From the archives: Remembering Tommy Morrison
Posted on September 3, 2013
Tommy Morrison punches during a fight against Carl “Truth” Williams at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, Nevada on January 16, 1993. (Photo by Brad Mangin)
Yesterday when I heard that former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison was dead at the young age of 44 it made me sad. It did not seem like that long ago when I photographed the young man in the ring on assignment for Sports Illustrated. However, it was a long time ago. 20 years to be exact. Way back on January 16, 1993 I flew a Reno Air jet from San Francisco to Reno, Nevada to shoot the young star battle with Carl “Truth” Williams. This was a big fight. Mills Lane was the referee and Morrison was working his way up for a title fight.
I am sure many of you might be wondering what in the Hell I was doing shooting a boxing match on assignment for Sports Illustrated 20 years ago. At the time I was toiling in my shitty full-time job as a staff photographer at The Argus in Fremont, California. At the same time I was trying to freelance so I could eventually get out of the paper. I had done a few things for the magazine, but mostly baseball and football. I was pleasantly surprised when they called me to shoot this fight, which was the under card for the main event between George Foreman and Pierre Coetzer. Of course I was not the first choice to shoot this night of boxing at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center. My buddy V.J. Lovero was assigned to go. He was a GREAT boxing photographer and shot tons of fights for the magazine in Las Vegas. However, V.J. hated to fly in bad weather, and there was a ton of snow in the Sierras that winter. Driving was not an option for V.J. and his assistant Bob Binder, so I got the last minute call.
I knew of Morrison from his role as the young fighter Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. The movie came out in 1990 and what I remember most about the film was the appearance of the awesome newspaper I was working for at the time, The National Sports Daily. I was the Bay Area staff photographer for the new sports newspaper and there were constant rumors of our demise. I can still remember seeing Rocky V at the Cinedome 7 in Newark, California where I lived at the time. There was a scene where Rocky was reading the morning paper and it was The National! This means we are not going to fold I thought- we are in a movie! Boy was I wrong. We folded in June of 1991.
I was super excited to shoot my first fight for the magazine, but it was not going to be easy. Back in those days we had to shoot color slide film, or “chrome” for boxing. This meant no zoom lenses because we had to shoot Kodak Ektachrome 160 Tungsten pushed a stop or two. The exposure for an indoor boxing match was 1/500th at 2.0 or 1.4. It was crazy shooting with prime lenses and not being able to zoom in and out with a 2.8 lens shooting Fuji 800 color negative film. The quality of the slide film was nice, but there was no depth of field and your exposures had to be perfect.
I remember borrowing a Canon 50mm 1.2 lens from Canon Professional Services for the fight (back in the day when last minute loans like this were possible). I also shot with a Canon 100mm 2.0 lens. By the time both fights were over I had to rush to the airport to put the film on a plane to New York and call our awesome courier at the time: the late, great Bob Ryan, with all the shipping details.
The excitement was not over as I had a short night at the Eldorado before my 7am flight back to San Francisco to shoot the NFC Championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. It was snowing when I left Reno and raining like crazy when I landed at SFO. Needless to say it wasn’t the smoothest flight I have ever been on.
Later in 1993 Morrison beat Foreman to win the WBO heavyweight title. At a news conference in 1996 Morrison said he had contracted HIV because of a “permissive, fast and reckless lifestyle”. Morrison stated that he would “absolutely” never fight again.
The rest of his life was filled with failed comebacks and reports of his HIV tests resulting in false positives. Any way you look at it, the young boxer died way too young. I am glad I had the chance to photograph him when he was at his prime. On chrome, and in Reno!
R.I.P. Tommy Gunn.