Webb: A story about ‘Tommy’ would have packed a punch

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tommy morrison

Tommy Morrison, right, won the world heavyweight title at age 24 in 1993 by winning a decision against George Foreman. Three years later, he was diagnosed with HIV. He died in 2013 at age 44.

Every now and again, I’ll see a game on TV or read a story in a newspaper that reminds me how fortunate I was to work in sports journalism for more than a decade. That was the case Wednesday night as my wife and I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Tommy Morrison, “Tommy.”

In the middle of my career in newspapers, I worked at the Topeka Capital-Journal, the paper I grew up reading and dreamed of writing a column for someday. After three years of working on the sports copy desk, that dream came true when Mark Nusbaum, the publisher, gave several of us a great opportunity.

Nusbaum, now the president of Times-Union Media, took a bit of risk, developing a team to work on a project those of us at the paper referred to as Page 2. It entailed edgy copy every day on the second page of the news and sports sections. We rarely used canned content, often scrambling on the day of breaking news to develop alternative story forms.

I was in charge of the sports page, working with longtime sports writer Rick Dean, who supplied a column five days a week. I was lucky enough to have a column on Saturdays, checking an item off the bucket list.

In hindsight, there are many things I’d do differently. Namely, I wouldn’t hesitate, fully embracing the directive the publisher gave us. A few times, I held off running a story that I’d have no problem writing now. It’s easy to overcome fear after seven years away from newspapers.

Watching the inspiring, yet sad tale of Morrison, who rose to world champion in his early 20s and died at age 44, was another reminder of a story I should have written.

One of the wonderful things about the Page 2 project was that Nusbaum and longtime editor Pete Goering gave the staff the freedom to cover just about anything we wanted to, as long as it had local ties. One week, I’d travel with Kansas State beat reporter Tim Bisel, now the sports editor, to Columbia, Missouri, for a football game, the next I’d climb in a van with a group of high school football officials for a behind-the-scenes story.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I covered during my 14 months on the Page 2 project was local boxing. Though none of the pugilists I covered were considered world class, a couple of them had moments in the spotlight.

Most of the boxers had nicknames you might find on a video game like Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, including Donny “The Savage” McCrary, whose 15 minutes was a short run on ESPN’s “The Contender,” hosted by Sylvester Stallone and Sugar Ray Leonard.

damon reed

Damon Reed

The most “famous” of the pugilists was Damon Reed, a Topekan who understood and mastered the hype game while making a career out of hammering nobodies into submission before home crowds. Reed has done well enough that he’s squared off against the likes of Hasim Rahman, James Toney and current heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.

Note that I said “has done.” Now 45, Reed fought as recently as June 2016.

Reed became the go-to for boxing news as I dove into covering the sport. Partly because he was always good for a quote, and partly because he had the wild dream of fighting Morrison, despite the fact that Morrison was diagnosed with HIV more than a decade earlier.

“Hell yes, I’d fight him,” Reed said, adding that the payday would be worth the risk. “But if he started bleeding, I’d have to kick him in the balls and get disqualified.”

Reed always had a way with words.

He mentioned several times that he’d spoke with Morrison’s handlers about the fight. Naturally, I saw a great story, both in Reed’s involvement and in Morrison’s potential return to boxing despite having HIV.

Thus began several months of research, calling sources such as Pete Susens with Bob Arum’s Top Rank boxing and a former attorney disowned by Morrison and his fiancée. Talking with Susens was like what I always imagined talking to a Joe Pesci character would be. Talking to the attorney was intriguing because he claimed to have Morrison’s HIV test results. The latter was relevant because Morrison denied he had HIV right up to his death in 2013.

After weeks of attempting to track down Morrison, I finally got an interview in the summer of 2007. It might have been the most enjoyable 60 minutes of my life as an interviewer. Conducted over the phone, Morrison defiantly denied that he ever had HIV, that he was completely healthy and planned on winning the world title game.

His fiancée echoed much of what Morrison said, and added that they were having unprotected sex. By the time I hung up the phone, I thought with a little more work, I might have a feature series. A few days later, I got a package from Morrison’s former attorney. It contained what he claimed were Morrison’s latest HIV test results.

Now I knew I had a good story. Unfortunately, I also had a job offer to move to Virginia a few days later. Instead of taking all that research and information to my next gig, I left it in Topeka. Those notes are long gone. Ten years later, Morrison, sadly, also is gone.

All those memories came back as we watched “Tommy.” Those memories also brought sadness. I remember that phone call with Morrison for its energy and passion. Though clearly in denial, he was funny and bright. Above all, he was hopeful.

There are plenty of personalities in boxing, but there won’t be another Tommy. I wish I’d told his story when I had the chance. It had knockout potential.

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