Former champion boxer and Olympian Hugh Russell dies aged 63

Hugh Russell. Pic Pacemaker.
Hugh Russell. Credit: Pacemaker

Tributes have been paid to the former boxing champion and Olympic medallist Hugh Russell following the announcement of his death.

Known as 'Little Red' the Belfast man competed in the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics before becoming a British champion in two weight classes.

He was 63 years old. It is reported he suffered a short illness.

Hugh Russell winning the British Bantamweight title in the Ulster Hall in 1983. Credit: Pacemaker

At the 1978 Commonwealth Games he won a bronze in the flyweight division. He won bronze at the Moscow Olympics two years later. He then signed with Barney Eastwood and was a professional from 1981 to 1985 winning the Irish Bantamweight title and the British Flyweight title.

Following his retirement from the sport he went on to become an award winning photographer with The Irish News.

Among his best-known photographs was one of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four celebrating with supporters after walking free from prison in 1989 following the quashing of his wrongful conviction as an IRA bomber. Russell was at the forefront of news reporting, capturing images across decades of the Troubles, peace process and politics in Northern Ireland.

Noel Doran, Editor, The Irish News said: “Hugh Russell was an outstanding photographer and a magnificent boxer but for his Irish News colleagues he was most of all a great friend and a wonderful colleague. “It's fair to say that Hugh was loved by everyone he worked with during his forty-year career at the paper, and he was equally revered by our readers and all those who had the privilege of dealing with him professionally and personally. “I'm devastated by his loss and the thoughts and prayers of everyone at The Irish News are with his wife Kathy and his family. Our champion has fought his final round.” Irish News sports editor Paul McConville tweeted of the "devastating loss".

He added: "Champion boxer and top class photographer but a friend and colleague who was always on hand to lend some sage advice or lighten the mood with a wise crack and that cheeky grin. RIP Champ."

Boxer Michael Conlan described him as a "great human being".

"[He] will be sorely missed throughout the boxing community, a legend of Belfast boxing and always a friend. RIP Hugh, my thoughts and prayer go to your family."

The County Antrim Boxing Board described Russell as a “legend of the sport”. They recalled the start of his career at Holy Family Golden Gloves in Belfast, and claiming “innumerable Antrim, Ulster and Irish titles as he rose to Senior Elite”. “He boxed for Northern Ireland at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Canada, and came home with bronze. It was in the 1980 Olympics that be became, at that time, Ireland’s 6th Olympic boxing medallist,” they said. “Hugh moved on to work as a multi-award winning press photographer, latterly with the Irish News. “He was also a chief official in the British Boxing Board of Control, overseeing many big fight nights in Belfast. In 2019 he was inducted into the Belfast City Council sporting hall of fame. “Following Hugh’s sad passing overnight, tributes are being paid across the world of Irish boxing. “Hugh will be fondly remembered by all in the sport in Ireland and will be sadly missed.”

Niall O’Carroll, chair of the Irish Athletic Boxing Association (IABA) board of directors, said: “My first two memories of boxing as a kid were Ali fighting Larry Holmes and Hugh winning his bronze medal. Especially the Russian announcer pronouncing his name. “Hugh was the man who started the modern success of Irish Olympic boxing. His passing is very sad news – IABA extends its deepest condolences to his family and friends.”

Hugh Russell Credit: Pacemaker

Promoter Frank Warren offered his condolences.

He added: "A former Olympic medalist and British champion Hugh will be a greatly missed figure in our sport, and above all else was a thoroughly nice man and a great ambassador for boxing in Northern Ireland."

Fellow Olympic medallist Paddy Barnes said: "Very sad to hear a great friend and massive boxing figure here passing. Wee Red, Hugh Russell, Olympic medallist."

And Carl Frampton said: "I've just heard the sad news that Hugh Russell passed away. As a BBBoC member and an ex boxer, he always had the fighters’ best interest at heart. One of the nicest men you could meet. RIP Hughie."

Sinn Féin MLA Michelle O'Neill also paid her tributes.

She said: "I am deeply saddened to learn that Hugh Russell has passed away today.

“My immediate thoughts are with his wife Kathy, daughter Hayley and sons Hugh Jnr, James and Calum and wider circle of family and friends at this very sad and difficult time.

“I want to also extend my condolences to all of Hugh’s colleagues in the Irish News, to the many press photographers and journalists who worked with him over many decades and the boxing and sporting communities. “Hugh grew up in North Belfast’s New Lodge area and developed a love of the sport of boxing. He went on to win many major titles, including bronze medals in the 1980 Olympic Games and the 1978 Commonwealth Games. Hugh went on to win Irish and British titles when he turned professional in 1981 and retained an active interest in the sport for the rest of his life. “He had a deep passion for photography and for many years worked as a press photographer for the Irish News, capturing some of the most iconic imagery of our history here. “He passed that passion on to a whole generation of photographers in the community through his involvement in the CB Camera Club. “Over the years, I have had the pleasure of meeting Hugh at many events and press conferences and he always carried out his work with good wit, humour and a smile.

“He was an absolute gentleman and a pleasure to get to know. “Hugh will be deeply missed by all."