Donny Lalonde: From champion to health campaigner
Donny Lalonde engaged in one of the great 1980s fights. His nine round war with ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard is rightly remembered as a classic, with both men touching the canvas and trading shots before Leonard prevailed. But Lalonde is still revered to this day for the performance, and also bringing the spotlight back to Canadian boxing in winning a world title. Like many, his start in the sport was for more personal and practical reasons, long before ideas of fame and fortune entered his mind. “I would say I first started boxing as a way to develop some self-esteem after coming from a neglectful father and an abusive step-father,” Lalonde told Boxing Monthly whilst spending some time in Malta.
“The upbringing was dysfunctional, low economic environment. My mother came from a working class family, but was left alone with four kids at a young age which dropped us to the low income [bracket] which brought with it a very disturbing environment for a kid to grow up in.
“Muhammad Ali, Mathew Saad Muhammad and Roberto Duran were my inspirations and, you could say, heroes growing up,” he continued. “Hook McComb of Kitchener Boxing Club, Peter Piper of Winnipeg and Al Sparks were my first trainers and they all contributed a ton to my ultimate success.”
The Canadian boxing scene at the time wasn’t at the level it would become. “George Chuvalo [1950-70s heavyweight contender] had done great against Ali. No one else had won a world title in 70 years. So [the scene was] not so strong when I started,” Lalonde told BM. “Got a lot better after when Doug DeWitt, Shawn O'Sullivan did so well at the Olympics, Hilton Family, Michael Olajide Jr, Scotty Olson, Lennox Lewis, Eric Lucas. I did alright....it came alive from the 1980s on...”
One of the most infamous incidents regarding Lalonde was when Teddy Atlas, his former trainer, revealed he had planned to shoot Lalonde in his 2006 autobiography for costing him a cut of the Leonard purse. Donny is forthright about that period. “I had 8 fights in 11 months with Teddy. Most were low level fights because I got worse under Teddy and Dave Wolf my manager didn't want to take chances until I was ready. When I left Teddy and fought under Bobby Cassidy and Tommy Gallagher, [it was] the culmination of all the trainers I had, all the sparring I did, which was a ton over the years with great fighters, and the guidance Bobby brought me and inspiration Tommy gave me, all combined to help me develop into the fighter I was. I know Teddy is a knowledgeable person. I learned things from him. But his demeaning approach diminished my desire to shine in the ring. Before and after him, I was better. With him, was of the darkest time in my career. Bobby and Tommy were a great team. I loved working with them. I grew so much, learned so much and had more fun than ever with them. Love them both and always will.”
Lalonde took a fight for the world title against Eddie Davis in Trinidad and Tobago for the WBC light-heavyweight world title, which seems an odd choice for fighters from Canada and the USA. As usual, boxing politics dictated the terms. “The promoters of Leslie Stewart [who hails from the island] wanted and were in line for the next shot. [It] was settled between $1 and $2, Eddie and I. They made that happen through Dave.”
Lalonde scored a highlight reel KO of Davis, leaving his title win, in his mind, “indisputable”. Being a world champion was, for Lalonde, “simply wonderful”. Next up was the blockbuster with Leonard, for both the WBC light-heavyweight title and the newly created WBC super-middle weight crown.
“Tommy made the fight happen through his relationship with the Leonard camp from my understanding of the backroom dealings as Dave was difficult to deal with,” said Lalonde. “Ray and Mike Trainer worked mainly through Tommy. I felt great in camp. I do feel we way overtrained for the fight, way too much sparring, way too much focus on the weight, I knew the weight was not a problem. I am not going to point fingers but I came in at 167 with all my clothes on which supports my feelings...too much weight loss changed history. 168 was fine. 163, my real weight going in, was way too little."
Lalonde started strongly, scoring a heavy knockdown of ‘Sugar’ in the second round. “When Ray went down the thought [I had was] this is over next clean shot I land,” Lalonde told BM. “I went from boxing him, setting him up to walk into a shot to waiting for him to walk into one, I screwed up, he fought like the champion he is and I screwed up what was essentially an easy fight for me. I was naive. I grew up in the 1970s. When fighters from earlier generations from 147 down hit late 20s on, they were considered old. I literally was concerned for Ray in the eighth. I hit him from pillar to post from 0.30 [seconds into the round] to 2:15 or so.
“I said to [referee] Richard [Steele], through my mouthpiece, ‘What do you want me to do kill this old man?’ I stopped for a split second, Ray jumped on it, caught me, I was so weak from dehydration, he was a great finisher. I looked at him after the first knockdown, lifted my arms and shrugged. I knew I had nothing left and he had me, I smiled and was kind of laughing inside thinking he has me, how did that happen...Ray was the better finisher. I had him ready to go in the fourth and again a few times in the fight as well as in the ninth. I was too patient. I should have did what he did, jumped all over him. I was over confident. It was over confidence, underestimating him or arrogance in a way, or all three, I paid the price. Skill wise, it was my fight to lose.”
Having lost his title, Donny stepped in with Bobby Czyz, a tough two-weight world champion, in a tilt at the WBA cruiserweight crown, but the American scored a unanimous decision. “I went into the Czyz fight with a broken Ulner bone in my right arm. I didn't have the resilience I needed to win that fight. It was again, my mistake,” said Lalonde. “I should have called it off and reset the date. That being said, I think our strategy was wrong. We decided to box Bobby but he was a better boxer than we gave him credit for. If you watch the second, third and fourth round, I don't remember them, didn't even know I was alive let alone fighting from the knockdown in the first round.
“But when you’re hurt you fight on instinct. I should have fought Bobby toe-to-toe and went for the knockout which I was likely to get. For a guy who used to be a middleweight, Bobby was so much bigger and stronger than he had been in the past. I am not sure how one does that at 30 plus but he and his team did a great job in preparation for the fight and he won straight up on strength, resilience, good boxing and power. What can I say...”
Lalonde continued boxing, mostly back home in Canada. “I enjoyed the last part of my career. I just loved boxing,” said Lalonde. “I had children, a wife I was and am still so in love with. I wasn't willing to die for boxing but I loved doing it. I think you have to be willing to put it all on the line to become and stay a champion. I was until I won the world championship. After that it was all fun and games to me.”
Lalonde (41-5-1, 33 KOs) fought until 2003 before hanging up the gloves. He set up the TKOOO (Taking Kare Of Our Own) initiative. “It came from the perspective of wanting to help fighters through natural medicine. I started it at a time I had some good liquidity in my life, just as the financial crisis had started,” Lalonde told BM. “I didn't realize the adjustment I was about to go through economically from that. I had planned to fund some fighters to do a protocol I came up with through a team of natural medicine health practitioners and doctors.
“When I had the setback financially, I had hoped to get support from the boxing organizations. They have western medical boards. Western medicine and natural medicine has conflicting views and protocols so the organizations listened to the advice of their medical boards and denied me support. Since my proposal to them, the benefits of the protocols I had suggested have proven to be correct in ‘scientific’ studies which I did not have the funding to do. I am not about to fight the western medical establishment. Natural medical doctors are disappearing ‘suspiciously’ all the time these days.
“People think boxing is dangerous. try medicine...I just try to share what experiences I have had….I think ex-fighters are let down by the organizations that benefit from their years in the ring,” he continued. “I think ex-fighters are let down by the people who were around them when they made or had money and fame, But the sport of boxing doesn't let anyone down, it lifts people up.”
Outside of those endeavours, Lalonde is happy and healthy. “I spend my time with my family and friends, I meditate, do yoga, try to stay healthy, I am a freak about learning as much as I can about natural health and wellness,” said the former light-heavyweight champion. “I am writing my biography and hope to develop a natural health platform to try to help as many people as possible to understand that God, nature, Brahma, Mohammed, however one relates to the essence that creates and maintains life has a ton more knowledge and wisdom of health and wellness than a bunch of for profit organizations and financially motivated and corrupted Government organizations.
“I put my life and health in the hands of nature and I know of many ways and things through nature one can enhance the quality of life. I want to share that. That is my number one interest and passion in life beyond spending time in meditation/prayer and with my family and friends.”