BIG READ: 'I felt like nobody could touch me': Donny Lalonde interview
Photo: Holly Stein /Allsport
Canadian Donny Lalonde had an eventful career, winning the WBC light heavyweight title and defending it against Sugar Ray Leonard in a fight that was also for the first ever WBC super middleweight world title. Lalonde tells Boxing Monthly his incredible story of childhood abuse, street fights and his take on the night Teddy Atlas apparently came to murder him...
“I was born in Kitchener right outside of Toronto, the same place Lennox Lewis fought out of," Lalonde, now 59, tells Boxing Monthly.
"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 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.
“He was kind of a nutcase. If you were supposed to be home at 8pm 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 can’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, but Donny was no less happy outside of his broken home. Just a boy he had to battle his way to get to school, he knew he needed a change in his life and boxing provided that change.
“I decided at a young age to leave [home]. I left and, fortunately, I found boxing which gave me direction and a focus in my life and probably helped me more than anything.
“The Astoria boxing club in Vancouver is where I started at about eleven because I used to go to Catholic school and when I when to school I had to fight the Protestants on my way to get to school. So my mum said: 'if you got to fight every day to get to school you’d better go to a boxing gym'. I was doing ok in the street fights but [boxing] helped give me some direction and some hope that I could do something with my life through boxing.”
Six years later - when Lalonde was 17 - the decision had been made. Professional boxing was the path he wanted to take, the path that ultimately took him to world title glory, albeit with a few bumps in the road.
“I was sitting having a cigarette and a beer with my brother and some boxing match came on television, you know [ESPN] 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 said: '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.”
It was only in his fifth fight the Canadian lost for the first time, conquered by ‘Vampire’ Wilbert Johnson in what some would describe as a dubious points decision. A rematch was made and Donny stuck his neck out on the line. It was revenge rather than repeat as Donny won via second-round TKO.
“It was horrible," Lalonde reflects. "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 [first] 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, 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.
“I couldn’t even consider doing anything except for having a rematch. It only took seven months because of my hand [injury]. 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, I guess. So it ended up quite a mess, it’s quite a bit shorter than it would be naturally and it still is today. It was a very painful and long recovery for what would typically be thought of as just a fracture.”
Injuries played an unfortunately large part in the career of Lalonde, with some of his war wounds still hindering him to this very day.
“Between my right hand and my left shoulder I have been out numerous times, 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 that at one time a specialist said that my career was over. I was very damaged physically throughout my career and it really limited the time I was able to compete at the highest level.”
During his career ‘Golden Boy’, nicknamed after the Golden Boy statue in Winnipeg, often had to take two steps backwards to go one step forward. At one point, Lalonde spent 11 months training with Hall-of-Famer Teddy Atlas but he does not fondly recollect their time together.
“All trainers have their own approach and Teddy’s is to be an overbearing, sort of belittling a person and thinking he’s going to make them better by making them feel like less. 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 up.
“Eleven months I was with Teddy [and] I feel the fighters I fought whilst [I was] with him wasn’t that impressive because I was getting worse under Teddy not better. Dave [Wolfe] my manager 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 build around those things instead of just focusing on negatives every day like it was with Teddy.”
In a shocking revelation years later Atlas claimed in his 2006 autobiography that he was so enraged with the large purse Lalonde received when he fought Sugar Ray Leonard, that he went to the apartment where Donny was living at the time with a loaded gun.
By his own admission, Atlas was there to take the life of Lalonde.
“More than anything I felt sorry for Teddy," is Lalonde's take on this shocking tale, which he only learned of when Atlas' book was published. "What kind of a mind that 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 a number of guys who gave me tons more time, more knowledge and more wisdom than Teddy did and they never got paid [either].
“When I was with Teddy, Dave Wolfe nearly paid for all my fights because I was going backwards with Teddy so we never accomplished a lot together. I’m not taking away from what Teddy has done in his career all I’m saying is for me and for 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 premeditating the murder of somebody who made money two years after you trained him is kind of shows the person is not very stable.”
Lalonde elaborates on some of the encounters Atlas had with his fighters.
“Teddy bragged to me stories of pointing a gun to [Mike] Tyson, a bat to I think it was [Hector] Camacho whom he had a falling out with. Teddy had very violent episodes with a number of fighters in the gym and/or that he trained. He obviously has something off-kilter, there’s not really 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 30 years later. I hope he’s not that nuts!”
It was after leaving Atlas when Lalonde reached the pinnacle of any boxer's career by winning a world title after beatng Eddie Davis in 1987 in a WBC light heavyweight title fight.
It was a victory which left Donny feeling invincible.
“At that time I felt like nobody could touch me. A lot of people don’t take a lot from the Davis fight, they don’t recognise that he fought three or four world champions before me. He fought Michael Spinks, he lost arguably a disputed split decision. If you watch the fight the people in the audience felt that he won the fight, it was very close I guess to credit Michael Spinks. Eddie was very capable when we fought. I was on top of my game that night.”
After one title defence the beaten boy from Kitchener then squared off against an all-time great, in the form of Sugar Ray Leonard.
The 7 November 1988 fight between the duo at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas was entitled ‘For all of the gold’, and saw the introduction of the WBC super middleweight world title to accompany Lalonde’s WBC light-heavyweight strap.
“The WBC at that time had not recognised the super-middleweight title so that [fight] was the beginning of it for them.
“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 a number of bags that night to survive because really 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.”
The WBC ruled that although the bout was taking place for their light-heavyweight title, both fighters should meet the super middleweight 168lbs limit. That was something many thought the taller, naturally heavier Lalonde would struggle with. Ultimately however the blonde bombshell arguably made the weight too easily.
“I fought at 171lbs which is only three pounds over the super-middleweight limit so I don’t think the three pounds made much of a difference. It got into my camp's head, 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 honourable agreement and I was going to honour 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 really 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. Me being me when I was out for a run rather than jogging I would run faster than I needed too. I probably overtrained with that weight issue in mind because I came into the fight at 163lbs, if you look at the weigh-in I’m wearing all my clothes and weighed in at 167lbs.
"I did that so they didn’t see how light I actually 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].”
Soon after the Leonard loss, an opportunity arose for Lalonde to fight for a light-heavyweight world title once more. Dennis Andries MBE 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." Lalonde explains. "My goal in my life and in boxing was to rebuild my self-esteem, win a world championship because I really 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.
“[The second reason was] my manager [Dave Wolfe] 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.
“Then in camp, I hit a kid with a shot and his eyes rolled back, he collapsed to the ground and looked like he was maybe even fatally hurt. He was definitely very damaged. 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 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 realised that Dennis Andries and the other guys they wanted it more, needed it more, really [so] 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, I’d have loved to have taken the fight, it was a great fight for me. It would’ve been nice to get the belt back, it would’ve put me right back in line probably to fight Tommy Hearns after that which is what the conversation was. I’d have loved to have had that fight but it’s always easy looking back.”
The former light-heavyweight champion did return to the ring three years after the proposed Andries fight but Lalonde did not see it as a competitive comeback - more of a paid hobby albeit against the odds.
“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 as my wife and everyone else around me was concerned would happen. I felt I could just have fun with it so I did.
“It was really more about fun, 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 really 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.”
Since his last entrance inside the ring, Donny has been involved in many ventures, the most successful being TKOO which stood for 'taking kare of our own'. Similar to today’s charity Ringside Rest and Care it was 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 have 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.
“That’s why I called it TKOO, 'taking kare of our own'. 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 organisations that make millions and millions [of dollars] from boxing and 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. That was the initiative of it.”
Nowadays it’s management that occupies Donny’s time. Once one is involved in boxing, it’s incredibly hard to get out again and since the age of 11 Lalonde has known no different life, so it is only right he now passes on his wealth of experience to the next generation.
“I started managing when I was on a trip for a few months in Europe with my wife and we went to visit a friend in Malta," he says. "I got involved with a kid named Malik Zinad [who was born in Libya but now resides in Malta], who is still undefeated, I think he’s 14-0 now, he was 11-0 when him and I split.
"So I started him as a pro and went 11 fights undefeated and we did very, very well. The job of a manager is to create a monster who feels he can beat anybody in the world which is what you need as a fighter.
“I got a couple of kids one in Sweden, Niclas Elfstedt he’s 6-1 and his one loss was a win, it was a four rounder where he knocked the guy down twice and they somehow found a way to give the other guy the decision which is mathematically impossible and it wasn’t even a close fight but it was a political thing.
"He’s a really good fighter and I think we have some potential there to do something. Another kid named Christian Schembri from Malta, I’m helping them when I can. I move around a lot I’ve been in Canada, United States, Costa Rica, Switzerland and Malta so far this year so it's pretty hard to be in one place and work with one fighter but I’m doing what I can in the fight game.”