Donny Lalonde is best known for fighting Sugar Ray Leonard in 1988, with the WBC light heavyweight championship of the world up for grabs. Many people don’t realize that in addition to Lalonde's strap, the WBC super middleweight world title would for the first time be for the taking.
Coming off his entry into the NY State Boxing Hall of Fame, Lalonde kindly took the time to tell NY Fights his story of abuse, street fights and some shocking and compelling incidences.
“I was born in Kitchener, right outside of Toronto, the same place Lennox Lewis fought out of,” said the man who is in the pound for pound mullet hall of fame for the ‘do he sported on Nov. 1988 at the Caesars Palace parking lot.
“At three we moved to Vancouver, my parents split up and I lived with my mum and siblings on welfare. We kind of had a rough start. She married another guy when I was ten or eleven, who was very sick. He was physically abusive so it was a crazy homestead.”
For the first time in his life Lalonde encountered fighting. He’d never imagined it would be at such a young age and he never imagined it would be his mum on the receiving end of it.
“My mom’s new husband was kind of a nutcase. If you were supposed to be home at 8:00 and you came in at 8:01 you would end up unconscious on the floor. Or if he decided for whatever reason he was motivated he would take some kind of bat he had, like a big pole, and destroy the whole house, the furniture, everything. He would keep the phone cord so he’d know we couldn’t call the police. Mentally sick this guy was. He beat my mum nearly to death, the worst times were in front of us kids. Just all kinds of crazy, sick stuff.”
The Lalonde family were not safe at home, and little Don was no less happy outside of his broken home. He had to battle his way to get to school, get past a gauntlet of bullies. So, he knew he needed a change in his life and boxing provided that change.
“I decided at a young age to leave home,” he recalled. “I left and fortunately, I found boxing, which gave me direction and a focus in my life and probably helped me more than anything.”
He entered The Astoria Boxing Club in Vancouver at age 11. The kid later on known “Golden Boy” for his luxurious head-covering attended Catholic school where he’d be forced to rumble with Protestants on his way to get to school.
This was a different time, remember; now many parents parachute in to such a situation and seek to solve it, by folding in school personnel. Back then, what did Don’s mom suggest?
“I was doing okay in the street fights but boxing helped give me some direction,” he tells NYF, “and some hope that I could do something with my life through boxing.”
Six years later when Lalonde was 17 a decision had been made. Professional boxing was the path he wanted to take, the route that took him to world title glory with a few bumps in the road.
He recalls the thinking in his head when the switch clicked in his brain. “I was sitting having a cigarette and a beer with my brother and some boxing match came on television, ‘Wide World of Sports’ type of thing. I said, ‘Look at that guy, he just looks so self-confident, he’s got such strong self-esteem and looks like how I would like to feel about myself just for one day. I’m going to become a fighter and see if I can feel good about myself.’ That’s what got me started. It was a direction to reclaim self-worth, self-esteem and to feel better.”
On April 24, 1980, Lalonde had his pro debut, in Winnipeg. He stopped Ken Nichols, TKO2. He collected three more wins, then met 6-1 Wilbert Johnson, ‘The Fighting Vampire’ on March 6, 1981, in Winnipeg, underneath a Wayne Caplette v Doug Demmings middleweight regional title fight.
“It was horrible, I never planned to lose any fight. It was a horrific experience, my hand was broken in the first round and it was shattered throughout the fight because it was a six-round fight and he had a very hard head! I still thought I won the fight, their corner followed him back after the fight and I heard them say to him ‘You effing bum, you could’ve won that fight.’ They didn’t even think they’d won but there’s a lot of politics in my hometown because I wasn’t aligned with the connected promoters. So they gave him the decision and I got a rematch, seven months later. I couldn’t even consider doing anything except for having a rematch. I knocked him out in the second round to make sure I didn’t leave it up to the judges. That’s something I did throughout the rest of my career. It took seven months because of my hand injury from the first fight. My index finger metacarpal was broken in the first round completely in half. I kept using it and the impact kept crushing it further and further each time I landed. So it ended up quite a mess, it’s quite a bit shorter than it would be naturally still today. It was a very painful and long recovery for what would typically be thought of as just a fracture.”
Fight fans don’t always factor it in, those bumps and bruises and fractures from back in the day can linger, and present themselves decades later.
“Between my right hand and my left shoulder, I have been out numerous times, had two surgeries and it set me back a lot. That’s why by the time I was championship level I was so damaged in so many ways. I had six different injuries and at one time a specialist said that my career was over. I was very damaged physically throughout my career and it limited the time I was able to compete at the highest level.”
Lalonde kept grinding, taking on “testers” like Canadian Roddy MacDonald, who could crack more than a bit; Jimmy Gradson, a Montreal fixture recalled by some as the guy who trained for the match on day passes from incarceration facility where he was serving a 90-day sentence for assaulting a jogger; Indiana toughman Carlos Tite, in a bout which ran on ESPN, and clever Detroit resident Willie Edwards.
Lalonde’s form at the time, in May 1985, wasn’t technically tight.
He’d throw hard and wide, find himself in awkward positions and open to counters—and Edwards took advantage, taking a TKO9 win over the Winnipeg fan fave.
Lalonde’s team reset, and he piled up nine wins against less capable foes, an 0-2, an 0-3 guy and a pro debuter.
On September 30, 1986, he stepped up a bit versus 17-6 Charles Henderson from Kansas City, taking a TKO8 victory. Next time out, on Nov. 6, 1986, the 26 year old Lalonde faced 18-6 Benito Fernandez, a Spanish South Carolinian. Lalonde had been getting seasoning in the gyms in NYC, doing a 1 1/2 year stint in the Big Apple. “I have a much more educated left hand, a much more lethal left hand,” he shared ahead of the Fernandez tango at the Winnipeg Convention Center. He wanted to protect his No. 2 ranking in the WBA’s light heavyweight roster, and a win would put him in place to get a title crack. Bonnie Tylers’ “Holding Out For A Hero” blared on the PA, and leading the ring walk was baby-faced tutor Teddy Atlas.
Lalonde shares some on his recollection of time spent with the Cus D’Amato disciple, Atlas, who transitioned from trainer to analyst/trainer to UFC analyst/podcaster as a fight-game lifer.
“All trainers have their approach and Teddy’s is to be overbearing, sort of belittling a person and thinking he’s going to make them better by making them feel like less,” Lalonde said. “That didn’t work for me, I came from an abusive background and I didn’t need to be abused by my trainer. I needed to be lifted. 11 months I was with Teddy. I feel the fighters I fought whilst I was with him wasn’t that impressive, because I was getting worse under Teddy, not better.”
A move was contemplated, and made. “My manager Dave Wolf, and I one day decided to make a change and I moved to Bobby Cassidy, who’s very positive and upbeat and Tommy Gallagher, who’s a positive and upbeat person. And sure, we still had to work on things but we focused on positive things and built around those things instead of just focusing on negatives every day like it was with Teddy.”
In a shocking revelation years later Teddy Atlas revealed that he was so enraged with the purse Lalonde received when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard, Atlas went over to the apartment where Donny was living at the time with a loaded gun, there to take the life of Canadian hitter.
“More than anything I felt sorry for Teddy,” Lalonde continued. “What kind of a mind thinks of such a thing to kill somebody, if you look at the dates of everything he talks about it was two years after I worked with Teddy that I made the money with Ray Leonard. He had nothing to do with it and he had no right to it. There were people earlier in my career several guys who gave me tons more time, more knowledge and more wisdom than Teddy did and they never got paid either.”
Lalonde follows his critique with an attempt at softening the blows. “I’m not taking away from what Teddy has done in his career, all I’m saying is for me and others I know because of they talk to me, Shannon Briggs, Michael Moorer, those kinds of guys. Nobody is sitting here praising Teddy Atlas who worked with him as fighters, I mean the odd guy will like Timothy Bradley or whatever, later in his life maybe Teddy got some sanity. Honestly I just felt for Teddy, because when I knew him he was just a 28-year-old kid who seemed relatively sane. To me, plotting a premeditated murder of somebody who made money two years after you trained him kind of shows the person is not very stable.”
It’s clear that the time in the Atlas orbit is not something Lalonde is totally over, four decades later.
“Teddy bragged to me stories of pointing a gun at Mike Tyson, brandishing at bat at another superstar whom he had a falling out with. Teddy had very violent episodes with many fighters in the gym and/or that he trained. He has something off-kilter, there’s not a lot you can think of about someone like that except have compassion for him. The thought did cross my mind about being concerned for myself and my family but I don’t live near New York or Teddy and I don’t think he’s about to jump on a plane thirty years later… I hope he’s not that nuts.”
Atlas, for the record, was not feeling warm and fuzzy about Lalonde when writing his 2009 book. He called him “a bit of a con man and a self promoter” in the chapter which gets into his association with the man he derided as a “bottle blonde.” Atlas said he spent two years with Lalonde, and when they parted ways, not on too amicable terms, the trainer stayed salty.
Lalonde, Atlas heard, was going to get $6M to fight Ray Leonard on Nov. 7, 1988. Only it was Tommy Gallagher cornering him for that fight, not Atlas. Gallagher had taken over the steering wheel for the May 7, 1987 clash against Mustafa Hamsho (42-3-2 entering) in the Madison Square Garden Felt Forum. Donny went to 29-2 in taking a UD12 over the rugged Syrian lefty.
That win pushed Lalonde into a date with Eddie Davis, a NY-based pugilist, for a vacant WBC light heavy crown. The Canadian took it to Davis in November of 1987, snagging a TKO2 win. Lalonde got a sweet purse in a defense against Leslie Stewart in May of 1988. With back to back stoppages in high profile fights, the momentum was there to book a high contrast fight, the blonde bomber against the African-American craftsman, who was on a high after downing Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987.
Leonard saw Lalonde as a low risk/high reward proposition. Ray fought at middleweight against Marvin, but could battle Lalonde with a super middleweight title up for grabs, as well as Donny’s 175 title. Yes, even though Leonard weighed 165 at the weigh in, and Lalonde had to be under 168, even though his light heavy strap was up for grabs. (Yes, there is a rich and lengthy history of such shenanigans within this fight game.)
Lalonde harkens back to the opportunity of a lifetime for him: “Ray had a solution for pretty much anything. He had so much self-confidence. If you showed a little vulnerability he would exploit that. When it’s time to dig deep he knows how to protect himself and wait, let a person burn out and come back. Give Ray a lot of credit, he used all the tricks in the book of mastery that he accumulated in his amateur and pro career. I think he pretty much pulled a new trick out of some bags that night to survive because he wasn’t even in our fight. It was so one-sided when I was healthy and fighting to my fight plan but he has the guile and the fortitude to be able to get through it on the other side when I was weakening. He’s a superstar athlete and a fantastic fighter for sure.”
He shares a behind the scenes anecdote from that Caesars Palace event. “I fought at 171 pounds, which is only three pounds over the super-middleweight limit so I don’t think the three pounds made much of a difference. Me and Ray made this agreement that any pound I came in over at the official weigh-in they would deduct a million dollars per pound from my purse. It was a verbal agreement, a man’s honorable agreement and I was going to honor it. We took it very seriously and I think my trainer, Tommy Gallagher, at the time wanted to overcompensate and made sure I came in low enough. He was concerned about the weight so I sparred ten rounds a day almost every day in camp for eight weeks. I think I overdid it in camp, I would say that played its part. I came into the fight at 163 pounds, if you look at the weigh-in I’m wearing all my clothes and weighed in at 167. I did that so they didn’t see how light I was. I overdid it by far, it’s easy to blame other people but at the end of the day we overtrained and came in underweight. I couldn’t even sweat, I would have to put a sponge in my mouth with water to run before the fight because I was so dehydrated. The weight class I don’t feel was the issue, it was the weight I came in at that was the issue which was five pounds under that weight class limit.”
On fight night, all that dehydration stuff went out the window, briefly, when Lalonde caught Ray with a right hand, sending him to the floor in the fourth.
Crafty Leonard clinched up once, then again, to get cobweb-clearing time; SRL clinched six times in the final minute and a half of action in the fourth. No clinching in the ninth, though, when Lalonde tried to rev his engine after lapsing into a mid fight energy dip. He flurried, tried to finish Ray with combos. Leonard weathered that and seeing how winded the Canadian was, got on the attack himself. Two right hands stung Lalonde bad, and he went to the floor amid a flurry. “Golden Boy” beat the count, but was on last legs. Leonard took his time, delivering a right hand/left hook finish which sent the Canadian to the mat, face first, done for the evening.
Atlas wasn’t feeling too sorry for his ex charge. In his book, he shares that he would have made $600,000 had he cornered Lalonde, and that left him steaming. “It made me want to kill him. I had sacrificed for him, and in return he had betrayed me,” the New Yorker wrote. “I decided I was going to kill Donny Lalonde.”
On a rainy December night, Atlas went to visit Donny, in NYC, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and packing a firearm. He gained entry to the apartment, but luck was on Donny’s side, he wasn’t home. “I would have pulled the trigger, turned around and walked away.” Atlas hung around, waited for Lalonde to come home. And the boxer did return to home base, so Teddy went back on the hunt. Going toward the apartment again, he had a change of heart. He thought of his daughter, then five, and his son, Teddy Jr., and decided to not give in to temptation. Lalonde lived…and now you get a true sense of why he’s still seemingly riled at Atlas so many years later.
Soon after the Leonard loss, an opportunity had arisen for Lalonde to fight for a light heavyweight world title once more. Dennis Andries was lined up to be in the opposite corner, but in a shock twist, Donny decided to retire.
“There was a combination of two things. My goal in my life and boxing was to rebuild my self-esteem and win a world championship because I feel I had that capacity then to make myself financially comfortable from boxing. And I was hoping through boxing I would meet the girl of my dreams. About three weeks before the Leonard fight I met the girl of my dreams and we’re still married today. I had won the world title and I had made the money so being motivated for that fight would’ve taken unique reasons. Also, my manager Dave Wolf was very paranoid that I was going to leave him. I became quite well known, there was quite a lot of money around so he felt like I was going to leave him and he put a lot of pressure on me to sort out that there was no basis to it whatsoever. He was paranoid about that so that caused quite a bit of problem in my training camp.
Also, an incident in training touched him. Lalonde hit a kid with a shot and his eyes rolled back, he collapsed to the ground and looked like he was dead. “I felt what am I doing this for? It was one thing when I was desperate to show myself I can do something with my life, desperate to earn some money, desperate to become a world champion and desperate to meet the girl of my dreams. Now that I’ve done all of that, why am I doing this?! I realized that Dennis Andries and the other guys wanted it more, needed it more, really. I should just step out of the game and let them do their thing. It didn’t feel right to hurt people for a living at that part of my life because I had accomplished my goals.
In retrospect, he thinks that maybe a win over Andries would have led to another mega fight, against Thomas Hearns. “I’d have loved to have had that fight but it’s always easy looking back.”
Lalonde did walk that popular path, coming back after retiring. In September of 1991, he got a W, over Darryl Fromm, and he had three more contests before getting booked against 39-5 Bobby Czyz, holder of the WBA cruiserweight title.
“I came back because I missed it. I figured I’m 31 years old, I’ve been away for a while. So I’m probably not gonna hurt nobody because I’ll be smarter and more concerned about being hurt, because my wife and everyone else around me was concerned that would happen. I felt I could just have fun with it, so I did.
Lalonde reveals something else from that Leonard tango, too. “In the Leonard fight if you watch the end of the fight it ends with a left hook, right-hand combination to my throat. My larynx was crushed in that fight so logically it made no sense for me to box anymore because it was a career-ending injury that I had. I should never have taken the risk to get back in the ring because my larynx still today is only about half of what it was. It was always a major contemplation between me, my family and those around me whether or not I should fight. Doctors thought I was crazy to fight.”
On May 8, 1992, Czyz looked across the ring at a guy with brown hair.
It was Donny Lalonde, sans mullet. He ate a left hook from the New Jersey talent and crashed to the mat in round one. But he hung in, went the distance, and took an L. There were 8 more fights, the final one, against Virgil Hill, that one conclusive enough to convince him to walk away, and stay away.
Since his last entrance inside the ring, Donny has had many ventures, the most successful being “TKOO,” which stands for ‘Taking Kare of Our Own,’ started to help out injured fighters. “The initiative for that was Wilfred Benitez. I’d heard how bad a shape he was in and I couldn’t believe there weren’t people in boxing that had something in place to take care of people when this kind of thing happens. This guy was an icon of our sport and we’re just going to let him wither away and die without giving him no help. I started it at a time when I was in a financial position where I felt I could underwrite some very serious studies that would show the medical community, the WBC, the WBA, the IBF, these organizations that make millions and millions of dollars from boxing. I wanted to see if I could get them to contribute towards a natural course protocol that people could at least be provided with the tools, the ingredients of which to keep themselves as healthy as possible for as long as possible.”
Lalonde turned 62 on March 12; he’s bounced around a bit, in business and physically, living in Vancouver, Malta, Costa Rica. He spends time reading up on some of the hot button issues of the day, learning the ropes about cryptocurrency, Viking with wife Christi. Also, he possesses a full head of hair brown with touches of blond.