What's worse, prison or HIV? He'll tell you prison. He'll tell you prison'll kill you before any virus. He hears it all the time: Ain't you dead? Ain't you dead yet?
But it's not the HIV that almost got him, it's that "Hitler bitch" in Texarkana, where they left him to rot in the hole. He was locked up for 14 months, 8 days, 6 hours and 46 minutes, and he says they had him in the hole for 3 months, 25 days, 3 hours and 2 minutes of it. He says they put him in a metal box, and lit it up with a floodlight. Lit it up 24/7.
That'll burn your eyes, all right. He can't sleep to save his life now unless he wears a triple-layered blindfold—otherwise, light gets in. It may be imaginary light, but it gets the hell in.
That's how much they screwed him up in there. HIV never cost him one second of sleep (so he says), but prison infected him with hate. Prison had him so ticked off that when he got out, he says he thought about making some bombs and blowing up the place: "I was goin' back down to Texarkana. I was gonna take care of business."
But payback will have to wait. Maybe forever. And that's the poignant thing: This former heavyweight champion can maybe think about forever.
Five years ago, when The Magazine profiled him in its inaugural issue, Tommy Morrison was wasting away. His T-cell count had dropped to 3. (Normal is 700-1,000. Under 200 is considered AIDS.) He was doing crank. He refused to take his HIV pills. He was married to two women at once. He refused to use condoms. He carried a gun.
Five years ago, Tommy Morrison was a dead man. A dead man, guaranteed. A bevy of doctors refused to treat him back then, telling him if he didn't take his medication, it was no use, no use at all. Boy, would he like to see them now.
Five years later, he's got some news. Some breathtaking news. And it's not that he's still here, because he still thinks HIV's a crock. And it's not that he's at his former fighting weight of 225 pounds, because that's partly due to the prescription steroids he takes. And it's not that his T-cell count is now 371, because he's not at all proud of that. No, Tommy Morrison has some other news. News he wants to tell you, your neighbor, that "Hitler bitch" and the Centers for Disease Control:
The wife is pregnant.
So this pretty much postpones the obit.
"Bet that pisses people off," Morrison says. He now lives 100 miles east of Nashville, in a modest home he keeps colder than an icebox. His wife—he's down to one now—walks around all day with a blanket, because even in the dead of winter, the AC's jacked up. The room temperature has to be 62°, and his only explanation is he's hot-blooded. And he drinks too much black coffee.
But a home is a home, and fact is, he could be living in a cave right now. Five years ago, he bought an acre of land with a cave on it because he thought the world was going to end at the stroke of midnight, Y2K. He would need a strong roof over his head, and this cave, at the foot of a mountain in Flippin, Ark., was going to be it.
Except he spent Y2K in the county jail.
Sometimes possession of drugs and guns gets you 14 months, and sometimes possession of drugs and guns gets your life straightened out. In Tommy Morrison's case, it somehow did both. He went to jail in December 1999 strung out and weighing 190, and he walked out in February 2001 weighing 225 and carrying a box of pills.
It's taken him five years to reinvent himself, and the journey's included a tough judge, two Dawn Morrisons, three different prisons and an episode of Montel Williams' show. The HIV in Morrison's system is undetectable now, according to Dr. Stanley Bodner, a Nashville physician who sees Morrison every other month. Morrison, now 34, claims he's healthy because he's eating right; Bodner says it's because Morrison's on HIV meds. Either way, we can call off the deathwatch.
"You owe me an apology," Tommy says.
And he owes us an explanation.
Beating George Foreman for the WBO title in 1993 doesn't carry any weight. Neither does going 46–3–1 with 40 KOs. Not in the joint.
On Sept. 16, 1999, traffic cops in Fayetteville, Ark., arrested Tommy Morrison after discovering cocaine, drug paraphernalia and a gun in his Corvette. He was arrested again in November for marijuana possession and public intoxication. Deeming Morrison a flight risk, a circuit court judge revoked bail on Dec. 21 and ordered him to the county jail pending trial. In January 2000, Morrison pled guilty to four felony charges and was sentenced to 10 years (eight suspended).
Local prison officials in Fayetteville say that, from the start, they kept Morrison isolated so he could have access to nurses and medication. Says deputy Jak Kimball: "I remember thinking, 'This guy looks awful.' "
Morrison remembers thinking, I gotta get outta here. So he spit his dinner into a cup to make it look like puke. He drew dark circles under his eyes with cigarette butts. He groaned loudly. His boy Sly Stallone, who made him a star in Rocky V, would have been proud of the acting job. The guards bought it, and after 35 days, Morrison was sent to a hospital. ("How would I know he was faking?" Kimball says. "I'm not a doctor.")
Morrison was subsequently transferred downstate to the Southwest Arkansas Community Correction Center in Texarkana, a converted hospital that houses multiple drug offenders and felons convicted of nonviolent crimes. "That's the place," Morrison says, "where I got tortured."
On his arrival in Texarkana, Morrison was sent to the Special Needs floor for evaluation, and admits now, "I wasn't playing their game, and they didn't like it." The floor supervisor was a taciturn woman of German descent whom Morrison called "Hitler." Morrison says she was "the sadistic bitch" who almost broke him.
"To qualify for this floor," he says, "you had to be mentally retarded, mentally and physically handicapped, schizophrenic. Half the guys walked around spitting and drooling on themselves. They kept me there to screw with my head."
Prison officials say they suspected Morrison was hooked on methamphetamine. Morrison denied it, which exacerbated matters. "I never had a drug problem," he says. "I just fooled around with drugs a little. After I retired, I figured, 'I'll find out what the big deal is.' But that was it."
Morrison says the more the prison pushed, the more he got "kind of a bad attitude." He says they kept sending him to the box—115 days worth—for trumped up reasons. He says guards planted contraband in his room, and that he even got one 30-day stint in isolation for agreeing to send a female guard an autographed poster.
The warden, Daniel McGuinness, denies Morrison's charges. He says "the hole" was merely slang for the cell used for administrative segregation, and that Morrison was segregated at times, but never with the lights on 24/7 and or in a metal box. "Mr. Morrison was real resistant," the warden says. "He didn't like being told what to do. He wanted to be treated special. He had trouble following rules."
And the "Hitler bitch"? "We've had former inmates write to her, thanking her," McGuinness says. "Maybe it was a personality thing with Morrison. He didn't like what she forced him to do, but I don't see why that makes her a 'Hitler'. That's comical to me. I don't know where he comes up with this, but consider the source."
Other prison employees considered Morrison delusional. "They don't call 'em personality disorders for nothing," says a worker who saw a lot of Morrison during that time. "The guy didn't think he had HIV or a drug problem. Come on, he's got no credibility. There are some metal rooms in here now, and they do keep the lights on at night. But the rooms on his floor don't even have bars on the doors. There's not even a fence outside. This place is kindergarten compared to a real prison."
The boxer points to his tired eyes, eyes he says got fried in the hole, eyes he's underlined with permanent tattoos, and says they're all lying: "McGuinness is a puppet. They put me in the hole to break me. You're talking a metal box, in the middle of the summer. I was convinced they were never going to let me out. I was in that place with 300 people, but I felt completely alone."
And the question was, which wife was going to show up on visitors day?
Not only were there two wives—there were two Dawns. ("At least you'll always call out the right name in bed," his daddy told him.)
Tommy met the first—Dawn Freeman—at his high school in Jay, Okla., and predicted he'd marry the blonde someday. It took him eight years to get it done, but the problem was he got distracted during the chase.
On July 4, 1994, while he was still wooing Freeman, he met another blonde at a lake party. When she told him her name was Dawn Gilbert, Morrison turned to his drunk buddies and howled, "Guys! This is Dawwwwwwwn!"
"Everyone was like, Wooooooo!'" Dawn Gilbert says. "I was like, 'What's that about?'"
Fairly soon, it became a love triangle. Morrison would refer to Dawn Freeman as D1 and Dawn Gilbert as D2, and the two women essentially split the boxer in half. D1 lived with him in Jay, and D2 lived with him in Tulsa; D2 got him while he was training during the week; D1 got him on weekends. "Wore my butt out," he says.
By the time he learned of his HIV, on Feb. 10, 1996, both women were aware of each other. On the morning of Morrison's HIV press conference in Tulsa, D2 left a love note on Morrison's bed that D1 found first. Now at her wit's end, D1 invited D2 over to Morrison's apartment, and D2 showed up and spilled everything. "I wanted to pick up the coffee table and smash her with it," D1 says. Morrison arrived later and calmed both women down, but he knew he would have to pick one.
In some ways, the HIV revelation had forced his hand. He wanted a legal partner now, and he chose D1 on a whim. He even got a tattoo of D1's face on his upper back with the caption, Dawn 'You Sexy Bitch' Morrison. They were married on May 18, 1996, in Las Vegas. When D2 found out, she says she had a "nervous breakdown" that sent her to a hospital for three days.
So a guilty Morrison started seeing D2 again, and they got married in Tijuana on Sept. 17, 1996. Their witness was a taxi driver. ("Raul," Tommy recalls.) "Don't ask me what we were thinking," D2 says. "It was a stupid, stupid move."
Eventually, D1 caught on. One day D2 called their house and the name "Dawn Morrison" showed up on Caller ID. Another time, when D1 stopped at a Tulsa Quik Stop, the attendant said, "That's funny. Another Dawn Morrison was in here the other day. Looked just like you."
The bigamy went on for two years, but enough was enough. "It was driving me wild," Tommy says. "I couldn't lie anymore." So, in the summer of 1998, he took D1 to a crowded restaurant—to avoid a scene—and broke the news. He asked if she'd ever trust him again. She said no, but he split with D2 and tried to make a go of it with D1.
They moved to Fayetteville and stayed together one more year, but it was all show. He says they were still having unprotected sex—like always—but Morrison would be gone for three days at a time, saying he was "depressed" and "lost." With his T-cell count at 3, family members assumed he was succumbing to AIDS. "I would actually make
carrot juice and go looking for him," says D1, "because I knew he wasn't eating."
She asked if he was on methamphetamine. He denied it, vehemently. "Tom started hanging out with people who were into crank, and he let it get out of control," D1 says. "I could see the residue on the bathroom counter, and I was finding gutted-out ink pens everywhere. I saw the person I was in love with slowly dying in front of my eyes."
When he went to jail in December 1999, Morrison asked if she'd be there when he got out. A petrified D1, down to a stressed-out 100 pounds and itching to leave, said yes out of fear. "That's the one time I lied to him," she says. "Tom going to jail was my way out of a horrible situation."
She visited him in the Fayetteville jail one time, on a day she says he asked her to smuggle in some valium. They've seen each other only once since, at their divorce hearing. "I do regret I had unprotected sex with him, but I had faith I would be okay, and I still believe I will always be healthy," says D1, who now lives in Texas and is HIV negative. "But, honestly, the last year of our marriage, I wasn't his wife; I was his nurse/babysitter."
Postdivorce, D2 re-entered the picture. It was D2 who began writing him, D2 who began showing
up in Texarkana, D2 whom he called crying. They decided to reunite, and in the process, Dawn Gilbert convinced Morrison to do the unthinkable: take his HIV meds.
The judge who sentenced him had ordered him to take the meds. But for the first three months in prison, Morrison still refused. D2 kept pleading, saying it would make her and his mother happy, and the prison doctors kept nagging him as well. "I finally took 'em because they were on my ass all the time," he says.
After a year in Texarkana, he was transferred to Little Rock, and one day, D2 told him about a Montel Williams show she'd seen on TV. A woman and an HIV-positive man had conceived a healthy baby via in vitro fertilization, and D2 said she wanted to try it too. Morrison agreed, and on the day he was released from Little Rock, D2 picked him up wearing high heels, a black leather coat and nothing underneath.
On the way home, they made one stop.
To have devil horns added to his D1 tattoo.
At least he still had the cave.
Except for that, Morrison says, he left prison "without a pot to piss in." While he was away, Tommy claims, D1 cleaned out his checking accounts and took $50,000 worth of his gold coins. D1 denies it, saying she took only the half she was entitled to and that the coins added up to just $9,000, a third of which she spent on lawyer fees.
Either way, Tommy needed cash so he and D2 could have their baby. He had grossed $12 million in his career, but now, with all that gone, he had to sell his cars and his cave, and file for disability.
Morrison went to family members, asking them to co-sign a loan, but they said they wanted no part of an "AIDS baby." The rejection brought Tommy and D2 closer together, and they were married for a second time on Sept. 17, 2001—five years to the day after they were first married. ("No Raul this time," Tommy says.) They moved from Fayetteville to Sparta, Tenn., a rural community they'd found on the Internet. He quickly made friends with the local cops, and D2 found new reasons to trust her husband. "People probably think I'm nuts," she says.
What's different now is that he wears a pager, a pager set to ring every morning and evening at 8:30. And when it buzzes, Tommy walks dutifully toward a blue rectangular case and takes his HIV pills. "Been on 'em for three years now," he says.
It's a combination therapy similar to the one Magic Johnson is on. Morrison takes Trizivir, Viramune and an antibiotic called Bactrim in the morning, and Trizivir and Viramune with a multi-vitamin in the evening. He's still dismissive of HIV, calling it "no more of a nuisance than diabetes," but he never skips a dose.
"I know why," D2 says. "The baby."
After two years of searching, they found Dr. Ann Kiessling, an embryologist and virologist in Boston, who explained she could take Morrison's sperm, wash it in a centrifuge, test it for HIV and combine an uninfected specimen with one of D2's eggs in a petri dish. The CDC doesn't recommend the procedure, but Kiessling says she's fertilized 16 HIV-free babies using it, and estimates 100-150 such babies have been born worldwide.
There were additional obstacles. Tommy's HIV therapy included testosterone and steroids, which lowered his sperm count, and he needed to stop them for six months. (He suffered no side effects.) A further complication was that he'd had a vasectomy at 19 after fathering two children, which meant Kiessling had to do surgery to locate sperm.
Morrison and D2 eventually pieced together $15,000 for a first in vitro cycle in July 2002. It didn't take. Then, on Dec. 30, 2002, a second cycle worked. "Tommy was even telling gas station attendants, 'We're pregnant!' " says D2, who takes an HIV test every three months.
Now, more than ever, Morrison needs a job. D2 has another child, a 3-year-old named Justin, and with the new baby due in September, they will need more than just his disability checks. He's always wanted to get back into acting, and so he just about jumped out of bed when he saw a TV news report that Stallone was making Rocky VI. Rocky V ended with Morrison's character, Tommy Gunn, as champ. Granted, Rocky had punched him into a garbage can, but the champ is still the champ. He had to be in Rocky VI.
"I just know Stallone will call," Morrison says. And so he lifts weights every day, takes his pills, goes to church, forgets about taking revenge on Texarkana and waits by the phone. For three months now, he's been waiting.
"I only see there being one problem," says Tommy Morrison with a wan smile.
"Maybe Stallone thinks I'm dead."
This article appears in the March 31 issue of ESPN The Magazine.