Donny LaLonde: A Date With Sugar Ray Leonard
When the call comes to fight Sugar Ray Leonard, any fighter would pick up and say yes. Donny LaLonde was the recipient of the golden ticket in 1988. Leonard was on the comeback trail once again, another retirement was about to end.
Leonard needed a dance partner, and he needed a hook, Canada’s LaLonde ticked enough boxes to land the multi-million dollar gig. The hook was the chance to win two world titles in one fight. LaLonde was the reigning WBC world light-heavyweight champion, and with the WBC wanting to also crown an inaugural super-middleweight champion, Leonard saw the opportunity to create another little slice of history, even if it was in the most cynical of ways.
Leonard hadn’t graced his sport since April 1987 when he upset Marvelous Marvin Hagler in a stunning upset to win his third world title. After announcing his latest retirement soon after winning middleweight gold, Leonard announced his return the following year.
LaLonde was chosen as the opponent, bigger most definitely but he was also perceived as being one-dimensional. A historic shoulder injury limited the use and effectiveness of his left hand, and Leonard despite the size difference, his inactivity, and without Angelo Dundee in his corner for the first time in his career, still entered the Las Vegas ring as the overwhelming betting favourite.
Even though LaLonde had fought at super-middleweight before, the weight looked to be the cynical but crucial advantage for Leonard making the bigger man boil his body down to 168lbs. LaLonde doesn’t cite the contract stipulation as the deciding factor, more so the preparations for the fight:
“It did affect me because people in my camp didn’t understand. I felt very confident I could make the weight. But they were all very concerned, so we had different philosophies on what training we should be doing and in my opinion, I over trained for that fight. I sparred way too many rounds, I came in at 163 but I weighed in at 167 because I had my clothes on and stuff in my pockets but I was 163 which was 30lbs less than what I weighed when I first went into my training camp. I was like 156lbs the next day I was so weak. It did affect me but in my opinion, it was the fight I fought that cost me the fight. It wasn’t the weight or the politics that cost me it was what we did in the training camp, I made my mistakes in the camp and in the ring.”
The Canadian had split with his old trainer Teddy Atlas a few years prior to the fight with Leonard, and Atlas revealed in his own autobiography that he went looking for LaLonde with a loaded gun:
“I didn’t know that until his book came out, I didn’t hear about it until many years later. Teddy just has an incorrect storyline going on his head about something that he thinks did happen which didn’t happen. That’s why he did what he did. Teddy thinks he is the whole but he is just part of the whole but he was nowhere near as important as thinks he was. He felt it was because of him that I got the Leonard fight. But I fought Ray almost two years after I stopped working with him and I won’t the world title around a year after I stopped working with Teddy. I was always a better fighter when I wasn’t with Teddy.”
Despite being asked to make super-middleweight, LaLonde was still very much the bigger fighter and by far the more active of the two, but the name of Sugar Ray Leonard seemed to gravitate the betting public to him:
“I had been underestimated throughout my whole career so I wasn’t all that surprised Ray was the favourite in that sense. But I was very surprised that people were not stepping out and specifically saying how he would beat me. In my honest opinion, and still is to this day, that the chances of Ray beating me were so low it was unbelievable. The chances of me not landing at least one right hand were practically impossible. If I had gone into that fight as strong as I normally was, I would have completely overpowered him, it would have been annihilation. I think it showed that earlier in the fight, every time I hit him I hurt him. Ray says even now that he took more punishment in that fight than any other in his career. It was a mismatch but I found a way to screw it up. I was too light and I changed my fight plan mid-fight. But in fairness to Ray he hung in there, endured what he had to and he came out on top. He’s a great champion and a great athlete.”
The reigning champion had a simple, but yet effective tactical plan, which for the first part of the fight was working perfectly, as Leonard struggled to shed the rust and avoid the impressive jab of his opponent that was repeatedly thudding into his face throughout the first 4 rounds:
“All I had to do was keep him on the end of my jab, keep the pressure on and land one clean right hand, that’s all I had to do. I landed one, a little high on the cheek in the 4th, if it had been lower it would have been over.”
Leonard had struggled in the early part of the fight. Tentative, weary of the imminent danger in front of him, after 4 rounds he was unquestionably behind on points, not to mention the fact he had to haul himself off the floor for only the second time in his legendary career. But the champion, perhaps getting a little over-confident of his early success, stopped following the gameplan, thinking victory was assured:
“When I walking back to my corner at the end of the 4th round, I thought I hadn’t even hit him clean and I had put him over. So in my mind, if you watch the fight after the 4th round I started waiting until I hit him again instead of creating the opportunity to land a punch which I did previously in the fight. Night and day difference when one strategy is to cut off the ring, stick the jab in his face and when he is adjusting catch him with the right hand it was very simple. Then it went to just wait until you hit him again with that right hand, the entire energy of the fight changed. When you start waiting against a guy like Sugar Ray Leonard he realises you are not forcing the fight, and if you watch the fight he started to get aggressive and confident and I allowed him back in the fight in my opinion.”
After his slow start Leonard realising he needed to change, started to get himself back in the fight. From the 5th round onwards, slowly but surely the old champion somehow turned the fight around. Sweeping rounds 5-7, Leonard, from the brink of defeat looked as though he was now the likely winner. But then LaLonde started to repeat what he was doing in the early stages of the contest:
“I changed back towards the end of the 8th round and then in the 9th round for literally two minutes I was hitting him with everything. I even looked at the referee as if to say what do you want me to do kill this old man, I don’t want to hit him anymore. But obviously, Ray was very resilient, he rode it out and he knew when the time was right to turn it on and he did and he got me.”
In the 9th round, Leonard showed what had made him such a great champion. Badly hurt in the opening period of the round, suddenly, Leonard turned the fight right around once more, this time critically so. For LaLonde it was perhaps his last throw of the dice, needing to salvage a fight that was slipping away from him, he came so close to a famous victory:
“Going into the fight I was so confident, I never thought for a moment he would win. So after the first 4 rounds when I had him over, I thought this was over, and like I say I started waiting. Then I realised I can’t wait anymore, he’s gaining momentum, I’m getting tired. My body was starting to fatigue, I was seeing 3 or 4 of him, my equilibrium started to go. So in the 9th round, I decided I was going to try and stop him.”
“I remember the moment vividly I got knocked down and I looked at Ray, and remember 20 seconds earlier I was asking the ref to stop it. I kind of looked at Ray, and shrugged and nodded, because in my mind I had nothing left. In my mind had I thought differently, instead of just acknowledging I was hurt then the fight could have gone completely differently. In Ray’s mind, I know this because he has told me, when he was getting hit he thought about getting out of the ring many times, but he didn’t. It’s that mental toughness, focus and experience, he had that from the fights with Hearns, Duran and Hagler. I had never been pushed that far before.”
LaLonde despite coming up short against Leonard still gave a performance that defied the odds, and was at times seemingly at the point of victory. But there are still inevitably regrets from the fight:
“It would have been nice to have gone in there healthy. But I would say my biggest regret would be was when I had him hurt in the 4th round why didn’t I throw more punches and stop him, and I could have done that. I’m a puncher that’s what I do, all I had to do was hit him with one of them.”
Leonard survived a real scare, and it was in many ways, it was the last time we saw him at anywhere near his best. The rest of his career ended, like many do, with a few fights too many. Leonard couldn’t seem to let go of the spotlight, but Terry Norris and Hector Camacho ended his career with two defeats.
But LaLonde to would be near the end, at least at the very top end of the sport. The Canadian would soon retire, before returning several years later before finally calling time for good in 2003.
“I retired because I had a crushed larynx which I got in the Leonard fight. It would have been irresponsible for me to keep fighting when my throat was very swollen and sore. I had also accomplished everything I set out for in my goals. I had a lot of bad injuries also, and I should have retired and never fought again logically but fighters are not logical beings. When I got back into boxing I did it because I missed it, more than anything else I love it.