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Golden years

Former boxing champ Donny Lalonde makes visit to Winnipeg, older and wiser

Donny 'Golden Boy' Lalonde discusses loving, fighting, the night he almost died, what it’s like to ride in a Rolls Royce, what it’s like to go broke and that maddening fourth round against Sugar Ray Leonard

This article was published 29/4/2015 (2001 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

He’s a couple pounds heavier and the famous hair that gave him his nickname is noticeably thinner and much darker.

Donny Lalonde is in Winnipeg to help promote a boxing card this weekend at the Regent Casino.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Donny Lalonde is in Winnipeg to help promote a boxing card this weekend at the Regent Casino.

But even at 55 years old, Donny "Golden Boy" Lalonde still looks every bit like the man Sugar Ray Leonard once said gave him the most punishing fight of Leonard’s hall of fame boxing career.

Lalonde has lived in Costa Rica for much of the past two decades, but is in town this week to promote Thursday night’s King John Boxing card at Club Regent Casino.

Just the second Canadian in history to win a world light-heavyweight championship and just the second man in history to knock Leonard to the canvas, Lalonde was born in Kitchener but learned to fight in Winnipeg and will forever be known as the most famous boxer to come out of River City.

He fought his first fight in Winnipeg in 1980 and his last fight here in 2003. In between he won a Canadian light-heavyweight title, a WBC Continental Americas light-heavyweight title and, finally, a WBC world light-heavyweight title.

His most famous fight came in November 1988 when he took on Leonard at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in what was the richest light-heavyweight title fight ever staged. Lalonde knocked Leonard to the canvas in the fourth round, but Leonard fought back gamely and ultimately won the fight in a ninth round TKO.

Lalonde initially retired after the Leonard fight, cancelling a scheduled fight against Dennis Andries in June 1989 by explaining: "I can no longer justify hurting people for my own gain."

But Lalonde would go on to launch several comeback bids and ultimately fight 13 more times before finally retiring for good in 2003.

Lalonde sat down with Free Press reporter Paul Wiecek on Wednesday to discuss loving, fighting, the night he almost died, what it’s like to ride in a Rolls Royce, what it’s like to go broke and that maddening fourth round against Leonard that torments him to this day.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:

 

Donny Lalonde returns to Winnipeg after losing to Sugar Ray Leonard in Las Vegas. He recieved the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt later that day.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Donny Lalonde returns to Winnipeg after losing to Sugar Ray Leonard in Las Vegas. He recieved the Manitoba Order of the Buffalo Hunt later that day.

WIECEK: Donny, welcome home. Does it still feel like home?

LALONDE: It sure does, yes. Flying in on the plane, just seeing the airport, reminded me of coming home after the Leonard fight. Which, of course, was spectacular, but would’ve been different if it was a victory. But it was a very warm homecoming and it just took me right back to then. So yes, it feels great to be here.

 

WIECEK: You’re looking to me like a welterweight right now about now. Is that about right?

LALONDE: No, I’m probably about five pounds over my championship weight. But I’ve been up and down... I was 225, I was like 50 pounds heavier at one point. My wife kept saying, "Donny, you’re into health. Obesity is not healthy." And I was like, "Yeah, but why you telling me that?" And she was like, "Well, look at you." But I didn’t really see it... So I got back to my lifestyle and I’m 180 again.

 

WIECEK: We’ve got that Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight coming up on Saturday and I’ve been reading some pieces where they’re talking this will be a $350-million payday these guys are going to split. You made $6 million on the Leonard fight. What goes through your mind when you hear $350 million for these guys?

LALONDE: It’s surreal. It’s really hard to completely put together. I mean back in the day... that was the most money Ray Leonard ever made when we fought. So those are just the times — add a zero every 10, 20 years. I’m all for everybody doing well and doing as well as they can. It just means there’s a tremendous amount of interest in the sport and the fight.

 

Donny Lalonde vs Benieto Fernandez - 1986

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Donny Lalonde vs Benieto Fernandez - 1986

WIECEK: There’s all this focus on this fight and everyone’s been waiting years and years for this fight. But there’s also the suggestion that this is a bit of a sideshow and that actually boxing is in a fight for its survival right now, with all the attention on head injuries and the long-term effects of concussions... Some people wonder if there’s even a place in society anymore for boxing. What do you think?

LALONDE: Boxing is a whole lot more than the end result of some people staying in the game too long, referees not doing a good job stopping (the fights early enough), people not knowing natural ways that you can rehabilitate damaged cells in your brain. There’s lots of natural ways to do that. I know Western medicine doesn’t say that but there’s many natural ways to do that in medicine that’s been around for 10,000 years... Society and contact sport? I’m really a peaceful guy. And watching this MMA stuff, for example, in a sense revolts me. I appreciate the art, again. And I don’t want to demean the people who do it because it’s a very, very difficult thing to do. It’s a lot of art and it’s beautiful for what it is. But the violence of it is not something I’m turned on by. Whereas boxing is the art of self-defence. And it’s something I believe will always be around and something that brings so much to a person’s life. I know it did mine and it has many other boxers.

 

WIECEK: I was reading an interview with you in which you were talking about the fight against Eddie Davis where you won the light heavyweight title. And you described the punch that knocked him out as the hardest punch you’ve ever thrown. And you described standing over him — and I’m using your words — you said he was "quivering" on the canvas and you worried about him. In light of what we now know about the long-term effect of these head injuries, what goes through your head when you think back to Eddie Davis lying there and you having inflicted that on him?

Donny Lalonde in 1988

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Donny Lalonde in 1988

LALONDE: I wish they’d stopped that fight before that final punch, which they ought to have done. He was hurt enough before that to say, "OK, that’s enough." And to me, that’s part of the boxing thing: You don’t have to wait until someone’s unconscious to end a fight. It can be fairly evident a fight ought to be stopped much earlier. And I think that’s something that could be looked at in the sport to make it a lot safer. But what goes through your head? As I mentioned, at the time I was very concerned for him. And not long after that, I was training after the Leonard loss... and I hit a sparring partner and his eyes went back and he fell back into the ropes. And I just walked away and I told my manager and my trainer to take off my gloves. And he said, "What do you mean?" And I said, "I’m done. I can’t do this anymore."

 

WIECEK: Bob Arum, who of course is promoting the Pacquiao fight and used to promote Muhammad Ali, was quoted in the New York Times this week — and I’m quoting — "No parent in their right mind would let their kids go into boxing today." You’re a father — what do you think?

LALONDE: I have a son and if he wanted to box, I’d want to be the guy in the corner who’s going to make sure it’s going to be stopped at the right time. But again — it provides so many positive things, I would not deprive him of that... Boxing is a metaphor for life. And if you can overcome things in that little microcosm, it gives you the belief and the faith that you can do it in a bigger scene like the world.

 

WIECEK: Do you deal with any post-concussion syndrome?

Donny Lalonde in 1985.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Donny Lalonde in 1985.

LALONDE: I’ve defintely felt impact from boxing on my brain... But as long as I’m on my health regime, I feel very healthy. And if I’m not, it’s nothing dramatic — just a little slower, just thinking less, not as much energy, don’t get to have that jump in the morning where you want to get up and do stuff. So yeah, I feel the effect, it’s there and it’s part of contact sports.

 

WIECEK: In 47 fights, are there nights you don’t remember because of the beating you took?

LALONDE: The Bobby Czyz fight... In the first minute of the fight, I throw a lazy right hand and he catches me with a left hook that I don’t see. I fall flat on my face and I don’t wake up until the fifth round. And I won three of the next four rounds. Because when you’re unconscious you fight actually better — that’s the idea, get your mind out of the game so you’re not thinking, you’re just boxing. So anyway, in the fifth round, I’m like, "Jeez, that’s Bobby Czyz, I’m boxing Bobby Czyz." And then I heard this crowd, "Wow, there’s people here." So I still today don’t remember any of those rounds.

 

WIECEK: Teddy Atlas, your former trainer... was very bitter that he didn’t cash in on your big Sugar Ray Leonard payday. He writes in his book that he tracked you down in your apartment in Manhattan, he had a gun on him, he went up to knock on your apartment door and I’m quoting here, he writes, "If (Donny) had opened the door, he was dead." He was going to shoot you dead... Do you believe that story?

LALONDE: The funny part is I didn’t live in that apartment anymore. He says he talked to my girlfriend and (she) said I wasn’t home. I didn’t even live there... I had great trainers. Teddy Atlas was not one of them.

 

WIECEK: So I find this interesting — he knocked on the wrong door in any event? You were never coming to that door that night, right?

LALONDE: I didn’t live there. I lived close — about a mile down the road. But I had lived there.

 

Donny Lalonde after defeating Jimmy Gradson to retain his Canadian light-heavyweight boxing championship title in 1984.

JIM HAGGARTY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Donny Lalonde after defeating Jimmy Gradson to retain his Canadian light-heavyweight boxing championship title in 1984.

WIECEK: A couple of things strike me about you. One, you’re still married to the same woman (you met at the Leonard fight) decades later. Two, you’ve still got all your money. Both of those things make you different than a lot of retired boxers... How is it you’ve been able to keep it all together — relationships, your finances, physical health, mental health — when other boxers don’t seem to be able to?

LALONDE: First of all, I have gone through things you don’t know about. But commitment is one of them — I’m committed to my health, commited to my wife, committed to my family. My (abusive) dad showed me everything I don’t want to be. But my wife (of 24 years) and I have had huge struggles, we’ve had enormous challenges and been very close a number of times... But we’ve stuck it out. And I’ve been bankrupt, I’ve lost everything.

 

WIECEK: This is during your fight with Revenue Canada, right? But you put it all back together, it seems?

LALONDE: I had two kids, (a wife) and $11,000.

 

WIECEK: So of that $6 million (made in Leonard fight), you were down to your last 11 grand?

LALONDE: I was forced into bankruptcy... I don’t know if you’d call it declaring it. It was voluntary or forced, but I went through it. I don’t remember because it was such a traumatic time. You have to remember, we had a house in Whistler, a beautiful house in Victoria, a Rolls, a Mercedes...

 

WIECEK: You had a Rolls?

LALONDE: I did. It wasn’t brand new.

 

WIECEK: Oh, well, a used Rolls.

LALONDE: It was just a thing to have for fun. But anyway, the bottom line is we had a lot of money. And when we got to Costa Rica (where he still lives with his family) we had $11,000 in cash in the bank... And so I got back into the real estate business... and we did great, we did very, very well.

 

WIECEK: What’s the ride in a Rolls like?

LALONDE: It’s really nice.

 

WIECEK: It better be for that price.  

Sugar Ray Leonard and Donny Lalonde at Toronto news conference promoting match at Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas in 1988.

THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Sugar Ray Leonard and Donny Lalonde at Toronto news conference promoting match at Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas in 1988.

Twenty-seven years since the Leonard fight, with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if there’s anything you think you could’ve done differently that night to have brought about a different result.

LALONDE: In preparation for that night, or that night?

 

WIECEK: You can answer it any way you want. Because I imagine with a huge moment like that in your life, there must be some nights as you fall asleep that you kind of turn it over in your head and wonder, "Hey, what if?"

LALONDE: I’m not sure there’s been 24 hours that have gone by since that happened (that he hasn’t thought about the Leonard fight). Honestly. So yeah, two points. One is in the fourth round, when I knocked him down and he was against the ropes, all I had to do was throw non-stop straight punches and it was over. But I had this thing in my mind, "Just be patient"... I thought I didn’t hit him clean and the next time I hit him, this thing is over. And so from that point on, if you look at the fight, I fought completely different... I should’ve finished him the fourth round and that I’d say was my mistake the night of the fight. And in preparation for the fight, I over-trained... Me at 163 (pounds) is just not a good equation for going 12 rounds in a championship fight. By the fourth round, I saw triple — I was dehydrated... I was weak in the fight.

 

WIECEK: It strikes me that you say that all these years later, there’s still not 24 hours that go by that you don’t think about that fight. Is it a regret? Is it a resentment? Is it a torment?

LALONDE: Maybe a torment. If it has to be one of those three, maybe a torment. It’s just like you say, that moment flashes in your mind and you think, "Why didn’t I just do this?" I had him hurt — all I had to do was ding him one more time and it was over.

 

Donny Lalonde in 2015

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Donny Lalonde in 2015

WIECEK: I’d read that one of the things you like about (living in) Costa Rica so much is that country hasn’t had a military since 1948... And you’ve also been very critical over the years about Canada’s foreign policy and the U.S.’s foreign policy. You’ve said you thought it’s overly militaristic. What I’m getting to here is I find it interesting that a guy who made a living — and a good living, for a lot of years — knocking guys out has become in your later years what sounds like a pacifist. Take me through that evolution.

LALONDE: I’m not a pacifist and I’ve never been a violent person. Boxing, like I say, is an art... It’s just such a fascinating art to stand in a ring with somebody — and I got it right from the beginning — and they try to hit you and you just try to make them miss and hit them back. To me, it was like a chess game and it was always so much fun... And the physical part of it — I hated to hit somebody and they got hurt. That was never something I enjoyed... I obviously had pain and violence inside of me from my childhood, that was expressed through boxing. For sure. But it wasn’t intellectually about that. And I haven’t changed my stance. Nothing in this world, in man’s world, has been cured through violence. I believe love cures everything. I believe in compassion, I believe in understanding, I believe in diplomacy, I believe in democracy... Peace and love are how we’re going to cure this world.

 

WIECEK: Last thing, Saturday night — Pacquiao or Mayweather?

LALONDE: I predict Mayweather winning a 12-round unanimous decision... (but) I’m always wrong when I pick.

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

   Read full biography

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