Kelly, Billy ('Spider') (1932–2010), boxer, was born on 21 April 1932 at his parents' home on Long Tower Street, Derry city, the eldest of ten children of Jimmy Kelly, boxer and taxi driver, and his wife Kathleen (née Bradley), both Derry natives. Jimmy ('Spider') Kelly (1912–88), was born on 25 February 1912 in Fahan Street, Derry. Growing up in extreme poverty, he served his boxing apprenticeship with various touring 'booths' in Scotland (c.1927–8), fighting aspirant locals tempted by prizes at fairs several times a day, three or four times a week, garnering experience and honing his technique. On 22 November 1929 he won the Irish flyweight title against Dicky Mack at the Guildhall, Derry, earning the 'Spider' moniker for his ability to draw opponents towards him. He added the Northern Ireland area featherweight title on 25 February 1938 by beating Dan McAllister at the King's Hall, Belfast. Alternating between flyweight and bantamweight, he held the infrequently contested Irish titles at those weights, and on 23 November 1938 outpointed Benny Caplan at the King's Hall to assume the vacant British and Empire featherweight titles, and the award of a Lonsdale belt and trophy. Over 8,000 patrons witnessed his victory, and over 5,000 well-wishers, with Orange and nationalist bands, greeted him at the Craigavon bridge as he returned home that night. After three further wins, two losses and a draw, he lost both titles on 28 June 1939 to his nemesis, Johnny Cusick (his third loss to Cusick), in a twelfth-round stoppage at the King's Hall. A veteran of over 500 boxing contests, Kelly fought 173 professional bouts at feather-, light-, welter- and middleweight over two decades (1928–48), winning 125 (26 KOs), losing 34 (16 KOs) and drawing 12. Jimmy Kelly died in March 1988 at his home in Derry.
Raised in the Bogside's Lecky Road, Billy Kelly was educated at Long Tower (also known as St Columb's) primary school before working as a messenger boy at Foyle Hatcheries, and then with Robert Keys, timber merchants. Joining Ashfield Hall Boxing Club aged 14, then City of Derry BC, he lost only four of his eighty-four amateur bouts, and was Ulster juvenile bantamweight champion (1948–50). While working as a swimming pool attendant at the Savoy Hotel, Morecambe, Lancashire, he made his professional debut in the town's Winter Gardens on 6 June 1950, beating Peter Walmsley over two rounds. On 21 February 1951 he knocked out Pat McCusker at the Ulster Hall, Belfast. That year he fought seventeen bouts in Belfast and Scotland, winning fifteen. In 1952 he won the inaugural Dalzell Memorial Shield, awarded to Northern Ireland's boxer of the year. An impressive loss to Ronnie Clayton on 3 October 1953 in the King's Hall was transformative, convincing Kelly to give up work as a timber storeman to focus exclusively on boxing; his performance had also impressed Jack Solomons, the leading UK promoter. Following his father to become Ulster featherweight champion with a victory over John Griffin in Derry (29 July 1953), he also inherited his father's nickname. A convincing points victory over Nigeria's Hogan 'Kid' Bassey on 8 December 1953 in front of 10,000 spectators at the Harringay Arena, London (a Solomons promotion), announced his major title ambitions. In 1953, he was Northwest sportsman of the year.
Disappointingly, on 10 April 1954 Kelly lost to Roy Ankrah of the Gold Coast (Ghana) on points, in an overweight (non-title) contest, at the King's Hall. Some commentators thought him overly reliant on evasive bobbing and weaving, built on stamina and adept footwork, and he was often criticised for failing to capitalise on the offensive opportunities they generated. However, he put great store on his self-defensive technique, admitting: 'I try to be a boxer rather than a fighter' (Ir. Times, 25 December 1954). Paced on his morning runs through the streets of Derry by his father, Kelly focused on his stamina and fitness as he prepared to fight Ankrah for his British Empire title. Mentoring his son since his earliest forays into the ring, Jimmy Kelly deliberately refrained from being seen as his son's formal trainer, though ever present at his side.
On 2 October 1954 at the King's Hall, Kelly used his defensive skills and left uppercut to keep Ankrah at bay and win the British Empire featherweight title on points after fifteen rounds, making boxing history with father and son winning the same title, uniquely at the same venue. Months later, again at the King's Hall, he beat Sammy McCarthy (22 January 1955) to take the British featherweight title. Dominating McCarthy for twelve of the fifteen rounds, he showered him with his left during frequent counterattacks. According to Mitchel Cogley, Kelly 'never boxed better' (Ir. Times, 24 January 1955). That year, Ring magazine rated him the fourth best featherweight in the world.
Sponsored by An Tóstal and promoted by Jack Solomons, Kelly topped the bill in front of 6,750 fans at Donnybrook bus garage, Dublin, to fight Ray Famechon for the European featherweight title on 27 May 1955. The bout was chronicled in A. J. Liebling's The sweet science (1956), which noted the handwritten sign of one travelling fan: 'Wont you come into my parlor? Said the Spider to Ray' (p. 273). Kelly's controversial points loss induced a near riot. On 19 November 1955, Kelly was knocked out for the first time, losing his Empire title to Bassey, and on 4 February 1956 lost his British title to Scotland's Charlie Hill at the King's Hall.
Switching to lightweight restored Kelly's fortunes somewhat, although he lost three final eliminator bouts for the British lightweight title. A meagre seven wins in his next twenty bouts presaged his last fight on 3 March 1962 against Jim McCormack, which ended in a draw; it was Kelly's twenty-sixth bout at the King's Hall.
With a professional record of 56 wins, 23 loses and 4 draws, Kelly retired from the ring and worked in the Derry DuPont factory. He died on 7 May 2010 in Derry. He married (1953) Pamela McGilloway in St Columba's church, Derry; they lived at Eglington Terrace, Derry, and had two boys and four girls.
Jimmy and Billy Kelly together spanned the heyday of Ulster boxing, a product of the province's industrial vitality, and were a huge source of pride in their native city. Billy Kelly was inducted into the Irish Boxing Writers' Association hall of fame (2000). Derry City Council purchased the Lonsdale featherweight championship trophy awarded to Jimmy for £2,500 at auction in February 2013, and erected a memorial plinth to Billy and Jimmy Kelly on Fahan Street in August 2014.