A Couple of Belters

This is a brief; and hopefully insightful glimpse into the personal lives and careers of a rare father and son team of Olympians who both became professional heavyweight boxers, and what a couple of belters they were!

George Cornelious O’Kelly was born in 1886 in a little town called Gloun, County Cork in Ireland, he loved sports was intelligent and rode everywhere on a short legged donkey which gave him a comical appearance and brought a smile to the faces of all who saw him. Aged 16 and still wet behind the ears he moved to Hull and joined the police force but was seconded to the fire brigade where he learned to wrestle. Four years after moving to Hull he married his landlord’s daughter, and a year after that they had a son who he named after himself, and from that moment onwards even though he was still only 21 years old he became known as Old Con O’Kelly, and his son became Young Con. His wrestling skills were so impressive he was chosen to represent the UK in the 1908 Olympic Games in London where he put on a brilliant performance and came away with a gold medal.

In 1910 he travelled to America where he hoped to earn big money in the wrestling game, but a chance meeting with the legendary Bob Fitzsimmons, soon put paid to that idea. Fitzsimmons’ had watched as the 6’ 4” 16 stone Irishman skipped on the spot nonstop for a full 15 minutes without taking a breather. His advice to him was, forget about wrestling my son and take up boxing instead, you’ll make far more money standing up in a ring than you ever will rolling about on the floor of one! And so, acting on the great man’s advice he kicked the wrestling idea into touch and without ever having a single amateur fight immersed himself into the heady world of professional boxing. Even though he managed to win 9 and only lose 1 of the dozen fights he had in America it still fell short of his dreams and feeling somewhat disenchanted with the place he returned to England to continue with his new career. His British boxing record is pretty much on par with his American record which is nothing to be sniffed at. He retired in 1914 and started his own gym where he taught local youngsters to box, and one of those youngsters was his own son Young Con.

Unlike his father Young Con O’Kelly, did box as an amateur and a pretty damn good one he was at that. Not only was he a schoolboy champion he was also a deserving finalist in the ABA’s too, at 16 he campaigned as a light heavyweight in the 1924 Olympics in France; unfortunately he never made it through the preliminaries but before the year was out he had moved up to the heavyweight division and had his first professional fight. It was to be the first of many, in fact he had 15 fights in the first 12 months of his professional career, he won the first 14 but dropped the 15th on a controversial points decision.

Over the next 3 years and with his father acting as manager he managed to have a further 30 fights in the UK before taking the big step of crossing the pond to do battle in America. His American dream didn’t go quite as well as he hoped it would and in the 3 years he spent there he only scored 7 victories out of his 23 gruelling encounters. It was time to go, so he and his father packed their bags; said goodbye to the New World and sailed for home. On his return to Hull Young Con, was still feeling drained from the effects of his arduous American campaign and decided to take a hard earned and well deserved 4 year break from boxing.

However his return to the ring in 1937 turned out to be something of an ordeal for him; he said things just didn’t feel the same anymore and he felt that boxing had somehow lost its sparkle, not that anybody noticed because he had another 6 fights and won them all before throwing the towel in for good the following year. His boxing record is exemplary, 51 wins (37 inside the distance) 7 draws, 1 no decision and 15 losses, and in the 14 years he was boxing he was only legitimately put on the canvas once. He boxed in some of the biggest venues around at the time including 5 in Manchester, 5 in Madison Square Garden, and 4 times at the Royal Albert Hall.

His decision to give up boxing wasn’t made on a random whim; to him it was an epiphany, he had heard a much greater call than the call of boxing; it was the call of God. He immediately began studying in earnest for the common priesthood until he was rudely interrupted by the Second World War whereupon he decided to do his bit for the country by joining the RAF, where it can be said he enjoyed many interesting and oddball adventures including an exhibition bout in which he wore dusty old flour bags as boxing gloves.

After the war in 1945 he managed to achieve his heart’s ambition and was finally ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. His first parish was in Stockport Manchester and he loved it, he loved it so much he bought a house there for him and his parents to live in. And even though he held parishes in other places like Ellesmere Port and Birkenhead, he always ensured he was able to return to his favourite town, Stockport, altogether he spent 12 years living within its boundaries and was responsible for the setting up and running of a couple of boxing clubs in the parish.

Old Con O’Kelly died in 1947 aged 61 and Young Con passed away at exactly the same age in 1968. It takes courage to be a fighter and both these men had bucket loads of it, they didn’t just follow the path of boxing they blazed their own bloody trail right through the centre of it. Ironically as much as they were alike outside the ring their styles within it could not have been more different, in fact they were so different one could not have passed a cup of tea to the other without spilling it.

I said at the beginning of this article that these men were a couple of belters inside the ring; I stand by that, and in view of all the charity work they did I reckon they were a couple of belters outside of it too!