By Kieran Hinphey – Standing proudly on Fahan Street in The Bogside area of Derry is a plaque honouring the cities greatest ever boxers, Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly and his father Jim ‘Spider’ Kelly. Dedicated to the memory of the late boxing heroes who both picked up coveted British titles and the cherished Lonsdale belt.
Combined, their careers spanned from 1928 – 1962 and amassed over 200 professional victories in 256 bouts. They were also the first father and son pair to win the same title, the Commonwealth Featherweight Championship, 16 years apart.
Derry has a rich boxing history having produced many outstanding fighters like Charlie Nash, John Duddy, Paul McCloskey along with current prospect Connor Coyle (Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly is his great uncle) who is currently training out of Florida under the tutelage of the legendary Roy Jones Jnr.
Billy Kelly, however, is the greatest boxer Derry has ever produced. He was a stylish, orthodox boxer with tremendous skill and speed which along with his teak toughness made him hugely popular. He remained a popular figure throughout Ireland until his death on May 7th, 2010, at 78 years of age.
Belfast was where Billy excelled in the ring and where he made the famous King’s Hall and The Ulster hall his home, regularly packing out both venues to vociferous crowds. The Belfast crowds even then, were knowledgeable, discerning fight fans and respected Kelly as a master of defensive tactics.
His fights were also broadcast on the radio and brought hope and entertainment to the nation as families would crowd around a ‘wireless’ and scream him to victory. He inspired a generation to get in the gym and use boxing to excel.
Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly’s exploits cheered Derry during tough times. Journalist Eamonn McCann remembers the excitement; “He was the great hero at a time when there was nothing much to rejoice about. He was the person everybody hitched their hopes to. His fights were followed on the radio and are embedded in the consciousness of an older generation.”
Kelly was born in 1932 on the Lecky Road in Derry’s Bogside, the eldest of 10 children to James ‘Spider” Kelly, a taxi-driver and boxer, and his wife, Kathleen, nee Bradley, both Derry natives. He went to school at St Columb’s Primary School. After leaving school at 14, he moved to Belfast to an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator.
He inherited the nickname Spider from his father, along with the love of boxing. As an amateur, he won two Ulster juvenile titles and in 1950 at 18 turned professional.
Kelly quickly became a top attraction and rose through the featherweight ranks. On October 2, 1954, he won the Commonwealth Featherweight title, by out-pointing Roy Ankrah over 15 rounds. Three months later, on January 22, Kelly emulated his father Jim adding the British Featherweight title to his collection by out-pointing Sammy McCarthy.
In spring 1955, Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly was the number four contender for the world title ranked by The Ring magazine and on the verge of getting a world title shot. At that time there were only nine world champions in the sport of boxing. Today there is currently over 50 legitimate world champions who hold major belts across the sport’s 17 weight divisions.
It is May 27, 1955 in Donnybrook, Dublin and Billy Kelly has gone the traditional route for a world title and earned a shot at the European Featherweight title. His opponent was fellow world title contender Ray Famechon from France.
The Donnybrook fight went thirteen rounds and when, at the end, Famechon’s hand was raised the booing was reported to last ten minutes. Few of the six thousand crowd agreed with the Dutch referee’s decision and he had to be given a police escort from the ring. The media and sport’s writers endorsed the crowds view the following day.
Six months later he lost the Commonwealth title to Nigerian boxer Hogan “Kid” Bassey. Bassey had seemed in trouble but Kelly was knocked out when he moved in to finish the fight. “I have only myself to blame,” he said later. “I became careless and I paid the penalty.”
On February 4, 1956 he would lose the Featherweight British title to Scotland’s Charlie Hill in another controversial decision. Billy was controversially outpointed and so incensed were the Kings Hall crowd by this verdict, that a huge riot erupted resulting in casualties and scenes never seen before at a boxing bill. For verification, these scenes can be witnessed on YouTube.
Spider later moved up to Lightweight, but never recovered his previous glory before retiring in 1962, having fought 84 times, winning 56, losing 24 and drawing four.
A modest, quiet man, Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly would remain in his beloved Derry City working hard in the local DuPont chemical plant to support his family. During difficult economic times in the city he was always extremely generous to the local people with what little money he made from boxing.
His sister Philomena tells a story where he was invited to The Late Late Show in Dublin. At the after-show function, many of his appreciative fans approached asking could they get him a drink, to which he politely declined. Billy enjoyed a pint of Guinness but did not know the bar was free. So, when asked why he was not taking a pint he whispered, “I’m not sure I can afford to buy them all back a round”.
Where did the famous nickname come from? One of Jim’s opponents once quipped after a fight “He punched me so many times I thought he had eight arms.”