Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

Shadow boxing

It was nearly 200 years ago that journalist Pierce Egan, writing in his serial publication Boxiana, described the sport of boxing as "the sweet science."

Lord knows what he would make of the total lack of both sweetness and science in the recent adventures of Tommy Morrison, the journeyman heavyweight who rose to fame with an appearance in the lamentable movie Rocky V, briefly claimed the vacant and lightly regarded World Boxing Organization title with a victory over elderly George Foreman, and then virtually disappeared from the boxing world when he tested positive for HIV before a scheduled Nevada fight in 1996.

"The rug was yanked out from under my feet by a misdiagnosis," Morrison, 38, said. "All I want to do is fight."

Morrison made a return to the ring February 22 in Chester, West Virginia, with a two-round knockout against an opponent of infinitely estimable abilities. He says he wants to fight twice more this month as he continues his comeback, and has signed a contract with Top Rank for eight fights this year. Just by coincidence, he is also talking over a couple of film deals. Subject of the proposed projects: his life.

That's assuming anyone can make comprehensible how he got from there to here.

In the years between his fights, Morrison has at various times claimed that he has taken medications to treat his HIV, has received disability payments based on his HIV status, has said at various times he was exposed to the virus through promiscuous sex or through steroid injections, has served more than a year in jail on drug and weapons charges, has said he has repeatedly not tested positive for the virus, and has said that his original positive test was wrong.

All of which would make him either an earth-shattering medical miracle, a fraud, a victim of a horrific foul-up, or simply one confused cookie.

The cursory coverage of Morrison's return received high profile, contradictory, and superficial coverage in the mainstream sports media. Many repeated without examination Morrison's claim that he no longer has HIV in his system. None sought any professional medical opinions about the fears, founded or unfounded, regarding the free flow of blood in the ring.

The facts regarding Morrison's return as they are known:

» States such as California, Nevada, New York, and New Jersey have mandatory blood-testing for boxing. West Virginia does not.

» Morrison was scheduled to return to boxing in January in Arizona, but withdrew shortly before the bout because of a reported hand injury. Various news agencies at the time reported Morrison's claim that he had tested negative for HIV then, but there was no confirmation or explanation of that claim. John Montano, executive director of the Arizona State Boxing Commission, told Ringside Report he could neither deny nor confirm the claims, saying, "The application for a boxing license for Mr. Morrison was withdrawn before the investigation was complete."

» When Morrison first tested positive, the only available tests were for HIV antibodies. Now tests are available for the virus itself. It is possible for the virus to drop below a detectable level through treatment. That does not mean that the virus is gone from the body. Consider the case of Magic Johnson, who tested positive for HIV five years before Morrison, has been under treatment ever since, has an undetectable viral load, and continues to test positive for the antibodies.

» Morrison's opponent, John Castle, said he was going to refuse to fight Morrison until Morrison showed him copies of tests indicating he had tested negative. But it has never been documented whether the tests Morrison showed were for the antibodies or for the active viral load.

When Morrison and Magic were making medical headlines on the sports pages in the 1990s, the sports world was still locked in cultural hysteria. Through the years, much progress has been made in dealing with HIV rationally and routinely in most sports. Bleeding is now handled as a matter of course. The Gay Games in recent years has begun a push to publicize the need for therapeutic use exemptions to allow athletes under banned drug regimes the right to compete.

But boxing remains on the barbaric fringes. The medical community has an official stand against the entire sport because of its potential for neurological damage, and the promoters are not bending over backwards to explore ways to open the door. No doubt we will be hearing much more in the months ahead as Morrison continues his comeback, but it would be nice if the noise signified rational, humanitarian discussion rather than cultural fear, marketing spin, and political ranting. It would be nice for boxers and others to make rational and compassionate choices, rather than guesses based on fears and incomplete information.

Writing for Ringside Report, Dr. Howard Reynolds said, "There are many, many cases of patients who after years of medication, measured negative on the direct virus test, and stopped taking medicine, believing they were 'cured.' Sadly, in nearly all of those cases they relapsed, and the virus returned.

"The medical community believes that a zero measurement seems to indicate not that all traces of the virus have been eradicated; only that the viral load has fallen below our ability to measure it. The HIV remains in the system, just at very low levels. And if the patient stops taking medicine, the virus will return to high levels.

"Is someone with a zero viral load at risk to infect someone else with his or her blood? Again, and this is the crux of the controversy that is being talked around, we don't know. There is not enough data. If indeed his current viral load is zero, it may well be perfectly safe for Morrison's opponents to face him in the ring. But this is untested, unproven, and one helluva assumption by the West Virginia authorities.

"This central point is not even being discussed."

Time it was.