Q and A with Canadian boxing legend Donny Lalonde

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Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

It isn’t every day a former world champion boxer strolls into the offices of NNSL but that’s what happened last week.

Donny Lalonde, “The Golden Boy” as he was known during his days as a professional boxer, sat down to talk about boxing and his most recent trip to the North, which included a week in Norman Wells on the Canol Trail.

JM (James McCarthy): Was this your first time in the North?

DL (Donny Lalonde): Nope, I came for Christmas last December. My daughter is the girlfriend of Jim’s (Corkal) son, Chris, and so over the holidays we decided to come up and visit the family and invited our son to come and join us. Coincidentally, our son did some job searching and ended up finding a job here. He was in Vancouver at the time.

Around the same time, Jim ran into Norm (Yakeleya, Dene national chief) and they got talking. Norm talked to Jim about trying to find a mentor for the kids for the Canol Trail hike. Jim asked who Norm was thinking about and he said he was looking for a sports person, someone maybe with a troubled past as a youth who overcame it and had a successful career.

Norm then started talking about that boxer Donny Lalonde and Jim said ‘Well, he’s at my house right now.’ (laughs). So that’s how that all came together.

Canadian boxing great Donny Lalonde, right, was in the NWT earlier this month and made some time to drop by the NNSL offices to talk about anything and everything. Lalonde, who called Winnipeg home for a majority of his life growing up, even met a fellow former Winnipegger in Holly Yestrau, NNSL's front desk attendant. James McCarthy/NNSL photo
Canadian boxing great Donny Lalonde, right, was in the NWT earlier this month and made some time to drop by the NNSL offices to talk about anything and everything. Lalonde, who called Winnipeg home for a majority of his life growing up, even met a fellow former Winnipegger in Holly Yestrau, NNSL’s front desk attendant.
James McCarthy/NNSL photo

JM: You’ve had a chance to visit Yellowknife at two completely different times of the year now. How do like it?

DL: I absolutely love it. There’s something about the air, something about the energy up here. For me, it’s feels very nature-like. There’s a lot of things you get here that you can’t get in a big urban city. I have a reason to come up now and I’d hoping to come back every year.

JM: Some people look at boxing as a way to help keep people out of trouble or to help get the aggression out. What drew you to it?

DL: I left home at 15. I was watching boxing one day and I was pretty directionless, didn’t know what to do with my life at the time. I was working on houses and I could frame a house by the time I was 17. I ended up getting into real estate and I owned five houses by the time I was 22, working and saving money.

Boxing was actually a bonus and it was a ‘let’s-see-what-happens’ kind of thing. I was sitting with my brother at 16, having a beer and smoking a cigarette, and boxing was on T.V. I said to my brother ‘Look at that guy. Look how confident he looks. This guy obviously feels good about himself. Wouldn’t you like to feel like he does? Feel good about yourself like he does one day of your life?’

Boxing was a way for me to show the world that I was worthy. It wasn’t my financial ticket out but it was a great maybe.

JM: Your fight against Sugar Ray Leonard (in 1988) is the one fight most casual boxing fans in Canada will remember as the big one for you. How did that all come about?

DL: My trainer (at the time), Tommy Gallagher, knew people in the Leonard camp. Leonard’s guys asked Tommy if I would fight Ray. Now, this was even before I won the world title. Tommy told me to come downstairs to talk business because no one else could hear it. He asked if I would fight Sugar Ray Leonard for $1 million. I laughed because I thought it was a joke and I said I would because he was 30 pounds lighter than me.

He was a small guy, I thought, and his last fight was 19 months prior when he beat Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Tommy told me it probably wouldn’t be at light heavyweight and we’d have to adjust the weight a bit. They told me if I won the world (light heavyweight) title and then successfully defend it, then we would have the fight on national T.V. in the U.S. My name would be big enough by that time.

(Lalonde won the vacant world light heavyweight title in Trinidad and Tobago over Eddie Davis in 1987 and successfully defended it against Leslie Stewart, who Lalonde called an “incredible opponent”.)

So the whole thing was pre-arranged a year before it happened. The most I had made for a fight by that point was $8,000. Tommy told me I was going to get some good money and it would probably be more than $1 million. I said I would fight Leonard today, tomorrow, whenever.

JM: And it ended up being the $6 million payday.

DL: Well, what we ended up doing was Ray and I put a company together – because we were both free agents at the time – called Victory Promotions and we promoted ourselves. We got a sponsorship of around $8 million and then the highest-ever paid gate from Caesars Palace in Las Vegas (at the time), about $9 million. Ray got two-thirds and I got one-third so it was roughly $5.6 million I got from it.

JM: That was probably more than any Canadian boxer had ever received for a fight.

DL: Four hundred per cent more than any fighter, not just a Canadian fighter, earned defending the world light heavyweight title.

(Lalonde would lose the fight after being knocked out by Leonard in the ninth round.)

JM: There’s the story which made the rounds and it was in Teddy Atlas’ autobiography in 2006 where he said he was going to get a gun, go to your apartment and kill you because he was so upset that he wasn’t in your corner for the Leonard fight. Had he been in the corner, he would have made 10 per cent of your purse. How much truth is there in that?

DL: Well, he did get a gun – two of them – and him and his friend came over and waited outside the apartment. Teddy’s story is I never came out and I was scared to come out. The truth of it was they were at Dave Wolf’s apartment, my former manager. Ray Mancini used to live there in his early career and I lived there early in my career.

The part Teddy forgets is that, by that point, this is two years after we stopped working together. I worked with trainers in Winnipeg, trainers in Indianapolis, Indiana … I worked with many good trainers. I’m not criticizing Teddy Atlas but he was part of the whole thing. He thinks he was the reason I got to where I was. He thinks he’s everything. I was a professional for eight years by 1988 and we were together for 11 months. He thinks it was all because of him that two years later, I’m in this money fight.

He was delusional thinking that everything was because of him. I wrote a rebuttal to it and thanked him for everything he did for me but he was part of the whole. We just didn’t work well together.

JM: After retirement, what was the goal in life?

DL: Get married and have kids. Be a really great dad and husband. I think I did a good job, better than my dad, but not as good as I’d like to have. Just a lack of ability to connect with my kids 100 per cent when they were younger because I didn’t know how to do that. My father and I never could. I never had that confidence that I could be a great dad.

I did my best and I’m close to my kids now. They’re both wonderful people and great adults. My wife is a superhero. I was very fortunate to meet a wonderful girl who everyone thought was a gold-digger at the time. We met three weeks before the Leonard fight and she looks like that. She was successful in her own right, she didn’t need me to be successful for her. I was very blessed.

I had three goals from boxing: build my self-esteem, win a world title and become financially independent, four if you count the fact that I met my wife three weeks before the Leonard fight.