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.