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Von Clay, 67, a talented boxer

VON CLAY, a classy Philadelphia light-heavyweight boxer of the '50s and '60s and onetime No. 1 contender for the title, died Friday. He was 67 and had lived most of his life in Mantua.

VON CLAY, a classy Philadelphia light-heavyweight boxer of the '50s and '60s and onetime No. 1 contender for the title, died Friday. He was 67 and had lived most of his life in Mantua.

Von was a fan favorite during his career, even though he did not have a spectacular record. He could punch and he could dance, giving the fans a fun night at the arena, win or lose.

In 1966, he was scheduled to fight an up-and-coming Joe Frazier, but the bout was called off because Von had suffered possible brain damage and was having blackouts.

His career did not go much beyond that.

The highlight of his time in the ring was when he fought Philadelphia's Harold Johnson for the light-heavyweight title on April 24, 1961, at the Arena.

Johnson, who was 32 to Clay's 21, won on a technical knockout in the second round, but said later: "It wasn't easy. He's got a good, jolting jab. He's a good puncher. Don't kid yourself."

However, Von never rose to top-contender status again, despite a career that continued into the late '60s and was marked by some notable bouts, including 15 wins by knockouts.

Von's manager, Tony Graziano, said in 1967 that after the Johnson fight, "Von's interest seemed to be only in getting a payday. He just went through the motions."

In 1963, fed up with a series of losses and lackluster performances, he quit the ring. But after 18 months, he returned and scored a couple of hard-fought victories.

He said he was partly inspired by love. He had met his future wife, Elsie Warren, and she inspired him to renew his career.

Von began his boxing career in 1957 as a clumsy but hard-punching prospect. Gene Courtney, former boxing writer for the Inquirer, wrote in 1965 that when Von started out, "he fought with the grace of a wounded rhinoceros, but scored 10 knockouts in 12 bouts."

He went through a period when he seemed to fight hard when he wanted to, and took it easy the rest of the time.

"He'd loaf through training," Graziano said. "He had no zip or fire."

"Strangely, Von could be classified as a boxing schizophrenic, a dual personality who had two careers - the first as a rough-and-tumble slugger and the second as a cute boxer," Courtney wrote. "Part of his problem stems from the switch in styles."

Von fought all over the world. In a bout in January 1963 in Dortmund, Germany, against Erich Schoppner, he put Schoppner in the hospital with fractures of the jaw and ribs and Von didn't have a mark on him.

Nevertheless, he lost the bout thanks to rulings by an obviously biased local referee.

That helped put him in an 18-month funk - until he met Elsie.

"I got a girl," he told Courtney in 1965. "She helped me over the rough spots."

His wife died in the late '90s, and Von had a stroke about 20 years ago that left him unable to hold a job.

He was born in Philadelphia the seventh of the children of Henry and Emma Clay.

He attended Overbrook High School and learned to box in the Police Athletic League.

"He was very popular when he was fighting," said his sister Annabell Lewis.

"He would walk down the street and people would follow him and want to shake his hand."

He also is survived by a son, Von Clay Jr.; a daughter, Dawn Maniqualt; another sister, Lois Bassett, and a brother, Wilbert Clay.

Services: 11 a.m. tomorrow at the Robert Walker Funeral Home, 228 S. 53rd St. Friends may call at 10 a.m.

Burial will be in Northwood Cemetery, 15th and Haines streets. *