A CHAMPION lived a couple hours’ drive from my childhood home. He had relatives the next town over. He’d won fights an hour or two north of us, and fights an hour or two south of us. My older brother knew people who knew him. His name was Tommy, and Tommy could hit.
I remember describing his powers to classmates on the playground. I told of survivors who gave trembling accounts that when struck squarely with his left hook the gates of hell could be heard rattling in the ear that was soon pressed against the canvas. His left hook made men who had trained all their lives, since they were seven years old, convulse with stupefied shock as their legs went limp, as though they had never been hit this way before. As though they didn’t realise a man could hit this way.
Of course, Heavyweight Champion of the World is the highest title a man can attain. I understood this by kindergarten. It puts the mortal at the table with Mars, the god of war, and Thor, god of thunder. The heavyweight champion of the world is the one who will rise from bed and lace his boots to meet any intergalactic invaders foolhardy enough to enter our atmosphere in the middle of the night. That heavyweight champion of the world lived a couple hours’ drive from our house.
This changed the air in a town like ours. It was a small town in the middle of the States that the coasts dismissively call, “flyover”. No one’s destination – just that distance of hills and mountains that the collision of the continents had inconveniently sandwiched between the metropolitan cities of consequence.
Tommy changed things. He made the self-proclaimed greatness of other parts of the country sound less triumphant and more uncomfortably desperate. We were all raised to know that there was no benefit in being unfriendly, so when a businessman passed through from the ruins in the west to visit those in the east, we’d offer him a smile and comforting slice of pecan pie, but we all knew where the Champ came from.
Women tossed their made-for-comfort bras into the trash and ordered by mail those which lifted and added the illusion of an extra cup size or two. Men started rolling up the short sleeves of their T-shirts, and rolling down their windows. They’d drive slowly down Main Street with an elbow hanging out. All the men grew sideburns and the police department bought toothpicks to issue to all three officers to chomp on while making traffic stops. Labour unions started to form as workers decided that 40 or 50 hours of their lives each week ought to buy a comfortable living for them and their families. At least that’s how I remember it. People felt better about themselves. About what they were worth.
Whenever there was a big fight the four of us would pile into the car and drive a couple of hours, past fields of grazing cows and into the woods, to Grandpa’s house. He had one of those big, steel satellite dishes so wide that even my Dad couldn’t reach both edges at the same time if he tried. With it, Grandpa could buy pay-per-view fights or record HBO and Showtime fights on his VHS VCR. I still have the tapes today. Sitting on Grandpa’s couch we watched Tommy win. And win. And win.
Grandpa, who had been following boxing since Joe Louis was sovereign, was the first in our family to recognise Tommy’s potential. He told Dad a fighter named Tony Dewar fell in the first round to Tommy’s left hook. The left collapsed Joe Adams in the first a month later and seemed only to graze Elvin Evans before putting him down for a nap. The next time out, January 24, 1989, Tommy took a trip to Great Falls, Montana to drop Mike Foley, again in the first round. I remember the TV announcers warning viewers not to visit the refrigerator as the bout against Traore Ali was about to begin because Tommy was yet to be extended beyond the first round. Ali fell twice against Tommy’s other big punch, the right uppercut, before the referee stopped it in the fourth.
In these early interviews he talked about wanting to be successful enough to help his parents, while his promoter praised his potential and pointed out how nice a guy he was. He was articulate, even with the Oklahoma accent, and humble. He had been winning fights since puberty, having used a fake ID to enter a Toughman Contest at 13 years old and going on to win 49 of them, but complimented his conquered opponents before smiling and giving a thumbs-up to the camera. When Rick Nelson stuck his tongue out at Tommy in the second round of their fight, Tommy didn’t retaliate in kind – though Nelson’s corner did throw in the towel a minute later. Tommy was just a good kid who liked to listen to Elvis when he worked out. The most bravado he showed in those early days was donning a nickname. Claiming to be the great grandnephew of John Wayne, he was first announced in the ring as Tommy “The Duke” Morrison moments before his two-minute win against Alan Jamison.
Along the way, Sylvester Stallone had noticed Tommy. Sly was making a fourth sequel to that perfect film he’d made in 1976, and he wanted Tommy to be in it. Tommy played Rocky’s protégé who would eventually tangle his feet in the dirty side of the sport.
There was a peculiar point at which make-believe and reality overlapped. It was in West Orange, New Jersey where Tommy fought Lorenzo Canady. Stallone was always striving to make his fight scenes realistic and thought the swiftest route to that destination was to film a real fight. As ESPN’s cameras broadcasted the fight, the real Tommy wore the trunks Apollo Creed gave Rocky to wear in his rematch with Clubber Lang. Stallone and Burt Young, playing the characters of Rocky and Paulie, shouted encouragement and instructions to the real Tommy as he fought a real heavyweight throwing a real heavyweight’s punches.
The result was that Tommy fought his ugliest fight. He was distracted, nervous, sloppy and impatient. He lunged uncharacteristically with his punches and some heavy blows from Canady opened a cut on Tommy’s cheek. He won on points though, and as the fight concluded he had to remember to go to Rocky’s corner, where Stallone popped into the ring and patted Tommy’s shoulder, held the water bottle so he could get a drink, and then helped Tommy into his robe.
As Tommy was rising up out of boxing auditoriums with low, tiled ceilings on his way to pay-per-view glory, he did so under the shadow of a monster from a mythical era in boxing history. George Foreman had decided to return to the sport, and confirmed for all who were playing it a little fast and loose with their rhetoric, that one should hesitate before mentioning the modern heavyweight’s name alongside his, Ali’s, Frazier’s or Norton’s.
Twenty years after his prime, George Foreman rose from his 10-year retirement and took the finest heavyweights of the day to the edge of defeat, pushing some over. He repeatedly called out Mike Tyson, telling David Letterman, “I want this Mike Tyson. I assure you I will do it [win] in the same fashion. One or two rounds. I guarantee you.” Tyson did not accept the challenge. Foreman won 24 consecutive bouts before stepping into the ring with the undisputed champion, Evander Holyfield. At 42 he took Holyfield the distance. At nearly 46 he knocked out the then-champion, Michael Moorer.
When asked by reporters, who were concerned for his safety, whether he intended to retire soon, Foreman pointed out that nobody had yet knocked him down. He promised that if they did, he’d quit, and if anyone knocked him out he’d never talk about boxing again.
Between Foreman’s title fights with Holyfield and Moorer it was noticed that nobody had the WBO heavyweight title, and it was decided that Foreman would be given the chance to fight for it – and so would Tommy.
I can’t say whether either fighter was susceptible to nerves at that point in their careers, but I certainly was. My two favourite fighters were facing one another. Butterflies filled my stomach well enough that meals were missed. I paced my bedroom floor as my hairline began its decades-long recession.
“Is the car gassed up?” I asked Dad 10 days out.
“When are you going to lay out my clothes?” I asked Mom with a week to go.
The trip down the hills and around the curves on the road to Grandpa’s seemed longer than usual. I looked over Dad’s shoulder frequently to see how fast he was going before remembering that the speedometer didn’t work.
When we finally made it down their long gravel driveway I went through the pleasantries of greeting and hugging everyone, including Jeff, their golden retriever. I chewed at my lip and tapped my foot as the adults talked about whatever it was they were talking about.
“When does the fight start?” My brother asked.
“After while,” Grandpa answered. “I don’t know if the satellite will work for us or not.”
“What’s wrong with the satellite?” I asked.
“It wouldn’t send the order through,” he answered. “We might get it to working.”
We didn’t. Tommy and “Big George” fought for a piece of the title while we sat at Grandpa’s kitchen table eating Grandma’s cheeseburgers.
Every few minutes we would flip through the channels to see if anyone was reporting on the fight. We would check the time and guess at what round they might be in if it hadn’t ended already in a knockout or stoppage.
Finally, we got word. I ran in from the kitchen to see Ned Reynolds, Springfield’s most seasoned and trusted sports reporter, deliver the news that the two heavy hitters had gone the distance, and Tommy was now the WBO heavyweight champion.
There’s a funny thing that happens when you watch sports. When you watch an athlete do something big, you have the urge to mimic them. Adults suppress this urge when in the company of other adults. It’s like giggling when sex is discussed, or discussing sex at all. It isn’t adult-like behaviour, it isn’t mature. But, when Bob Gibson struck out 17 men in a single World Series game in 1968, you can bet that every old man who was home alone stood in the middle of the living room in his underpants and delivered a few imaginary pitches to some very intimidated imaginary batters.
We only had one set of boxing gloves at home. This might be one set more than most households, but it’s one too few for a proper fight, so my brother and I would take turns wearing the gloves, battling imaginary opponents standing between us and the title.
The next night my brother and I stayed up late to watch The Tonight Show. Ours was a Letterman household, but this was a special occasion. My brother had heard that Tommy was Jay Leno’s guest that night. He talked about his hometown, which was smaller than ours. He joked about the only stop light in the town, saying it was just installed. More importantly, he gave the town’s name. Jay, Oklahoma.
As it happened, my brother and I were going to have to ride with Mom on a trip that direction the next day and the two of us put together our plan. My brother said to let him take care of the talking and that my main role would be as the post-proposition beggar.
After complimenting Mom’s haircut he presented how easily such a stop could be made without straying far from our charted course. He pointed out how excited and grateful we would be and vowed that the memory would be a lasting one before swiping the bill of his Cardinals cap and tugging his ear to queue my chorus of, “Please, please, please, please, please.”
She dug around in a kitchen drawer to find a map and pushed the dish drainer to the side to make enough room to unfold it.
“What’s it called?” She asked.
“Jay!” My brother said. “J-A-Y.”
We waited as she scanned over the great state of Oklahoma with her fingertip. The finger stopped and she leaned closer.
“Yeah, that’s fine.” She said.
We drove into the town the next day to find that it was as small as Tommy had said. My brother was telling Mom to slow down when he interrupted himself to point excitedly to the newly installed blinking stop light.
One of us wondered aloud where his house might have been. So, in a very non-crazy-people sort of way, we rolled down the window and asked someone. It seemed like a question they’d answered before because they gave us very clear directions to his mother’s house without hesitation.
We knew we must’ve been getting closer because each yard held a sign posted out by the road supporting and congratulating Tommy. We drove down the road and my brother pointed, saying he’d found the house number. He asked Mom to turn around and go by it again, so she did.
One of us wondered aloud whether we should just knock on the door and quickly introduce ourselves to Tommy’s mother. So, in a very non-crazy-people sort of way, on our third pass of the house, we pulled into the driveway and went to the door.
A man answered and we introduced ourselves while asking impatiently for confirmation that this was indeed Tommy’s mother’s house. He was very friendly and didn’t seem bothered by us at all, but apologised, saying that she was at work. She was a nurse at the local old folks’ home.
One of us wondered aloud whether we should stop by the old folks’ home and briefly interrupt her work as a nurse in order to introduce ourselves. The friendly man at the door paused at the question and glanced at each of us before shrugging and giving us directions.
So, in a very non-crazy-people sort of way, we stepped over the elderly infirmed asking around for Tommy’s mother. We found her wearing scrubs and a name badge.
She too was friendly and didn’t seem at all alarmed by the story of how we tracked her down like bounty hunters in an ‘80’s movie. We told her how many of his fights we had watched and mentioned that Grandpa had been following Tommy’s career even longer than we had.
She thanked us and mentioned that Tommy came to visit her pretty often, and that he was actually going to be in town the next weekend. One of us was about to wonder aloud, but before we had the chance she invited us to come back to meet him. She started to give us directions but then remembered with a swallow that we already knew where she lived.
The rest of the week was this unwanted barrier between us and the champion. We tried to talk Dad into going, but he said he wouldn’t. I think Grandpa considered our invitation before telling us to have a good time.
We woke early on the day of the trip and I tucked my finest Bugle Boy T-shirt into my finest blue cotton shorts. I brushed my feathered hair and gently sat my Batman baseball cap on the top of my hair sprayed head.
We knocked on the door and filed into the house. There were others in the living room and my eyes jumped from one face to the next. None of them were Tommy. They were just visiting friends of his, I guess.
There weren’t seats for everyone, so I sat down on the carpet. I had a view straight down the hallway. The adults talked about the meaningless things they talk about to pass the time, and I watched for a door to open down the hall.
Finally, a door opened. He stepped into the hallway in shorts and a red tank top and walked toward me. I watched him come into the living room, still walking toward me. As I was beginning to hope that he wasn’t in a walking dream in which I played the contender, he passed by and went into the kitchen. He returned with a glass of milk and went to the couch. The others there cleared out of his seat without his saying a word.
I can’t remember much of what was said, but he was soon smiling as Mom took his picture beside us. My brother told him how we couldn’t get his title fight to come in on Grandpa’s satellite and he pointed to his mother.
“Why don’t you put in the tape?”
For that brief moment we were about to watch a heavyweight championship bout in the living room of the mother of the guy who won it as that champion gave commentary on his strategy against George Foreman. But, the moment passed and his mother said that the VCR was broken.
It might be that this was planned. This way Tommy could be friendly without having to spend his day watching fights with us. He had already gone along with this meeting he’d had nothing to do with setting up. There was certainly no blaming him if he wanted the meeting to be brief.
But, I don’t think so. I think he was happy to talk to us, and he wasn’t rushing us along at all. I think he wanted us to see the fight and would have watched it with us. If I were a betting man, my money would be on the VCR being broken.
Tommy is gone now, but he is still alive in the memories I have of my Grandpa and still the subject of conversations I have with my older brother. Tommy’s sons, Trey and Kenzie, continue their family’s boxing tradition today and I sometimes find their fights on local TV. If you watch closely, you will see something familiar in the way they move in the ring.
Tommy had a lot of challenges in the years to come. Heroes are often flawed – if not always. They pour so much of themselves into the part that’s great that there often isn’t enough left for the rest of what life brings. Even Achilles had naked heels. But Tommy managed something that only a handful of us are able to. He made his name for all-time. He was a champion, and I’ve got a framed picture of him with his arm around my shoulders hanging on my living room wall.
Otis Adams is the author of Presidential: America’s Great Non Sequitur and Lavatory Reader. Contact Otis at PithBooks@gmail.com.