ON July 12, 1995, Tommy Morrison was on a plane heading to New York City, where he and his adviser, Tony Holden, were expecting to attend a press conference to announce an October date against Riddick Bowe in Madison Square Garden. The target for Morrison was the WBO belt, the only title free from bewildering political turmoil unique to boxing in the early to mid-1990s, when the heavyweight championship could still generate both commotion and cash.
Even so, no one took the WBO title seriously, but Bowe was forced by reduced circumstances to fight for the redheaded stepchild of sanctioning bodies. He won the WBO title on March 11, 1995, annihilating Herbie Hide in six rounds, scoring multiple knockdowns before Hide was finally counted out. On June 17, Bowe defended his new title in a one-sided thrashing of Cuban defector Jorge Luis González, who absorbed a sustained pummeling until he wound up, semiconscious, flat on his face in the sixth round. Both of these fights took place on HBO, but now Bowe was searching for a pay-per-view bonanza, one that would fatten his bank account as well as catapult him back into the spotlight, which had dimmed considerably since he had lost his title to Evander Holyfield in November 1993. Bowe had initially hoped to face Holyfield, now an ex-champion himself, in a rubber match, but Holyfield declined a third fight, believing that challenging for the WBO title would put his name on the blacklist that had kept Bowe on the margins for the last year and a half.
That was when Tommy Morrison stepped in. The buzz he had created with his thrilling TKO of Razor Ruddock in June 1995 had made him a player in the corporate power struggle between HBO and Showtime (allied with Don King and Mike Tyson). And while that win merited more asterisks than exclamation points – Ruddock was semi-retired, had lost three out of his last six fights by knockout, and had entered the ring looking flabby – it was enough to make Morrison a commodity for the first time in nearly two years. But instead of a press conference to announce a fight against Bowe, Morrison found himself frozen out. At the eleventh hour, Evander Holyfield had decided that a third fight with Bowe (who had vacated his WBO title to entice Holyfield) was suitable, and when he verbally accepted terms, representatives of HBO reportedly crashed a meeting between Bowe and Morrison to exercise its contractual rights.
As a consolation prize of sorts, HBO expressed interest in a matchup between Morrison and Lennox Lewis. It was Lewis, of course, who had been the walking, talking $7.5-million jackpot that Morrison had infamously sabotaged in 1993 by losing to Michael Bentt via first-round stoppage, and now he was back, albeit at a discount rate. “When they offered me Lewis, I said, ‘Sure, but only if I got the same money I would have gotten for Bowe,’” Morrison told the Philadelphia Daily News. “They said there was no way they could do that. But they ended up doing it, anyway. In fact, I’m getting a little more for this fight.”
To face Lewis, Morrison would reportedly receive $2.1 million, roughly $750,000 more than he would have gotten against Bowe. “It was a long day, but a good day,” Morrison said after news of the Lewis fight broke. “Things are finally going my way.” In a sense, they were. Just a few months earlier, Morrison had been on the cracker-barrel circuit, far from the limelight, even if his bouts were invariably aired by ESPN. Now he would be back in Atlantic City and on HBO, where the biggest payday of his career awaited. In addition, Morrison believed he had benefited from seeing Bowe replaced by Lewis, whom he considered less dangerous. “Lennox is not a guy who likes to mix it up,” he told The Ring. “He’s a pretty boy. He doesn’t like to get in there in the trenches. This is not a guy who is going to take a beating. I don’t think he has a whole lot of balls. You get him in a corner and start to hurt him, he’s going to fold his tent and go home.”
It was true that Bowe had faced better competition than Lewis, it was true that Bowe had never been knocked out (as Lewis had), and it was true that Bowe was a far more aggressive fighter than Lewis, but Bowe had also shown a lack of dedication that had ultimately led to a brief – and undistinguished – title reign. A reluctant puncher, Lewis’ overly cautious approach made him a target of the professional critics in America. Across the Atlantic, Lewis fared much better as the “first” Englishman to win the heavyweight title in a hundred years. In December 1992, Bowe, who had just beaten Evander Holyfield for the undisputed championship, tossed the WBC title into a prop trash can at a London press conference after failing to come to terms with Lewis for a mandatory title defence. Within hours of this stunt, the WBC named Lewis its champion, and for the first time since 1987, when Mike Tyson had finally unified the division after years of chaos, the heavyweight title was fragmented.
That Lewis was a paper champion hardly mattered to the 25,000-plus who attended National Stadium in Cardiff to see “The Lion” stop the beloved Frank Bruno in an all-UK championship showdown, which was rarer than a sighting of the transit of Venus. Lewis, who had stopped Bowe in the 1988 Olympics en route to winning a gold medal, went on to make three desultory title defenses before losing via TKO to Oliver McCall on September 24, 1994, at Wembley Arena. Overnight, Lewis became just another heavyweight reclamation project.
In an effort to revitalise his career, Lewis had fired his trainer – the obnoxious Pepe Correa, whom Lewis referred to as a Muppet – and hired Kronk guru Emanuel Steward. Lewis had beaten a pair of mediocrities in return fights, and now he was ready for a marquee outing. Despite his second-round TKO loss to McCall, Lewis retained an arrogance that might have left many nonplussed. His ego served Lewis well, however; in a few years, he would establish himself as the best heavyweight of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Morrison was just an afterthought to Lewis, hardly worth his air of hauteur. “I don’t see anyone out there who scares me,” he told the Asbury Park Press. “I look at a boxer like Morrison, and I see someone who will look good on my resumé, nothing more.”
As expected, the opening odds favoured Lewis, who was an all-around professional, in contrast to Morrison, who spent most of his career shuttling between the darkness of low-level boxing in Oklahoma and Missouri and the spotlight of Las Vegas and HBO. On his way to becoming a contender, Lewis had pounded some of the usual suspects, but he had also stopped undefeated Gary Mason (35-0 at the time) and had won the European, British, and Commonwealth titles before solidifying himself as a contender. Then Lewis obliterated Donovan Ruddock in two rounds, years before Morrison struggled with a war-torn version of “Razor.” A handful of title defences on HBO against journeymen (the moderately talented pros Morrison spent years avoiding) gave Lewis a surfeit of experience. But it was his teaming with Steward that likely put this fight out of reach for Morrison in a way that might not have been true had they fought in 1993. Under the tutelage of Steward, Lewis was less herky-jerky, more flat-footed, and now worked exclusively behind his powerful jab, without the skittishness he had shown in the past. The thunderous right hand Lewis possessed became even more dangerous combined with a jab that not only set up the cross but was a stinging blow in its own right.
Except for the proverbial lucky punch, Morrison seemed outclassed entering the ring against Lewis. Still, that left hook, the one that had sent Razor Ruddock crashing and had bailed him out in fights against Joe Hipp and Carl Williams, was all the equalizer Morrison needed.
October 7, 1995. Atlantic City, New Jersey. More than 8,000 spectators gather at the Convention Center to see what promises to be a heavyweight apocalypse. What they witness instead is a tedious dismantling. Lewis enters the ring first, his head poking through a white towel with a hole cut in its center, a homespun poncho that symbolises his focus and gravitas. But Lewis looks loose and ready in his corner; his team also exudes confidence. The same cannot be said for Tommy Morrison. His ring walk seems funereal, and the strange music that accompanies it (Vangelis, “Conquest of Paradise”) underscores the air of gloom surrounding him. Waiting in the crowded ring, Tony Holden looks glum and ashen. Trainer Tommy Virgets tries halfheartedly to psych up Morrison and ceases after a second attempt. In his cutoff leather jacket, Morrison seems almost out of place, a man who now wears glasses and claims to study scripture, a man who appears far older than twenty-six, trying to exude an energy he no longer possesses.
When the opening bell rings, the contrast between the two fighters is stark: Lewis is the much bigger man, with a far more fluid style and a ranginess that will be hard to bridge; Morrison is smaller and far less athletic. He lacks the verve to mount a full-scale attack, and that leaves him at a distance where Lewis can hit and not get hit in return. In the second round, Morrison accelerates for the first time in the fight, drives Lewis to the ropes, and takes a counter left that sends him to the canvas. It is only a flash knockdown—but Morrison ends the round with a small cut at the corner of his right eye.
Boos from the restless crowd arise in the third round because of a lack of action. By nature tentative, Lewis chooses his shots carefully, and Morrison, already bleeding and behind on the scorecards, is hesitant to lead. To the frustration of all – especially Morrison – Lewis stays behind his jab and uses his right cross sparingly. But the jab Lewis throws is both thumping and accurate. Now, Morrison begins to bruise, his right eye begins to swell, and his left cheek has a puffiness that resembles the beginnings of anaphylactic shock. With his right eye closing, Morrison is soon to be at a serious disadvantage but rarely does his corner apply an Enswell to his discolored face. By the fifth, Morrison is visually compromised, pawing at his right eye repeatedly. Late in the round, Lewis lands a right to the rib cage and a right uppercut – a combination straight out of the Tommy Morrison manual – that floors Morrison for the second time in the fight. Two more knockdowns in the sixth and referee Mills Lane, seeing a dispirited Morrison peering at him through one bloodshot eye, stops the mismatch.
“He was tough, very tough,” Morrison says after the fight. “Trying to fight guys like that with that reach is tough, especially with one eye. I’m not used to fighting with one eye. He’s definitely got some of the longest arms, I’ll tell you that. After the second round, my eyes started swelling. I faced just about every kind of adversity there is in the ring: broken hands, broken jaws, hurt legs, hurt back, cut eyes. But never a swollen eye. That was an adversity I wasn’t used to. When you’re fighting with one eye, it makes for a depth perception problem.”
This is the third and last stoppage defeat of his career. Tommy Morrison has finally reached the end of the road.