It took place 30 years ago today, and the fight was one of the biggest and most controversial catch-weight world title fights in boxing history. Indeed, almost as soon as Sugar Ray Leonard-Donny Lalonde was announced, fans in vast numbers wrote into top magazines such as KO and The Ring, complaining over how Leonard had massively stacked the deck in his favor.
To refresh the memory of fight fans today, three full decades on:
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 in Las Vegas. But there was a catch! Lalonde, a natural 175-pounder, had to drop down to the newly-created super-middleweight 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 fourth-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.
Boxing history would have been quite a bit different if Lalonde had done the near-unthinkable and knocked Leonard out. Instead, modern day boxing history was changed in an entirely different manner, as many future champions would follow Sugar Ray’s lead and see to it that their opponents were forced to face them under catch-weight conditions. This is perhaps a side of his legacy that Leonard is less than popular for. But Leonard, swollen like never before after his war with Lalonde, had show vulnerabilities, yet he showed once again what a great fighter he really was. Still, had the fight been fought where it really should have been contested – at 175 pounds – things may well have been different.
As it is, Sugar Ray was able to do something his namesake, Sugar Ray Robinson, was unable to do, and that’s win at least a piece of the world light-heavyweight crown. But of course, the original Sugar Ray was not afforded the advantage in weight against Joey Maxim Leonard was afforded against Lalonde. There is no question who the greater fighter was.