WE have so many small boxing champions, from Rinty Monaghan through to Carl Frampton. Once, I was playing in a charity match in Belfast. Both teams were full of All-Stars and a few famous sporstmen from other sports.
Paddy Barnes, the famous boxer, was on our team. He is about five feet tall. Before the throw-in, he came over to me on the field (I was standing beside Jarlath Burns who is a big powerful man) and said “Joe, I don’t want to be marking one of these big lads. Who can I mark?” I took a look at the other team and said, “Mark Peter Canavan.” Paddy said, “Are you f***ing joking? He’s massive.”
When a good person died young, my Granny Brolly, God rest her, would say, “and that aul bugger Paisley will live til he’s eighty.”
Hughie Russell was only 63. He trained six days a week, was fit as a flea and looked like a man in his forties, with his bright red curls and baby face. I can hardly believe it.
Impossibly small to be such a fearsome fighter, he was the first man to become both the British bantamweight and flyweight champion.
He passed into folklore up here after his two fights with Davy Larmour. The first one in 1982 was so gruesome that the canvas became soaked with blood and the people in the ring side seats were splattered. No wonder George Plimpton called it “the doomsday clang of the opening bell.”
These two tiny gladiators were soon in the boiler room of the damned, locked in a war with no limits, blood spraying like slurry. It was as close to death as a human being can come without actually dying. Hughie said later, “it was like an abattoir in there”
When his arm was raised by the referee after 12 savage rounds, exhausted, he slumped over the top rope into his distraught mother’s arms. The legendary Belfast photographer Brendan Murphy captured the moment. Hughie covered in blood, Eileen Russell cradling her beloved son tenderly, weeping.
The referee Mike Jacobs was a Londoner and his white shirt was saturated in blood drops and spatters. When he flew back home to London, Jacobs left it into the dry cleaners. No point trying to wash that at home. A few days later, when he came back to collect it the police arrested him. The dry cleaners – thinking he must have committed some atrocious murder – reported it to the police. It was only when a statement was obtained from the head of the British Boxing Board of Control that the poor man was eventually released from custody.
Q. Who did you murder?
A. No one. I am a boxing referee.
Q. Pull the other one sir. Did the fighters have knives?
A. I am telling you. It happened during the fight.
Q. Tell us where the body is?
A. I’m trying to tell you, it’s the fighters’ blood.
Q. Come along sir. Where did you hide the body?
A. There is no body.
Q, Alright sir, you play your little games.
The photograph that accompanies this piece shows that immortal moment when Hughie and his mother embraced. It won Brendan Murphy sports photograph of the year.
I knew and loved Hughie. He bore the perpetual expression of a man who had just been born that morning. To Hughie, everything seemed to be a surprise. After boxing, Brendan Murphy took him under his wing and he went on to become a top-class photographer with the Irish News, where he worked until his death.
I got to know him at first through the law courts. Hughie would be outside with the press pack taking pics of the cast of some big trial or other. As I passed, after a few pics had been taken, I would flip them the bird and Hughie would burst out laughing. Sometimes, he would take a pic of that and send it to me. Every time I passed, I would flip them the bird. And every time, Hughie took a fit of the giggles.
We would chat, often for hours, about the glory days. He was fascinated by the great Rinty Monaghan, his idol, another tiny Belfast man with fists of bronze who became the undisputed flyweight champion of the world, and sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to the crowd after his victories.
When I donated my kidney, Hughie rang me to say he had something for me. When I met him, he produced a copy of Murphy’s iconic photograph, signed and framed.
When we hugged, a few tears welled up in me. It has pride of place in my study.
The other thing about Hughie was that he did not really know anybody outside of boxing or his circle of friends. Paddy Heaney, the famous journalist (he has since taken early retirement) and nephew of the Derry poet, tells a story about Hughie from their days together in the Irish News. Paddy was assigned by the editor to cover a major political event in Belfast. Hughie was assigned to go with Paddy. “Get plenty of pics of the big guy,” Paddy told him. “Try to get one of us together if I can get a few words with him.” Hughie said, “No problem.” Shortly after they had arrived at the venue, Hughie came over to Paddy and said, “Who is it you want me to take pics of?” “The man himself,” said Paddy. “Who?” said Hughie. Hughie didn’t know who Bill Clinton was.
The doomsday clang of the closing bell has sounded for Hughie. My granny was right.