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 Johnny Owen who not only lost his title challenge on the night of the 19th September 1980 but ultimately his life on a fateful night in Los Angeles.
The official date was November 4th in which Johnny lost his biggest of fights, the one of survival after never regaining consciousness from his 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 from their times witnessing the latest career unfold recollect stories which draw a smile as well as a tear.
Brought into conversation both feelings are felt when I ask people about Johnny Owen, a glint in the eye of the person recapturing the moment of watching “The Matchstick Man” compete. A feeling of jealousy fills me in the knowledge I was born too late as I find being described 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” was the nickname given to Johnny because of his slight frame, but as we have found on occasion looks can be deceiving as Johnny wasn’t the feeble man that some thought him to be, he was strong, fast and gave new meaning to perpetual motion as he rattled through his career winning British, European and Commonwealth bantamweight titles along the way.
“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 is a thing of legend attributed to his relentless work ethic with a pinch of 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 huffing and puffing my way up the notorious sanatorium hill, a hill in Pontsarn which at the time seemed never-ending. My father would give 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 strengthen his legs furthermore.
This is just an example of training techniques which have been handed down from generation to generation, it was this type of determination that got him to the point of a World title shot where waiting in the wings was the champion at the time the Mexican Lupe Pintor, where after a nine hour plane ride to Los Angeles the two men who are now forever synonymously linked, faced off for the first time.
Filled to breaking point the Grand Olympic Auditorium had a Mexican feel as Pintor’s support was felt loud and clear, actions which could be construed as intimidating to a lesser man. Johnny took the abuse hurled at him 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 had in store for them, Nevertheless, Johnny and more importantly his trainer Dai Gardener believed that he was ready and that this was their time.
Thoughts from Gardener looked to be very true as some at ringside had Owen up on the scorecards 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 the contest would take a very different direction as Johnny felt the canvas for the first time from the resurgence of Pintor who seemed to have gained some 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 was the beginning of the end as Pintor now gained in confidence, knowing that he could dent the resolve of the Welshman. Still to this day that twelfth round is an unbearable watch as Johnny was dropped by a straight right hand before an uppercut-left Johnny collapsing unconscious, as my hometown was silenced, some say in between the cries of sadness you could hear a pin drop from supporters who watched from afar in the hope of good news 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 only to be pickpocketed in their haste to leave the arena, all the time 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 never regained consciousness, succumbing to pneumonia after the bravest of fights, as I write this not even knowing the man personally 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 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” a sentiment which is shared by all.