Johnny Owen (1956-80) was one of the purest sportsmen produced by any country, a man whose boxing talents belied his skeletal frame, but his life and career is forever overshadowed by its tragic end at the hands of Lupe Pintor.
The ‘Matchstick Man’s’ formidable work ethic was evident from the outset as he embarked on a successful amateur career from the age of eight.
Raised on a tough housing estate in Methyr Tydfil, Owen never fell foul of the distractions of many of his contemporaries, and running and boxing training were his life. Shy and quiet but with a wicked sense of humour, Owen famously never had a girlfriend.
When he turned professional in 1976 there was much clamour for his signature, the fighter and his father and co-trainer Dick Owens eventually deciding to work with Dai Gardiner at his New Tredegar gym.
Gardiner was no believer in easing a professional in and matched Owen (as a fighter he dropped the ‘s’ from his surname) hard from the start. The policy nearly came unstuck against Neil McLaughlin in the youngster’s second fight, an eight-round draw in Derry, Northern Ireland.
The Welshman’s perpetual-motion work-rate shocked the hardened professionals he came up against, though, earning him the epithet the ‘Bionic Bantamweight’.
“He looked so thin but the core strength that he had was phenomenal,” said three-time world welterweight title challenger Colin Jones. “I can vouch for that first hand from sparring with Johnny, he would stand and trade with the best of them.”
The Merthyr man quickly came to dominate the Welsh scene and moved rapidly up the domestic rankings before dethroning British bantamweight champion Paddy Maguire at the National Sporting Club in November, 1977 – just his 10th fight.
He kept winning, including a memorable British defence against spirited fellow Welshman Wayne Evans at Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre.
Owen was back at the same venue a year later to challenge tough Australian Paul Ferreri for the vacant Commonwealth crown.
Many felt that former champion Ferreri would prove too much for the frail-looking youngster, but Owen’s non-stop pressure broke him towards the end and the Welshman claimed a superb points victory.
The European crown was the logical next step, Owen’s management agreeing to take him to Almeria to challenge champion Juan Francisco Rodriguez.
All of Spain seemed to be on Rodriguez’s side, with multiple accusations of gamesmanship from Owen’s camp in both the build-up and the fight itself.
The Welshman seemed oblivious to all the distractions and dirty tactics and totally dominated the fight, but at the end of the 15 rounds the hometown decision went to the champion.
The ‘loss’ was the first of Owen’s professional career and, to add insult to injury, the Spanish authorities withheld his purse, leaving him to return to Merthyr with, literally, nothing.
He was soon back to winning ways, though, and when a year later he got another chance to challenge Rodriguez for his European crown, it would be in Ebbw Vale. Owen was in the mood for revenge and dominated a 12-round contest to emerge as the new continental champion.
An impressive victory over John Feeney followed, the third defence of his British crown that secured the Lonsdale Belt for Owen. There was nothing left to prove on the domestic or European scene, and the world stage now beckoned.
The route to a world title chosen by his management team could not have been more difficult, though. Standing in his way was formidable WBC world champion Pintor, a stocky, powerful and vicious Mexican slugger who had dethroned the great Carlos Zarate.
What is more, the fight was to be held at the intimidating 10,000-seat Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, where the champion was guaranteed fervent Mexican support.
Some still argue that the title shot could have been secured in Wales and that Owen was given insufficient time to prepare in the heat of southern California, but few in Wales felt that the fight was a mismatch.
“There was a real buzz around Wales before the fight,” said Jones. “Johnny was always fantastically fit and Dai Gardiner knew how to get the best out of him.”
Taking no heed of the ridiculing of his appearance from the US media, Owen stunned the home crowd with a thrilling start, and bewildered Pintor with his tireless, peppering punching.
In the fifth round he threw 148 shots and had already cut the man known as ‘Guadalupe’ over both eyes. But Pintor’s bull-like strength was evident, and, although he had landed few punches, the Mexican had opened a cut in his opponent’s mouth that left Owen swallowing large amounts of blood.
“Up to the eighth round everything was going really well, the American promoters were getting worried,” said Gardiner. “Johnny looked so frail, they hadn’t even thought he could fight.”
By the seventh, distance began to open up between the boxers, leaving Owen more exposed to his opponent’s long, dangerous shots. He was caught in the ninth, but it was a snap knock down and he was quickly back into the fray.
“In the ninth he got caught and went down for the first time in his career,” said Gardiner. “I was worried, but in the corner Johnny wondered what all the fuss was about.
“He was bleeding very badly from his lip from the fourth round, but we didn’t think there was any trouble. I couldn’t have stopped the fight because it was going so well.”
By the 12th Owen’s punch resistance was gone and he was dropped by a fierce, straight right. He bravely got back to his feet, but collapsed horrifically from a huge right uppercut – and never recovered consciousness.
“The 10th and 11th went very well, then the disaster struck in the 12th,” said Gardiner. “I knew it was bad straight away, he just crumbled.”
Despite the problems he had faced in the fight, Pintor would later say: “Johnny probably shouldn’t have fought me because his style was more like an Olympic boxer. He was scoring points, not with hard shots, but they were fast and there were lots of them.
“For him to have someone in front of him who was capable of hitting him with hard shots over 15 rounds in a world championship bout, that was going to tell. Keeping up that rhythm – that endless rhythm – was going to wear him down in the later rounds.”
Owen was stretchered out through a rabid auditorium, the Welsh entourage having urine thrown at them and their pockets picked as they left the ring.
“The Mexican crowd showered us with drink and everything else, they took all our equipment from the corner… [but] they didn’t realise how bad it was,” said Gardiner.
Jones added: “Any Welsh sporting fan can remember where he was that sad night. I was having a meal out and can remember seeing it on television – I can honestly say it was one of the saddest days of my life.”
Owen was taken to LA’s California Hospital, the Merthyr Express organising a campaign that quickly raised the funds to send his mother Edith to join his father Dick at his bedside.
He underwent an operation to remove a blood clot from his brain. Hopes fluctuated over a harrowing two months, before pneumonia finally claimed the life of the much-loved ‘Matchstick Man’ on 4 November.
It was later found that he had an unusually fragile skull and thick jaw, meaning that the fatal blow could have come at any time in his career.
“I carry Johnny in my heart all the time, I always think of that fight,” said Gardiner. “Every year around the time of the anniversary I go up to his grave.”
- Rick Broadbent, “The Big If: The Life and Death of Johnny Owen” (Macmillan, London, 2006)
- Gareth Jones, “The Boxers of Wales: Volume Two, Merthyr, Aberdare and Pontypridd (Cardiff, 2011)
- Jeff Murphy, “Johnny Owen” (Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 2004)