By William Plummer
November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

Growing up tough in Jay, Okla., Tommy Morrison greeted the first Rocky the way young ladies in finishing school must once have taken to Emily Post—as a revelation and a training manual. “I was 9 and had just started messing with boxing,” says Tommy. “I saw Rocky as a role model. I wanted to do everything he did, except take that terrible punishment. I’d even drink raw eggs before going out on my morning run. I wanted to be Rocky.”

Twelve years later the starstruck prepubescent, now a strapping 21, has gotten his wish—or something very much like it. The grandnephew of John Wayne and a bona fide heavyweight prospect (23-0), Tommy “the Duke” Morrison has a leading role in Rocky V. He plays, what else, a young tough from Oklahoma named Tommy “Machine” Gunn. A down-but-not-quite-out Rocky, whose brain, it turns out, was damaged in that Rocky IV brawl with the Russian, Ivan Drago, is told he should stay out of the ring. So he takes on Tommy as his protégé.

Morrison had no prior acting experience, but he so impressed Sylvester Stallone during shooting that Sly had the script rewritten to delve into the relationship between Gunn and Rocky, doubling the young fighter’s time on the screen. “It was a trial by fire for Tommy,” says Stallone. “The last thing he expected was that he would be the centerpiece of Rocky V. But the kid’s a natural actor.”

He’s also a natural fighter. And despite having John Wayne in his blood and pocketing $100,000 from his work in Rocky V—more money than he has made in all his fights put together—movies still take a backseat to his dream of becoming world champion. But then, what else would one expect of a kid who came of age in Jay (pop. 4,000), a mostly Cherokee Indian town where whites had to prove their mettle daily? “I never started a fight,” recalls Tommy. “But it didn’t take that much to get me interested. There’d be parties, and the Indians would stand outside and wait for you. Then on the weekends you’d have to fight their older brothers and cousins,” he says. “It stopped my [high school] junior year—by that time I’d been through pretty near everybody.”

Tommy, his brother and his sister moved from Gravett, Ark., to Jay with their mother, Diane, after her divorce from Tim Morrison in 1980. That same year Tim, who delivered propane in Pawhuska, Okla., lost an eye in an accident and then his job. So Tommy started entering “tough man contests”—organized free-for-alls staged mostly at country fairs—for grocery money. “The first time I did it, in Woodward [Okla.], I was scared,” says Tommy, who was 13 but used a fake ID to pass for 21. “But I learned these huge guys with big guts and hair on their back are hell for 30 seconds; then they can’t keep their hands up. I fought twice in that contest and won $300, most money I ever saw.”

Diane was the one who suggested he give up football—he had a scholarship to Emporia State University—and take up boxing in earnest. Tommy trained for two weeks on the porch of his house, hitting a duffel bag stuffed with clothes. In 1988 he won the Kansas City, Mo., Golden Gloves, advanced to the National Gloves in Omaha and got invited to the western Olympic trials. He came up short in Concord, Calif., where he lost a split decision to heavyweight Ray Mercer, who went on to win a gold medal in Seoul. “From the time my mom asked me to fight to losing to Mercer was 2½ months,” says Tommy. “I started thinking, ‘Hey, maybe this is what I ought to do.’ ”

He has been encouraged in this line of thought by his co-managers, John Brown, who also trains him, and Bill Cayton, the legal manager of Mike Tyson (whose career is run by Don King). It was Cayton’s idea to send a cassette of Tommy’s biggest hits to Stallone when he heard Sly was looking for a real-life fighter to star with him in Rocky V. Working with Stallone has yielded dividends for Morrison beyond his big payday. Since Sly wanted the kid’s muscles more “cut,” Morrison’s 6’1″, 210-lb. frame has gained definition. And in his most recent outings—such as last month’s fifth-round kayo of John “Big Red” Morton—he has shown himself to be more relaxed and therefore a harder puncher than ever.

Still, many in the boxing sodality remain dubious about Morrison—they wonder whether he is just another in a long line of overhyped white-hope heavyweights. Tommy himself realizes that once Rocky V hits the theaters, there will be “no more easy fights. Everyone will train a little harder to beat the movie star.” And yet he has no thoughts, just now, of switching to a career where the only jabs thrown are by critics. He’s determined to do in real life what his boyhood idol did on the silver screen—win the heavyweight title. “Rocky V was a tremendous opportunity,” he says. “I plan someday on pursuing the movies. But I’ve got unfinished business in boxing.”