He was born in Liverpool on 5th January 1963 to an Irish mother and a Caribbean father, and he was christened Hamilton Kelly. When he was six years old he moved to Acton and, during his formative years, fate saw fit to deal him a diabolical hand. He became a wild child heading in a dangerous direction. Then he discovered boxing, and he grew up to become ‘The Explosive Rocky Kelly’.
He turned professional at the age of 18, and his fans were fanatical. They loved his ferocious intensity, they worshiped his bravery, and their devotion was tribal. He captured the Southern Area welterweight title in 1984 which he defended three times, and he subsequently made fearless challenges for the British and Commonwealth belts against Kostas Petrou, Kirkland Laing and Gary Jacobs respectively. Throughout his life, bad luck has never been a stranger and he has had to battle through some seriously hard times, but there is something that nobody could ever take away from him. When ‘The Explosive Rocky Kelly’ climbed through the ropes, there were always fireworks.
“It was Harry Holland’s idea to call me Rocky, because my story was like the Rocky story. When I came from Liverpool to London, I used to get bullied a lot at school, because they didn’t like Scousers. My mum died, so I was put in a children’s home and it was horrible. The staff used to have to pin me down, because I kept fighting all the time, because I lost my mum when I was seven years old and I was really close to my mum. Then this woman at the children’s home said to me ‘Hamilton, if you don’t get rid of all this aggression, they’re going to send you away.’ They were going to lock me up because I was too violent. So she took me down to the Hogarth boxing club. I walked into the gym, and there were all these boys punching, and I was frightened because they were all giving me dirty looks. But I loved it. I loved that feeling. So it all started from there.”
“Once I went to the Hogarth, I didn’t look back. The training taught me discipline. When I was a kid, I used to be fighting all the time, but, as soon as I took boxing up, it all stopped. I didn’t get myself in trouble. I didn’t do nothing wrong. I just boxed, and I loved it. I got as far as the London ABA finals and I got beat by Johnny Andrews. I thought I won, but obviously I never because they gave him the decision. But I fought him as a pro, and I destroyed him as a pro.”
At Hogarth, Rocky found himself an important ally, a man called Tim Cowen. “When Tim spotted me, he didn’t like me at first. He thought I was a right flash little so-and-so, the way I was walking, and all that. But then we got talking and he fell in love with me, and his son, Chunky, became one of my best mates as well. Tim used to pick me up from the children’s home and take me on days out. He was like a dad to me. He was always there. I don’t think he missed any of my fights, and he’s still my friend now after all these years.”
Rocky signed up with professional manager, Danny Mahoney, and his memories of his first medical still give him the creeps. “There was me, Gary Hobbs and Mickey Harrison, and Danny Mahoney took us to this doctor in Bournemouth. This house we went to was like a haunted house. It had cobwebs everywhere. The door squeaked and the stairs creaked. So Danny gives this doctor a bottle of whiskey and the doc just tapped our knees with this thing, took our breathing, and he says ‘Yeah, these boys are all right.’”
In his thrilling professional debut, Rocky stopped Dave Goodwin in two rounds at Acton Town Hall in October 1981. “I was scared when I had my first pro fight, but, once you get punched, all the fear goes. I used to love watching Roberto Duran. That’s where I got my inspiration. I loved the way he fought, and I wanted to be like him. I’d want to get stuck in there, because that’s what it’s all about.” He went on to stop 21 out of the 27 opponents that he beat. If he went the distance, but dropped a decision, the score was always close. His first loss, against Gary Knight, was voted ‘Fight of the Year’. “When I fought Gary Knight, he broke my ribs in the third round. I was in a lot of pain. Harry Holland wanted to stop it, but I wouldn’t give up. Pain didn’t bother me. I used to love pain when I was boxing because pain makes you stronger and more determined. I thought I beat Gary. It was a close fight and I had him down. But it was on his show, so, of course, they were going to give it to him. He beat me by half a point. They should have made it a draw so we could have had a rematch.”
Rocky freely admits that the fighter in him has always remained close to the surface, and he owns up to a spot of extracurricular activity during his second points loss, against Judas Clottey at the Crest Hotel in 1983. “I bit him in the eighth round. I was that knackered because I couldn’t hit him. He was so quick and he was very good. He had a fast jab, but he didn’t hurt me. In the eighth round, I got him in a corner and he was trying to turn me, and I pushed him and I bit him on the neck. It was just out of frustration. Judas Clottey was from Liverpool and, funnily enough, when I went to see my dad in Liverpool years ago, Judas lived upstairs and I bumped into him.”
All of Rocky’s opponents were forced to emulate his fierce fighting style just to keep him at bay. However, when he challenged Chris Sanigar for the vacant Southern Area welterweight title in February 1984, he was matched with a man who also relished a war. From beginning to end, the packed house celebrated the mutual bravery of two true warriors. After a breath taking finale, Rocky had his glove raised and Sanigar announced his retirement. “I was amazing fighting at the Albert Hall. Down in the dressing rooms, it’s all brickwork. It was a lovely atmosphere. That fight with Chris Sanigar was out of this world. He was a true soldier, old Chris Sanigar. He was a southpaw, but I never had no problems fighting southpaws. With Chris, it was just his long arms, having to get underneath that, which I did. Harry Carpenter kept saying that he couldn’t believe the energy we put into that fight, because we went ten rounds like that, from start to finish.”
“I loved training, and we used to have a laugh together. We were young men and we all wanted to be world champion, or be something. When Tony Rabbetts started training with us, after we’d finished training, me and Tony used to go round the corner for a pint and a smoke. I shouldn’t have smoked when I was fighting, but I think smoking gave me something to prove. They’d say ‘It slows you down,’ and I’d say ‘It ain’t slowed me down. I’m still going strong.’ When I was fighting, I always wanted to prove something.”
On 14th March 1986, Rocky fought Steve Watt at the London West Hotel in Fulham. After a barnstorming fight in which Rocky stopped Steve in the tenth, the Scotsman collapsed and never regained consciousness. He passed away two days later at Charing Cross Hospital. It was found at the autopsy that Steve had a recurring brain injury and the fight with Rocky was the final trigger. “If you saw that fight between me and Steve Watt, you wouldn’t believe it. Me and him was toe-to-toe. Sid Nathan was the referee, and he slapped us on the head because our heads were getting too close together. It was just pure energy and aggression. Steve was a terrific fighter. The day after the fight, I went to see him in hospital. I’ve walked in there, I looked at him and I thought ‘Is this what I do for a living?’ It definitely changed me. I ain’t really got over what happened, and I still think about Steve Watt.”
Rocky took comfort from his army of supporters, and he pressed on with his career. “I think I had one of the best followings in London at the time. When I was in the ring, I could hear the people shouting. One time, I was fighting this American geezer. While we’re boxing, this fella is shouting up from ringside, ‘Use your jab! Use your jab! Use your right hand!’ It’s annoying, because you’re trying your hardest, and they’re trying to tell you what to do. So I stopped boxing, I leaned over the top rope and shouted down to him ‘Shut the fuck up!’ and then I just carried on fighting.”
One of Rocky’s favourite fights was his British title eliminator against Tony Brown at Latchmere Leisure Centre in Wandsworth. Rocky emerged victorious in the eleventh round, and he looked pretty in pink in the process. “Me and Harry Holland used to go to Tenerife to train. I’m black anyway, but I’d have a nice tan when I came back from Tenerife. I wore the pink shorts and dressing gown because they showed my colour off, not because I’m queer or anything like that! Tony Brown thought he had me. He kept using his jab and his trainer kept going ‘You’ve got him, you’ve got him.’ Tony Brown was a good fighter, but I think I broke his heart because he kept hitting me and I just kept coming at him. But that was a really good fight.”
In Rocky’s final fight, he drew with Winston Wray over eight rounds at Latchmere Baths in September 1989. “I never knew at the time that Winston Wray was going to be my last fight, but I didn’t really want to do boxing anymore by then. After what happened to Steve Watt, it changed my personality and the way I fought. When I fought Gary Jacobs for the Commonwealth title, he dropped his hands and all I had to do was go bang! But I hesitated for that split-second because I thought of Steve Watt. Gary Jacobs was a good boxer, but I swear to God, if I’d have thrown that punch, I would have knocked him out. But I never threw it and he stopped me on a cut in the seventh round.”
“If I’d have been boxing today, I’d get a lot more money. We got peanuts in them days. You see people now getting all this money, and I don’t think some of these fighters are worth that much. Another thing is I think they should stop the crowd drinking, because that brings aggression. After they’ve seen a fight, they think they’re boxers and I’ve seen fights in the crowd at boxing. I’ve seen them standing up in the aisle pissed, and it’s not right.”
These days, Rocky is a popular face within the boxing fraternity. “I loved fighting. It was my life, so I’m really glad they appreciated my boxing and what I done for the spot, because I wanted to be the best boxer in the world. I wanted to be British champion, I wanted to be world champion, and I nearly was. I had my chances. It was just the people I fought. When I was training to fight Kirkland Laing for the British title, I was so fit. But it was hard because, for Kirkland Laing, three times I was going to fight him. The first time, we’re ready for the fight and he rings up and says he’s broke his finger. The second time, we go to Tenerife and come back, and he’s broke his toe or something. So, by the time I fought Kirkland, I was too fit, so I lost my fitness. I’d gone over the top.”
“Kirkland punched me in the second round and the referee should have stopped the fight, because I got up and what saved me was the bell. I got back out and I was pushing him back. Then, in the fifth round, he brought this punch out and it was just like walking into a brick wall. I got back up and the referee stopped the fight because I was cut underneath the eye. I was so disappointed. I was pushing Kirkland back, and I knew eventually I would have got to him, but I didn’t get that chance.”
“Mind you, Kirkland Laing was that talented, and I loved him. After the fight, we ended up having a shower at the same time. I just happened to look down and I said ‘Bloody hell!’ He had a willy down to there! I couldn’t believe it! I said ‘What’s that, Laing?’ He said ‘That’s me wood, man. That’s me wood.’ Kirkland Laing was a funny guy.”
Rocky has been a fleeting presence at the London Ex Boxers Association for years, but he has become reunited with his old crew and it is fantastic to see him on a regular basis nowadays. “All these people are gentlemen. They’re all friendly, because we’re all doing the same thing and we all wanted the same thing. Some of us got it and some of us didn’t, and the ones who did get it, we take our hat off to them, because you’ve got to work really, really hard to get what you want in this world. There are some right characters here who’ve been around the block a few times, and we’ve all got a story to tell. It’s really nice to be around these people, and I just feel like I’m part of the gang.”
I have known Hamilton Kelly for over 40 years from my Hogarth days when I boxed there. He came to my son’s fight on the 5th of November 2017 and gave my son some very wise words, I really appreciated it. Love this man to bits, a very nice man. from a old friend. .Steven Franklin (Spider ) x
Met rocky last year while over from Cape Town where I went to ex boxers meeting , what man a credit to boxing
Yes a great lovely fella ! Like all the former Hogarth BC fellas , its always a pleasure to see , them.all the first sunday in every month down at the William.Blake public house in Old Street for our LEBA meetings ! Managed by a great fella too ! H . Holland .