Dai Dollings (1859-1942) was one of the great Welsh boxing managers and trainers who has been described as the Freddie Roach of his day.
A former bare-knuckle fighter, he had trained marathon runners in Wales in the early years of the twentieth century before moving into boxing, working as a trainer on the boxing booth of William Samuels, then with professionals like Tom Thomas and Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis.
The Welshman was a strict vegetarian who kept to a strict regime of walking 10 miles a day, and he was reportedly still extremely active in 1942 at the age of 83.
Dollings crossed the Atlantic and settled in New York, where he established himself at Grupp’s Gym on West 116th Street.
The establishment was regarded as the top gym in the city before the emergence of Stillman’s and Dollings was thought of in the same light as the likes of Frank ‘Doc’ Bagley, the Welshman working with fighters of the caliber of Harry Wills, Jack Britton and Johnny Dundee.
At Grupp’s, Dollings took a young Ray Arcel under his wing, a man who he helped to mould into one of boxing’s all-time great trainers.
Arcel said that, in 1914, Dollings was one of the very best boxing trainers in New York and that he taught him how to analyse people – an ability that was vital to a trainer looking to get the very best from his fighter.
“I wanted to be a great trainer… and I learned all the tricks of the trade,” Arcel is quoted as saying in Ronald K Fried’s book Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers.
Fried has the following information on Dollings: “A veteran of over 100 fights himself – in both the bare-knuckled and gloved eras – Dollings was the great-grandson of a famed Welsh trainer of boxers.
“[Dollings claimed] that he could eliminate two pounds of fat from the body through massage, cure baldness, and rid the body of rheumatism with a combination of diet and hot baths.
“Arcel recalls that Dollings used to boast in his strong Welsh accent, ‘I’m the best rubber [masseur] in the world and the best doctor in the world’.
“While teaching the art of massage, Arcel adds with a hearty laugh, Dollings would tell him, ‘You bloody bastard, you’ll never learn’…
“[Arcel said of those sessions] ‘When you’re in an area like that you’re in a school. You’re in a college. You’re watching real pros’.
“Foremost among Dai Dollings’ lessons to Arcel was the importance of scrupulously observing the opposition. It’s a lesson Arcel would employ six decades later when he spied on Nicolino Loche before his match against [Arcel’s fighter] Peppermint Frazer.
“‘Dollings was a smart trainer,’ Arcel says, pointing to his head for emphasis. ‘He was a fella who’d study the styles of the different boxers. And of course when I started with him, that was the one thing he inspired me with – everyone’s style is different, so you must understand the different styles of your opponents. And we used to make a great study, watching these fellas work’.
“Dollings also taught Arcel to treat each fighter as a unique individual. Arcel never forgot the lesson. ‘Each young man that came to me, I made a complete study of his personal habits, his temperament,’ says Arcel. ‘Because there are some people you could scold and some people you had to be careful with. And you treated each person as a different individual. No two people are alike. What you tell one fella, you couldn’t help the other fella with. And some fellas could develop mental energy, and others couldn’t. And you had to find out how to teach him’.
“Dollings was a notoriously frugal man who was never eager to part with a nickel for a street car, so Arcel made it a practice to accompany Dollings on his long walks around Manhattan. ‘But in the course of that,’ Arcel says, ‘I’d talk nothing but fights – different moves, different angles’.”
Dollings was still mentoring fighters as late as 1942 at Grupp’s and the 1940 Census (line 20) has him living out of 201 East Fourteenth Street.
“David (‘Dai’) Dollings, late of Swansea, Wales is a walking advertisement for his profession. A trainer of athletes, Dai Dollings at the age of 83 is as fit as any of the numerous fighters, runners and swimmers he has conditioned… The training profession runs in Dai’s family. One of his great-grandfathers was famous in his day as a trainer of fighters, race horses and greyhounds. His mother was an expert in the use of herbs for medicinal purposes. Dai himself took a crude course in anatomy when he went to work as a butcher boy at the age of 13 and helped carve up beeves. Later he developed a rugged physique swinging a hammer as a boilermaker’s assistant.
“Dai has done about everything there is to be done in the line of athletics. He was a star runner in his boyhood, a better than average swimmer, a good rugby player, a heel-and-toe walking champion, an oarsman and a bare-knuckle fighter. Many a time Dollings went up to the mountains, stripped down to the waist and fought some other Welshman, just for the sheer love of a brawl. Often there was a side bet of £200. He engaged in 30 bare-knuckle fights and 100 with boxing gloves. The only time he lost was when Morgan Crowther, another Welshman, knocked him out.
“In the boxing world of today, Dollings, oldest man in the business, is a legendary figure, known either by reputation or personality wherever the knuckle-dusting set gather. His work took him to Australia, South Africa and all through Continental Europe before he came to America and decided that this was the land for him. Ask anyone connected with boxing in Sydney, Melbourne, Cape Town, London, Glasgow, Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, Pontypridd or Manila who Dai Dollings is and the chances are you won’t get a shoulder-shrug for an answer. They all know Dai.”