• Steve Bunce

America's Heavyweight crisis continues

Steve Bunce September 3, 2013
Tommy Morrison defeated George Foreman to become WBO champion © Getty Images

In the week that Tommy 'The Duke' Morrison died, a couple of American heavyweights desperate to fill his boots fight each other this Saturday in an unofficial eliminator to crown America's best heavyweight.

The belt has been gathering dust for a long, long time.

When Seth Mitchell, a bible carrying but vulnerable banger, fights one-time bad and fat boy Chris Arreola, they are fighting for the right to meet Deontay Wilder for the mythical American Championship.

All three, and there are a couple of others, are not without talent, but they all seem incapable of closing the gap with the top Eastern Europeans at the moment.

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The last American heavyweight champion of the world was Shannon Briggs in 2007, when he temporarily held the WBO belt that Wladimir Klitschko now owns. Briggs had been blasted in a few rounds many years before and has since been pulverised by Vitali Klitschko in a brave attempt at winning back the world title.

Morrison held the same belt in 1993 and was an excellent fighter who would be a genuine force right now if only he had been born twenty years later. However, he would have had to take better care of his body and select a lifestyle that limited his sexual conquests to double digits each month and not three or even, as some have claimed, four figures each month!

When Morrison, who was known as The Duke, won the WBO heavyweight title from George Foreman he had a shout as the top heavyweight in the world. Foreman then went on to knock out Michael Moorer, who had just outpointed Evander Holyfield, while Holyfield had just beaten Riddick Bowe. These fights were in rapid succession, proper Vegas fights and they left no room for easy defences against hopeless and overmatched losers like so many champions prefer now. Morrison was part of a different world and he belonged in that world.

In February 1996, shortly after agreeing a three-fight deal worth $38.5 million, he failed a routine pre-fight HIV test. The test cost just 25 bucks. The damage, however, was done and Morrison's life in the neon as a contender was over. Tragically, the freak-show years were under way and Morrison's ring achievements started to diminish as the infamy of his decline made regular headlines. Tommy's constant denial that he had HIV became more and more tragic as his body started to suffer.

At his very best Morrison was a fearless puncher, a man capable of standing and trading with the finest heavyweights of his generation. He won and lost in slugfests, enhanced his reputation in some brutal real fights and starred as Rocky Balboa's apprentice in Rocky V. Women loved him, men envied him and promoters wanted him.

"He was one of the most dangerous fighters that I met," Lennox Lewis, who celebrated his 48th birthday on Monday by mourning the man he stopped in six rounds in 1995, said.

The pair had been due to meet in 1994, but after Morrison signed a contract worth $7.5 million for the fight he was knocked out in one round by Michael Bentt.

The loss put an end to the big payday with Lewis and when they met Morrison made just a fraction of the original purse. The blame for losing to Bentt was shared by a dozen women, all of whom it was claimed Morrison was sleeping with during his training camp.

After the Lewis defeat, Morrison joined forces with Don King and the three-fight deal for $38.5 million was put in place. The final fight in the trio was scheduled to be against Mike Tyson.

It remains a staggering amount of money in a heavyweight division controlled by the Klitschko brothers, who are superb athletes but lack the ruthless and wild ways of the old-school heavyweights. The brothers make money but not obscene amounts like Tyson, Lewis and Holyfield. Morrison came so close to adding his name to the excess gravy train.

It is possible to argue that the best five heavyweights in America right now would struggle to make $38 million combined in their next three fights. They are not bad fighters, they are just fighting at a bad time for American lumps.

Arreola and Mitchell would have tried against Morrison, possibly would have shaken him, but they would have been overwhelmed and sent off to oblivion at end of his sweeping left hook. Wilder remains an enigma in many ways with 29 stoppages or knockouts in 29 fights and not one of his fights has gone beyond four rounds. Morrison would have loved a chance to change those stats.

Win or lose Tommy would have gone down swinging.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
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Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.