A real character named Spider

George Duncan James MacKenzie was a popular SA boxer whose name hardly anyone will recognise these days.

But mention Spider Kelly and the senior citizens among boxing fans will immediately respond. “Yes, Spider Kelly ... now that was a character,” some will say.

Indeed. He was a character; tall and lean, with tattoos on his arms and legs, and a decent punch in his right hand and a lifestyle that drove his trainer Cookie Mendoza, to insomnia. But Mendoza knew the Johannesburg fighter had talent and they remained friends until the likable trainer died in 1997. With a bushy hairstyle to go with the tattoos, and an unorthodox boxing style, Spider Kelly became one of the most recognisable SA sportsmen during the 1960s and ‘70s.

He retired with a record of 27 wins, including 19 knockouts, 14 losses and 2 draws. But the figures do not reflect his true ability. Most of the defeats he suffered were the result of a lack of fitness. He is still around; still known as Spider Kelly. He is a born-again Christian and lives in Middelburg in Mpumalanga where he helps out in a family business. The tattoos are usually covered by long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

Born on February 11 in 1941, he grew into a 1.83m tall welterweight, promoted by Danie Van Zyl, trained by Mendoza and loved by spectators. Some of the things that were said and written about his habits are best forgotten now. But his boxing exploits remain part of a fascinating tale.

Kelly began boxing when he was nine years old and turned professional on March 27, 1961, when he changed his name to Spider Kelly and beat Piet Cato on points over four rounds at the Johannesburg Drill Hall. In his second fight he was outpointed by Bill Dollery, who later won the SA lightweight title, but then beat Gert Maritz, Ticky Azor and Nellie Hoffman. In 1962 he was stopped by Davey Peter and Sam Stewart, lost on points to Fraser Toweel and drew with Euro Brazzale from Italy. Because of other distractions, he was largely inactive in 1963.

But in 1964 he beat Sam Stewart, Attie Stander twice, Maritz and Nelie Hoffman. The next year he beat Manny Agrella and Flip Jooste before being stopped by Willie Jansen and knocked out in the third round by Stoffel Steyn. Steyn had represented South African at the 1960 Olympics and was a former SA lightweight champion.

Kelly was reported as saying: “When I fought Stoffel Steyn I dropped my hands and the next thing I thought the referee had hit me behind the head with a baseball bat. That was the hardest punch I’ve ever taken.”

He rated Steyn as the best fighter he ever fought. “That man’s left hook was deadly. I had never been really knocked out in my life until I met Stoffel; I mean truly knocked out.”

After the loss to Steyn, on September 20, 1965, Kelly remained inactive until August 12, 1968 when he knocked out Kosie Wiese in the second round at the Johannesburg City Hall. Wiese is still active in boxing as a respected trainer.

Kelly then knocked out Dave Rose in the second round. Rose won the SA welterweight title eight months later. After beating Blackie Swart twice and winning the Transvaal welterweight title, Kelly was stopped in the sixth round by Patrick Toweel in November 1968 in a challenge for the SA welterweight title.

On February 15, 1969 he was outpointed by Johnny Wood, a former SA middleweight champion whom he later praised as the toughest opponent he ever met. “No wonder they named him the Iron Man. He never felt a thing when you hit him. ”After beating Mike Robertson in Durban, Kelly beat and lost to Frik Ludick and was again beaten inside the distance by Patrick Toweel, losing the Transvaal welterweight title.

On September 8, 1969 he stopped Wiese again before winning the SA welterweight title by stopping Rose in the sixth round at the Ellis Park tennis stadium in Johannesburg. In one of his best victories he knocked out Bobby Arthur from Coventry, England, in the fifth round. Arthur later stopped Stoffel Steyn in Durban and also won the British welterweight title.

In 1971, Kelly retained the welterweight title against Gert Steyn, a brother of Stoffel, and stopped Gielie Buitendag, but lost his title in a return match with Steyn in October. He had only two fights in 1972 – an eighth-round stoppage win over Gert Craemer and a draw over ten rounds with Chris du Plessis. Craemer later held the SA junior middleweight title.

After stopping Michel le Roux in the third round in Cape Town, Kelly lost on points over eight rounds against an awkward Englishman, Mickey Flynn, who was more intent on wrestling than boxing. Kelly then beat Chris Du Plessis but was knocked out in the second round by Buitendag.

The many gruelling fights and his inadvisable lifestyle had taken their toll and Gert Steyn knocked him out in the eighth round in April 1974. In his last fight, on June 28 that year, Kelly lost on points in a six rounder against Ronnie du Preez in Welkom.