When the call came to fight Sugar Ray Leonard, any fighter would pick up the phone and say yes. Donny Lalonde was the recipient of that golden ticket in November 1988 with Sugar Ray on the comeback trail once again with another retirement about to end.
Leonard required a dance partner and he needed a hook. Canadian Lalonde ticked enough boxes to land the multi-million dollar gig and the catch was the chance to win world titles in two divisions in a solitary fight.
Lalonde was the reigning WBC light-heavyweight title-holder and, with the sanctioning body also wanting to 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 the sport since April 1987 when he decisioned Marvelous Marvin Hagler in a stunning upset to claim a world title in a third division. After announcing his latest retirement soon afterwards, Leonard would return the following year.
Lalonde was bigger, most definitely, but he was also perceived as being one-dimensional. Meanwhile, a previous shoulder injury had limited the use and effectiveness of his left hand. Despite the size difference, inactivity and absence of Angelo Dundee from his corner for the first time in his career, Leonard still entered the Las Vegas ring as the overwhelming betting favourite.
Even though Lalonde had campaigned at super-middleweight before, the weight cut looked a cynical but crucial advantage for Leonard as he made the bigger man boil his body down to 168lbs. But, for Lalonde, it was the preparations for the fight that proved the crucial factor.
“It did affect me because people in my camp didn’t understand,” Lalonde told Boxing Social. “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 [win]. 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 previous trainer Teddy Atlas a couple of years before his fight with Leonard and Atlas later revealed in his autobiography that he had gone 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,” said Lalonde. “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; 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 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 the physically bigger man and by far the more active of the two, but the name of Sugar Ray Leonard seemed to gravitate the betting public towards the challenger.
“I had been underestimated throughout my whole career so I wasn’t all that surprised Ray was the favourite in that sense,” said Lalonde. “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 an 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 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 Canadian’s impressive jab that was repeatedly thudding into his face throughout the first four 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,” said Lalonde. “I landed one, a little high on the cheek in the fourth, if it had been lower it would have been over.”
Leonard had struggled in the early part of the fight. Tentative, and weary of the imminent danger in front of him, he had to haul himself off the floor for only the second time in his legendary career in the fourth round. But the champion, perhaps a little over-confident of his early success, stopped following the gameplan, thinking victory was assured.
“When I was walking back to my corner at the end of the fourth round, I thought I hadn’t even hit him clean and I had put him over,” said Lalonde. “So, in my mind, if you watch the fight after the fourth 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. [A] 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 realised he needed to change. From the fifth round onwards, slowly but surely, the veteran champion somehow turned the fight around. Sweeping rounds five to seven, Leonard went from the brink of defeat to the likely winner. But then Lalonde started to repeat his success from the early stages of the contest.
“I changed back towards the end of the eighth round and then, in the ninth round for literally two minutes, I was hitting him with everything,” said Lalonde. “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 ninth, Leonard illustrated what had made him such a great champion. Badly hurt in the opening period of the round, Leonard suddenly turned the fight around once more, this time critically so. For Lalonde, it was perhaps his last throw of the dice as he tried to salvage a fight that was slipping away from him.
“Going into the fight I was so confident, I never thought for a moment he would win,” said Lalonde. “So, after the first four 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 three or four of him, my equilibrium started to go. So, in the ninth round, I decided I was going to try and stop him.
“I remember the moment vividly [where] I got knocked down and I looked at Ray, and remember 20 seconds earlier I was asking the referee 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 still gave a performance that defied the odds and the Canadian was, at times, seemingly on the verge of victory. But there are still, inevitably, regrets from that night.
“It would have been nice to have gone in there healthy. But I would say my biggest regret would be when I had him hurt in the fourth round,” said Lalonde. “Why didn’t I throw more punches and stop him? 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, 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 comprehensive defeats.
Lalonde (41-5-1, 33 KOs) would lapse into inactivity and come back three times after the Leonard fight, challenging Bobby Czyz (L12) for the WBA cruiserweight title in May 1992 before finally bowing out against Virgil Hill (L12) in July 2003.
“I retired because I had a crushed larynx, which I got in the Leonard fight,” said Lalonde. “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.”