Twenty-eight years after his epic clash with Sugar Ray Leonard in Las Vegas, former Light-Heavyweight world champion Donny Lalonde provides an insight into his boxing career and shares his memories of the Leonard fight.
There are very few fighters who can say that they had Sugar Ray Leonard bloodied and on the canvas. Donny Lalonde is one of them.
On the 7th of November 1988, Leonard was bidding to become a five weight world champion and Lalonde was standing in his way. The WBC Light-heavyweight champion dropped Leonard in the fourth round and for a moment it seemed he could cause an upset.
Unfortunately for Lalonde there would be no upset that night. Leonard cemented his place in boxing history with a ninth round stoppage of his opponent.
It would seem logical that Lalonde should feel aggrieved in some way about his defeat but when asked about his memories of that fight his initial response is unexpected.
“I regret calling Sugar Ray Leonard fat,” Lalonde says, “It just wasn’t my style.”
It was a surprising reaction to the Leonard fight, but then Lalonde’s style has always been unconventional.
Donny Lalonde did not get an easy start in life. He grew up in Winnipeg in a household where he was subjected to an abusive step Father. That relationship had a profound influence on the young Lalonde, his self esteem was greatly affected and in many ways he spent much of his life trying to prove his worth to a violent and bullying father figure.
Lalonde left home at 15 hitch hiking to Kitchener in search of work. He discovered boxing and his first amateur trainer was Hook McComb who also trained a young Lennox Lewis. It was in McComb’s gym with no equipment per say apart from a heavy bag that Lalonde discovered his talent and desire for boxing. He wanted to be the first Canadian boxer to make a million dollars.
In 1979, Lalonde lost to Pat Fennell in the national finals. Lalonde had been setting his sights on the Olympic Games in 1980, but he was impatient for success so after fifteen amateur fights he decided to turn professional.
Nobody thought Lalonde would make it in boxing. Like so many Canadian’s his first love was hockey. When he was 17 he suffered an injury to his shoulder, when during a hockey game he was clobbered in the shoulder by a player in the opposite team. He had to have surgery, which was unsuccessful and as a result he could not hold his left close to his body, which also made it difficult to throw a jab.
Undeterred Lalonde began a professional boxing career, under the tutelage of Peter Piper and Al Sparks in his native Winnipeg. He was also managed by Dave Wolf, a former journalist from New York.
Wolf would have a significant influence on Lalonde’s career. “Dave was a character,” explains Lalonde, “A New Yorker who never had a drivers licence. He was witty, intelligent, well read and a lot of fun. He was a genius and a real blessing to me in my life.”
He rose to prominence in his native Canada making a name for himself against experienced domestic opposition.
He travelled to Toronto and notched up an eight round decision over Don Hurtle, “I was in his home town and afterwards he visited my hotel with beer and pizza to make me feel welcome,” remembers Lalonde, “He was a nice guy.”
After fifteen bouts he won the Canadian Light Heavyweight title with a tenth round stoppage of Roddy MacDonald in 1983. MacDonald was a heavy puncher as Lalonde explains, “He hit me on the left side of my face and that my head rattled. I have never been hit so hard in a fight as I was in that one.”
Lalonde would later defend his Canadian title against Jimmy Gradson who was managed by former heavyweight George Chuvalo.
“The defence against Gradson was my first fight after a second bout of surgery on my shoulder. Gradson was another hard puncher, my plan was to stay out of range and keep moving.”
Within thirty seconds of the first round Lalonde dropped Gradson for the first time in his career. A minute later Lalonde flattened the challenger with a solid right.
Lalonde soon earned himself the nickname “The Golden Boy.” The moniker just added to his marketability. In a sport dominated by Black and Latino fighters Lalonde stood out with his blonde mullet and ‘surfer dude,’ image. He was handsome and articulate which were not stereotypical characteristics for hardened fighters in the ’80s.
Lalonde admits, “I was not a conventional prize fighter. When I first started as a professional I was nicknamed ‘Dynamite Donny.’ I didn’t like it. I had a desire to represent boxing in a different light. I wanted to be something more positive. Someone came up with ‘Golden Boy,’ and it just stuck.”
Lalonde was quickly moving from a prospect to a contender. However he still encountered detractors particularly in the press who felt he would amount to nothing.
“I could understand why people questioned my ability. I had a bad arm, I was awkward I had no amateur experience. In a way you have to question your own sanity, but I boxed an exhibition with Tommy Hearns and that woke a lot of people up to the fact that I could fight. That inspired me to achieve my ambition.”
The fight which really made people take Lalonde seriously was against Mustafa Hamsho in 1987. Born in Syria, the New York based Hamsho had unsuccessfully challenged Marvin Hagler for the middleweight world title in 1984 but he had beaten notable world champions; Alan Minter, Bobby Czyz and Wilfred Benitez. He was a seasoned veteran but Lalonde beat him over twelve rounds by a unanimous decision.
A world title challenge was looming. The light-heavyweight division was wide open in 1987 with the undisputed champion Michael Spinks having moved up to campaign as a heavyweight. Lalonde signed to fight Eddie Davis for the vacant WBC title in November 1987 but his detractors were still nipping at his heels.
“Nobody gave me credit for getting my title shot or a chance to win the fight,” remarks Lalonde, “People were saying the only reason I was getting a shot was because my manager had manipulated the sanctioning body. The Canadian media didn’t even send a journalist to the fight, two guys; Rick Frazier and Tom Brennan paid their own way to go down. Other than those two there was no coverage of the fight. Everyone was saying I didn’t belong there.”
Eddie Davis had beaten future world champion Murray Sutherland he had proved his quality in losses to Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Michael Spinks. He was a tough fighter but any notion that Lalonde didn’t belong in his company was quickly dispelled. Davis was dropped twice and stopped in the second round by Lalonde. Finally people would have to take notice of the Canadian.
Despite the joy and exhilaration of winning a world title the main emotion Lalonde felt was relief. “Mentally going into the Davis fight I had put a lot of pressure on myself. I had said after one professional fight that I wanted to win a world title. I had then devoted my 20s to boxing, I had to win or face having wasted perhaps the most productive years of my life.”
“My trainers Bobby Cassidy and Tommy Gallagher worked their butts off to get me in shape. I rose to the occasion that night, it was a legitimate title shot and I beat a legitimate guy. It was the ultimate way for an underdog to win a world championship, with no mistakes or controversy.”
Lalonde followed his championship winning performance with a difficult first defence against former WBA Light-heavyweight champion Leslie Stewart in the challenger’s homeland of Trinidad and Tobago.
“Stewart was known for his toughness and durability,” Lalonde recalls, “There was talk at one stage that he would move up and fight Mike Tyson. Once again, there was a lot of pressure on me in that fight. I remember jogging on the running track in the National stadium in Trinidad and Tobago and the locals coming up to me and threatening me. It did get nasty at one point. On the day of the fight the place was surrounded by police with machine guns and Doberman Pinchers just in case the crowd got out of control.”
The locals could have no complaints about the result of the fight. Lalonde stopped Stewart in five rounds. The win provided a much needed boost to Lalonde’s self-esteem, “Leslie was a great fighter. I had beaten someone who was considered a great champion, it validated me as a professional and I could now claim to be the legitimate Light-Heavyweight champion of the world.”
Lalonde’s career was on an all-time high. He had fulfilled his life’s ambition to become a world champion, now he had set his sights on setting himself up financially for the rest of his life. It was at this point in his career that Lalonde was asked if he would consider moving down in weight to fight Sugar Ray Leonard.
By his own admission Lalonde did not take it seriously, effectively it meant a Welterweight fighting a Light-heavyweight. Not only that but Leonard was thirty-two years old and had been inactive since he had beaten Marvin Hagler for the world middleweight title in April 1987. However with Tommy “The Hitman,” Hearns cementing his place in boxing history as a world champion in multiple weight divisions, Leonard was considering his own legacy and did not want to be out done by his rival.
The Leonard camp shrewdly negotiated the terms of the fight scheduled for the 7th of November 1988 in Las Vegas. The bout would be fixed at 168 lbs the weight limit for the newly created Super-Middleweight division. The inaugural WBC Super-middleweight title and Lalonde’s Light-Heavyweight title would both be on the line, enabling Leonard to capture titles in two divisions on the one night.
Lalonde had been a Light-Heavyweight for his entire career but he was optimistic about fighting in the lower weight division. “I thought I could make it no problem, I was always disciplined and I was a vegetarian so it was easy for me to lose weight.”
However the terms of the contract did weigh heavily on the outcome of the fight. A verbal agreement had been put in place that if Lalonde couldn’t make the weight, for every pound he was over the 168lb limit he would be penalised $1 million a pound. This stipulation would have a significant bearing on Lalonde’s training camp.
“In terms of how the verbal agreement would have impacted my trainer’s share of my purse, they would have lost $100,000 for every pound I was overweight. My trainer at the time was Tommy Gallagher and he wanted to make sure that I was underweight. I sparred ten rounds a day for seven weeks of the eight week camp. I over trained and by the weigh-in I was 163lbs. I was nowhere near the strength I should have been. If I had been my natural fighting weight which was 173lbs I would have destroyed Ray Leonard.”
It was during a press conference for the fight that Lalonde branded Leonard a “old fat welterweight,” something he now has reservations about doing, “I do regret calling Leonard a fat welterweight,” admits Lalonde, “I only said it to get into his head in respect of his natural weight. I just thought you can’t gain weight and still be effective.”
Lalonde’s natural size and strength did have a bearing on the fight, in the fourth round he dropped a bleeding Leonard to the canvas. The momentum should have turned in favour of the Canadian but ultimately Leonard would emerge victorious with a ninth round stoppage.
“The fight was over when I abandoned my game plan,” explains Lalonde, “I would fight with my left held low because I held it oddly it was always perceived as weak. I would pretend I was vulnerable then nail him with the right.”
“After the knockdown I thought the next time I hit this guy the fight is over. I started waiting for the opening and I guess he saw this and took advantage. Bob Dylan was in the audience that night and he said to me afterwards, ‘why didn’t you keep throwing the jab and then throw the right?’ and I asked, ‘where were you between the fourth and fifth rounds?’ (Laughs).”
Lalonde’s last hurrah came in the ninth when he launched a final assault on Leonard. He unleashed thirty one straight punches at Sugar Ray, who retaliated with a series of hooks before a straight right sent Lalonde to the canvas. He rose and gave Leonard a knowing nod. Leonard resumed his attack dropping Lalonde to the canvas with a vicious left-right combination. Lalonde fell awkwardly on the ring apron and the referee signalled the end.
Despite the loss the fight with Leonard would have a life changing effect on Lalonde. The fight had been promoted under the banner of Victory Promotions which in effect was a co-promotion between both fighters. Leonard reportedly received $15 million and Lalonde $5 million for the fight. The year before Lalonde had made $500,000 between the Davis and Stewart fights and before that the most he had earned was $20,000 for a fight.
Lalonde was effectively financially secure for the rest of his life. It marked a significant change in his personal life.
“Life turned crazy after the Leonard fight, I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised. The freedom that money brought changed my life tremendously. It was a heck of a fun time.”
In 1989 Lalonde retired from boxing as a result of damage to his throat cartilage, “I had a sore throat for months,” Lalonde recalls, “eventually my manager made me go and see a specialist who discovered half of my larynx had been crushed. I had been close to death without realising.”
Despite what seemed like a career ending prognosis Lalonde found it difficult to completely turn his back on boxing. He made a series of comebacks in the 90s and 2000s unsuccessfully challenging Bobby Czyz for the WBA Cruiserweight title in 1992 and dropping a ten round decision to long-time rival Virgil Hill in 2002.
Lalonde is adamant his ability to box well into his forties is as a result of his interest in alternative medicine. The shoulder injury that had plagued him for his entire career had been healed using “Active Release Technique,” (ART) which had been developed by Mike Leahy of Colorado Springs.
“I realised early in my career if I wanted to be a successful athlete that I couldn’t rely on a doctor. I had a very poor experience of surgery with my shoulder. I started to read up on alternative medicine and learning about the relationship between food and our health. I am a walking example that we don’t need a lot of what Western medicine tells us. I haven’t taken an aspirin since I was 21 and I don’t deal with any form of pain, discomfort or surgery with anything other than natural remedies.”
Today Lalonde enjoys the simpler things in life. After boxing he moved with his wife Christie and two children Dylan and Bailey to Costa Rica to start a real estate business. He remains an anti-child abuse advocate and an advocate on the awareness of alternative therapies for contact sport athletes through his TKOOO initiative. He currently resides in Malta where he is writing his autobiography.
Although he regrets his comments about Ray Leonard he does not have any regrets about his boxing career, “The proudest part of my career was winning a world title but also getting in and out of boxing without being damaged. That’s a big achievement.”
In a long and varied career for Donny Lalonde it is nothing short of a triumph.