the ring after passing a battery of medical tests.

Morrison was licensed Tuesday by the West Virginia Athletic Commission and will face John Castle of Indianapolis in a four-round bout Thursday night at Mountaineer Race Track in Chester. Castle (4-2, 2 KOs) has been knocked out in his last two fights.

"It's been a long time coming," Morrison told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "I know I didn't have [HIV] in the first place. I never had it. I believe it, but they kicked me out of the sport. ... Over the last two or three months, I have taken five, six different [HIV] tests and continued to pass them. It was just a matter of time before they had to let me fight again."

Although Morrison's bout is not scheduled to be part of the live Versus-televised coverage of the card, the network might show highlights of Morrison's fight.

Morrison received his license in West Virginia after a passing a series of medical tests in Arizona, the results of which were forwarded to West Virginia.

"I'm excited about it," Morrison said. "I didn't lose my patience and get bitter and blame God after what happened to me. I knew God had an underlying purpose for what happened. I don't know what it is yet, but there was a purpose for what I have been through.

"No one believed that I was serious about this," he said, "but this thing is going to be big and I am going to be a better fighter than I was before, like George Foreman was like when he came back" after retiring for 10 years.

Morrison (46-3-1, 40 KOs) had hoped to return Jan. 19 in Phoenix, where he had the tests done. However, the licensing process in Arizona was not completed in time for him to fight on the card.

Boxers who test positive for HIV, the virus known to cause AIDS, are not allowed to fight in the United States. In a blood sport, the concern is that the virus could pass between cut fighters, even though there are no documented cases of that happening.

Marc Ratner, who was executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission at the time of Morrison's 1996 prefight test in Las Vegas, defended the results of that test Tuesday night.

"I can say unequivocally that he tested positive," Ratner said, "and that's why he did not fight Stormy Weathers that night." The bout was supposed to take place Feb. 10, 1996.

Morrison, 38, maintains that his initial HIV test, the one that led to his suspension, was a false positive. He said all of his recent HIV tests have come back negative.

"I did every kind of test they have on the market and one that is not even approved yet," said Morrison, who said he weighs between 220 and 225 pounds, the same as he weighed during his prime. "They can't find any virus. I have taken test after test and they have all come up negative. I look like a pin cushion with all the tests I have taken. They can't find any virus because it never was.

"The results were sent to West Virginia. I was clean every time. It was a misdiagnosis [in 1996]. I think everyone should be happy for me. It will be the greatest comeback in the history of the sport," he said.

Lisa Woodard, 42, Morrison's fiancée, is with him in Chester and believes he doesn't have HIV.

"I just know that he is [HIV] negative," Woodard said. "I've had a slew of blood tests and they are all negative, too. I'm sleeping with him and I am as healthy as a horse. There is nothing for another boxer to get. He has nothing, so there is nothing to get. I am proof of that. He went through a million tests and passed everything. He's healthy. He's strong."

West Virginia doesn't require blood tests for boxers to be licensed, but Morrison said his Arizona results were sent to the West Virginia commission as a precaution.

"They don't require a test in West Virginia, but I took one anyway just to satisfy them," Morrison said. "I am going to change my nickname [from 'Duke'] to 'Hoops' because that's how many hoops I have had to jump through. I just want to pursue my dream. That is to fight. That is what God put me here to do. He didn't put me here to be a doctor or a lawyer. He put me here to fight."

Said Woodard: "We've gone through the process together for the past year. He told me this is his dream, to come back. It's been an uphill battle that we've been through together. I'm not nervous. I am very excited. I am happy to see his dream playing out in front of us because I love him so much. With Tommy, I just have so much confidence. I just know we're here and he will do his job. It's the beginning of an amazing journey."

Steve Allred, chairman of the West Virginia Athletic Commission, acknowledged that Morrison has been licensed, although he didn't want to talk specifically about his case, citing confidentiality concerns.

"I really can't comment on anything other than to assure you that West Virginia is taking every step possible to assure the safety and integrity of the fighters in the event," Allred said.

Allred said when his commission was approached a few weeks ago about Morrison fighting in the state, he immediately sought assistance from the Association of Boxing Commissions, a non-profit organization that helps set boxing standards throughout the U.S.

"When I was first informed that we had some people on the card that may need some additional testing, I worked very closely with the ABC and its medical people," Allred said. "We feel as though we've done our due diligence. We have no mandatory blood testing requirements in West Virginia, but I have been broadly interpreting our statutes to require medical exams from time to time for people who want to compete in the state. We're taking every step we feel as though we should to make sure a fighter is healthy."

In addition to Morrison, Allred was referring to heavyweight Joe Mesi (33-0, 26 KOs), who is on the card against George Lineberger (29-8-1, 25 KOs) in the opening TV bout. It will be Mesi's fifth bout since winning the right in court to seek a boxing license. He had been medically suspended in 2004 following a fight in Las Vegas in which he suffered bleeding on the brain in a win against Vassiliy Jirov.

Morrison said he was so despondent after his initial positive test -- which he revealed during a March 1996 chat with ESPN.com -- and subsequent suspension that he spent a few years in a depressed haze.

"But in about 2001 or 2002 I started to really educate myself about HIV and AIDS," he said. "Before that, I was trying to recover from what was going on. I was alienated globally. I would walk into a room and people would be like, 'Hide the children. Here comes the guy with AIDS.' That's very demeaning and it really hurts your spirit."

He said he took blood tests in 2002, 2003 and 2004 and "what the doctors would tell me is that the HIV is undetectable. 'We can't find it, but it's not a negative test.' I didn't understand that and they couldn't explain it to me. But I continued to take tests and the last five or six I have taken have been negative."

Morrison said he's been sparring for the past month and that it "feels pretty good." But he said people shouldn't expect him to be in top form immediately.

"One thing people need to understand is that I haven't done this in 10½ years," he said. "I won't be a world champion right off the bat, but I will. People need to cut me a break."

Top Rank, which is promoting Thursday's card, is considering signing Morrison if it is pleased with how he performs. Morrison said he has been training for months in Phoenix with trainer Jerry Cheatham and strength coach Mike Munoz.

Tony Holden, who promoted Morrison from 1989 to 1996, is the one who broke the news to him that he was HIV positive in 1996. Holden doesn't think Morrison should fight.

"I've never known [HIV] to go away," Holden said. "Could Tommy be the first? Absolutely, but I have never known it to go away. I want what is best for him. Do I want him to fight? No.

He's been out a long time and he was diagnosed with HIV."

Holden said he and Morrison have remained close, but that they haven't talked much recently.

"I care about him, but we haven't talked," Holden said. "I think he's angry because I have said he shouldn't fight again. If there's anything that is questionable you shouldn't fight."

After initially testing positive for HIV in 1996, Morrison boxed once more later that year, knocking out Marcus Rhode in Japan in November. There were no rules in Japan preventing an HIV-positive fighter from boxing.

Morrison reached the pinnacle of his career with a June 1993 decision win against George Foreman to claim the vacant WBO heavyweight title.

Top Rank promoter Bob Arum was traveling home from a trip to Europe on Tuesday and was not available for comment. However, before Morrison was cleared to fight, Arum told ESPN.com he was considering getting involved in Morrison's comeback as long as he passed the appropriate medical tests.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.