O’Neill leads tributes to Olympic boxer and ‘absolute gentleman’ Hugh Russell

Russell, who went on to forge a career as a press photographer, died on Friday at the age of 63.

Michelle O’Neill has led tributes to Belfast-born Olympic medallist boxer Hugh Russell.

The 63-year-old died in the early hours of Friday following an illness.

Russell made his name in the boxing ring as a young man, winning bronze medals at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton and the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, both in the flyweight division.

As a professional he claimed British and Irish bantamweight and flyweight titles.

Affectionately known as “Little Red”, Russell went on to forge an award-winning career as a press photographer at 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.

Boxing promoter Frank Warren said Russell was a “great ambassador” for the sport in Northern Ireland.

“My thoughts and everyone at Queensberry are with the family and friends of Hugh Russell,” he posted on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

“A former Olympic medallist 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.”

Sinn Fein vice president Ms O’Neill said she was “deeply saddened” to learn of Russell’s death.

“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,” she said.

“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.”

Ms O’Neill continued: “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. 

“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.”

In a statement the Irish News described Russell as a “much-loved colleague”, and extended their deepest condolences to his family.

Editor Noel Doran said he was loved by everyone he worked with.

“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,” he said.

“It’s fair to say that Hugh was loved by everyone he worked with during his 40-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.”

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.”

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