Dorsey Lay, a talented but long-forgotten Philadelphia lightweight boxer from the 1940s, passed away March 16 at the age of 91. J Russell Peltz, International Boxing Hall of Fame class of 2004, recalls his relationship with the man they called The Rabbit.
I met Dorsey Lay in the mid-1980s. I had heard about him from other old-timers and he knew about me since he still loved boxing. I was promoting an unbeaten welterweight at the time, Hugh “Buttons” Kearney, and Kearney was managed by Nick Nichols, the so-called numbers king of West Philadelphia, operating out of his bar at 56th & Wyalusing Streets.
Dorsey often visited friends at the bar and I’d stop by to drop off tickets and posters and talk boxing.
He was born in LaGrange, GA, on New Years Eve, 1924, but his mother brought him to Philly when he was 3 or 4 years old. He learned to box at a boarding school in Pomeroy, PA and, after a brief amateur career, he turned pro in 1942.
In the 1940s, Dorsey was one of those tough black Philly fighters managed by Frank “Blinky” Palermo, the scumbag mobster who never saw a fighter he couldn’t rape.
Dorsey crammed 59 fights into six years as a pro (1942-1948) before failing eyesight (glaucoma) which led to permanent blindness in the early 1950s, ended it. He was 40-18-1, 17 K0s, and while it may not look like much to today’s boxing experts who are consumed with numbers, it was compiled against perhaps the greatest era of lightweights. He beat Freddie Dawson and Otis Graham and Santa Bucca and Gene Burton and Eddie Giosa and Ellis Phillips and George LaRover and if those names are not familiar, get yourself a record book and bone up on your boxing knowledge.
“My nickname was Rabbit,” Dorsey told me years ago. “I was movin’ all the time. I wasn’t known to be a puncher. I’d be slippin’ and slidin’, move, run, move. That’s all I knew. Slippin’ and slidin’ and getting’ away from punches.
“It wasn’t equal (for black fighters) in the 1940s. When you got to the Arena (46th & Market Street), the semi-windup or the main preliminary, you were doing good. Then something funny happened. All the colored fighters started getting’ top bouts–for no money. You take guys like Santa Bucca, Eddie Giosa, Paul Firpo, George LaRover, Nunzio Carto, Frankie Carto—they had everything lined up as far as the windups. They were very good white fighters. You had to be in shape to fight them. You take a guy like Eddie Giosa. Giosa was very, very friendly. You hated to fight him; he was that kind of fellow. He was a nice guy. When I fought him I just had to try to win. Every time we’d shake hands, he’d hug me. He was a beautiful friend. I never forgot that.
“You had to go all out. It seemed like if it was close, you (black fighters) wouldn’t get the decision. As far as knocking people out, I wasn’t a knockout puncher. I was surprised myself when I fought George LaRover. He was a terrific guy and when he walked into one of my left hooks and I seen him go down and I said to myself, ‘I don’t believe this’, you know, just one of them lucky things.
“Johnny Madison’s gym was the greatest gym in the world at 9th & Girard. Johnny Hutchinson, the master, I wish you could have seen him. Johnny Hutchinson was the greatest thing on two legs I’ve ever seen. Bob Montgomery, oh my goodness! Quenzell McCall, Otis Graham, Jetson Arnold, Billy Arnold. In those days we all worked out with each other. We boxed welterweights, middleweights, heavyweights. I even boxed with (heavyweight contender) Gus Dorazio. I fought a whole lot of guys from that gym.
“I enjoyed it. If I had to do it again, I’d do it because I loved it. I loved boxing. My idea was to try to win on a decent way. As far as quitting in a fight, no. I didn’t know what that was. I’d fight anybody in my division. Take guys like Gene Burton, Freddy Dawson, Ike Williams, Wesley Mouzon. Those guys were well thought of. And when they came out to fight, they gave their all. It wasn’t the idea that I didn’t want to fight you because you belonged to this manager or we were in the same group together, we train in the gym together. Unheard of. When your name went up on the card you just had to be ready, one week or two weeks. I once fought three times in one week.
“I fought so many guys. With Ike Williams, I was supposed to move and box, but Ike hit me with a left hook and I went to go to war with him and I got hit with a nasty right hand and I couldn’t get up. I could hear the people counting and everything but I tried to get up but I couldn’t. He stopped me in three rounds.
“I fought with a busted hand, swollen hand, things like that. When I fought Jimmy Collins I thought I had a bad tooth (turned out to be a splintered jaw). I needed the money and boxing was the only thing I knew. I never wanted to back out of nothing. Postpone? What kind of word was that back in the 1940s?”
Dorsey and Billy Fox were both managed by Blinky Palermo.
“I fought the semi-windup on the Billy Fox-Jake LaMotta card in Madison Square Garden,” he said. “I got $1,500 and that was big money back in them days. I was in the dressing room with Billy Fox. LaMotta had his hands tied. He was supposed to take orders, which he did. At the weigh-in I could tell there was something going on because everybody was talking to Jake. Billy Fox was just like a newspaper on the stands by itself. Billy Fox was the type of guy who would do anything that somebody would tell him. He really didn’t know what was going on. He was a terrific puncher if you would let him hit you, but other than that, he was inexperienced.
“I loved it and I made a lot of friends. Movie stars like the Jazz Singer. I met him out in California when I got off the train. I met Dean Martin and I met Frank Sinatra when he was young and he had Tami Mauriello, the heavyweight who fought Joe Louis. I went to New York and I thought it was great. Pittsburgh, too. When you went to New York, Madison Square Garden, that was like going to the capital of the world. As far as I was concerned, I think I got a good deal because I stayed busy and that was my livelihood. That’s all I did, practically speaking, was fighting.”
In retirement, Dorsey always secured a seat in press row next to his good friend, boxing writer Jack McKinney, of the Philadelphia Daily News.
“Jack McKinney used to have a ringside seat for me, a press row seat,” he said. “Right on the front row and I knew just about everything, just what they were doing, in my imagination. I couldn’t see but I could visualize what was happening.”
Dorsey remained so close to the fight game, he even surprised me. He called me one day late in 1993 to tell me that Rodney Moore, one of my fighters, had left me for Don King before I had found out. I had one of my famous handshake deals with Moore—it wasn’t the first and it wasn’t the last—and, naturally, it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. I could tell from Dorsey’s voice how disgusted he was.
“What’s wrong with these fighters?’ he said. “Who raised them to be like this?”
The last time I saw Dorsey, his son reminded me, was in 2012 when he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame—years overdue–but he was too ill to speak at the time. His passing closes the book on that wonderful 1940s era of Philly boxing.