By Clive Bernath:
Those of you that have followed the British boxing scene since the 1980’s will of undoubtedly heard of Fulham welterweight Rocky Kelly. ‘The Explosive Rocky Kelly’ as he was known was arguably the finest domestic
crowd pleaser of his era.
From 1981 to 1989, The Liverpool born Londoner took part in some of the most ferocious and entertaining battles ever seen in a British ring. The wars with Chris Sanigar, Kostas Petrou (vacant British title challenge) and Tony Brown will live with this reporter forever.
But it was the 10th round stoppage win over fellow west Londoner Steve Watt in March 1986 that will be memorised in fans minds for all the wrong reasons. Both Kelly and Watt were bitter rivals from their amateur days and neither man was prepared to give ground in any way, shape or form. It was indeed the anticipated war that was promised. The momentum changed from one to the other as the rounds passed but tragedy struck in the 10th when Watt collapsed to the canvas and later died in hospital following an operation to remove a blood clot on the brain.
The then 23 year-old continued to fight on but was never the same again as he understandably lost his edge.
The reason for my unscheduled trip down memory lane is simply, that I attended a professional boxing dinner show at the Thistle hotel, near Heathrow airport over the weekend and bumped into the man himself.
He may be 40 years-old now but still trains everyday and is just a little over his old fighting weight of 10st 7lbs. I remember watching him stop American Ricky ‘Junk Yard Dog’ Randall in the very same hotel nearly 18 years ago to the day.
It was the first time I’d set eyes on Rocky since I interviewed him for the British trade paper Boxing News five years ago.
I was just 20 when myself and a few friends made the 300 mile trip up to Darlington from London to support Kelly in his vacant British title effort against Kostas Petrou in April 1985. I was the only one that had a car at the time and about six of us all crammed in to make our way up the A1.
Petrou was known as the ‘Greek Tank, for obvious reasons. He had a reputation for ploughing straight through opponents but Kelly had him down early on in the fight and my pals and I thought it was only a matter of time before Kelly was to be crowned champ. But the ‘Tank’ came back and stopped ‘Our Hero’ in the ninth round.
As we sat next to each other enjoying the night’s boxing and talking about his fighting career he confided in me that he wished that he had made more of his fights with Petrou and the other British title challenge against Kirkland Laing in1987.
I did not do myself justice against Petrou, said Kelly. I had him beat in the, I think the fourth round. But I trained all wrong for that fight and ran out of steam.
I then mentioned the Laing fight. For me Laing, along with Herol Graham were two of the most talented British fighters that never won a world title. I suggested Laing must have been ‘your toughest opposition’, to which a defiant Kelly replied, no way, I should have beaten him, in fact I had him beat but the referee stopped it.
Kirkland Laing was a formidable foe in 1987, even if he was slightly past his prime. He had beaten the great Roberto Duran and had all the physical advantages. Laing won on a fifth round stoppage but Kelly insists referee Larry O’Connell prematurely stopped the fight.
I’m telling you, honestly, I saw fear in Laing’s eyes, insisted Kelly. With admiring honestly, the former Southern Area welterweight champion admitted. Laing put me down with a shot on top of the head in the second and I did not know what had hit me. I was saved by the bell. Laing then came out and tried to finish the fight but I just kept coming at him. Thats what I do I never give up. I was getting to him I could see the fear in his eyes. Then Laing put me down again and the referee stopped it. If he was going to stop the fight he should of stopped it in the second round.
That night we did not touch on the Steve Watt tragedy but we spoke at length about it when I interviewed him in 1998. Rocky often thought about the Watt fight and said then that he still asks himself ‘why did it have to happen?’.
Together, with his then manager Harry Holland, we reminisced long into the night. The night did indeed bring back many fond memories but what did stick in my mind even thinking about it the following day, was that, even though Rocky had never won a major title, many fight fans still remembered him and came up to say hello and shake his hand, and remind him of the pleasure he gave so many people that watched him perform.
Rocky last fought on September 28, 1989, when he drew with Winston Wray over eight rounds. With a twinkle in his eye, Rocky said just before we left each other, ‘Do think I could ever get my license back?’
I just replied, ‘Rocky, I have no doubt you could have been a world champion, today but lets just be satisfied with the great memories we have.
Clive Bernath can be contacted at boxingeditorialsecondsout.com