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"I've lost my best friend..." Hugh Russell junior remembers the man boxing will miss

"He was proud of all of us and we were proud of him..." The late, great Hugh Russell was a devoted family man
"He was proud of all of us and we were proud of him..." The late, great Hugh Russell was a devoted family man "He was proud of all of us and we were proud of him..." The late, great Hugh Russell was a devoted family man

EVERY day he visits his mum and every day Hugh Russell junior listens for the front door to open and expects his dad to come through it.

His dad was, of course, Hugh Russell - a husband, a father, an Olympian, a champion, an award-winning Irish News photographer and Belfast’s cheerful, calm Mr Boxing.

So sadly, he passed away on October 13.

“I’ve lost my best friend,” says Hugh junior.

“He was more than my da, he was more of a friend than a father figure. We went everywhere together, we did everything together and it still is hard. I go down to mum’s on a daily basis and I’m still waiting on him coming in through the door.

“I’d always have asked him: ‘Where were you the day?’ and nine times out of 10 he’d answer: ‘Standing outside court, freezing’. I still can’t believe he’s gone and it’s still very raw but the turn-out at his funeral… I’ve been to some big funerals but I never saw a turnout like that in my life. It was massive and it just shows you the character he was.

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“You had people there from all aspects – his work life, politicians, boxing… It was overwhelming and the tributes were amazing.”

On Saturday night, Hugh junior will carry on the torch for the Russell family when he takes charge of some of the fights at the SSE Arena. It was his dad who encouraged him to try refereeing and he has now reached A-grade level. For the first time in his career his dad won’t be at ringside sitting alongside the other British Boxing Board of Control officials and making sure everything runs smoothly.

We’ll all miss him but his son will miss him most.

“It’s going to be strange for everybody on Saturday night,” says Hugh.

“It’s going to be difficult personally that he won’t be there. Once I get in the ring I have to switch-off because I have a job to do but there will be a lump in my throat.

“Whenever I’ve been in the ring I’ve always had a wee juke down and I would see him at ringside. It’s going to be strange not seeing him sitting there.

“After the fights, I would always have said: ‘What did you think?’ And he would say: ‘I wouldn’t have stopped it’ if he thought that, but 99 times out of 100 he would have said I was 100 per cent.

“He always had my back, he was never too critical but he was my biggest critic, in a way - in a nice way.”

Hugh Russell's funeral cortege passes The Irish News offices in Donegall Street
Hugh Russell's funeral cortege passes The Irish News offices in Donegall Street Hugh Russell's funeral cortege passes The Irish News offices in Donegall Street

Hugh senior got his cancer diagnosis on the 29th of July, the same date he received his medal at the Olympic Games in Moscow. Right up until the final week of a life cut far too short, he was taking and making calls and dealing with issues relating to a boxing show at the Girdwood Community Hub in North Belfast.

The show took place the night after he passed away and the 10 bells, boxing’s tribute to its nearest and dearest, rang out to silence in the packed arena.

“Any time there’s been anything involving boxing – whether it’s fights, weigh-ins or whatever – dad’s always been there and I’ve always been by his side,” said Hugh junior.

“If there was any problem, if there was anything that wasn’t right my da was the guy everybody phoned whether it was Carl Frampton or Jamie Conlan or Paddy Barnes or one of the promoters.

“He always got it sorted out, so he’s a big loss for everybody. My da was the one who said: ‘You do this, you do that…’ He was the one who told us all what was happening. He would sort out the referee: ‘You’re doing this fight, or that fight…’ Whatever it was.”

There’s an old photograph of Hugh junior as a tiny baby in the arms of a “massive, hairy heavyweight” at Holy Family ABC, the gym his dad boxed out of during his glory days as an amateur before he moved onto success as a two-weight British champion with Barney Eastwood.

“What he achieved in and out of the ring was phenomenal but if you take all his boxing achievements and his photography achievements out of the way, he was a brilliant dad,” says Hugh.

“He was so proud of all of us and we were so proud of him.

“If you’d walked down the street with him any time, people would still talk to him: ‘Well Hugh, I was at the Davy Larmour fight… I was at the King’s Hall when you knocked out such-and such…’

“He retired in 1985 and that’s nearly 40 years’ ago but people still talk about him! It’s really nice because people come and talk to you – and you’ve no idea who they are – but they say nice things about him, everyone says nice things about him.”

He deserves every word.