By Michael Parente
Six months ago, as he prepared for the second fight of his highly-anticipated comeback, Providence boxer Peter Manfredo Jr. made it perfectly clear the only reason he was stepping back into the ring was to support his family.
The dreams of winning a world title have long since faded for the former Contender reality television star. At 32 years old with 46 fights under his belt, two kids, a wife going back to school and a full-time job as a laborer in Boston, Manfredo’s sole purpose is to make enough money to provide his children with a future so many fighters before him had failed to do.
“I would never put my kids in this game,” he said at the time. “There are no happy endings in this sport.”
Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time who won 66 fights and held the world title for more than a decade, transcending race long before Jackie Robinson burst onto the scene, died broke at the age of 66, nearly two decades after the IRS seized a $64,000 trust fund he had set up for his children to cover what he owed in back taxes.
Leon Spinks, who beat Muhammed Ali in 1978 in just his eighth pro fight to capture the heavyweight championship, made more than $5 million in his career, but wound up years later working for minimum wage at a YMCA in Nebraska and reportedly suffers from dementia.
Joe Frazier, who staged three epic battles with Muhammad Ali, the third one infamously dubbed “The Thrilla In Manila,” lost millions and wound up living in a one-bedroom apartment above his gym in Philadelphia before he died of liver cancer in 2011. Even Ali, considered by many to be the greatest fighter in the history of boxing, has suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome for the past three decades, a byproduct of the head trauma he sustained through the years. Another former champion, Iran Barkley, wound up homeless less than 20 years after beating Tommy Hearns to capture the light heavyweight title in 1992.
Though not nearly as prolific as Ali and Frazier, or any of the aforementioned fighters who endured hardships of their own, former heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison became boxing’s latest casualty Sunday night when he died at the age of 44 in a Nebraska hospital. The cause of his death is unknown at this time, though Morrison dealt with many public and personal demons both in and outside the ring following his rise to fame in the mid-1990s.
Nicknamed “The Duke,” Morrison won 48 fights with 42 knockouts and captured the world heavyweight title in 1993 by beating 43-year-old George Foreman by unanimous decision. Casual fans may remember him best for his role alongside Sylvester Stallone as up-and-coming boxer Tommy Gunn in the 1989 motion picture Rocky V, but Morrison wound up on the wrong side of the law shortly thereafter, catching cases for public intoxication and assault, and ultimately tested positive for HIV in 1996, beginning a highly-publicized downfall that overshadowed an otherwise solid career.
The unraveling of Tommy Morrison is a story all too common in professional boxing, the type of sad ending current fighters such as Manfredo Jr. and others try desperately to avoid. In the years following his HIV diagnosis, Morrison denied ever having the disease and even challenged its existence, in some cases claiming a rival promoter had framed him. He ultimately returned to the ring in 2007 after passing medical tests in Arizona. He took three more HIV tests that year with experts concluding his results in 1996 were a false positive, though ringside physicians disputed that claim.
Like many fighters before him, Morrison also battled financial and legal troubles. He spent two years in prison for multiple DUIs and possession of firearms, with a third year tacked on for violating parole. After getting charged with possession of marijuana and other drug paraphernalia in 2011, Morrison claimed in a financial affidavit that he did not own a home or a car, having squandered more than $10 million in earnings. In August, ESPN reported Morrison had been bed-ridden for more than a year, couldn’t speak and was being kept alive through a feeding tube.
While many athletes dig their own grave through reckless spending and poor decision-making, there’s a case to be made for those whose physical and mental misfortunes are the result of the damage inflicted between the lines, or, in the case of professional boxers, between the ropes.
The NFL recently reached a historic, $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 former players to provide research, compensation and funding for medical exams for those who either have suffered from, or continue to suffer from, severe head trauma related to concussions sustained during their playing careers.
This is a landmark case that will help promote player safety and provide the necessary dollars for those who’ve long since retired and either have no health insurance, or enough money, to cover the costs of their medical bills, but there’s no such contingency plan in place for former boxers, many of whom have suffered just as much physical damage as the former football players named in the lawsuit.
The harsh reality of boxing is it’s the ultimate individual sport. There’s no retirement plan or 401k for those who put their lives on the line for a few hundred dollars here and there. Many fighters live a nomadic lifestyle traveling from state to state, some without proper guidance or management, or without a legitimate promoter looking out for his or her best interests.
In addition to the landmark settlement between the NFL and its former players, the league also has programs in place to help mentor rookies and young stars on how to manage their money wisely and avoid the financial downfalls that have left many of their predecessors without a dollar to their name.
With no singular governing body overseeing the sport, just sanctioning bodies that act as their own entities, perhaps it’s up to boxing’s most wealthy promoters, the Bob Arums and Oscar De La Hoyas of the world, to get the ball rolling on a program that will help today’s fighters avoid the pitfalls that have plagued some of the sport’s most iconic figures, such as Joe Louis, Joe Frazier and even Tommy Morrison. Fifteen years ago, a former fighter named Alex Ramos founded the Retired Boxers Foundation in an attempt to help the cause, but even he battled his own demons, dealing with a severe case of mistaken identity in connection with a rape and kidnapping charge, and struggling with drugs and alcohol along the way.
No one knows for sure whether or not Morrison would’ve listened had there been a hand held out to guide him, but with so many fighters adding their own chapter to boxing’s encyclopedia of tragic endings, it’s time to do something to rewrite the story.
Support WBOB Sports