THE feeling was, the fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Donny Lalonde may prove to be no fight at all. Lalonde went along with that.
“I was overconfident,” said the Canadian, actually a sizeable underdog going into his second defence of the WBC light-heavyweight championship in Las Vegas in November 1988. “I didn’t care how slick he was. If a 175lb guy hits a 147lb guy on the chin, it’s over. I could be behind on the cards, but if I hit him on the chin, that was it. I thought I was invincible. I thought it was a mismatch.”
If Lalonde was to knock out Leonard, it would surely be with his right hand. Because of an injury to his left shoulder picked up playing ice hockey in his teens, Lalonde struggled to throw his lead hand with authority. HBO commentators went as far as to describe him as a “one-handed fighter” during the Leonard fight and as Lalonde revealed in an honest interview with Boxing News from his Costa Rican home, he had problems with his good hand as well.
“I broke my right hand in my fourth fight [a third-round stoppage of Jimmy Green in 1981),” he said, “and my coaches got me punching accurately because I couldn’t afford to land on the top of their heads or elbows.”
“Golden Boy” Lalonde was considered an easy touch for a fighter like Leonard, albeit a 32-year-old version who hadn’t boxed since a points win over Marvin Hagler 19 months previously and was out of his weight class. The WBC also shamelessly sanctioned the fight for their inaugural super-middleweight championship, giving Leonard the chance to win world titles at two weights in one night and therefore equal Thomas Hearns’ feat of winning world belts in five divisions.
The weight wasn’t an issue for Lalonde, who had scaled 172 1/2lbs for a defence against Leslie Stewart six months earlier, and after three rounds, HBO’s Larry Merchant, who had described the fight as “a Ferrari against a pick-up truck,” had him three rounds up. At the bell to end the third, Leonard shot a look at Lalonde as he was heading back to his corner that said: ‘Who does this guy think he is?’
“He underestimated me,” said Lalonde, “and after a few rounds, he knew he was in a real fight. He was shocked to find out I was at his level. I was out-jabbing him and hitting him with clean left hooks he didn’t see coming. People say how great Ray Leonard was, but I was in there with him outboxing him.” Until the fourth round.
“When Ray went down, I thought: ‘Next time I hit him, this is over’ and I changed how I fought,” said Lalonde. “Before the knockdown I was moving, making him reach and catching him. I had him doing what I wanted him to do. After the knockdown, I just wanted to hit him with one clean shot and that helped him get some momentum. I got off track and after seven rounds I realised how much the fight had changed.”
Commentators said the eighth round was “like a movie fight.” Both were dazed and early in the ninth, Lalonde caught Leonard cleanly again and sensing the finish was only a clean punch or two away, he went for broke. I was looking at [referee] Richard Steele because I wanted him to stop the frigging fight,” said Lalonde. “I thought: ‘Do you want me to kill this old man?’ These were the days before George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins and we thought 32 was old.”
Steele did intervene, but only to warn Leonard for a couple of low blows and on the resumption, the fight shifted again.
“Ray wasn’t afraid to fight a little dirty,” said Lalonde. “He hit me in the liver, the kidneys and he wasn’t afraid to go a bit low either. If you watch the fight back, you will see the punches that finished the fight were a left hook and right cross to my throat. I don’t know if that’s legal or not, but I would never do that to somebody.”
Lalonde says Leonard “did what he had to do to win fights” and added: “I only blame myself. I screwed it all up. What an idiot. The unfortunate truth is I have spent the rest of my life frustrated by my performance that night. I should have blown him away. I should have knocked him out easily. It was in my hands to win that fight and I found a way not to win it.”
Things might have turned out worse for Lalonde, now 60 years old. Teddy Atlas revealed in his autobiography, Atlas, that on hearing Lalonde was fighting Leonard, he planned to hunt him down and shoot him. Atlas had trained Lalonde and was frustrated he was ditched when the big fights came in. “He was so negative and derogatory,” said Lalonde, “and the 10 or 11 months we had together was the worst I boxed in my career. [Manager] Dave [Wolfe] used to ask: ‘What’s wrong with you’ and I used to say: ‘I just don’t feel as good.’ I didn’t have the same fire. Teddy sucked some of the life out of me. He must have been frustrated to see me earning so much money after I left him, but that’s how boxing works.”
Lalonde has better memories of an exhibition bout with Thomas Hearns. “It was just before he fought Pipino Cuevas [for the world welterweight title in August 1980],” he said. “They wanted to raise funds for Ralph Racine, who was in a coma after a Canadian title fight [against Gaetan Hart]. Ralph was known to the Kronk gym because he had fought Hilmer Kenty and they wanted to help out. They couldn’t find anyone to fight Thomas Hearns in this exhibition. I was 1-0 at the time and he was 28-0, but I said: ‘I will do it.’ They said: ‘This is the Thomas Hearns.’ I was comfortable with that.
“From the beginning, I always understood boxing. From my first spar, I always thought it was straightforward. We had a good exhibition. I hit him with a right-hand counter over his jab and his butt hit the bottom rope. Technically, it wasn’t a knockdown, but he was hurt. Emanuel Steward used to say when he saw me: ‘Here’s the white guy who taught the Kronk gym how to throw a right hand.’ Gil Clancy was there and he said he hadn’t seen anyone with my lateral movement and right-hand counter-punching since Emile Griffith. The next day, I quit my job and decided to box full-time.”
Lalonde only had 15 amateur bouts – 11 wins – and said: “I learned in the gym. I would drive around the States and spar whoever was in the gym. I wanted to find the best sparring. I read that Marvin Johnson was knocking everyone out in sparring, so I went to his gym in Indianapolis to spar him and I must have done 500 rounds with Iran Barkley.”
Lalonde was determined to become a world champion. “My father was a paedophile,” he said. “He abused young children and when mum found out, she took her four kids away from him. I was only three years old when we left him and I’m lucky we did. I’m glad he wasn’t there. But the fact my father wasn’t at home made me feel he didn’t care about me and because of that, my whole youth I felt a need to prove myself. I wanted to prove to people I was worthy of their respect and love. It made me want to be champion of the world.”
After 29 wins in 31 fights – 18 inside three rounds – Lalonde got his shot in November 1987. In the opposite corner for the vacant WBC light-heavyweight title was Eddie Davis, outpointed by Michael Spinks in a previous world title bid three years earlier, and all Lalonde needed to beat him was his right.
“It was scary,” said Lalonde of the second-round finish. “We were scared for his health. He was very, very hurt. I didn’t want to throw that final punch. If you watch the fight, you can see me hold it back. I didn’t hit him as clean as I could have done because I knew he was out. He was down for several minutes. His legs were twitching on the floor. Nobody did that to him. He had a war with Spinks and I annihilated him. I could fight.”
The fight was at a football ground in Trinidad and Tobago, with local favourite and former WBA champion Leslie Stewart lying in wait for the winner.
“We fought in the middle of the afternoon at the hottest time of the year,” said Lalonde of his defence against Stewart. “When he beat Marvin Johnson there, Marvin collapsed afterwards because of the heat. Before I fought there, Dave [Wolfe] would go to the stadium every afternoon and see where the sun shone and which direction the wind blew. The idea was to keep me in the shade and Leslie in the sun.”
Moments after being buzzed in the second, Lalonde had Stewart over and the back-and-forth drama went on. Stewart won the fourth well but then found himself on his back in the next, Lalonde’s right hand putting him there. Stewart pulled himself up and Lalonde really went for him. “A right hand,” screamed the commentators as Lalonde teed off, “and another right hand… and another.”
Eventually, Lalonde was dragged off the groggy Stewart, but for a moment or two, Donny thought he had lost! “I was so exhausted I wasn’t sure if I had won or lost,” he remembered. “I was delirious from the heat. When the referee waved his arms, I thought: ‘Who’s won?’ I ate and drank through the night afterwards and the next day I was still only 159lbs.”
After Leonard took the belt off Lalonde, he vacated and the WBC paired Britain’s Dennis Andries with Tony Willis. Andries regained the title he had lost to Hearns by mauling the American in five rounds and next, he was set to defend against Lalonde.
“I would have killed or been killed to win the world title,” said Donny, married to Christy and with two grown-up children. “That’s how important it was to me to legitimise myself. I had low self-esteem from my father losing interest in me when I was a child.
“After I won the world title, I didn’t have that fire. I didn’t really know why I was fighting Andries and when I hit this guy in sparring, he went down and I thought he was dead. I said: ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ Dave thought I was trying to cut him out. He thought I was trying to talk my way out of our relationship and to show him how little money meant to me I said: ‘I’m going to retire.’ I didn’t have it in me to fight people I love over money or hurt people anymore.”
One fighter he couldn’t hurt was Lennox Lewis. “I met him when he was 12 and I was 17,” remembered Lalonde. “We were in the same gym. Around five years later, I was fighting for the Canadian title. It was live on national TV, it was a big deal, but I had no sparring. I hadn’t seen Lennox for five years and I rang him up and asked: ‘Are you still boxing?’
“He laughed: ‘Yeah, I’m still boxing, champ. Are you sure you want to do this?’ He walked in the gym and he must have been 6ft 4ins and 220lbs solid. He said: ‘Are you sure you want to spar?’ I said: ‘I have to.’ I remember getting under his jab, landing a right hand to the body and it just bouncing off him. It was like hitting a brick wall and every time he hit me, my whole body rattled.”
Lalonde would fight on until he was 43, losses to Bobby Czyz and Virgil Hill leaving his record as 41-5-1 (33). “The only reason I fought on so late in life,” he explained, “is because I wanted to show what I could do with two hands. I felt I never really got the chance to show what I could do with a healthy body, but I got a badly damaged eye in sparring about a week before I fought Virgil. We were sitting together afterwards and he said: ‘You hit me so hard in one round, you only had to touch me again to put me over and you didn’t.’ I said: ‘I couldn’t see you.’ I knew it was the end.”