Seconds out

Seconds Out: Hugh Russell Jnr making headway with refereeing ambitions

‘West Belfast’ took on ‘The Rest’ in a night of boxing at Girdwood Community Hub to raise awareness of mental health issues. Various mental health charities came together to raise awareness around the issues of depression, anxiety and suicide. Thirty boxers from 30 clubs took to the ring in aid of mental health. Pictured are Michael O’Doherty (Clonard ABC) with Pádraig McCleary of Ardoyne ABC
Picture by Mark Marlow
Andy Watters

IT DOESN'T matter how many are watching: 20,000, 2,000, 200 - the ring is a lonely place when that bell goes.

It’s a dangerous place too when the leather starts flying and the tragic recent death of Mike Towell and the horrific injuries sustained by Nick Blackwell in March are just two reminders that the lives of fighters often depend on the only other person in there with them - the referee.

Aged 28, Belfast’s Hugh Russell jnr became Britain’s youngest ‘A’ rated referee earlier this year. His most recent assignment was at the Europa Hotel on Saturday night’s MHD Promotions bill, but whether it’s the Europa, Caesar’s Palace or Madison Square Garden, Russell knows the referee’s role remains the same.

“You’re there to do a job - first and foremost to protect the two boxers,” says Russell.

“Whether it’s Joe Bloggs from down the road or Floyd Mayweather, you’re still there to do the same job. The fighters’ lives are in your hands because you’re the closest one to the action. You have people shouting this, that and the other form the crowd but I’m standing two feet away from the fighter and I can see if he gets hit.

“If I see his eyes rolling, or hear something I’ll stop the fight because I think that fighter’s in danger. People sitting up in Row Z won’t see that wee punch that could get a fighter in trouble but if you’re the referee, you’re the closest one to the action and it’s your call. Not everyone is going to agree with it your decisions but, at the end of the day, you’re looking out for the fighters in the ring.”

Russell was born and bred into boxing in 1987, two years after his dad Hugh - an Olympic medallist as an amateur and a Lonsdale belt winner as a pro - had hung up his gloves competitively. His dad took him down to the Holy Family gym, but though junior had the ability, he didn’t follow in senior’s footsteps and become a prize-fighter himself.

“I never fought competitively but I was in the gym with my dad since I was knee-high. I’ve been around boxing since I was no age really,” he recalled.

“I remember going down when I was two or three years’ of age and seeing these men hitting the bag. I didn’t realise how serious it was until I grew up and put the gloves on myself and was able to hit the bag and do a bit of sparring. Sparring’s all well and good but a boxing bag doesn’t punch you back. Once I got a dig on the nose I thought: ‘Nah, it’s not for me’.”

Fighting wasn’t for him, but there are other avenues and Hugh jnr followed his uncle Sean’s path by becoming a ref: “I always went down to the fights in the Ulster Hall or the King’s Hall with my granda Hugh,” he explained.

“When Sean got into the refereeing I was about 16 and I always wanted to be involved in boxing one way or another. My dad said ‘what about being a referee?’ Sean talked me through things and I was interested in it so my dad put me forward to become a trainee referee.”

Becoming a trainee is the first step on the long road to becoming a top referee. During an apprenticeship of up to two years the trainee scores fights from ringside.

His scorecard is passed to the chief inspector who sends it to the British Boxing Board of Control’s head office in Cardiff where it gets checked again.

Russell’s scoring impressed the right people and he was promoted to ‘B’ referee status meaning he could take charge of six-round fights. His first taste of the job for real came in June 2013 on a show at the Holiday Inn, Belfast featuring Daniel McShane. His second, later on the same bill, was Ryan Burnett’s home debut and since then he has proved to be calm, confident and in control in the ring and progressed to ‘A’ level meaning he can referee 10-round fights.

The final step is up to the A* category which would allow him to take charge of 12-round world title rumbles: “It’s every boxers’ dream to fight for a world title in Las Vegas and it’s every referees’ dream to referee a fight in Las Vegas,” says Hugh.

“But you have to do the groundwork - start at the small-hall shows and gradually work your way up.”

Working your way up means working with fighters of all shapes and sizes and, from flyweights to heavyweights, the referee has to be in total control of every fight.

“Some fights nearly referee themselves,” he explained.

“The more experienced boys know what they can get away with but you have to be on your toes and make sure you’re not intimidated. I’m not the biggest man in the world but if I’m refereeing two heavyweights who are 6’5” and 20 stone, I’m still the boss in there, they’re going to have to do what I tell them to do.

“You go to the changing rooms before every fight and introduce yourself as the referee and tell them ‘listen to my commands at all times and to protect yourselves at all times’.

“I tell them I don’t want any messing about - if I say ‘this’ then do what I say. Then the next time you see the two boys they’ll be facing each other in the ring and you bring them into the centre and say ‘you know what I expect, keep it clean, keep it fair and best of luck to you both’.”

His appetite for refereeing and his ability augurs well for his future career: “I love the whole day,” he says.

“I love the whole enjoyment of getting up in the morning knowing you’re going to a show that night whether it’s the Holiday Inn or the Odyssey Arena.

“The whole buzz of getting ready, getting your stuff sorted out and the whole night. It’s brilliant. When you go down to the gym you see the boys putting the work in and you see the blood, sweat and tears that Joe Public doesn’t see so I think you appreciate it an respect it a wee bit more.

“Seeing the boys putting the hours in the gym and sitting in tears because their muscles are that sore because they’ve trained that hard and the sacrifices they make to leave their families and make the weight.

“Carl Frampton, for example, his training camp is over in London and he leaves his wife and kids for 8-12 weeks before a fight. He’s missed birthdays and anniversaries… People don’t see that side of things, it is a tough sport and you have to be 100 per cent committed.”

Unfortunately for all concerned on the local boxing scene, Frampton’s progression from Belfast to the world stage means the local scene has become quiet.

“2016 has been quiet,” says Hugh.

“Carl kept us busy last year fighting in the Odyssey but he has moved on to bigger things – fighting in 20,000 seater arenas. There aren’t as many big shows but I’m hoping 2017 is going to be a busier year for me across the water. Hopefully, I’ll get the phone call for a show and I’ll be to able to progress from there.”

If the call comes - and it surely will - they’ll find Russell ready, willing and able for whatever job comes his way.


RYAN BURNETT hopes to land a world title shot in Belfast next year but, as ever I boxing, he has important business to deal with to make that happen.

Burnett puts his British bantamweight title on the line in Liverpool on Saturday night when he faces tough, ambitious former EBU challenger Ryan Farrag (16-2) over 10 rounds on his home patch at The Echo Arena.

The Adam Booth-trained fighter has been in London training for the past two months and won’t let Scouser Farrag knock him off course: “Everything’s been going great thank God,” he says.

“I’ve had plenty of sparring. Both of us have a good profile and I think fans are going to see something exciting. I think they’ll enjoy this fight. Farrag is very good, very talented but he’s going to be coming forward and I think I’m at the point of my career where I need someone like him to bring out the best in me.

“I’m very excited about this fight and I think what he’s bringing will bring out the best in me. He won’t sit in his shell, he’s going to be coming to win.

“Usually when I fight, once they know they can’t win they stay in there to survive really but this guy is going to be coming forward looking to win all night and I think that’s going to create more opportunities for me.”

Burnett has been sparring with Mitchel Smith and Jordan Gill in preparation for the fight and doesn’t think that fighting in Farrag’s backyard will be an issue.

“There comes a point in every boxer’s career when you have to go into the lion’s den,” he said.

“This is my time when I need to go into someone’s backgarden. It’s just another hurdle I have to get over and I’m happy to do so. I’m going in there focussing on the job that I have to do.”

After Farrag, he sees his big break coming on home soil some time next year: “In the boxing game it’s all about right moments,” he said.

“You can’t be rushed on too fast, it’s all about taking your time and I’ve got a great team around me with Eddie Hearn and Adam Booth. They’ve been in the game a long time and they’re very, very experienced so all I have to do is show up and they’ll make all the right decisions for me.

"My ultimate goal is to get a world title shot in Belfast and I think it’ll be next year.”


Some of the boxers who took part in the Detroit initiative  

SCORPION Boxing Academy, Ballymoney and St Paul’s ABC, Belfast came together for a cross-community venture which brought 11 boxers from Northern Ireland to Detroit, USA to participate in a sporting and cultural exchange.

The programme - including boxers from seven clubs from across the North including Scorpion, St Paul’s, Clonard, Abbey, St George’s, Pegasus, and Emerald boxing clubs - was spearheaded by Scorpion’s head coach Alan ‘Spike’ Martin and St Paul’s Brendan Lowe snr and was the first of its kind. The boxers stayed with host families for the week which made it a truly unique experience for all.

During the week the team visited and trained at the world famous Kronk Gym, Henry Hank’s Superbad Boxing Club, Downtown Boxing Gym and the Dynamic Amateur Boxing Club in Detroit. The team was also able to visit Canada for a day to train at the Windsor Amateur Boxing Club in Windsor, Ontario.

The trip culminated with the inaugural Detroit v Ireland Boxing Tournament in Bert’s Warehouse in Downtown Detroit’s Eastern Market where, against a strong Detroit Team, Team Ireland was victorious, winning 8-3.

There were notable wins for James and Jack McGivern (St George’s), Dylan Duffy (Pegasus), Conor Quinn (Clonard), Gerard Mathews and Fionntain Loughlin (St Paul’s) and Kevin Donnelly and Karol Daugosz (Scorpion).

The following day they had a surprise visit from a boxing legend, Detroit’s own Tommy ‘Hit Man’ Hearns, who stopped by to congratulate Team Ireland on their successful night. Tommy joined the team for lunch and took time to autograph pictures and boxing gloves, take pictures with the team and their coaches and tell stories of his boxing days.

It brought an end to a fantastic trip, which could turn it into an annual exchange programme with Detroit. The wheels are now in motion to bring Team Detroit to Ballymoney and Belfast next spring.

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