The memories of the abuse he endured as a boy are distant, but they return now and again to haunt him and remind him of where he came from and how he got to where he is.
Donny Lalonde hardly remembers the beatings themselves: They were too violent and quick. He recalls instead those moments when he would wake up and find himself lying dazed on the floor, with his stepfather standing over him and his mother rushing to help him. And he remembers, even more vividly, the mounting fear that foretold these brutal storms, and the scrambling under the bed to hide and the waiting....
On Sept. 6, as Lalonde toured the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., these memories came back again. Lalonde, a 28-year-old from Winnipeg, Manitoba, who now lives in New Haven, Conn., is the WBC's light heavyweight champion, and he was in Washington that day to do some volunteer work as an official spokesman for the U.S. Public Health Service in its campaign against child abuse. He taped a video for parents as part of the campaign, and then he went to the hospital to see "the kids," as he likes to call them.
Lalonde went from bed to bed, pausing at each one to whisper a quiet word. There was a child on whose back someone had burned BAD KID with a cigarette. And there were children who had been scalded with boiling water. Mostly, there were blank, bewildered, numbed stares.
"Kids with their hands scorched," says Lalonde. "Fried faces. Tons of broken bones. Kids brought in on the edge of death. It makes you want to cry. It made me remember how terrified I felt when I was their age. The memory was of those times when my mother and stepfather would go out at night, and I'd lie in my bed waiting for them to come home and wondering how violent it would be. The arguing. It was very, very scary. I'd lie in bed shaking. I even remember hiding under beds. My stepfather used to beat on me; I remember being beaten up many times. Think about the kids today, hiding in closets and wondering when they'll get beat on next."
Lalonde has been drawing on his own experiences and has been preaching openly against child abuse since Nov. 27, 1987, the day he won the light heavyweight title, which Thomas Hearns had vacated. He knocked out heavily favored Eddie Davis of New York, in the second round of their bout in Trinidad.
Lately, Lalonde has been attracting even more attention to himself—and, thereby, to his campaign against child abuse—because on Nov. 7, in the parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, he'll climb into the prize ring to face Sugar Ray Leonard, who, at the age of 32, is coming out of retirement for the fifth time. Two titles will be at stake—Lalonde's light heavyweight title and the WBC super middleweight crown (161-168 pounds), which has been vacant since it was created almost two years ago.
If Leonard wins—he is a 3½-to-1 favorite to finesse his way to victory—he will become the first fighter in history to win five championships in a career: welterweight, junior middleweight, middleweight and the pair up for grabs on Monday (though junior middle and super middle are recent creations of dubious merit). The two new titles are merely the powdered sugar on what is expected to be one of the largest cakes ever in boxing.
Leonard's lawyer and adviser, Mike Trainer, is promoting the bout, and he says he has arranged a deal involving pay-per-view and closed circuit TV that guarantees the two fighters will divvy up more than $20 million, of which Leonard's take is expected to be about $15 million. That Leonard could emerge from retirement to fight an obscure Canadian for such extraordinary numbers is testimony to the kind of dollars that the money men will pay up front to put him on a show.
However, two weeks before the fight, local cable operators were reporting that at $29.95 for home viewing and as much as $50 for theater and arena tickets, the public wasn't buying. Obviously, one of the reasons sales have been less than brisk is Lalonde's anonymity.
Though the bout is expected to be a financial windfall for the two fighters, Leonard's choice of Lalonde as an opponent has generated widespread skepticism. Lalonde, who's awkward, slow and no match for Leonard when it comes to boxing skill, is perceived as strictly a one-armed fighter, with a big right hand that has led to all 26 of the knockouts among his 31 victories (against two losses) and a left hand that's good for swatting flies. Lalonde is seen by some observers as an ideal rival for Leonard—ideal in the sense that he'll make it easy for Leonard to set a boxing record and in the fact that he is white, which presumably means he'll be a better gate attraction.
"I resent this idea that we picked him because he is white," Trainer says. "If he were black—same size, same height—he'd have more credibility. I hate to say that, but it's true." Leonard chose to fight Lalonde, says Trainer, for three reasons. "Number one, he was a free agent," says Trainer. That is, he had no ties to any big promoters, no middlemen hanging on to take a piece of the action. Number two, says Trainer, Lalonde—as a light heavy—offered Leonard the challenge of moving way up in weight. "Ray fighting anyone his size, you wouldn't buy it," says Trainer. And, number three, by fighting Lalonde, Leonard could go for those two titles in one night.
Not incidentally, Leonard's camp insisted that the fight be for the super middleweight title as well as for the light heavyweight crown, which means Lalonde must come in at seven pounds under his normal weight. Controversy has swirled around that potentially damaging concession by Lalonde. Veteran boxing trainer and commentator Gil Clancy says, "I've never heard of a title fight in which a fighter had to come in under his championship weight. It's not right."
None of this bothers Lalonde excessively. "It's the opportunity of a lifetime to fight an alltime great," he says. "I'm thrilled to death. The fight is a springboard for everything I want to do in my life. Acting is one of those things. Helping the kids is another. That's the most significant thing I'm involved in. It's real. Boxing is fun and games. To be glorified for being able to knock out someone else is ridiculous. But that's the way society is. If I could make a dent in the child abuse problem, that would really be significant."
Lalonde fits no stereotype as a prizefighter. With blue eyes, a wiry frame and long blond hair he touches up with highlighters, he looks more like a Southern California surfer than a boxing champion. His diet is chiefly vegetarian; he eschews all processed foods. He drinks juices out of his own squeezer and eats his meals with chopsticks. He trains to the music of Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens. He submits himself daily to the painful rigors of deep-tissue massaging, or rolfing. He stays in his room a lot and reads books with titles like What Zen Masters Do For Play.
He's introverted and extremely well-spoken. He says things like, "I've always felt a strong spiritual connection with the outdoors." He runs marathons, meditates daily and prays before fights that no one gets hurt. He also seems to be comfortable with the abiding irony of his life—that he's an outspoken foe of domestic violence, yet involved in the most deliberately abusive sport.
"Boxing to me isn't an abusive or violent thing." Lalonde says. "I'm not in there to hurt a guy. I just want to debilitate him for 10 seconds or until the referee stops it. Boxing is what I use to gauge my personal growth."
Tell that to Eddie Davis or former WBA light heavyweight champion Leslie Stewart, whom Lalonde knocked out in the fifth round, or any of the other victims of his sneaky-quick, over-the-top right hand.
Lalonde's contradictions and complexities aside, given his early struggles with self-doubt, multiple injuries and shattered self-esteem, it's a wonder he has gotten as far as he has in the game. Lalonde was born in Kitchener, Ont., March 12, 1960, the son of a salesman who left his wife and four children when Lalonde was three. "It really had nothing to do with me, but I took it personally," says Lalonde. "I had that to start with. For quite a few years, I'd walk down the street and look into car windows to see if it was him. I missed him; I thought it was something I did."
When his mother, Jean, remarried, Donny accepted his stepfather, Bob Wylie, immediately. "I thought. Here's my new dad," he says. "And I just loved the guy. We'd go hunting and fishing together."
The abuse began when Donny, then 11, witnessed his stepfather beating up his mother. "I jumped on his back to stop him, and he hit me," he says. "I just went flying. My nose was bleeding, and it was really dramatic. He was shocked. But after that, it just seemed easier and easier for him to do that. You add all this together—my father leaving, my stepfather beating on me—and it amounted to very low self-esteem for me. I felt there was something wrong with me. I was a loser. People who were supposed to love me didn't even love me. That's why I got involved in boxing—to try to rebuild myself, how I felt about myself and how others perceived me, to try to reestablish self-esteem, respect, pride. Boxing is a way of doing that."
Lalonde first walked into a gym when he was 17, after watching an amateur boxing show on television. By then, he had been on his own for two years. He ran away from home when he was 15—tired of school and the beatings—and worked at odd jobs between Kitchener and Winnipeg. He fought as an amateur for a couple of years—he was 11-4—and turned pro in 1980.
For five years, he scuffled and hustled, mostly in Canada. He never had a full-time trainer or a manager—he even promoted some of his own shows—but then in 1983 he knocked out Roddie McDonald in the 10th round to win the Canadian light heavyweight championship. He did this even though he had a smashed middle knuckle on his right hand and was recovering from surgery on his left shoulder, which he'd first separated in '77 when he crashed into the boards while playing hockey.
Over the years, the shoulder had separated some 30 times and had become so loose that he was able to pop it back into its socket himself. To prepare for his bout against McDonald, Lalonde underwent an operation in which doctors inserted a pin to bind the joint. The pin is still in the shoulder, and it severely restricts his ability to raise his arm.
At the end of 1985, with his career seemingly heading nowhere, Lalonde traveled to Bethesda, Md., to seek help from Trainer, of all people. Leonard's man had no time for him, but he suggested that Lalonde go to New York and look up Dave Wolf, who had managed Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini to the WBA lightweight championship. Wolf was impressed with Lalonde, whom he had seen fight a number of times.
Lalonde was raw, but Wolf took him on anyway. "I just love punchers," Wolf says. "When I see a guy who can hit like that, that's what excites me. I knew it wouldn't be a short-term project. Because of his shoulder injury, Donny didn't look like a normal fighter. He didn't have a jab—he'd stick it out, like it was a range finder—and he didn't have a hook."
Nor did Lalonde fit into the brawling, macho world of Gleason's gym, where Teddy Atlas was assigned to train him. Lalonde went to acting school, carried books all the time and rode to Gleason's on his bicycle, dressed in a tank top and Bermuda shorts. "He looked like a college kid coming back from the beach," Wolf says. "Then he says he doesn't want to hurt anybody, that boxing is a test of wills. They didn't believe he was a man's man."
In 1986, Lalonde won all eight of his fights with Atlas in his corner, but the two men clashed in temperament and style. "He ran things like an army camp," says Lalonde. "I'm more of a free spirit." So he and Atlas parted, and Wolf put Lalonde under the care of Tommy Gallagher, who was more tolerant of Lalonde's free-floating life-style. Yet, at the time, it seemed that there wasn't much any trainer could do for Lalonde. By early '87, he ached everywhere: left shoulder, right hand, lower back, knees, ankles, elbows. Wolf decided to arrange one final fight for Lalonde, one that would send him away from the game with a big payday. But before that could happen, Lalonde was introduced to Ken Balson, the Danish guru of holistic medicine.
Using deep-tissue massage, Balson stretched and tore at the aching muscles, ligaments and scar tissue, opening fresh blood supplies to the fighter's injuries. "It was unbelievable." says Lalonde. "It was instant. He fixed my hand up. I haven't had trouble with it since." Away, too, went the aches in his elbows, shoulder and knees. "Now Tommy could start to put the pieces of a real fighter together," Wolf says.
A month after Balson started working on him, Lalonde easily outpointed veteran Mustafa Hamsho in a 12-round fight at New York's Felt Forum. (Six weeks after that, just to keep fit, he ran the Manitoba Marathon in 3:19:40, to finish 65th in a field of more than 1,000.) The victory over Hamsho led to the championship bout against Davis.
Before that fight, all of Lalonde's old doubts about his worth came back to haunt him. "It was a strange time for me," he says. "I had a hard time deciding if I was worthy of being world champion. This really dug up a lot of old stuff. Again I thought I was something, but then again, no. I'm not. Am I for real? Do I want this? It was a horrible personal dilemma." Wolf shored up Lalonde's psyche by telling him, "You deserve it. That's why you're here. You're going to destroy this guy!"
Lalonde had other incentives going into that fight. On the eve of it, his real father, Raymond, showed up to watch his son—they hadn't seen much of each other over the years—and Donny overheard Raymond say to a spectator, "This is incredible. Look at what this kid has accomplished!" Lalonde said to Wolf. "All my life, that's what I've wanted to hear my father say."
That was one old ghost laid to rest. Another year passed before he sat down to lunch with his stepfather in Canada. "I confronted him on the abuse." Lalonde says. "I asked him, 'What happened? What did I do?' There were a lot of tears shed by both of us. He explained how he was an abused child. He said he feels remorse every day. I feel sorry for him. We need programs for the abusers, too."
Having come to terms with the men who wounded him, perhaps irreparably, Lalonde has set his mind to dealing with Leonard. He has been working hard on developing his left, which he intends to stick in Leonard's face, and claims it has improved considerably over the months. "He'll never have a great left hand, but it's not completely useless, as the papers say." says Clancy. "I think Lalonde has a shot." A puncher's shot. "The question is how Ray will respond if he's hit hard a couple of times," says Clancy.
"I want to fight Ray," Lalonde says. "I want to stay within range. I'll cut off the ring, but I'm not going to follow him around like a puppet on a string, as Marvin Hagler did. Ray's going to have to fight the fight of his life. Only one of us is going to be on his feet at the end, and I don't think he's big enough to knock me off mine. I'm fighting a small old man—a welterweight. It will be too fast-paced a fight for him. I'll wear him down."
Or something like that. No matter which way it goes, remember, this fight is really just fun and games for Lalonde. The real one comes later, and it's for the kids.