Thomas William Murphy, generally known as 'Torpedo Billy', was born at James Street, Arch Hill, Auckland, New Zealand, on 26 March 1862. He was the son of James Murphy, a gardener, and his wife, Johanna Cronin, who were Irish immigrants and devout Catholics.
Billy Murphy left school at the age of 12 to become apprenticed to a tailor, but his burning ambition was to become a prize-fighter. In 1881 he began his boxing career under London prize-ring (bare-knuckle) rules. During the next six years he fought 10 bouts in various parts of New Zealand and won all but the last, in which he was disqualified for biting his opponent on the shoulder.
By 1887 Murphy, having run out of opposition in New Zealand, moved to Sydney, Australia, where he took up a tailoring position with David Jones Limited. He also enrolled at the gymnasium run by the legendary Australian trainer Larry Foley, and was soon in action in Australian rings. By this time the Marquis of Queensberry Rules had been adopted in Australia and glove fights had superseded bare-knuckle bouts.
A small, wiry man whose fighting weight was around eight stone four pounds, Murphy was exceptionally fast and a devastating puncher for his size. Because of his punching power he was shunned by opponents of his own weight and had to accept bouts with much bigger men. He even fought the Wanganui heavyweight Harry Laing who was campaigning in Australia; in spite of conceding nearly five stone in weight, Murphy fought three rounds before the bout was stopped and declared a draw.
Billy Murphy paid a short visit to Auckland in 1889 to see his family before working his passage to San Francisco as a steward on the Zealandia. Immediately after his arrival he began training at the California Athletic Club. A bout featuring Johnny Griffin, a prominent Boston boxer, was scheduled to take place at the club; when Griffin's opponent was forced to withdraw, Murphy was asked to step in. To the astonishment of the crowd Murphy knocked Griffin out in the third round.
After holding the British boxer, Frank Murphy, to a draw, Billy Murphy was offered a bout with Ike Weir of Belfast for the featherweight championship of the world. Weir outclassed Murphy in the early rounds of the contest, which took place at San Francisco on 13 January 1890. However, in the 13th round the New Zealander connected with a hard right that staggered Weir and quickly followed up his advantage, putting Weir on the mat five times. The Irishman was still groggy when he came out for the 14th round; Murphy knocked him out with a hard right to the jaw. This victory earned Murphy $2,250 and the Richard K. Fox belt, a handsome, diamond-studded trophy. Murphy remains the only New Zealand-born boxer to have held a world professional title.
In July 1890 Murphy returned to Auckland to show his belt to his family and friends, wearing it down the gangway as he disembarked. The trophy was later sold to a New York sportsman when Murphy ran short of money on a subsequent visit to the United States.
On 2 September 1890 Murphy defended his title in Sydney against the talented Australian Albert Griffiths, known universally as 'Young Griffo'. While this contest was billed as a championship bout in Australia and New Zealand, it was not recognised as such in the United States, where Murphy was deemed to have forfeited his title when he sailed for home. The elusive tactics of the Australian so frustrated Murphy that the champion took off his gloves at the end of the 15th round and conceded victory.
After another Australian campaign, Murphy returned to the United States where he fought all over the country with varying success until 1903. He returned to New Zealand in 1904, continuing his ring career until 1907. He fought 112 times for 65 wins, 32 losses and 15 draws.
Until 1908 Murphy made a living with a boxing troupe which he took around New Zealand. He spent the rest of his working life as a tailor and clothes cleaner and presser in Auckland. When in the United States Murphy had been given a phonograph by Thomas Edison. He brought the instrument back to New Zealand where he demonstrated it and encouraged its use.
Billy Murphy never smoked, drank or swore, and he attended church regularly. He may have been married in the United States around 1899. He died in Auckland Hospital on 26 July 1939, and is buried with his parents and sister Annie O'Hara in the Waikaraka cemetery, Auckland.