Morrison's blood tests still raise questions
Tommy Morrison has been cleared to fight again, but some doctors still question the status of his HIV infection, writes Elizabeth Merrill.
Originally Published: April 27, 2007By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com
He was positive, then negative, banished from boxing, and now in the middle of a comeback at age 38.The Tommy Morrison story defies logic. But a person who witnessed the first chapter in 1996 is sure of one thing: The HIV test Morrison took 11 years ago was accurate. "Unequivocally," said Marc Ratner, who was executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission when Morrison's positive test rocked the world of boxing 11 years ago. "They ran the sample twice. I have no doubt about the validity of our test. "It wouldn't have taken him 11 years to [take another test] and say, 'I'm not HIV positive.' I would've done it the next day." After his most recent blood test came back negative for HIV this week, Morrison was granted a boxing license in Texas and was to fight Dale Ortiz on Friday night in Houston. The fight was called off however, because the doctor who examined Morrison failed to file the paperwork with state boxing officials in time. After initially accepting what he called a "death sentence" in 1996, Morrison now believes that the test administered before his bout with Arthur Weathers 11 years ago was a false positive. When he was training in Arizona last fall, Morrison claimed he wasn't HIV positive. But the odds of producing an inaccurate HIV diagnosis are very slim, two HIV specialists told ESPN.com. Dr. Ziba Jalali, an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in infectious disease, said the tests administered to Morrison back then are the same ones used today.
"I support any athlete trying to make a comeback. I know how hard you have to work to do that. On the other hand, I don't support people who deny their (HIV) status in 2007 and continue to maintain and perpetuate the stigma of being HIV positive."
-- Dr. Jeff Kirchner
The blood is tested three times after a diagnosis.Jalali and Dr. Jeff Kirchner of the American Academy of HIV Medicine said the more plausible scenario in Morrison's comeback is that medicine suppressed his virus to undetectable levels. If Morrison were to go off of those drugs, Kirchner said, signs of the virus in the blood would return "within a very short period of time -- a week, two weeks. "If you re-check the blood for the virus, it comes right back." Morrison has said he stopped taking the medication years ago. He showed up fit and strong and near his old fighting weight of 220 pounds for a February bout with John Castle in West Virginia. In that first fight back, he scored a second-round knockout. Kirchner said it's not unusual for a person with HIV to appear healthy and athletic, but that the virus never goes away. He used Magic Johnson, who tested positive for HIV in 1991, as an example. "I think for a while he thought, 'Oh, I'm cured,'" Kirchner said. "He's not cured. He's on medication. His disease is, as I tell my patients, in remission." Morrison had several HIV theories in the months before his comeback. He wondered if he tested positive because of steroids, a theory Kirchner said is impossible. Morrison also suggested a possible conspiracy. The questions will continue with each fight. And his opponents will continue to wonder about their safety, although Kirchner said the chances that Morrison can spread the virus through boxing are slim if he is in fact in remission. "I find the whole thing kind of interesting," Kirchner said. "I support any athlete trying to make a comeback. I know how hard you have to work to do that. On the other hand, I don't support people who deny their [HIV] status in 2007 and continue to maintain and perpetuate the stigma of being HIV positive. "If he truly is positive and is a high-profile guy, I guess I would respect him more if he'd openly acknowledge that." Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.