Boxing, with its cruel, brutal, beautiful nature, lends itself to great writing. The sport itself, with stakes so much higher than any ball game, with death and serious illness an ever present shadow, seems to call out to the very best writers in search of stories that go beyond sport. Boxers, and their very willingness to put their health on the line for money, glory or desperation, are compelling characters. But only sometimes do we get a writer as good as Acevedo and a subject as compelling as Morrison and the result is, inevitably, a brilliant book.
Morrison may be best known to many as the guy who played Tommy Gunn in Rocky V. He reached a level of fame early thanks to the movie and as a young handsome heavyweight fighter he had the charisma and image to potentially make a successful career in the sport. Ultimately, Morrison’s life and career would twist and turn is ways both unexpected and tragic.
While he would achieve some success in the ring during a particularly weak period for heavyweight boxing, his lifestyle and the his demons would ensure he never progressed beyond the ‘Great White Hope’ label before becoming a cautionary tale. His battle with Aids, both medically and psychologically, would shape the last years of his life as he went deeper into the world of conspiracy theories and crackpot medicine.
The Duke is above all an exceptional work of biography. Acevedo chronicles Morrison’s unique life in fascinating, forensic detail with an abundance of stories highlighting the absurdity of Morrison’s life. Between his traumatic childhood, his steroid obsession, his HIV denialism and his womanizing, Morrison experienced enough to fill many lifetimes. Acevedo’s achievement is to tell the story in a way that is riveting but not lurid, gripping but not eulogizing.
One aspect that sets the book apart is Acevedo’s assessment of Morrison’s boxing career in the broader context of the sport. He dissects the quality (or lack thereof) of his opponents and highlights the difficulty of assessing Morrison’s actual talents when he was so poorly matched for almost all of his career.
Aged before he was grown, famous before he was successful and washed-up before he was 30, Morrison experienced a life that few would emerge from unscathed. That his vices were so clearly enabled, that his was career so poorly plotted, and that his delusions were so troubling validated by those around him doesn’t absolve Morrison from judgment for his actions. Acevedo however does properly paint him as a man whose chances of a happy ending were slim from the beginning.
Like all great sports books, it goes beyond the sport and places Morrison in the context of his time and wider celebrity culture. Acevedo is a sensationally good writer with some brilliantly memorable turns of phrase. I’d also strongly recommend his essay collection A Sporting Blood.
The Duke is unputdownable in a way non-fiction rarely is. It grips you and submerges you in a narrative that is riveting, comic, and ultimately tragic.