IN the aftermath of World War II, the British public craved excitement and entertainment like never before. After six years of trauma and privation, they flocked to dance halls, cinemas and sporting stadia with feverish delight, and boxing – then a sport of the masses – was among the biggest draws.
The fighters who pulled in the crowds – then as now – were the ones who promised colour and thrills. And in late 1940s Britain the lightweight division boasted a boxer whose performances supplied both. Billy Thompson was a dynamic, unyielding pressure-fighter who rarely took a backward step. Turning pro in the year the war ended, 1945, for fight fans he was the perfect antidote to the gloom that had enveloped Britain for so long.
Born in New Silksworth, Sunderland, in 1925, Billy moved to Thurnscoe, near Rotherham, with his family at age five. As a schoolboy boxer he won the Yorkshire schools’ title two years running and when he left school to work at Hickleton Maine Colliery like his father, he found he could train in the colliery’s newly built gym.
He lied about his age – claiming he was 17 rather than 16 – to enter the Northern Counties senior flyweight championship and defeated a string of older opponents to take the title. In 1943, he won the Northern Counties featherweight crown, and in 1944 set the seal on his amateur fame by winning the ABA lightweight title. He planned to defend his crown in 1945 but was kept out of the championship by an ear injury.
The stocky, curly-haired Yorkshireman may have stayed in the amateurs longer, but his father had been pensioned off from the pits after developing silicosis and Billy needed to support the family. There was talk of his father returning to coal-mining after two or three years’ recuperation, but Billy aimed to make sure his dad would never need to go down a mine again.
Thompson turned pro with the young, up-and-coming London-based manager Jarvis Astaire, and crammed 34 fights into his first two years in the paid ranks. Billy was 30-2-1 when he faced Stan Hawthorne of North Shields at Anfield in October 1947 for the vacant British lightweight title.
The fight was a slaughter, Billy attacking the North Shields man with unbridled ferocity from the opening bell. Somehow Hawthorne survived multiple knockdowns to last into the third round when referee Peter Muir stepped in. Thompson had claimed the crown in under seven minutes.
Billy held the title for just under four years, seeing off challenges from Harry Hughes of Wishaw and Bermondsey’s Tommy McGovern. Thompson boxed brilliantly to capture the European crown from Italy’s Roberto Proietti in February 1948 and retained it against Pierre Montane (France), Josef Preys (Belgium) and Hughes, before losing the title on a low blow disqualification to Kid Dussart of Belgium in July 1949.
During his rise to the top Billy had looked sensational, but after winning his titles his form became erratic and he struggled to make lightweight. By 1951, Thompson was fighting as a full-fledged welter, but boiled down to lightweight for another defence against McGovern. A pale, weight-drained ghost of the Billy Thompson the boxing world knew was floored by the first real punch of the fight and KO’d within 45 seconds. After a few more bouts at welterweight, Billy retired at age 27. He had been the first post-war champion to win a Lonsdale Belt outright and, more importantly perhaps, was able to buy his family a farm in Thurnscoe with his ring earnings.
Thompson died in January 2009, aged 83. At the funeral his cherished Lonsdale Belt was draped across the coffin as a fitting reminder of his achievements.