It was one of the biggest and most controversial catch-weight world title fights in boxing history, and almost as soon as Sugar Ray Leonard-Donny Lalonde was announced fans wrote into top magazines such as KO and The Ring, complaining how Leonard had massively stacked the deck in his favour.
To refresh the memory of fight fans:
Leonard, at the time of November of 1988 already a three-weight world champion (welterweight, light-middleweight, middleweight), wanted more gold and to get it he persuaded Lalonde to defend his WBC light-heavyweight title against him at Caesars Palace. But there was a catch (pardon the pun!). Lalonde, a natural 175-pounder, had to drop down to the newly-created super-middleweight weight limit of 168-pounds because – in either a stroke of contractual genius or a stark example of gaining an unfair advantage – Leonard had seen to it that the newly-gilded WBC 168-pound strap would also be on the line.
Lalonde, guaranteed his biggest-ever payday, agreed to lose the weight. The Canadian star also felt he would beat a “fat, old welterweight.”
“Sugar Ray is out of his mind,” bellowed the Ring Magazine headline, the quote having come directly from a super-confident Lalonde.
The fight turned out to be memorable, even if it contested two “Mickey Mouse titles,” as one Ring Magazine reader wrote in. Leonard showed flashes of his earlier genius, while Lalonde shocked everyone by decking Leonard with his honey punch, the right hand, in the 4th-round. Lalonde also hurt Ray badly in the 9th, before the all-time great fought back in savage style and closed the show just like that. Leonard, still full of fire, then shoved a team member out of his way as he triumphantly held aloft five fingers of his right hand, signifying how many world title belts he now owned.
To this day, Lalonde, a fine fighter on many other nights, is best remembered for his catch-weight classic with Sugar Ray.
Lalonde, who today lives in Costa Rica, told this writer (when I interviewed Donny for Boxing news back in 2010) that he definitely thinks the fight would have seen a different result had he been permitted to hit the scale at his usual 175-pounds.
“Yeah, I definitely think the weight was a big factor,” Donny told me thoughtfully in 2010.
“As a mater of fact, Gil Clancy told me before the fight that if I fought Ray at 175, I’d beat him every time, but at 168, Ray beats me. Having said that, I felt quite strong at the 167-pounds I came in at. The thing was, Ray and I had a private agreement that for every pound I came in over 168, I would be fined a million dollars. I wasn’t worried, but the people around me were – as they were concerned they’d lose some money if I lost some money.
“So I do feel Tommy Gallagher over-trained me for that fight. I told him, ‘I don’t need to spar ten-rounds every day.’ And he said, ‘it’s okay, you’ll make weight and be able to fight hard all night.’ I was thinking, ‘hey, I fight hard all night anyway.’ I knew something was wrong when I ran five straight miles in Las Vegas and didn’t even break a sweat. So I was weakened, yes.”
Leonard, after his two-title win, went on to meet archrival Tommy Hearns in a long-awaited rematch. Lalonde wrestled with the idea of retirement.
“After the Leonard fight, I had a really bad sore throat, but I didn’t think too much about it,” Lalonde told me.
“I found out later, at the doctors, that a shot to my larynx had almost closed the larynx. I had an MRI scan, and I found out that had I fought again then, I actually could’ve died if I’d been hit in the throat again. My voice never has been the same since the Leonard fight.”
Boxing history would have been quite a bit different if Lalonde had done the near-unthinkable and knocked Leonard out. These days, looking back, Lalonde feels he made a big mistake after decking Sugar Ray.
“Ray said afterwards, that every time I hit him it hurt him, and that the fight was of the toughest he’d ever been in,” Donny said.
“So with ten extra pounds [behind my punches] it could’ve been a whole different story. After I decked him in the 4th, I thought to myself the fight was over with. I was foolish and I changed tactics. I stopped leading him into my right hand. There are no good feelings at all from that fight (laughs). I was so disappointed. I was sure I’d win and that would’ve been the perfect way to end my career.”
Lalonde did carry on of course, even fighting for another world title in the early 1990s. Leonard, swollen like never before after his war with Lalonde, had show vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that were subsequently taken advantage of, first by Hearns and then by Terry Norris and Hector Camacho) yet he showed once again what a great fighter he really was (those fans who have never seen the fight will find it worthwhile checking the action out courtesy of You-Tube).
“For All The Gold,” as was the tagline for Leonard-Lalonde, may have been a criticised and controversial promotion, but it ended up being a very good, exciting fight. And all these years later the fans who were there remember it almost as well as the two practitioners do.