American badass: 'Tommy' film review

Chris Williamson
27/09/2017 1:25pm

Chris Williamson reviews ESPN's new '30 for 30' documentary about the tragic life and colourful times of heavyweight boxer and Rocky V star Tommy Morrison...

Photo courtesy of ESPN Sports

The latest ESPN '30 for 30' sports film begins with Tommy Morrison's mother recalling how her originally 'unwanted' son pleaded - aged just ten - for a boxing glove-shaped tattoo.

As becomes clear during the course of the documentary, what Morrison wanted - especially where women were involved - he got.

Three days later Diana Morrison etched the tattoo on to her son's arm herself. The story serves as a shocking precursor for an account of a young and reckless life that terminated aged just 44.

Morrison's life lurched from local toughman circuit to encounters with countless women, heavy drinking, highlight-reel knockouts, million-dollar purses, steroids, jail, HIV, drug addiction, botched cosmetic surgery and a slow, heart-wrenching death - frankly, it would be hard to make anything but a gripping film out of such material. In the hands of ESPN's decorated '30 for 30' team, and with 'Tommy' their sixth boxing subject after 'Muhammad and Larry', 'One Night in Vegas', 'The Real Rocky', 'No Más' and 'Chasing Tyson', the Tommy Morrison story is in safe hands.

The filmmakers hit the mark on content as sweetly as a Morrison left hook, showing just the right amount of footage from memorable shoot-outs (Mercer, Hipp, Bentt and Ruddock), as well as interview clips of Tommy at most charming and penitent and fascinating new contributions from a supporting cast of family members, training/ promotional teams and a string of former wives and girlfriends.

The film is packed with memorable lines, mostly delivered in a casual, charming and understated way. There is a palpable sense of frustration about 'what could have been' for a fighter who could never be accused of training monastically, with one exception - manager John Brown remembers Tommy being "scared to death of George Foreman, and fear is a great motivator".

Co-directors Gentry Kirby, Erin Leyden and their editing team piece the film together brilliantly, with fight footage neatly given context with magazine and newspaper articles, including a stunning The Ring magazine cover with the headline 'Turning Heads' skilfully used as a punctuation mark following the brutal Mercer knockout footage. Meanwhile, the barren working-class landscapes of Arkansas and Oklahoma set to a gentle country soundtrack hint at the boredom which might spark trouble for a handsome adventurer like Morrison.

If I were to quibble with the film at all it would be that the relative insignificance of the WBO heavyweight title which Morrison challenged Mercer for, eventually bested Foreman for and then relinquished to Michael Bentt isn't adequately explained - an omission likely to irritate viewers as educated in the sport as Boxing Monthly readers.

With this said, the flow of the story may have been interrupted by such points of detail and, thankfully, many of the boxing segments are hosted in the company of the always excellent Al Bernstein.

In some ways, as Morrison's life spiralled out of control, his live-for-today attitude and action hero physique seemed out of their time, belonging a decade earlier in the 1980s. Morrison's 1996 HIV diagnosis is treated with straightforward news footage and the memorable press conference at which the fighter appeared initially to act with responsibility and dignity.

Sadly, it wasn't long before his position lurched towards tawdry denial and conspiracy. Even post HIV-diagnosis, comeback offers continued, with an typically straightforward Mercer revealing he turned down a rematch in Canada. "Boxing is a blood sport, says a healthy looking Mercer. "I was not going to fight anyone who had AIDS [sic] or was not tested."

Following a downbeat final third of the film, footage of Morrison's son Trey boxing in order to continue his own connection with his late father - familiar shorts and all - provide a somewhat uplifting finale for what is a breathless and breathtaking American tragedy.

Highly recommended.

'Tommy' is now available in the US for streaming and on-demand audiences. Click here for more details. It will make its broadcast premiere on Wednesday 27 September at 8 pm ET on ESPN2. UK broadcast TBC.

Click here to read Luke G. Williams' selection of the five most significant fights in Tommy Morrison's career