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A Real-Life 'Rocky' Looks for a Boxing Comeback

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Former heavyweight titleholder Tommy Morrison is planning a comeback. Ten years ago, he was the first prominent boxer to test positive for HIV. At the time he was told that's the end of your career. After later encounters with drugs and prison and time passing, Tommy Morrison now claims to be HIV free. In fact, he claims he never had it at all.

NPR's Mike Pesca spent some time with the fighter and brought back this report.

(Soundbite of punching)

MIKE PESCA: In a gym located in a strip mall in Phoenix, Arizona, trainer Mike Munoz offers up his padded hands. Red gloves whizzing by, combinations emanating from a six foot two inch man with a back as broad as a picnic table and biceps the size of a child's head. The bell sounds and Munoz pauses to marvel at the force of Tommy Morrison's blows.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Mr. MIKE MUNOZ (Trainer, Tommy Morrison): Watch how quick his hands are. Even with Tyson and those guys, he's got really quick hands.

Mr. TOMMY MORRISON (Boxer): I've had a lot of people tell me I'm faster than Tyson. They say you're quicker than he is.

PESCA: Most people first noticed Tommy Morrison in the 1990 movie Rocky V, where he played a young fighter who convinced Rocky to manage him.

(Soundbite of movie, Rocky V)

Mr. SYLVESTER STALLONE (ACTOR): (As Rocky Balboa) Yo, why are you still hanging around kid? Is there something I can do for you?

Mr. MORRISON: (As Tommy Gunn) Yeah. Yeah, I'd like to try again.

Mr. STALLONE: Hey kid, you know I'd like to help you out, but I really don't know nothing about no managing.

Mr. MORRISON: Man, all I'm asking for is a chance. Man, if I screw up or do something you like, man, you don't have to throw me out. Hell, I'll leave. What have you got to lose?

Mr. STALLONE: Me? Nothing. I ain't got nothing to lose. It's what you've got to lose.

Mr. MORRISON: But I've got nothing to lose.

Mr. STALLONE: And maybe you do.

PESCA: His character had elements of Morrison's real life, well, most any boxer's life. Scrappy upbringing, belief he can beat the odds by beating others. By 13, Morrison was besting grown men in Toughman competitions in Oklahoma. By 18, he'd won the Golden Gloves in Kansas City and then turned pro. Soon thereafter in Kansas City, Morrison befriended another young man named Stephen Bayer.

Mr. STEPHEN BAYER (Friend of Tommy Morrison): Yeah, I just never saw the guy work, you know. One day we're sitting around, you know, drinking some beer. And I asked him, I said, you know, do you have a job or, you know, what do you do, you know. And he said well, I'm a professional boxer. And, you know, I was like, wow, that's pretty interesting. And he looked over at me and said, well, I'm going to be heavyweight champion of the world someday, you know. And I was just like, you know, you're white.

PESCA: Bayer filed Morrison's boast away in the Yeah Right category. But in not too much time Morrison was proved accurate. In 1993, he won the WBO title against George Foreman. He would lose his next bout but did win another title and a few million-dollar paydays along the way.

By February of '96, Morrison found himself in Las Vegas, ready for a tune up to what could have been a huge purse against Mike Tyson. Morrison went through the same rituals a fighter goes through before each fight: the weigh in, the blood test. He remembers every detail afterwards.

Mr. MORRISON: I went out before I went and got my test. I went and ate. I went and walked on the strip for a little bit, walk off my meal, and walked back to the hotel room. A few hours later the message light was blinking.

PESCA: The message was come upstairs and hear the news that will change your life. Morrison was told he had HIV and was quickly whisked onto a plane. Too many questions were left in his wake.

Mr. MORRISON: I never - I mean, I never saw any doctor's report saying I was HIV positive. I never had a doctor explain to me and show me what was going on. Forty-five minutes after I found out I'm on a plane flying from four or five different cities trying to get back to Tulsa by myself.

PESCA: Who's decision was that?

Mr. MORRISON: Why theirs. You've got to get out of here. I'm like - I didn't know what was going on. Why did I have to get out of here? You know, I knew that there was a - oh, what the hell's the name of it - like a we can object to what's going on…

PESCA: Appeals process.

Mr. MORRISON: Right, an appeals process. That never happened, you know. Why didn't it happen? I mean, we know why the test came back positive, you know, because of the things I was taking at the time.

PESCA: What are you talking about? Like steroids?

Mr. MORRISON: Yes. Absolutely.

PESCA: That is Morrison's hypothesis. Ten years ago he blamed promiscuous heterosexual sex for HIV. But now he says that the 27-year-old Tommy Morrison was just echoing what the sports and medical establishment wanted to hear. But in the last decade Morrison has been through prison, has had children - four boys - has been married, divorced, married, getting divorced again, and he no longer thinks it will help him to say the things other people want to hear.

Mr. MORRISON: And once I read one book, then I got my hands on as many of them as I could and they all come down to the same conclusion, you know, that's an invented virus and it can't hurt you at all.

PESCA: Morrison believes HIV doesn't cause AIDS, that the many tests over the years which showed him as HIV positive were all wrong, and that he never had HIV, which is why he recently stopped taking medication for the virus. This kind of talk is why Morrison's proposed comeback is written off as a gimmick in the sports pages or treated as a sad joke on sports talk radio.

Sitting next to Morrison here at an Applebee's in the same strip mall as the gym where he trains is Susan Schaffer Martin(ph), a 58-year-old in a billowy outfit who serves as Morrison's de facto den mother. What brought these two together was a phone call Martin received from Tommy's good friend, Stephen Bayer.

Ms. SUSAN SCHAFFER MARTIN (Friend of Tommy Morrison): I gave a child up for adoption back in 1967, and his name is Stephen Bayer. And Stephen contacted me about a year and a half ago for the first time, and we met, I found out I had grandchildren, it was fabulous. And he called me up one day and he said listen, he said Tommy Morrison, who is one of my best friends, and he was with him throughout his whole boxing career, is down and out. He has no money, he's trying to pick up odd jobs here and there, and he really wants to get back into the boxing world. And he said can you help him? And I said you bet.

PESCA: A year and a half ago, Martin had never heard of Tommy Morrison. Now, the boxer has totally taken over her life. He lives in her apartment, he dines with her, he accepts rides from her, and tasks her with finding various misplaced items. But it's more than doing her long-lost son a favor which drives Susan. In the few days I spent with them, Susan referenced the 60s almost as much as Morrison referenced the Bible. In their own way, each has reason to believe in things that authorities say are impossible.

Susan becomes most impassioned when she speaks of her belief that the only reason boxers with HIV are banned from competition is ignorance about the disease.

Ms. MARTIN: If you really, truly cannot catch this from another human being when it is airborne, when the blood hits the air, if that's truly the case -which we believe and we can prove this - then who else out there has not gone into a sport that they could have excelled at because of this? What children out there have now been classified as HIV-positive whose dreams now are totally going nowhere because they're going to be discriminated against? I mean, we're going to prove that Tommy doesn't have it, and we're going to prove that other people that do have it should be allowed to play in the sport.

PESCA: Dr. Tim Mastro, who is an expert on HIV and AIDS with the Centers for Disease Control, says that an accurate positive test cannot be reversed. It never has been in the 25-year history of the epidemic. But the doctor does agree with the other part of Morrison's claim, backing up his assertion that no one has ever contracted HIV from participation in any sport.

Dr. TIM MASTRO (Expert, HIV and AIDS, Centers for Disease Control): We feel that HIV positivity should not prevent individuals from participating in sports, including boxing.

PESCA: If there is anything to be feared about the damage that can be done by an HIV-positive boxer, it's more logical to worry about the fact that he's a boxer, not that he has HIV. And Stephen Bayer notes everyone who gets into the ring assumes risk.

Mr. BAYER: I mean, the likelihood that Tommy Morrison is going to permanently injure you with that devastating left hook of his is probably far greater than any risk of anybody contracting any type of communicable disease in the ring.

PESCA: Of course the notion of Tommy Morrison as an AIDS expert is laughable, but Tommy Morrison as a guy who's making any argument he can in order to do the thing he knows how to do best, is perfectly understandable. Morrison's problem is that the implausible I-never-had-HIV argument will get him into the ring faster than the anti-discrimination argument.

Morrison makes his case best when he speaks as a fighter, where getting up off the canvas, is part of the game.

Mr. MORRISON: You know, someone that was given a death sentence 10 years ago comes back and wins the heavyweight championship of the world. It seems like a may be the greatest comeback in boxing history.

PESCA: The title of this new drama Tommy Morrison finds himself in could be Blood Test, with a nice double meaning. What goes on in the ring is such a test, but to even get there, Morrison will have to pass a literal blood test. Overcoming that will be more than the biggest comeback in boxing history. Mike Pesca, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And there's more to come from DAY TO DAY. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.