TOMMY MORRISON WAS SCHEDULED TO fight in several hours, but he knew something was wrong the moment he walked into the Las Vegas hotel room at 4:30 p.m. on Feb. 10 and saw the look on his handlers' faces. "I went over and sat down," says Morrison, 27, "and my promoter Tony Holden said, 'I got to tell you, we've got problems. You failed your [prefight] medical exam.' I kind of leaned forward, and he said, 'You tested positive for HIV.' "

For several days, Morrison—who left Vegas for his ranch in Jay, Okla.—was in denial, his hopes hanging on the slender thread of a retest. On Feb. 15 the result was confirmed, and Morrison—like Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis before him—chose to speak out about his plight. "I lived a permissive, fast and reckless lifestyle," said the ex-heavyweight champion, who won the World Boxing Organization title from George Foreman in 1993. "I hope I can serve as a warning that living this lifestyle can really lead to only one thing, and that's misery....I thought I was bulletproof and I'm not."

He insists he has never used intravenous drugs. Nor, say his handlers, could Morrison, a flagrant heterosexual, have gotten the virus from gay sex. Trainer Tom Virgets refers to Morrison as "the greatest bimbo magnet of all time." Says Morrison himself: "I don't know whether I got it from a girl or fighting. I don't know how I got it."

At home in Jay, with his fiancée, Dawn Freeman, 23, Morrison says he "feels fine, just like I do every day. That's why this is so hard to accept. I was speaking last night to Magic Johnson on the telephone, and he said the same thing. The mind is a very strong thing. You can sit there and worry yourself sick if you're a mentally weak person. But luckily I was raised in a family where being weak just wasn't allowed, and now I know why."

Tommy Morrison grew up tough in Jay (pop. 2,600). His mother, Diana, is a Native American—half Otoe, half Ponca—and a rabid fight fan. In 1979, when Tommy was 10, she took a needle and ink and tattooed boxing gloves on his left shoulder. Three years later, after Diane was divorced from construction worker Tim Morrison, with whom she had three kids, Tommy began entering the Toughman contests—prize fights for rank amateurs. "The first time I did it, I was scared," says Morrison, who altered his birth certificate to pass for 21. "But I learned that these guys with hair on their back are hell for 30 seconds. Then they can't keep their hands up."

In 1988, Tommy, an all-state tight end in high school, was mulling college scholarship offers when Diana talked him into entering the Kansas City Golden Gloves. Tommy won and turned pro in November. During the next three years, which included time out in 1990 to play a young boxer in Rocky V, Morrison won his first 28 fights, 24 by knockouts. Then in 1991 he was kayoed himself by heavyweight contender Ray Mercer. He came back in 1993 to decision Foreman for the spurious WBO title but promptly lost it to the unheralded Michael Bentt.

By his own admission, Morrison, who had moved to Kansas City, was "out of control"—a kid from the boonies unleashed. "The place was a party, and I lived in the middle of it," he says. "For four or five years I lived a pretty promiscuous life." Morrison fathered two sons, now 5 and 6, by two different women—one of whom, Tammy Witt, was allegedly punched by Morrison last October in a case that is scheduled for trial March 21. The town of Jay seems divided in its affections toward its prodigal son: Two weeks ago a hand-painted sign proclaiming Jay the home of Tommy Morrison was torn down.

For his part, Morrison claims to have dramatically changed his ways. Two-and-a-half years ago, after the loss to Bentt, he says he had something "close to a religious experience." While trying to understand why he was so unhappy, he happened to read a letter, filled with Bible citations, sent by a persistent female fan. Looking up each verse, Morrison says he felt "this huge release of energy, a kind of weight lifted off my shoulders." In late 1993 he packed up and moved back to Jay.

Morrison, who says he is trying to get in touch with all of his former partners, both sparring and sexual, hopes to do some boxing commentary on TV and to build on his nascent acting career—he recently appeared as a boxer on Cybill. Most of all, he wants to sound the alarm about AIDS. "There's so many people out there who don't pay attention to it," he says. "People have got to know. They've got to know. They've gotta know."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
JOSEPH HARMES in Jay

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes.