Hugh Russell: His loss leaves Irish boxing on the floor

A young Hugh Russell with trainer Eddie Shaw back in his professional boxing pomp. Picture by Pacemaker
A young Hugh Russell with trainer Eddie Shaw back in his professional boxing pomp. Picture by Pacemaker

HE was always the kid in the programme.

Third shelf from the bottom in the bedroom to the right at the top of the stairs, lying underneath a few others beside scattered cookery books, an old atlas and some faded manila folders containing God knows what.

The vintage isn’t entirely clear. Probably ’80s, possibly ’70s. It could have been from an Ulster senior finals night, or one of those famous rumbles in the Ulster Hall against Davy Larmour or John Feeney. Smithwicks, maybe Smirnoff, were the sponsors.

My dad didn’t miss too many of the big nights back then, and so gathered a sepia-tinged, smoke-soaked collection of A4-sized booklets with men bearing shiny belts and bad intentions on the cover.

Then there was Hugh Russell.

In the middle of a sea of sideways noses, his cheeky grin leapt from the page, the baby-faced assassin with a head full of red curls and a manner full of mischief. Once seen, never forgotten.

A boy amongst men, it looked all wrong but, in the ring, could hardly have been more right.

Hugh was a natural.

Harry Enright warmed to him straight off the bat at Bearnageeha, instantly overlooking any minor indiscretion or upcoming engagement, his star pupil receiving the kind of special treatment others could only dream of as they slogged around the yard, wind and rain nipping hard at their heels.

Gerry Storey tells a similar tale. From the first few sessions after Hugh’s head popped around the door of the Holy Family, he knew this was a gem that just needed polished.

So began a lifelong bond, cemented by countless trips up and down the road to Dublin’s National Stadium – one in the back of a flagged down ambulance after Storey’s car broke down – and training camps in far flung places. Master and apprentice, forever side by side.

Eventually Hugh would nudge his way onto the north Belfast club’s ‘Paradise Row’ - a line of shamrocks the length of the wall that bear the name and picture of some of its most famous sons.

Only five names have made it onto the opposite side, where the Olympic rings proudly hang, a constant reminder that amateur boxing’s ultimate dream can be achieved within these walls. Gerry Hamill, Sam Storey, Paul Douglas and Paddy Barnes are all up there, Hugh nudging shoulders too after bringing home bronze from the Moscow 1980 Games – Ireland’s first medal since Jim McCourt in 1964.

His prized possession, alongside the Lonsdale belt won outright after two successful defences of his British flyweight title as a pro, it was eventually hung inside a neat frame, taking pride of place in the front room of the Russell family home.

Although he left boxing early, hanging up the gloves at 25 to pursue a new career as a photographer with The Irish News, boxing never left him.

Ask any fighter who crossed his path in the years between and they will tell you Hugh Russell was always in their corner; his loyalties lying with those brave enough to duck beneath the top rope.

That warmth extended to the workplace, a ready smile and a shout of ‘alright kid?’ the familiar greeting as - pen tucked behind his right ear - he whizzed by at a rate of knots, a man always with somewhere to be or something to do.

In the years that followed Hugh got to know my name, that’s how you knew you’d made it, and would often bounce over offering stories of all kinds. Some for print, plenty not, a child-like giggle following him back up the room once the punchline had been delivered, his next task only ever a matter of seconds away.

Behind the wheel, on the familiar road to Dublin to cover Irish championships at the National Stadium, was when a serious side would emerge. As the miles were eaten up, only so much boxing could be talked, Hugh eventually growing weary of the constant questioning coming from the passenger seat.

The importance of family, the joy his kids and grandkids brought - they trumped any sporting achievement by some distance.

Once, before leaving Belfast, he dropped by his house to pick up a bound folder. Hugh’s beloved mother Eileen kept scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings from his career, a pile that gathered dust until a surprise gift was presented a few years back.

“Come here til I show you…”

A smile played across his lips, eyes dancing as he flicked from one laminated page to the next; proud of his achievements, prouder still of the thoughtfulness and affection of the children he and Kathy had raised.

Living and working in the city his fists once helped illuminate, Hugh could never escape his past, nor would he have wanted to. People of a certain generation still stopped him for a chat, bus drivers would pump the horn and attempt muffled conversations across rows of rush hour traffic, Hugh’s face reddening all the time.

When he was with you, it was as though an open door policy had just been introduced, cagey interviewees suddenly letting the guard down and rolling with the punches, recognition of a different time, and a different place, so often taking hold.

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The Irish Elite Championships get under way in a few weeks, the latest cast of Olympic wannabes auditioning for greatness, determined to follow in the footsteps of the men and women who walked before.

Hugh Russell was one of them. This time, though, he won’t be there to offer encouragement to the next generation, or to look around and savour the atmosphere of a place that would instantly bring him back to where it all began.

His loss leaves Irish boxing on the floor.

And so it’s farewell to the kid in the programme. To a colleague who never said no, a trusted friend and a fighter until the end.

I’ll miss you. We all will.