PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - March 17, 2016  
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Story & photos by John DiSanto


The last remaining boxing legend of Philadelphia’s golden era of the 1940’s passed away on March 17th. Dorsey Lay was a prominent lightweight boxer who competed in perhaps the finest era of 135-pounders and compiled a professional record of 40-18-1, 15 KOs. Born in LaGrange, GA on December 31, 1924, Lay was 91 at the time of his death.

Lay was a fine amateur before turning pro, and placed second at the 1941 Mid-Atlantic AAU tournament, representing the Pomeroy School for Boys.

“I started boxing when I went to a boy’s school up in Pomeroy, Pennsylvania,” Lay remembered. “Mrs. Carter, she brought me up to Pomeroy. It was a lovely place. Fifty boys, you had to get along. We did farm work. We went to school there. We boxed in the field. All them boys up there, you had to protect yourself, learn something. She had about 50 boys up there.” 

He turned pro late in 1942, defeating Frankie Mayo by six-round decision at the Olympia Athletic Club in South Philly for his first win as a professional. He was only 17 years old.

“I was putting my age up. I couldn’t turn pro until I was 18,” Lay said. “Then I got with this guy, Gene Johnson, as a trainer. He said, ‘you’re too good to be an amateur. We’ll take you to the pros. You’ll make money.’  And that’s how I turned pro. He put me with (manager) Blinky Palermo,” Lay said. “Blinky took me over, him and (cut man & trainer) Jimmy Wilson.  So I had all my fights with them.  No more amateur, I turned pro.” 

Palermo was a notorious figure in boxing with ties to organized crime that helped him control a large stable of boxers, including Dorsey Lay.

“Blinky, he was a mob guy,” Lay said. “I had a lot of dealings with him. He took me everywhere – California, Chicago, Pittsburg. That’s all I know. I did everything they tell me. All I did was kept my mouth shut. He had Billy Fox - fifty fights, fifty wins. I don’t know nothing. He asked me things. I don’t know nothing. I kept my mouth closed. All I did was train and fight and got my little package (money). And that’s it. I got paid. I didn’t know nothing about contracts, nothing like that. All I know was to fight.” 

He built his boxing career at the legendary “Slaughterhouse Gym”, a hotbed of boxing talent in Philadelphia. Although in those days almost every street corner in Philadelphia had a gym that was jam-packed with serious boxing talent, the Slaughterhouse (aka Johnny Madison’s Gym) was certainly one of the very best.

“I went down to 9th & Girard, where all the fighters trained,” Lay remembered. “An elderly man. I’m trying to think of his name… Johnny Madison! Madison’s Gym. All you did down there, you learned how to fight. They took care of all of us down there. Bob Montgomery, Ike Williams. It was a tough place. You learned there. Billy Arnold was there, and his brother Jetson. Wesley Mouzon was there too. I trained with him. We all boxed each other. You learned at Johnny Madison’s. You either learned there or don’t be there. Nothing to play with.  You have to know what you were doing with them guys. When you came out of Madison’s, you learned your trade.” 

In his professional campaign, Lay faced some of the best boxers of his day. Dorsey’s biggest victories were against the likes of Otis Graham, Eddie Giosa, Freddie Dawson, Gene Burton, Santa Bucca, Ellis Phillips, George LaRover, Vince Dell’Orto and Speedy Lawrence. 

However, Lay had legends like Trenton’s Ike Williams and North Philadelphian Wesley Mouzon, both in their primes, standing as obstacles to his advancement in the division. He fought them both in 1945 – along with eight others that same year. 

Talk about poor timing. Lay, 24-4-1, faced the great Ike Williams, then 62-7-1, just one bout before Williams won the NBA world title.

“I fought Ike,” Lay remembered. “I had no business with him. I had a busted eye. Ike was a dangerous fighter. He was a very hard puncher. “ 

Williams won the fight in round three before a crowd of 7,200 at the Arena.

Wesley Mouzon was a teenage phenomenon whose career was cut short due to a detached retina by the time he was just 19 years old. However, when Lay faced him, Mouzon still looked like a sure bet to become a world champion.

Their fight was a terrific scrap watched by 8,000 fans at Philadelphia’s Convention Hall. Mouzon had the power advantage, but Lay made it a tough fight with his speedy and elusive style.

“My nickname was ‘the Rabbit’,” Lay said. “Because nobody could catch me. You see, I was movin’ all the time.” 

Lay moved against Mouzon. It was a fight that Philadelphia Inquirer writer John Webster called “a desperately-fought lightweight duel” and a “showy battle”. 

“Lay fought down to the last second,” Webster wrote. “Mouzon had gained punch control long before the finish, though at points, his grasp on it was a precarious thing. Lay’s stormy last rally came in the seventh to draw cheers from the crowd.” 

“He was a good fighter,” Lay said of Mouzon. “I got a cut eye in the second round. The referee came over (after the eighth) and said, ‘you’re doing alright but I’m not going to let this fight continue’. I said, ‘I’m alright’. He said, ‘no you’re not. The way you’re bleeding, I’m going to stop this fight’.” 

The fight was stopped after the eighth round.

Dorsey continued to fight after his two highest profile bouts. Twenty three more fights would follow, with Lay winning twelve and losing eleven of them.

“I wasn’t afraid of anybody,” Lay said. “That was my problem. I would fight anybody – welterweights, middleweights, lightweights, featherweights. My best fight was Freddie Dawson. Danny Kapilow. Otis Graham; he was a hard man to fight. I outpointed him. Eddie Giosa, he was a tough white boy, but I got rid of him. I got $400. Do you think that’s a lot of money? Well, that was a whole lot of money to me.” 

As his career faded, Lay’s tender eye tissue caught up with him. 

“I suffered cut eyes all the time,” Lay said. “That was my problem. The doctor told me, ‘You have Glaucoma, you better stop fighting. If you keep fighting, you won’t be able to see’.” 

After splitting two bouts with Speedy Lawrence in 1948, Lay hung up his gloves for good.

“I didn’t have vision problems (then), I just bled a lot,” Lay said. 

Eventually, Dorsey Lay went completely blind. However, he led a full life after his ring career - with sight and then without.

Over the years he was a husband, a father of two boys, a grandfather of two, and a great grandfather of four. Sometime in mid-life, he went completely blind and lived without sight for almost forty years.

“At first it was hard,” Lay said about his vision loss. “But if you train yourself you can do anything. I never wrote nothing down. Everything was memory. I memorized everything.” 

In 2012, Lay was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame, an honor that he welcomed after having such a storied boxing career.

“You mean somebody’s going to put Dorsey Lay in there?” he asked with a smile. “That’s a great thing. When I told my son, he said, ‘Daddy, you deserve it, ‘cause you went through a whole lot of stuff’.” 

Lay had fond memories of his days as a boxer, and was proud to be part of Philly’s great history in the sport.

“I thought it was a good life for me,” Lay said. “I made money. That’s all I know. To tell you the truth, I gave away more money than I made. Everybody was waiting on me after the fight. That’s why I had so many friends. I bought a lot of clothes. I went down South Philly. I had a fellow who knew me very well, a boxing fan. I went down there and got a lot of suits and shoes from Italians down there. They knew me. I bought a lot of clothes. And guess what happened to my clothes? I give them away. I gave all my clothes away. Guys my size. All those expensive clothes. Everybody loved Dorsey. They loved Rabbit, because they knew they were going to get something. I was a free guy. I paid guys expenses. I paid (for) jackets, shoes, pants, radios, TVs. I was just a free giver.” 

Though Lay said that he gave away everything he earned, his biggest gifts were the things he gave in the ring. He fought during a time when boxers had to be durable and active and willing to risk everything against the very best of opposition. Dorsey gave boxing fans a great deal, but not just the clothes off his back. He gave his flesh and blood. He gave his youth, and he gave his sight.  

“All I know is I tried to do the best I can,” Lay said. “I wasn’t afraid of nobody - nobody and nothing.” 

And then he added, “All those fighters I fought, they are all gone. I can’t believe it. It’s a shame. All of them passed away.”

On March 17th, Dorsey Lay joined them – Montgomery, Mouzon, Williams, and all the other legends. It was inevitable. Like Johnny Madison’s Gym, all the greatest fighters go there. 

Funeral services for Dorsey Lay will be held on Thursday, March 24, 2016, at Christopher Kent Funeral Home, 6506-6520 Haverford Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, 19151. Viewing: 9-11 AM, Memorial Service: 11 AM. For more info, please call 215-748-1900. 




John DiSanto - West Philly - March 17, 2016