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Was Dai Dollings the most influential British trainer in history?

WHAT do Gene Tunney, Al Brown, Jimmy McLarnin, Jack Britton, Mike McTigue, Ted Kid Lewis and Johnny Dundee have in common? Obvious answer: they were all world champions of the pre-war era. Less obvious answer: they were all trained, at one time or other, by Welshman Dai Dollings.

Dollings, who trained champion runners, swimmers, wrestlers and Indian-club swingers before focusing on boxers, is one of the greatest trainers Britain ever produced. His influence can be said to extend, obliquely at least, to the modern era and Roberto Duran, yet today Dollings is virtually unknown.

Hailing from Swansea, in his youth Dai had been a fighter of some repute and was also a competitive walking champion. As a boxing trainer his devotion went beyond training and corner work. He would also cook for his men and was an expert masseur. His first big successes as a trainer came with Tom Thomas (winner of the first middleweight Lonsdale Belt), British featherweight champ Spike Robson, welterweight titlist Young Joseph, bantamweight ruler Digger Stanley and heavyweight king Gunner Moir. In 1909, Moir said of Dollings: “I do not think I could find a better trainer than Dai, and he knows me thoroughly.”

This knowing a fighter thoroughly was one of the hallmarks of Dai’s success. In February 1911, he trained Matt Wells for his upset victory over Freddie Welsh for British and European lightweight honours. Wells and Dollings left for America soon after, and Dai guided his charge through a glorious stateside campaign that included a win over reigning world featherweight champ Abe Attell.

But was Dollings merely basking in Wells’ reflected glory? Apparently not. In a letter to Boxing News sent during the US trip, Wells declared: “There is one thing Wales should be proud of, and that is that they own the best trainer in the world in Dai Dollings. It was his doing that enabled me to defeat Freddie Welsh… Dai and I are like brothers. We are never out of one another’s sight… The American people think that Dai is the best trainer over here.”

After returning from the US, Dai continued to train fighters in Britain, usually at the Black Bull pub-cum-gym in Whetstone. In 1913, he prepared Ted Kid Lewis for his British featherweight title win over Alec Lambert.

But Dai decided to move to America. He settled in New York to become resident trainer at Grupp’s gym on 116th Street and Eighth Avenue, then the city’s leading gymnasium. There he found a bright young man who wanted to learn from one of the best. That young man was future Hall of Fame trainer Ray Arcel, who absorbed knowledge from Dollings with ardent zeal.

Dai impressed on Arcel the importance of studying the nuances of different styles of fighter. He also taught Ray to treat each boxer he trained as an individual. “Each young man that came to me, I made a complete study of his personal habits, his temperament,” Arcel later said. “No two people are alike. What you tell one fella, you couldn’t help the other fella with.”

From New York, Dai trained the likes of Bill Brennan, Jack Britton, Dave Shade, Mike McTigue, Jimmy McLarnin, Johnny Dundee, Harry Wills and, according to some sources, Gene Tunney. When the brilliant bantamweight Al Brown arrived in the city from Panama, according to Brown’s biographer Jose Corpas, Dollings remoulded his style, moving Al away from a right-hand happy approach to one built around the superb left jab and balletic footwork that became his personal brand.

But perhaps Dai’s greatest legacy came in passing his philosophies and techniques on to Arcel. Ray used those methods, or a variation of them, to steer successive generations of boxers to glory as a trainer and conerman. Jack Kid Berg, Billy Soose, Ezzard Charles, Tony Zale, Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes all benefited at least to some degree from Dollings’ methods as adopted and adapted by Arcel.

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