Today marks the 37th Anniversary of the death of one of Wales’ favourite sons, a date in the calendar which brought the small town of Merthyr Tydfil to its knees in devastating circumstances with the passing of one of its favourite sons Johnny Owen who not only lost his title challenge on the night of the 19th September 1980 but heartbreakingly his life too on a fateful night in Los Angeles.
The official date was November 4th, a date etched in the sand scripts of Welsh boxing as one in which Johnny lost his biggest of fights, the one of survival, never regaining consciousness from his brave contest with Lupe Pintor, a sadness which to this day is still a raw emotion for many.
In a town which is steeped in boxing history, the older generation recollect stories of witnessing his career unfold every sentence bringing with it a smile as well as a tear.
Both feelings still to this very day are raw with emotion, a glint in the eye of the person recapturing the moment of watching “The Matchstick Man”. I have to confess the feeling of jealousy fills me in the knowledge I was born too late, being described to me a person liked by everyone, a man who certainly holds a special place in the hearts of all who had the privilege to know him.
“The Matchstick Man” a nickname given to Johnny because of his slight frame, but one we have found in this occasion to be deceiving, Johnny was far from the feeble man that some thought him to be, he was strong, fast and gave new meaning to the words ‘perpetual motion’ proving the notion in winning British, European and Commonwealth bantamweight titles on his route to a world title shot.
“People tend to remember him because of his frame because he was so thin,” said Kelvin Owen (Younger Brother of Johnny) when being interview by the Daily Telegraph “But that belied how strong he was because he was all muscle and he was really, really strong. He could go 15 rounds no bother at all.
In that regard Johnny was a throwback, his fitness was legendary attributed to his relentless work ethic with the help from his surroundings of countryside and mountain terrain.
One such story of his endurance has stayed with me since a young boy, as I made my way back home from a family outing I huffed and puffed my way up the notorious sanatorium hill, growing up we never had a family car so would walk miles in the summer holidays with beautiful routes all around us, but that very hill in Pontsarn felt never-ending.
My father would laugh at the exertion etched on my face whilst giving his recollections of seeing Johnny run countless times up and down the steep incline, an amazing feat in itself but more remarkable was that he did it in steel toe capped miners boots, even running backward to further strengthen his legs.
This was just an example of old training techniques which had been handed down from generation to generation, getting Johnny to the point of a World title shot, awaiting his arrival was the champion of the time, Mexican Lupe Pintor, these two men are now forever synonymously linked due to what unfolded in that muggy arena in Los Angeles.
Filled to breaking point the Grand Olympic Auditorium had a Mexican feel, Pintor’s support was felt loud and clear, actions which could be construed as intimidating. Johnny already having trained his psyche to take any abuse hurled at him did so with the same professional approach he had throughout his career, focusing on the task at hand.
Suggestions that the fight should have been pulled across the Atlantic to Johnny’s home country was argued as was the insufficient time needed to train in the heat that California baked in in those months, Nevertheless, Johnny and more importantly his trainer Dai Gardener believed that he was ready and that this was their time.
Thoughts from Gardener looked nailed on as some at ringside scored in favour of Owen going into the eighth round, as the small Welshman outpointed his fearsome counterpart much to the surprise of the American Broadcasters who were covering the fight.
“Up to the eighth round everything was going really well, the American promoters were getting worried,” Gardiner later gave the BBC his reflection “Johnny looked so frail, they hadn’t even thought he could fight.”
The following round of the contest would take a very different course as Johnny felt the canvas for the first time from the resurgence of Pintor who seemed to have gained momentum.
“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”
Whether hurt by the shot or not, this we now know was the beginning of the end as Pintor now energised from knowing he could hurt Owen, poured forward in search of a finish.
Still to this day that twelfth round is unbearable to witness as Johnny was dropped by a straight right hand before an uppercut-left Johnny collapsing unconscious to the ring apron, my hometown was silenced, some say in between the cries of sadness you could hear a pin drop from those who watched from afar in the hope of salvation but instead were greeted with the worse news imaginable.
Cups of alcohol and even urine was thrown on the Welsh team as they hurried out of the venue whilst being pickpocketed in their haste to leave the arena, all the while Johnny was fighting for his life on a stretcher.
“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.
Johnny would never regain consciousness, succumbing to pneumonia after the bravest of fights, even as I reflect I feel a great deal of sadness from a man that meant so much to my hometown.
Johnny will forever be remembered in our community as a shy, humble person, loved by all he came in contact with, whose will and determination are talked about through the ages, passed down, remembered from generation to generation.
Gardener ended his remembrance of his star pupil with “I carry Johnny in my heart” I believe a sentiment which is shared by us all.