Bernard Fernandez: To resume boxing career, Tommy Morrison must prove he's HIV-free

Tommy "The Duke" Morrison wants to make comeback at age 42.
Tommy "The Duke" Morrison wants to make comeback at age 42.
Posted: January 25, 2011

FORMER WBO heavyweight champion Tommy "The Duke" Morrison wants to resume his boxing career at 42, which on the face of it isn't as ridiculous as it might seem. George Foreman ended a 10-year retirement in 1987 and on Nov. 5, 1994, at the improbable age of 45, won a version of the heavyweight title for the second time by starching Michael Moorer in the 10th round. Ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins remains an elite fighter at 46. Heck, even 48-year-old Evander Holyfield is still active and making noises about how he can win the heavyweight championship for a record fifth time.

How Morrison differs from Foreman, Hopkins and Holyfield, however, is that none of those other aging fighters ever tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. There is no cure for HIV or for AIDS.

So the boxing world will watch with interest to see how this latest bid by Morrison (48-3-1, 42 KOs) to enter the ring, for an otherwise meaningless six-round bout with a neophyte professional named Eric Barrak (3-0, 2 KOs), plays out in Montreal. The Quebec boxing commission is requiring Morrison to take still another blood test to ascertain to its satisfaction, as Morrison has loudly proclaimed in recent years, that he is HIV-free and that the HIV-positive test result he received before a scheduled Feb. 10, 1996, bout with Arthur "Stormy" Weathers, at Las Vegas' MGM Grand, was incorrect. If he can't convince commission doctors that his blood is uninfected, he's off the Feb. 25 oldies card at the Charbonneau Centre, which also features former WBO heavyweight champion Ray Mercer (36-7-1, 26 KOs), who turns 50 on April 4 and hasn't been in a boxing ring since September 2008, and Joe Gatti (30-8, 22 KOs), the 43-year-old brother of the late Arturo Gatti, and who hasn't fought since 2002.

If it weren't for the drama and legitimate medical issues raised by Morrison's possible involvement, the lineup of bouts put together by a startup company called SP Promotion would be in equal parts laughable and sad.

"Boxing's boring," said Jean-Marc Emond, director of operations for SP Promotions. "The tail's wagging the dog. We have great fighters, but we're not giving great fights to the people. I think people want to see real fights. They want names they know and people they can relate to."

Great fights? Mercer's opponent is Stephane Tessier (3-26-1, 1 KO), who is no kid at 38 and is 0-24-1 in his last 25 outings.

Had he gotten past Weathers in an undercard fight headlined by IBF welterweight champion Felix Trinidad's defense against North Philadelphia's "Rockin' " Rodney Moore, Morrison was in line for a $10 million payday against then-WBC champ Mike Tyson. The revelation that he had tested positive for HIV might not have reverberated as much as did Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson's similar announcement in 1991, but it was close. Basketball players get nicked here and there, but boxing is a blood sport, and HIV can be transmitted via blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morrison's positive test effectively seemingly ended his career.

Five days after he was to have swapped punches with Weathers, Morrison held a news conference in Tulsa, Okla., in which he attributed the contraction of HIV to a "very permissive, fast, reckless lifestyle" that involved unprotected sex with multiple partners.

"This is a disease that does not discriminate," he said, misting up. "It doesn't matter if you live in a drug-infested ghetto in New York City or on a ranch in Jay, Okla. [where Morrison then resided]. It can jump up and bite you, no matter where you're at. It doesn't matter what color you are. It doesn't have a favorite color."

And there the story ended, or so it seemed. Except that, in 2006, an outwardly robust Morrison said he was ready, willing and able to fight again, and that the HIV test administered by the Nevada State Athletic Commission a decade earlier was an example of how medical science can fail if all procedures are not followed properly.

In 2007, Morrison took three separate blood tests to support his assertion that he was not infected by HIV. Two tests administered by LabCorp in Phoenix, where Morrison had relocated, indicated Morrison's blood - if indeed it was his; according to reports there seems to be some question about that - had tested negative for HIV antibodies. A third test, conducted by Specialty Laboratories, of Valencia, Calif., indicated Morrison tested positive for HIV antibodies, but negative for HIV in ribonucleic acid, or RNA.

On the basis of the LabCorp test results, Morrison - who previously had withdrawn requests to be licensed to fight in Arizona and Texas, states which would have required he submit to further testing - was granted a license in West Virginia. He stopped John Castle in two rounds on Feb. 22, 2007, in Chester, W.Va., and went on to score a third-round TKO of Matt Weishaar on Feb. 9, 2008, in Guanajuato, Mexico.

"I'm living proof that HIV is a myth," Morrison said recently. "All the things that were going to happen, didn't. Medical mistakes happen all the time and people are misdiagnosed."

If Morrison is right, a significant chunk of his life has been stolen from him. And if he's wrong . . . well, HIV is no myth. Remember, he's not the first fighter to be diagnosed with HIV.

Colombia's Ruben Palacios, then the WBO featherweight champ, was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1993; he died of AIDS in 2003. And Lamar Parks, the IBF's No. 1-ranked middleweight, abruptly pulled out of a March 1994 title fight with WBC titlist Gerald McClellan, citing a shoulder injury. It later became known that Parks had tried to pass off as his own a blood test taken by a friend in South Carolina, but that test was not accepted by the Nevada commission, which would have required testing by an NSAC-approved laboratory. Parks' former fiancée, Samantha Clark, died a few months later of AIDS-related complications, but not before telling a newspaper that Parks had infected her. Parks, who is still alive, never fought again. *

Send e-mail to fernanb@phillynews.com.

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