Former WBO heavyweight champion Tommy Morrison has died at the age of 44 after a lengthy battle with illness.

Morrison passed away at a hospital in Omaha Nebraska, according to his long-time promoter and friend Tony Holden.

A spokesman for Holden's company, Holden Promotions, said: “We can confirm that Tommy Morrison passed away late on Sunday night."

No cause of death was given but Morrison tested positive for HIV in a test conducted by the Nevada State Athletic Commission in 1996, bringing an end to his top-level career.

Morrison later claimed the test was a 'false positive', and returned to the ring for a short comeback in 2007.

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Morrison, nicknamed 'The Duke' on account of his claims to be a distant relative of John Wayne, was considered the 'Great White Hope' of the heavyweight division in the early 1990s.

Morrison grew up a rural Oklahoma and won a Toughman contest at the age of 13 after entering the adults-only tournament with a fake ID.

He turned professional in 1988 after missing out on a place on the US Olympic team, and won 29 consecutive bouts before a brutal defeat to Ray Mercer in 1991.

He was picked by Sylvester Stallone to star alongside him in the film Rocky V, playing Tommy 'The Machine' Gunn, a wayward protege of Rocky Balboa.

Morrison won the WBO title by outpointing George Foreman in 1993 but missed out on a reported $7.5million payday against Lennox Lewis when he was knocked out in the first round of a routine title defence against Michael Bentt.

By his own admission Morrison's boxing career was hampered by a chaotic and promiscuous private life.

He served time in prison for alcohol and motoring offences.

Morrison finally earned his shot at Lewis after climbing off the floor to beat leading contender Donovan 'Razor' Ruddock in 1995. But Morrison was no match for the champion who stopped him in six one-sided rounds in Atlantic City.

Shortly after the Lewis fight, Morrison announced he had tested positive for HIV and would never fight again. However in 2006 Morrison began to question the validity of the original tests, and claimed to be virus-free.

Banned by most boxing commissions, Morrison made a comeback in West Virginia in 2007 with a win over John Castle, and fought for the last time in February 2008, scoring a third-round win over Matt Weishaar.