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Review: “Duke” Assembles the Pieces of a Broken Life

Tommy Morrison looked like a star, left hooked like a star, and crashed like a shooting star leaving behind a trail of wishes unfulfilled.

Working with much of the same flair he brings as an essayist and columnist, author Carlos Acevedo delivers an exhaustively researched look at the life and career of a memorable piece of one of the most memorable of heavyweight eras in, “The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison.” Released in April of this year, it’s not a flattering portrait but it reads as a fair one, describing a fighter who lacked discipline and later rationality outside the ring all while landing enough big left hands in the ring to keep fans interested in what came next .

With Morrison, his unpredictability in the ring was part of the fun and Acevedo recounts his rises and falls with detail and a degree of cynicism. Acevedo assembles the pieces of what could really be described as the Morrison project. Bill Cayton, who helped guide the rise of Mike Tyson, promoter Tony Holden, and trainer John Brown loom large in the narrative in their attempts to guide a fighter struggling with a turbulent family background, a carnivorous appetite for the night life, and issues with alcohol and performance enhancing drugs among other obstacles to success.

Acevedo places Morrison in the context of boxing’s history of white hope fighters and the additional mythology lent to Morrison by way of a fictionalized relation to John Wayne and his co-starring role in Rocky V. In describing how all of this worked as blessing and curse , Acevedo notes:

Although Morrison received more coverage and bigger paychecks because of his color, he also started at a disadvantage. Boxing is a subculture that specializes in deception, but it also masters paradox. The same qualities that promised Morrison stardom also hindered his development of him… a rural afterthought such as (Morrison’s hometown) Jay, Oklahoma, lacked the infrastructure necessary for a restless teen to excel at boxing.

It says a lot about the natural talent Morrison had that he could move from Toughman contests as little more than a child battling grown men to catching eyes at the 1988 Olympic Trials. It was easy to see in real time, and in retrospect, why people saw dollar signs in Morrison. Despite a disastrous loss to Ray Mercer in 1991, Morrison’s gutsy efforts against Carl Williams and Joe Hipp also revealed ring characters that could keep hopes alive.

“The Duke” doesn’t confuse Morrison’s moments of in-ring character with character outside the ring. The book acts as a strong compliment to the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary “Tommy”, filling in gaps a documentary can’t cover and rendering a harsh judgment on the central figure in the tale. It’s hard to read this work and come away with any positive impression of Morrison as outside the ring issues multiply with allegations of domestic abuse and bigamy. Both works imply Morrison may have had HIV for years, and known it, before it was finally discovered. Acevedo’s work, which covers in great detail Morrison’s sexual escapades, paints a picture of potentially lethal denial and narcissism.

The author expands to explore the decision-making of Morrison in general in all areas of his life. Morrison’s choice to face Michael Bentt, coming off a career best win over George Foreman and with a career-high payday against Lennox Lewis on the line, a payday he never got back after that first round upset stunner, makes as little sense on the page as does his later paranoid rantings about how he wasn’t really HIV positive despite court-recorded evidence he was taking HIV medication. Morrison eventually still made seven-figures with Lewis, but it was far less than it could have been.

Acevedo also demythologizes the era Morrison fought in. While the 90s is remembered as one of the golden eras at heavyweight, that is a reflection of the sum of its parts. There were peaks and valleys along the way and Acevedo recounts them, including the disarray of the title situation in the mid-90s and the lackluster second title reign of George Foreman.

There are passages of the book that can feel repetitive as pieces of the story transition between periods in Morrison’s life. That could be a reflection of what he reads often like a series of repetitive cycles in Morrison’s life. It’s the story of a fighter who found ways to fall just short in self destructive patterns until he was gone at just 44.

For Hamilcar, it’s another imminently readable look at a fighter whose talent couldn’t exceed his flaws along with biographies of notorious could-have-beens like Ike Ibeabuchi and Edwin Valero. For the 90s heavyweight era, it’s additional depth to the story of an era headed by Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, and Foreman. Their co-stars are part of what made their stars shine so bright.

Morrison was a critical co-star and marries perfectly to Acevedo’s penchant for telling the stories of the sort of boxer’s whose flaws keep them interesting long after the final bell.

Readers who wish to add this fascinating dive into one of the key players of the 90s heavyweight era can purchase “The Duke” at Amazon or at

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at



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