By Bernard O’Neill
Hugh Russell wrote another illustrious page in the history of Irish boxing at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.
Before Russell’s trip behind the former Iron Curtain, his fellow Belfast fighter, the great Jim McCourt, claimed lightweight bronze at Tokyo 1964, and Russell, who boxed out of the Holy Family BC, bridged that 16-year gap at the Games officially known as the XX11 Olympiad.
The Ulster flyweight’s path to the semi-finals, a finish that was enough to secure at least bronze, saw him dispatch Samir Khiniab of Iraq and Emmanuel Mlundwa of Tanzania in the preliminaries and last-16, both wins by way of unanimous (5-0) decisions.
That left Ryon-sik Yo standing between the Irish champion and at least bronze. It proved to be a tough one, the Holy Family man earning a split decision (3-2) over the North Korean to ensure that an Irish athlete would occupy one of the podiums in the Russian capital.
Russell lost out at the semi-final stage to Bulgaria’s eventual gold medallist, Petar Lessov. Both men met up again – outside the ring – 21-years later when Belfast hosted the 2001 AIBA World Men’s Championships – where James Moore claimed Ireland’s only medal (bronze). Lessov was a coach with the Bulgarian team in Belfast.
“I know you hear a lot of glossy stuff about it (the Olympics) but it definitely is the biggest show on Earth, and, as I say to any of the kids that go to the Olympics, it changes your life,” said Russell, a bronze medal winner at the 1978 Commonwealth Games.
“I always remember going back down the next day to get my medal, and this girl, obviously Russian, behind a counter, and a wee chat that you gave her, and she flicked through all these medals, and she gave you your medal, and you took it out, and there was your medal. Your name was on it.”
The medal he received was the first Olympic medal he’d ever touched.
“You got to the Olympics and the first fight you have at the Olympics is probably the most important. You’re saying to yourself: ‘This is the most important fight of my life’, which it is at that stage,” he said.
“And then if you’re fortunate enough to win it, the next time you’re getting in, you’re saying: ‘No, that wasn’t. This is the most important.’
Meanwhile, Barry McGuigan KO’d Issack Mabushi of Tanzania in his opener, but was then beaten by Winfred Kabunda of Zambia – who was defeated by the eventual gold medallist (Rudi Fink, East Germany) in the next round.
McGuigan broke his hand in the lead up to the Games and admitted that the injury had not healed up fully and that he was having difficulty with his timing and accuracy in Moscow.
The Kabunda reversal was only his third loss in the senior ranks. Five years after his trip to the 1980 Games, McGuigan claimed the WBA World featherweight title on a glorious night at Loftus Road in London.
Russell’s Irish team-mate Gerry Hawkins received a bye from the first phase in Moscow but then lost out in his first fight to Bulgaria’s Ismail Moustafov, who would go on to win bronze in the light-flyweight class.
Two-time European medallist, Phil Sutcliffe, who also had to contend with hand injuries and fight through the pain barrier in Moscow, also lost his first bout, the Dubliner losing to Mexican bantamweight Daniel Zaragoza.
Zaragoza, nicknamed “Mouse”, didn’t medal at the 1980 Olympics, but he certainly made an impression in the pro ranks, winning three WBC World bantamweight and super-bantamweight titles between 1985/92.
Meanwhile, Sean Doyle, trading leather in the lightweight class at the Olympski Sports Complex Stadium, KO’d Nelson Trujillo Trujillo of Venezuela but was then beaten by Romania’s Florian Livadaru, while Martin Brereton went out to a eventual bronze medallist, Jose Aguilar of Cuba.
PJ Davitt, the second Phoenix BC boxer to represent Ireland at an Olympiad, was beaten by Ionel Budusan of Romania.
Cuba won an astonishing 10 medals (six of which were gold) from the eleven weight categories to command top spot in the medals table in Moscow.
The USSR, despite having home advantage, finished second. Ireland, thanks to Russell, finishes in joint 12th spot in the medals table with Czechslovakia, Great Britain, Guyana and North Korea.
Ireland’s David Wilkins and James Wilkinson, competing in the Flying Dutchman Class (sailing), won silver in Moscow.
The USA did not enter the 1980 Olympics because of Cold War politics. The Cold war between East and West was still in full swing four years later and the Soviet Union, along with Cuba and a host of other Eastern Bloc countries, didn’t attend the Los Angeles Games.
1980 Olympics Moscow
Light-flyweight: Gerry Hawkins (Holy Trinity)
Lost to eventual bronze medallist Ismail Moustafov (Bulgaria) 0-5
Flyweight: Hugh Russell (Holy Family) – Bronze
Beat Samir Khiniab (Iraq) 5-0
Beat Emmanuel Mlundwa (Tanzania) 5-0
Beat Ryon-sik Yo (North Korea) 3-2
Lost to eventual gold medalist Petar Lessov (Bulgaria) 0-5
Bantamweight: Phil Sutcliffe (Drimnagh)
Lost to Daniel Zaragoza (Mexico) 0-5
Featherweight: Barry McGuigan (Smithboro)
Beat Issack Mabushi (Tanzania) TKO3
Lost to Winfred Kabunda (Zambia) 1-4
Lightweight : Sean Doyle (St Joseph’s)
Beat Nelson Trujillo (Venezuela) TKO2
Lost to Florian Livadaru (Romania) TKO2
Light-welterweight: Martin Brereton (Edenderry)
Lost to Jose Aguilar (Cuba) TKO1
Welterweight: PJ Davitt (Phoenix)
Lost to Ionel Budusan (Romania) 0-5