At the start of Tommy Morrison's career, they pushed him as John Wayne's grand nephew and pinned the nickname "Duke" on him. Then he was this rugged dude who began competing in and winning tough-man contests in his mid-teens in some pretty rough locales (the Ozarks).
The wins piled up, but so did the skepticism.
His role in the movie "Rocky V" didn't help much. After all, how could some guy wearing pancake makeup and dancing around in fights choreographed by Sylvester Stallone ever be able to last in the ring with some of the top heavyweights in the world?
Also, he inherited "The Great White Hope" mantle for obvious reasons and, face it, great white hopes of the last few decades haven't exactly set the fistic kingdom ablaze. Duane Bobick, call home.
It has been a long three years, Morrison has thrived despite the slings and arrows and, frankly, he's going crazy waiting for Friday night and his fight with WBO champ Ray Mercer in Atlantic City.
"This is the one I've been waiting for. It will legitimize me as one of the best fighters in the world," he says.
He doesn't flinch when it is suggested he is putting everything on the line in a winner-take-all proposition. "I'm ready," he insists. "The nature of many of my fights [some measure in milliseconds] has been such that I haven't had the chance to show my wares. Ray Mercer's style will allow me the opportunity to use the stuff I've been working on."
Suddenly, Tommy was talking about "more movement, boxing, jabs, creating angles," all things seemingly foreign to his previous ring demeanor. In the last fight anyone remembers Morrison having, he looked all but inept against the ex-Soviet Olympian Yuri Vaulin. He was getting pummeled pretty convincingly by the back-tracking Vaulin until he nearly tore his opponent's rib cage out with a couple of body shots and Yuri crumbled.
"That's the fight everyone seems to want to bring up," said Morrison, a native of Kansas City. "I hope Ray Mercer is focusing on that fight, too. See, in that fight, I didn't know how bad my legs were. I looked terrible stumbling around trying to catch that guy because, afterward, it was found that I had Compartment Syndrome in both legs."
He explained the malady as his lower legs not being large enough or spacious enough to accommodate bulging calf muscles and this led to bad circulation and severe cramping: "The legs were fine when I fought at 205-207 pounds, but as I gained weight, it [CS] became a factor. I have to go after a guy. I simply couldn't pursue."
Surgery was performed on both legs and one had to undergo a second operation when infection set in. It actually turned out to be a break when Morrison was cut during training and this bout had to be postponed from August. "I've had no problem with my legs. They're a new set of wheels. I think I had some doubts before," he said.
Despite establishing a personal best of 19 minutes, 18 seconds for a three-mile run last Monday, make no mistake, Morrison's newly recovered mobility won't turn him into a modern day "Will o' the Wisp" (Willie Pastrana). He carries pretty much the same philosophy as Mercer into the ring: my-chin-or-yours.
"I expect the fight to go seven or eight rounds," he says. "I know one thing: Ray Mercer is not going down from a head punch. I think he's got one of the best chins in the game. But a guy with Mercer's [wade-in-and-bang] style has never been successful against me."
Observers who have seen the two fight at least a few times live judge that Mercer has faced a tougher schedule. "I'll agree with that," says Morrison. "His fights with Bert Cooper and [Francesco] Damiani [for the WBO title] were good for him. But, in my defense, I will say when I fought Pinklon Thomas and James Tillis, they were ready to go, they weren't over-the-hill yet."
Mercer, the heavyweight champ of the 1988 Olympics, spent a rugged 10 rounds against Cooper. He was behind by a bunch when he knocked out Damiani late with one picture-perfect punch.
It was Cooper who caused the bout to be postponed when he cut Morrison during a sparring session and Mercer immediately hired him as a sparring partner. "They're a lot alike with one difference," said the ex-Army sergeant. "Bert does it [comes in low firing left hooks] a lot better than Morrison."
The winner of this pay-per-view (TVKO) production will likely go on to a match with Riddick Bowe with that survivor apt to get a long look from the undisputed champ, the victor in the Nov. 8 meeting between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson.
Neither man has entertained the thought of losing, knowing it will translate into a year or more of nothingness as far as career progress is concerned. Two are being called, only one will be chosen (for the time being).