SPORTS

Fighting for glory

A little-known Canadian takes on a superstar

BARBARA WICKENS October 31 1988
SPORTS

Fighting for glory

A little-known Canadian takes on a superstar

BARBARA WICKENS October 31 1988

Fighting for glory

SPORTS

A little-known Canadian takes on a superstar

In the past, the handsome 28-year-old blond has worked as a male model and as an actor. And he eats no red meat or dairy products because he says that makes him feel healthier. In short, Donny Lalonde does not exactly fit the popular stereotype of a boxer. But the young man from Winnipeg is full of surprises. He may even have one in store for the illustrious Sugar Ray Leonard when the two men climb into the ring for a 12-round championship bout on Nov. 7 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nev., before 15,000 spectators and an anticipated paying audience of seven million television viewers. The fact that Las Vegas odds-makers and sports commentators heavily favor Leonard, the gold medallist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics who went on to win three world boxing championships, does not appear to trouble Lalonde in the least. Said Lalonde: “They do not know me and what I can do. This will be the first real opportunity they will have to see me, and I intend to surprise them.”

At stake will be Lalonde’s World Boxing Council (WBC) light heavyweight title, as well as the newly created WBC super middleweight crown. If Leonard wins the titles—at 32 he is coming out of retirement for the fourth time—

he will become the first boxer in history to have held five championships in different weight classes. A Lalonde victory would give the Canadian the prestige of upsetting his betterknown rival—and a wider platform to speak out about the cause that is most important to him, child abuse, the ugly phenomenon that Lalonde says made his own childhood a misery. And each boxer, win or lose, will walk away richer—Leonard by at least $18 million and Lalonde by at least $6 million.

Five years ago, the idea of their meeting in the ring would have seemed highly improbable. Lalonde was a relative unknown, with a left shoulder held together by a metal pin as the result of a hockey injury when he was 17. And his right hand had an injured middle knuckle that kept breaking. Leonard, with a detached retina in his left eye as the result of a blow six years ago from a sparring partner, retired from boxing after holding titles as a welterweight and a junior middleweight. He came out of retirement briefly in 1984 and again in April, 1987, to upset Marvellous Marvin Hagler for the undisputed middleweight championship.

Next week’s fight promises to be the biggest pugilistic event since last January’s Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight bout. Pro-

moted by Victory Promotions, Inc. of Bethesda, Md., in association with Caesars Palace, the Leonard-Lalonde match is expected to gross a good deal more than the $24 million guaranteed to the two fighters from gate receipts, closed-circuit television and sponsorships. Leonard, who has won 34 fights—24 of them by knockouts—and lost only one in his professional career, will reportedly receive about two-thirds of the gross revenue. That means he will easily surpass the $15.6 million he earned in his fight against Hagler. Lalonde’s guaranteed share of the purse will make him an instant millionaire. With a $ professional record of 31 I wins—26 by knockouts— 5 and two losses, his biggest ^ purse to date was $615,000 I for successfully defending his " title against Leslie Stewart in Trinidad last May.

Lalonde, still largely unknown, had his first experience of instant stardom when he arrived in Las Vegas last week. Posters and billboards all over the city announced the coming fight. Sweatshirts with the boxers’ pictures on them were on sale for $25, and souvenir golf caps sold for $12. On Lalonde’s first day in Las Vegas last week, about 150 curious fans showed up to watch him work out at the Caesars Palace sports pavilion. Lalonde stepped elegantly into the training ring, with his sun-streaked hair and a white towel around his neck, tucked into a yellow silk jacket zipped to the middle of his chest. While a rock music tape blared in the background, Lalonde shadowboxed for 20 minutes, growling and groaning all the while. Then four boxers took turns sparring with him. When Lalonde knocked one of them down, the crowd cheered. After four rounds, he began skipping rope, working on the punching bags and doing body stretches to the music of the Irish rock band U2. On his way out, he stopped to autograph posters on sale in the hotel lobby for $5.

A minor controversy arose over the prefight promotional activities of the two fighters. This summer, Leonard and Lalonde held news conferences in nine North American cities. For most of the journeys, the two men travelled on the same private jet, prompting criticism that they seemed too chummy for a pair of opponents. Early in September, they began their training in neighboring camps in the Poconos, a scenic, mountainous area in Pennsylvania.

By last week, the honeymoon between the fighters appeared to be over. Leonard told Maclean’s that he was not concerned that Lalonde is younger, taller and has a longer reach. Although the six-foot, P/i-inch Lalonde usually weighs 172 lb., by fight time he is supposed to be down to 168 lb., the maximum weight of the super middleweight division and

the minimum for light heavyweight. Leonard, who at five feet, IOV2 inches weighed only 154 lb. in July, will have to attain his highest fighting weight ever to reach 168 lb.

Leonard also declared that his speed and experience would more than compensate for whatever physical advantages Lalonde might appear to have. Said Leonard: “Lalonde is an unknown, and it is my mission to keep him unknown. He is a good fighter but he has never

fought before 15,000 people. That is another level of competition and requires another level of composure.”

But Lalonde, who arrived in Las Vegas early last week, confidently predicted that his punching ability would make him the first boxer ever to knock out Leonard. Said Lalonde: “Ray has never been hit by anyone as hard as I can hit, including Hagler. I have a fight plan, and it does not include going the distance.”

Taking up the same theme, Lalonde’s New York City-based manager, David Wolf, argued that the older Leonard would lack the stamina to keep up with his younger opponent. Added Wolf: “Leonard can hit Donny but he cannot hurt him.”

As well, Lalonde is a man who is used to beating the odds. Bom in Kitchener, Ont., the third of four children, Lalonde never really knew his father, who left his mother when Donny was three years old. His mother remar-

ried, the family settled in Winnipeg—which Lalonde now calls home—and by the time Lalonde was 11, he says, he was being regularly beaten by his stepfather. To escape, Lalonde left home at the age of 15 and moved in with his older brother, John, in Kitchener.

When he was 17, Lalonde started boxing as an amateur in the Kitchener policemen’s gymnasium, winning 11 of 15 fights over three years. But Lalonde’s old hockey injury, acquired when he was checked into the boards

from behind playing junior hockey, continued to be a problem. In 1979, doctors operated on his shoulder for the first time. Still, Lalonde said that he felt compelled to keep on fighting. “I wanted to prove that I was tough,” he recalled, “that I could take it.”

In 1980, Lalonde turned professional, winning the Canadian light heavyweight championship three years later. In 1982, he finally had a metal pin inserted to strengthen his still-ailing shoulder. By 1985, Lalonde decided that he needed a manager and approached Wolf, who had managed Ray Mancini of Youngstown, Ohio, to the World Boxing Association’s lightweight championship in 1982. Said Wolf of Lalonde: “I knew what the problems were—a bad shoulder and a sore hand from using it so much. But I also knew he could hit. Man, could he hit.”

After signing a contract with Wolf, Lalonde moved to Manhattan, where he supplemented

his earnings as a boxer by modelling and, in 1986, by playing the role of a young amateur fighter who faces a wily boxing veteran in an off-off-Broadway play called Just Keep Listening. Then, in November, 1987, Lalonde defeated Eddie Davis for the WBC light heavyweight title.

Lalonde’s opponent in Las Vegas is known as a stylish and skilful fighter with an unusual ability to fight in a variety of weight classes— and usually win. A native of Wilmington, N.C., Leonard won his first professional title—the WBC welterweight crown—in 1979 by knocking out Wilfred Benitez. In 1981, he went up in weight to knock out Ayub Kalule for the World Boxing Association junior middleweight championship in June, 1981. Three months later, he knocked out Thomas Hearns to win the undisputed welterweight title but retired from boxing after the retina in his left eye became detached during training for a 1982 fight.

Despite concerns for his vision, Leonard returned to the ring for a nontitle fight in May, 1984, against Kevin Howard, then retired again. Next, a chance to take on Hagler, who had not lost a fight in 11 years, lured Leonard out of retirement again for an April, 1987, bout. In a split decision, Leonard defeated Hagler for the WBC middleweight title in one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history.

0 For his part, Donny La-

0 londe has come a long way

1 from the nightmare of his I youth. Among his real estate 1 holdings are the popular Cor-

upsets ever ner Boys restaurant in Winni-

peg and properties in New

York and the Dominican Republic. Lalonde also recently became more active still in speaking out against child abuse. In September, the U.S. department of health and human services named him spokesman for its campaign against child abuse. He also recently founded the Donny Lalonde Foundation for abused children in Winnipeg. Still, Lalonde is haunted by the memory of the violence that was once inflicted on him. When he first began to box, Lalonde recalled, “I wanted pain. I was so insecure that when I was hit, I would flash back to the beatings by my stepfather, which, maybe for a while, I subconsciously thought I deserved.” Now Lalonde’s fight with Leonard could help to banish any lingering insecurities—or cast him back into the ranks of fighters who almost made the big time.

LINDA RENAUD

BARBARA WICKENS with LINDA RENAUD in Las Vegas