The fighting ‘Spiders’ from Derry

DOG DAYS... Billy out for an early morning run with his dog Darkie in the 1950s.
DOG DAYS... Billy out for an early morning run with his dog Darkie in the 1950s.

With plans to unveil a memorial to Derry boxing legends, Jimmy and Billy Kelly, nearing completion, the Journal’s SEAN McLAUGHLIN takes a look back at the distinguished careers of the fighting ‘Spiders’.

The names of title winning father-and-son, Jimmy and Billy Kelly - both known as ‘Spider’ - still evoke fond memories of classic bouts from the golden era of the local fight scene.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON... Jimmy sparring with a young Billy in the 1930s.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON... Jimmy sparring with a young Billy in the 1930s.

Jim Kelly - described as a “magician of the squared circle” - was born in Fahan Street on February 25, 1912.

At his peak, recalls boxing historian Brian Madden in “Yesterday’s Glovemen” - his authoritative account of the golden days of local boxing - Jim Kelly was a class fighter.

“His magic,” says Madden, “would manifest with slight, scarcely perceptible head shifts, rolling, ducking, weaving, side-stepping, cunning and inventiveness.”

“Nailing him,” says Madden, “was like trying to thread a needle in a hurricane.”

THE SPIDERS... Billy gets some advice from his father, Jimmy, in the 1950s.

THE SPIDERS... Billy gets some advice from his father, Jimmy, in the 1950s.

Jimmy’s career, which spanned almost two decades, reached its high point in 1938 when, at a packed Belfast’s King’s Hall, he outpointed Londoner Benny Caplan for the vacant British and British Featherweight titles.

After ten years as a professional, Jimmy Kelly was quick to admit it had been a winding road to the summit: “It has been a long fight to the top but I have attained my ambition,” he said.

There were enthusiastic scenes in Derry when the newly crowned champion arrived home in his native city. He was greeted at Craigavon Bridge by three bands - “two nationalist, one unionist” was how one newspaper of the day described the musical line-up - and a huge crowd.

Seven months later, 28-year-old Kelly lost his British and Empire titles when the referee stopped his fight with Johnny Cusick of Manchester.

SHADOW BOXING... Billy 'Spider' Kelly pictured in the gym in the 1950s.

SHADOW BOXING... Billy 'Spider' Kelly pictured in the gym in the 1950s.

However, this wasn’t to be the end of the story as, sixteen years later, Jimmy’s son, Billy, created history when he won the same British and Empire titles.

But, unlike his father before him, Billy - born in Long Tower Street in April 1932 - had to secure his titles in separate fights.

As recounted by Ritchie Kelly in his enthralling ‘Sporting Greats of the North West”, when Billy faced Empire title holder Roy Ankrah, in October 1954 at the King’s Hall, the two fighters served up 15 rounds of non-stop, pulsating action.

When the referee raised Kelly’s hand in victory, there were amazing scenes of jubilation with hundreds of Derry fans trying to climb into the ring to salute Derry’s new golden boy.

The victory over Ankrah set up the possibility of Kelly further emulating his father by adding the British belt to his Empire title.

This opportunity arrived in January 1955 and Kelly wasted no time, easily beating Sammy McCarthy to secure the title.

Kelly subsequently failed in his bid to lift the European title when France’s Ray Famechon was awarded a controversial points decision after 15 rounds.

However, Billy’s remarkable feat in capturing the same British and Empire titles as his father assures him of a special place in boxing history.

Jimmy ‘Spider’ Kelly, the first Irishman to win British and Empire Championships, died in March 1988 at his home in Derry.

His son, Billy, died, aged 78, in May 2010.