- Tom Friend, ESPN.com Senior writer
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The mirror has half a face. Maybe it's because he is off the steroids, or off the weightlifting, or off the prime rib, or off the marijuana cigarettes. Or maybe, it's that other explanation: the virus of the century.
He was a heavyweight boxer, the kind with biceps built for two, the kind who, according to his daddy, "even had muscles in his shit." He had grown up in a one-stoplight town with this same daddy, this daddy with a glass eye, constantly telling him "not to be a wuss" and, well, those were words to live by. He had gotten his first tattoo at age 10 (scratched on by his mom), and he had joined up with the Irish mob at 15 (breaking heads), and he had poured gasoline on his high school baseball field and torched it (after his coach cut him) at 17, and maybe that's why his senior class voted him least likely to survive.
There are summer jobs for ambitious souls like these—tough man contests—and his daddy found him one in Woodward, Okla., when the boy was in seventh grade, and he told everyone that this seventh grader was 21, and he pointed him in the direction of a bearded man, and the seventh grader, according to his daddy, knocked the man "colder than a wedge." The son now had $300 in his pocket, and he figured, oh, so this is manhood. "The guy I fought that night even had hair on his back," the son remembers. "I'm thinking, 'What am I doing here?' I was 13. I didn't even have hair on my balls."
After that, George Foreman didn't seem like such a brute, and, one 1993 night in Las Vegas, the son stood toe-to-toe with Big George and won a world title. He had blond curls now, and a harem, and a SAG card (for co-starring in Rocky V), and now he had the big belt, after years of being beaten by one. Considering his boxing style was to KO or be KO'd (he was then 37-1 with 32 KOs), he was made for Pay-Per-View, and next up was going to be Bowe or Lewis or Tyson—if only the groupies would get out of his bed.
But, actually, he wanted just one woman by then, a certain blond-haired, blue-eyed girl who, for inspiration, sat behind his corner during the Foreman fight. He'd first laid eyes on her when he was in the 11th grade, and he predicted at that very moment he would marry her, and nobody believed him, but they believe him now, now that he looks in the mirror and sees half a face—his own emaciated one—and she's still there by his side.
He did kick her out for a while, for about a month actually, after the doctors called him in two years ago and confirmed he had the virus of the century. She couldn't believe it, but he could. He'd taken needles full of steroids for eight years—to prevent him from becoming a "wuss"—and if it wasn't a dirty needle that infected him, it was probably a former girlfriend whose ex-husband had HIV. The boxer's mom and dad have a theory that the steroids lowered their son's immune system and that the former girlfriend infected him.
"If I were a vengeful person, I'd beat her up," says the mom, who 25 years ago was accused of stabbing a woman to death. But the son told his mother to hush, told her that HIV is a harmless disease that does not cause AIDS. He also told the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl to come home, that he'd prayed and done some reading and that it was all right to live together,breathe together—and have unprotected sex together. "I think I was there within 30 minutes," she says.
They married two months later, in May 1996, and the 29-year-old boxer and his 25-year-old wife are still together, nagging coughs and all. Their house outside of Jay, Okla., just burned down, and he may have to go to jail for drunk driving and for packing a gun, and he just quit smoking pot two months ago, and he can't fill out his T-shirt, and his hair keeps falling into the sink, and they can't get out of their podunk hometown soon enough, but other than that, the boxer looks at his wife and says they are smack in the middle of happily ever after. "Never felt better," brags Tommy Morrison. "And I've never had one pill."
It's either suicide, denial, or he's on to something.
Tommy Morrison, the former World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion and the poster boy for alternative HIV medication—as in, no medication—took his last blood test nine months ago and, according to his father and uncle, had a T-cell count of 18. Most physicians seeing a count that low make a clinical diagnosis of AIDS. Morrison says his doctor—James Hutton of Tulsa—told the boxer last June that unless he took the medication, he would only have a year to live.
"Just laughed at him," Morrison says.
The way the boxer sees it, he has a virus, he has his faith, and he has two years before the world ends anyway. The way the boxer sees it, AZT will kill you, pizza will not, and doctors are up to no good anyway.
"I'll trust an attorney before I'll trust a doctor," he says.
Everyone wants him to emulate Magic Johnson. Everyone wants him to take the protease inhibitor—the medication pioneered by one of Magic's doctors, David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDs Research Center in New York—which, as part of the drug combination therapy known as the "cocktail,'' has reportedly helped reduce AIDS-related deaths nationwide by a dramatic margin (down 44% from mid-1996 to mid-'97). It is the drug regimen that the robust 255-pound Johnson follows, but a 185- or a 210 pound Morrison (his weight is debatable) wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He ain't Magic.
The way the boxer sees it, Magic is doing it one way, he is doing it another way—and may the best patient win. The way the boxer sees it, Magic is probably lying ("I don't think he's taking medication''), Dr. Ho is probably lying ("There are a lot of things he can't openly say or they'll shut down his business"), and the government is probably lying ("There's no money in a cure, but there's money in treatment").
The boxer says he has books to back him up on this, and just because he forgets why he walks into rooms these days—"I'll walk in five or six times before I remember what I was gonna get"—well, he says that's not AIDS dementia setting in.
They told him about his HIV in a Las Vegas hotel suite on Feb. 10, 1996, and even though it ruined his plan to fight Mike Tyson, he did not weep or assault the blood technician. He slipped on his shades, hopped an airplane home to Jay (pop. 2,220), walked into the house of his best friend, Andy Hudson, and said only, "Whaz up?" He spoke to Magic on the telephone a few nights later, and they were going to hit the lecture circuit together, but then Dr. Hutton prescribed his first dose of AZT, and Tommy popped open the bottle and &HELLIP; Oh, Lord, he wasn't going to take that drug, not now, not after he read about the nausea, and the weight loss and the vomiting.
"You unravel that little piece of paper in the bottle, and you read about the side effects," he says, "and they match identical to the symptoms of AIDS. So it's the medication that's killing people. HIV's never been proven to cause AIDS. HIV ain't ever killed anybody."
So he tried his old reliable medication instead: beer. He ripped into some tall boys and spent the next month figuring out his next move. Meanwhile, the blond-haired, blue-eyed girl he'd kicked out, Dawn Freeman, was starving herself, and her father, who was already missing a leg thanks to Vietnam, had a stroke, and Morrison went out for a drive one day, all juiced up, and got pulled over for drunk driving (his third DUI, with a fourth to come).
"I remember talking to Magic the day I announced I had HIV," he says. "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.''
A book by University of California-Berkeley professor Dr. Peter Duesberg, Inventing the AIDS Virus, soon became his medical bible. Duesberg, a specialist in molecular and cell biology, claims HIV doesn't cause AIDS but rather anti-HIV drugs such as AZT and recreational drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines do. He claims the government has invested too much cash in anti-HIV drugs to turn back now. He also suggests AIDS is a government money-making machine.
"Don't take the drugs, and that's all you essentially need to do," Duesberg says when asked how to treat HIV. "It's the drugs that are killing people. Sex is not as dangerous as taking AZT.''
That was all Tommy Morrison needed to hear. Duesberg is a rebel, and the boxer has been a rebel ever since his father first balled up his fist at the dinner table. He brought Dawn back home. They continued having unprotected sex, and they stopped answering the telephone, and they fed their pet monkeys, and they counted up the money left from his $12-million boxing career. And the former champion spent the next year on his couch
"Smoking pot, it made me think about everything," the boxer says. "I think I got about 10 years' worth of thinking done in one year."
Tommy could've used somebody to sit him down, somebody he respected, somebody to plead Dr. Ho's case. His daddy tried. He wrote letters, six or seven of them, pleading for his son to "take them drugs.'' But his daddy had no credibility. Not since that day.
Tommy doesn't remember exactly how old he was, but it was probably a summer's day, mid-afternoon, and it was probably dark in the house, and his mom probably flipped on a light by mistake.
Tim Morrison had been gouged in his left eye in an accident at work, and the eye was useless (it was eventually replaced with glass), and any sort of piercing light would have it burning in pain. And hell if he had any patience. He covered the windows with aluminum foil and ruled the television off limits, and, naturally, there were three children and a mother cowering at his every tantrum.
"It was like we were living in a cave," the boxer says. "We had to tiptoe across the carpet. Anything that went wrong was our fault. We'd leave the light on in the bathroom, we'd get the shit beat out of us." But dad beating mom, that was crossing the line. "I'd just as soon not go into that," says Diana Morrison, who herself admits to having had a problem with alcohol. "But, yes, I had broken bones."
"His father would drink, tie one on and beat his mother in front of him," says the boxer's uncle Troy Morrison, an anaesthesiologist in Mena, Ark. "I spent a summer there. I witnessed it."
The result is the Morrison brother (Tim Jr.) who is serving 20 years in prison for rape, and the Morrison sister (Tonia) who has been beaten by her own husband, and the Morrison boxer (Tommy) who an entire family thinks is wasting away.
Tim and Diana Morrison ended up divorcing, but it wasn't so much the beatings as it was the infidelities. His best color is black, and his clothes are only one size (tight), and his car is a Corvette, and he resembles an Elvis impersonator (he says Bob Goulet is more like it), and, well, ladies all over Oklahoma found him intriguing. Diana says she often caught him with other women, and one night in March 1973—when Tommy was 4—she was accused of killing one of them. She found Tim and a woman named Donna Fae Shepherd at a local bar. A scuffle ensued and Shepherd wound up stabbed to death, though Diana was acquitted of the crime. It took her nine more years to kick Tim out for good. He went on to another marriage, and three more kids (all boys), and another divorce.
"He's a very evil man," says Tim's own brother Troy, who's 20 years younger. "He scares me. He had pornography in the house, always by his bed, and in his automobiles. Tommy would be looking at it too, right in front of his mom and dad. You won't believe this, but when I was 14 and my brother Trent was 16, Tim took us to a boxing tournament, and he made us stop at a strip club on the way, and he brought out two strippers in tight outfits, and he said they were for us. He was the devil in the flesh. But Tommy, Tommy was his favorite.''
Father and son had the same favorite sport (boxing), the same hobbies (guns), the same idol (Elvis), and the same love for tattoos (Tommy has Elvis tattooed on his tooth, on his rear end and on his ankle; most of Tim's tattoos are of women's names.)
Tommy and Tim also had the same people watching their back—the Irish mob. Tim had introduced the boxer to gangster friends in the Ozarks, and the boxer used to collect cash for them, and he got VIP treatment while training in Kansas City because of them, and he says if not for his career in the ring, he'd probably be in prison.
The boxer lost his virginity before he was a teenager, and his daddy was all for it. And when he was older, Tommy would leave a bar with a girl, any girl, and Tim would be the one giving the thumbs-up sign. "Some role model,'' says Troy. "It's led to Tommy's promiscuity, and he's ended up where he is now: HIV-positive.''
So, is it going to be two deaths on Tim now? Because he had a hard enough time with the first one. When he was a young man in Mississippi, a young religious man, his older brother was killed in a construction accident. They'd been working with bulldozers, and his older brother had climbed off to clean some brush from the bottom of the machine, and the bulldozer operator inadvertently lowered the blade and crushed him. Tim held his brother as he lay there dying, and then wore the same bloody shirt for a week. Just refused to take it off. "That death, it did something to Tim," Troy says.
When Tim had his third child, a young boy who would turn out to be a boxer, he named him after his dead brother.
They ganged up on Tommy last summer, at a Fourth of July barbecue, in his own backyard. Tim and Troy were there, and Tommy's aunts were there, and Tommy's sister was there, and each dropped a letter on his nightstand begging him to take the protease cocktail. One by one, they pulled him aside and made their pleas, until the boxer, at one infuriating point, threw up his arms to say, "I will lay down and die right here before I take any drugs!''
His brother, the one in prison for rape, had been afraid of this, and had asked his Uncle Troy to kidnap Tommy and place him in an institution. But he was voted down. Instead, Troy left convinced his nephew would be dead in a year. "He's in big-time denial,'' Troy says. "He sits there and tells me he's never felt better, but then his knees shake when he stands up. When he fought, he weighed, what, 235, 240? Last time I saw him, I know he was down to 205, and his mother says he's at 185 now."
But the Fourth of July was most taxing on the boxer's daddy, who left Tommy's home that day knowing it would be over soon, knowing it as soon as he saw an old drawing of his dead brother Tommy in the house, knowing it when he saw how much the two Tommys looked alike, knowing they would all be together again soon. "For a funeral," he said.
"My son's deteriorating away,'' Tim says. "He gets that hollow look that an AIDS patient or cancer patient gets. People coming out of concentration camps, they have that look. Tommy's always been sharp and intelligent, but now he'll be talking and all of a sudden, he stops and says, 'What was I saying?'
"Listen, I never was an angel. I got around with women and never discouraged my boys from getting around with women. I was wrong, and that's probably what's killing him. I'll always feel guilty about that.
"What I worry about is him laying there in bed, withering away. I hate to say this, but I almost see Tommy blowing his head off before that happens. I don't want to see him suffer. If a gunshot works for him, it works for me. It's an awful thing to say, but I'm a realist.''
On the other hand, he might know what he's doing. On Feb. 3, the boxer woke with a piercing earache and bought some painkillers. But the pressure in his ear increased, so he went running to his first doctor in nine months—an emergency room doctor—and he told the nurse, oh, by the way, I'm HIV-positive. They punctured a portion of his eardrum to relieve the pressure and prescribed antibiotics. Word traveled fast, and the boxer's daddy sat by the phone waiting for—well, you know—but then, one morning, the infection was gone.
Least likely to survive? My ass, says the boxer, who, according to Dr Hutton's prognosis last year, has about three months to live. He is off marijuana now, after a New Year's Eve resolution, and it means he's not "up at 2 a.m. anymore eating Cap'n Crunch out of the box and watching reruns of Gilligan's Island.'' He's off of the steroids, too, and he's off red meat, and he's off beer, and … maybe he doesn't need the cocktail.
His other alternative was alternative medicine. One man told the boxer he could be cured by lying underground in therapeutic soil. Another told him he could be cured by a hot air balloon. Still another told him he could be cured inside a pressure chamber, or by aloe vera oil. He was tempted. He did fly to Tijuana to have his blood purified, and he spent $1,800 on a magnet to draw the disease out of his system.
Who knows if anything is working? He and Dawn still have their nagging coughs, and the boxer's daddy is convinced Dawn has contracted HIV too. "She won't admit it," Tim says. "I don't think she wants to live without him. But maybe if he dies, she'll get on the medication." To appease her parents, Dawn sneaks off to be tested, and she says she's HIV-negative. "Of course she is,'' says Tommy. "It can't be transmitted sexually anyway, unless it's man-to-man.''
The doctors called them both in after his positive test and spent a good deal of time preaching about sex. Abstaining was a good idea, but fat chance. He had pursued her for eight years with love notes and jewelry, and even Dawn's father, a boxing fanatic, pushed his case, telling her "that boy loves you." No, abstaining from sex was out. So were condoms, despite the doctors urging them to use as much protection as was humanly possible.
Dawn: "At first, I was scared, because I really didn't know what to do. Well, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be with him. But all these things they were telling me to do when we had sex, it was like, you know, no thanks. I'd rather do without.''
Tommy: "Yeah, a celibate marriage. But I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it's right to not change anything sexually. My heart's telling me that, God's telling me that, and our experience is telling me that.''
Her odds of being infected are unknown, but Tommy thinks it might help that he had a vasectomy almost six years ago. He cannot ejaculate sperm and thinks that this will limit her exposure to the virus significantly. Doctors disagree, and say she's still at high risk.
They want a family, of course, and the boxer's plan—if he doesn't go to jail—is to adopt as many as four AIDS babies "and nurse them back to health.'' See, he has this deal with God. He got down on his knees after the positive test and asked God to heal him and, in return, he promised to treat everyone as if they were Elvis. Not that he didn't help people before, but now he was really going to put his $12 million to good use.
He started a foundation designed to send AIDS-stricken children to camp and to sporting events. He wants to have a fashion show to raise money, with boxers such as Holyfield, Tyson and Camacho strutting down the runway in Lycra. "I'll do it, too," he says. If he doesn't go to jail, it will happen.
But jail, jail could happen. He was convicted in December of his fourth DUI and a weapons charge (carrying a firearm while under the influence of alcohol; he's always carried a gun)—and his hope is that the appeals keep him free for at least a year or more. If he does go to jail, he figures he'll just "read the Bible'' for six months. He certainly reads it now, and he thinks the Bible's prediction is right, that the world will come to an end. The only thing is, the boxer thinks the end will be soon, like the year 2000.
"Am I gonna be around in five years? I'll be in heaven in five years," he says. "The world won't be here in five years."
Just in case he's wrong, he's bailing out of Jay. The day he announced his positive test, someone tore down the sign that read, "Home of Heavyweight Champion Tommy Morrison.'' A few months later, his mom and his sister were mysteriously forced out of their nursing jobs. That's when the boxer got on the Internet looking for property in Fayetteville, Ark. "I want out of here," he says. "Everybody's looking at me expecting me to shrink up and die. And it ain't happening, and it's kind of pissing some of them off."
Maybe that explains the fire. It isn't being called arson, but the boxer went skiing in Colorado over Super Bowl weekend, only to return home to … no home. His $385,000 house, overlooking a three-acre lake, was gone, and they figure the fire was caused by either an electrical short-circuit or … God knows what.
Either way, he lost everything. His daddy's letters? Gone. The $1,800 magnet? Gone. The bathroom weight scale? Gone. The drawing of the other Tommy? Gone. The condoms someone had mailed him? Gone. The living room mirror? Gone.
Tommy Morrison is fighting an opponent that never loses.