John Wayne: The Cowboy Icon’s Grandnephew Was a Boxing Star Featured in a ‘Rocky’ Movie

by Emily Morgan

While much is known about the legendary Western star John Wayne, fans of the icon may not know that his grandnephew was a famous boxer. 

John Wayne’s grandnephew, Tommy Morrison, was a heavyweight boxer and a former World Boxing Organization champion. During his career, he won the WBO heavyweight championship in 1993. In addition to having a successful career as an athlete, he also followed in Wayne’s footsteps when he starred in Rocky V alongside Sylvester Stallone. He portrayed mulleted Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, the main antagonist in the movie.

Even though Morrison had success in the boxing world, he had it rough growing up. His father was an abusive alcoholic, and his mother had gone on trial for murder. Tragically, in 1996, Morrison contracted HIV due to what he describes as a “permissive, fast, and reckless lifestyle.”

In the wake of his diagnosis, he left boxing. In 2006, he announced that the original HIV tests had been false positives, and he was free of the disease. The following year, he tested negative, which some speculate was due to t tampering with blood samples. When he wanted to come back to the ring in 2011, Quebec required him to take a supervised blood test before allowing him to fight, but he refused.

John Wayne’s Grandnephew’s Tragic Diagnosis

Even though he told the world he was free from the disease, Morrison remained HIV positive and did very little to seek treatment. Even Magic Johnson reached out to Morrison to offer support, as he also suffered from the disease, but Morrison didn’t respond.

In 2013, Morrison died of AIDS-related complications at 44 after being bedridden for over a year.

At the time of his death, Morrison’s longtime promoter and friend, Tony Holden, confirmed his passing. His family would not disclose the cause of death. Before his death, Morrison and his wife continued to deny that the former boxing champion had HIV during his final years. 

“Tommy’s a very stubborn person and he views things the way he wants to view things. That’s his right and privilege,” Holden said. “All through his career, him and I would come not to physical blows but disagreements on certain things. We always ended up friends. That was Tommy.

“That’s the way Tommy took off after he was told he was HIV-positive,” Holden added. “When he first was told, I was taking him to seek treatment and to different doctors around the country. And then he started research on the Internet and started saying it was a conspiracy. He went in that direction and never looked back.”