Donny Lalonde never had it easy. The former light-heavyweight champion’s childhood was marred by domestic violence, and fighting was part of everyday life growing up in Canada. “I used to have to fight my way to school because I was Catholic and a lot of Protestants lived between me and the school, so I had to fight always, every day. So when I got into a boxing ring for the first time I felt protected. For me, a boxing ring is actually a comfort zone.” Even when he did make it as a boxer, his career was hindered by injuries, not least a troublesome left shoulder which doctors decided to keep in place by fixing a pin through it that significantly restricted its mobility. “Boxing is like a metaphor for life. You encounter hardship and you have to fight your way through it. There are many roads that lead to the same outcome. Not just one route. In life you have to improvise, adapt and overcome.”
Above: Donny Lalonde
Lalonde had famously fought Sugar Ray Leonard, knocking him down in the fourth round for only the second time in his career. Leonard went on to win the fight. Lalonde is still irked by this defeat, not that he talks a lot about it; he’s much more focused on the future, and the future is Malik, a 23-year old Libyan boxer who’s made Malta his home and is being trained by Lalonde himself. “He’s a very special fighter in so much as that he has all the attributes of a boxer you can think of, which in a text book would be ideal: he’s tall, long, fast, smart, he’s very powerful. In boxing, you need all these specific things, but then there’s the things you don’t see, the ability to dig deep and really make something happen even in the worst scenarios. These are things you can’t buy, you have them or you don’t have them, and Malik has all of them.”
Lalonde hopes he can guide him to becoming a world champion, which would be great for Malta and Maltese boxing. I get to meet Malik later on. He’s an affable guy with a warm smile and a cheerful disposition, a lot like his trainer. “I’m really excited to fight here in Malta, in my home,” he says. “I like Malta, I like the people. I feel great. I feel ready to fight this guy and I promise to knock him out”. He’s referring to Morgan Jones, the light-heavyweight champion of Wales, whom he’ll be fighting on the 12th May. I ask, with tongue in cheek, whether Paceville is a distraction to his training. Surprisingly, for a youth wearing hip hop gear and a flat-brimmed hat, his demeanour becomes more serious. “No Paceville,” he says. Lalonde beams with approval. There’s a strong bond between the trainer and the boxer. “He grew up in a tumultuous time in Libya when Gaddafi was overthrown in a very, very unsettled world, so for him a boxing ring is a quiet calm place to be. I saw a lot of similarities in Malik from my own life. We connected on a personal level in particular.”
Above: Malik being trained by Lalonde
We later make our way to Scott Dixon’s gym to watch the pair prepare for Malik’s upcoming fight. Watching Malik manoeuvre around the ring and work the pads is frightening. His talent, commitment and power is very clear to see. You can watch hours of boxing on TV, but it looks totally different when you see it in real life. I couldn’t believe how anyone could remain standing after being on the receiving end of a single one of lightning-fast punches Malik was throwing, let alone go toe-to-toe with him for 12 rounds. He really looks like he could be a future world champion. “This has just been a dream situation and things seem to be falling right along,” says Lalonde. “Let’s see if we can fulfill each other’s dreams. I’ve never managed someone to a world title and he’s never been one.”
Dreams are a big part of who Lalonde is. Earlier, when I asked about the enduring appeal of boxing, he said, “Guys like Malik are what keep it alive, because eventually people catch on to their dream, and boxing is that a-million-to-one-shot dream, right in front of your eyes, and you get to watch it happen. So how do we ever get tired of living a dream?”
Watching the two work, feeding off each other, trusting, dreaming, hoping – it all made sense.