By Donny Lalonde
“Manny, I would love to have Tommy box an exhibition here to help raise money for Ralf [Racine a former opponent of Hilmer Kenty who had recently been put in a coma in a fight against tough Canadian fighter Gaétan Hart], but there is no one in Winnipeg or Canada for that matter crazy enough to box Tommy Hearns.” –Tom Burns.
Tom Burns, the local boxing promoter in Winnipeg in the late 70’s and early 80’s was talking to Emmanuel Steward who was trying to help raise money for Ralf and his family as he recovered from the damage inflicted by Hart. I heard this from back in the gym and stepped in to interrupt Tommy and said, “Tommy, Tommy’, he waved me off and said ‘Donny, I am talking to Emmanuel Steward, wait a minute’…I interrupted him again, Tommy, I heard you, I know, I will box Tommy Hearns! He told Manny, “hold on, I may have found someone that is crazy enough to box Tommy.”
The date was April 24, 1980 and Hearns was one fight away from winning his first World Title against Pipino Cuevas. Hearns was 26-0, 25 KO’s and I was 1-0, 1 KO. Hearns had a decorated amateur career and I had an 11-4 amateur record.
I had begged Tommy Burns the promoter to give me a pro fight before I had ever had one amateur fight. He finally agreed and set me up to be the walk out bout after the main event of Scott Ledoux Vs Sylvester Wilder on October 3, 1978 when I was just a mere 18 years of age. The fight ended with Ledoux missing a punch that somehow knocked his opponent out before it hit him and the crowd was screaming furiously at the promoter. Tom Burns, came by the dressing room and said to me “Donny you can’t fight. If I don’t get out of here now they are going to kill me and you should have at least some amateur fights, before fighting pro anyway. So sorry, but your pro debut is not going to happen tonight.”
When the date of the exhibition came, I was working for the city of Winnipeg Water Works Department. I took the day off from work and a bunch of my work mates came to watch me box the great Tommy Hearns. They like everyone, thought I was crazy. I was so confident but of course a bit nervous. A friend of mine helped me in training besides my trainer Peter Piper who I credit with teaching me the finer points of effectively using my right hand and maximizing the power in it. But he wasn’t as attentive or as adamant to watch for details and as it turned out I was entering the ring with 18 ounce gloves on and no head gear, while Tommy had 12 or small 14 ounce gloves on. My friend said, wait a minute, there is no way you’re using these huge gloves and him those plus you need a headgear like he has on. He went and got me the same size gloves. I turned down the head gear option.
The exhibition was one of two 4 round exhibitions Tommy was doing. I was first. The second was with Canadian middleweight contender Jimmy Gradson. Tommy being developed in the Kronk Gym known for gym wars had no idea how to take it easy. I was ready for him to be aggressive; he was Tommy “Hitman” Hearns from Detroit, the murder capital of the USA.
We had a spirited 4 rounds. Tommy connected with his vaulted right cross and hit me clean and hard enough to make one knee hit the canvas. I boxed Tommy well and felt very comfortable in there with him. In the 3rd round, I connected with a right cross cleanly causing Tommy to feel his butt hit the bottom rope. We were both big punchers. I was 165 at the time and Tommy was 155, so the weight wasn’t that different. It was great experience for me and it gave me tremendous confidence that all I had to do was get the experience I needed. Once I had it, I could realize my dream of becoming a World Champion.
After that exhibition my coworkers and others around the game were adamant that I needed to quit my job and take boxing seriously. I was serious and I had one goal which was to be World Champion, but I still worked because I needed to eat etc…no one took me seriously until then and then only locally and within the mind of Tommy Hearns and Emmanuel Steward.
As it turned out my hand was broken badly in my fourth fight and it looked to most in the boxing circles of Winnipeg that I was done at that point. The doctor had said publicly that the injury was a career ending injury as it disfigured my hand and made it impossible to train or fight without further damaging the remaining knuckles. It was very painful, but not impossible as history would show.
I wanted a real fight with Tommy from that day forth. Of course he was Tommy Hearns and I was no one. I was a kid with one fight. But I never forgot how I hung in there with Tommy comfortably with such little experience and I was confident that I just needed to gain the respect of people in the sport to get fights with greats like Hearns.
I had a very hard time convincing anyone since I was injured so much during my career. It took many years and many trials and tribulations not to mention 5 more “career ending injuries” according to the specialist in the specific fields of health for specific injuries.
Winning a World Title, defending against a former Champion in Leslie Stewart and then holding my own against the great Sugar Ray Leonard earned me credibility. In the build up to the Leonard fight it was told to me that if I beat Leonard, Tommy was my next fight for $10 million which in the late 80’s, was a ton of money! I wanted that fight on a personal note more than the Leonard fight because of the past experience with Tommy and the fact that he was closer to a legitimate light heavyweight. I had never even contemplated fighting Ray as he was a welterweight most of his career and never really bigger. Tommy was on my radar since I was 20.
Of course as the boxing record books, show, I lost to Ray and the $10 million fight never happened with Tommy. I continued to pursue it when I continued with my career after I found a doctor willing to approve me to fight with a crushed larynx which happened as the last punch of the Leonard fight landed which is actually how I was stopped.
I always had Tommy in my sights……
In 1997, I was still pursuing a Hearns fight. I went to Bob Arum’s Vegas office and met with Bob. I told him I wanted to fight Tommy. He said, “OK Donny, let’s call him.” He put on the speaker phone and called up Tommy. Tommy answered the phone, “Tommy, Bob Arum here, I have a white kid here that says he could kick your ass”! We all laughed. Tommy said, “who is it, Bob?” Arum responded Donny Lalonde and he is sitting here and he wants to fight you. Tommy and I spoke agreeing we would work on it. Bob set up a fight for me on April 9, 1997 against Joe Stevenson where Tommy sat ringside to watch. With Tommy there, we were going to start generating interest in the fight. The idea was for me to knock someone out clean in an exciting fight and create interest in Tommy and I, at that stage of our careers.
By this time, I was so fragile with my severely damaged hands that I had to be so careful when the fights started to not hurt my right hand. Not to mention the vulnerability of my larynx.
The fight started as we had hoped. At the end of the first round, I connected with the right hand we were hoping for. Stevenson went down face first at the bell to end the round. I destroyed my hand as it hit him a bit higher than hoped for. Stevenson pulled himself up rope by rope and just beat the count after the bell.
With the minute rest and time to recover, Stevenson came back and fought on for 6 more rounds before the ref stopped it in the 7th. Other than the first round knock down, it was a boring fight as I had to protect my right hand, so I could only use my left to box him. My hand was so damaged and in so much pain it hurt me more when I hit him than it hurt him I am sure. I fought a boring but effective fight to get the win. Not the kind of fight we were looking for. Bruce Trampler of Top Rank saw my hand after the fight. He said “Donny you need to just stop fighting if you’re that bad. What are you doing?”
I still felt I could have beat Tommy because he is tall and he holds his chin up, so the chance of damaging my hand was minimal. It was a fight I wanted so badly.
It was a fight that I believe would have been, if nothing else, very exciting and a fan favorite for that year. As the saying goes, “who wins when two punchers fight, the one with the best chin”. I felt I had that between us and though it would have been dangerous at any time in our careers, it was one I cherished but it got away….