The Ballad Of Johnny Owen, Merthyr's Matchstick Man

The life of the Welsh boxing hero was cut tragically short during a world title fight in LA, but the legend of the Bionic Bantam lives on.
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The life of the Welsh boxing hero was cut tragically short during a world title fight in LA, but the legend of the Bionic Bantam lives on.

Even by boxing standards the Olympic auditorium in Los Angeles is not for the faint hearted. It's a place where the hometown crowd chomp on the bit of violence. Where alcohol and poverty mix into a sinister alchemy, all murder eyes and hatred at ringside. Even Lupe Pintor feels it. A brute of a bantamweight he's witnessed most things in his ascension to the peak of world boxing, but as he returns to his stool in the middle rounds of a contest most thought would be a breeze, he tries to clear his head and blot out the baying mob who seem constantly on the verge of rushing the ring. Even hardened boxing writers are wincing at the ferocity of it.

Pintor has other things to think about anyway. It's September 1980 and he's finding more than a little trouble dealing with his strange looking opponent in the opposite corner. That man is Welshman Johnny Owen. A pencil thin fighter from Merthyr Tydfil, he cuts an odd shadow in the confines of the fight game. Physically he's all angles and looks as though he was born in a bottle, but beneath his wiry frame there's a toughness that's been honed in the boxing halls and on the winter roads of his homeland. It's taken him to both the British and European titles with a style based on stamina and no little skill. More than one fighter who's grinned at the sight of the 'matchstick man' climbing through the ropes to face them has found by the end of the contest that the joke isn't funny anymore.

In the white heat atmosphere of the Olympic auditorium that irony is playing out again too. For eight rounds Owen is not only matching his illustrious opponent but shading the contest. Much to the partisan crowd's agitation, Pintor is being made to look ordinary. He's already been cut in the third and although Owen's punches aren't really hurting him they're connecting enough times to be raising eyebrows amongst most watching observers. For Pintor however boxing is a slow verse not a chorus. Slowly but surely he begins to circle Owen ominously like a matador circling a tired bull and in the ninth round delivers his calling card. It's a sledgehammer of a right hand that sends his opponent to the canvas. It's a cruel but necessary intention that turns the contest on its head in an instant. Dazed and confused suddenly Johnny Owen knows what it's like to be at the business end of the fight game.

From that moment on ominous portents lay. The crowd already in a frenzy now turn their patriotic fever up a notch. Their lack of sympathy for Owen borders on the frightening. More than once they threaten to storm the ring itself as Pintor picks away mercilessly at the Welshman's sudden frailties. For almost the next three rounds it seems only a matter of time as Owen fends off his opponent's sudden aggression with increasing desperation. Then the inevitable happens. With less that 25 seconds of the twelfth round to go Pintor crashes another right hand into Owen's head and this time there is no respite for the Welshman. As he slumps to the canvass however what no one really realises is that he's about to start the biggest battle of his life right there and now.

Certainly not a section of the Mexican supporters who try to storm the Owen corner in a bid to celebrate with their hometown fighter. In the pandemonium that ensues, no one comprehends the seriousness of the situation, least of all Pintor himself. It's only when he sees the motionless body of Owen being carried out on a stretcher that a strange dread starts to hang on him. It's here too that the fighter witnesses something that is said to sicken him to his core. The disgusting sight of the departing medical staff being pelted with bottles of urine. It's enough to make the proud Mexican hang his head for his countrymen in shame.

There's another emotion as well that permeates the press conferences the following day as news breaks of Owen's deteriorating condition. It's a feeling of empathy, especially in the boxing fraternity. Boxing writers talk of their interviews with the shy, friendly Welsh fighter. Just another working class kid trying to give himself a better life, from the borders to the barrios it's always the same. As news breaks that the Welshman has lapsed into a coma however a sombre mood breaks out. Lupe Pintor is said to be distraught. Although Owen's father, who was in his sons corner on the night of the fight quickly admonishes the Mexican fighter of any blame and urges him to continue his career - for the first time the bantamweight world champion questions his motives in the sport. In the weeks ahead more than once he even contemplates not being able to carry on at all.

 The end however inevitably comes on November 4th 1980. As the news of Johnny Owen's passing is reported a great wave of emotion hangs heavy in the sport. There's something in the innocent face of the Welshman, a mother's son that has struck a chord with even the toughest individuals in the game. Nowhere feels it more than his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil either. The proud community is united in grief and no little pride. They will never forget their hometown warrior and neither will they be bitter about his passing. It's the cruel hand of fate rather than an individual that has robbed them of their favourite son they understand. In a strange way they are united forevermore because of it.

It's to their eternal credit too that they offer an invitation some time later. Some twenty odd years down the line in fact, at a statue unveiling for Johnny Owen they excitedly await their guest of honour. As the individual appears the first thing someone does is run up and wrap a Welsh flag around his shoulders. The wily old Mexican who receives it beams broadly at the gesture and suddenly the weight of nervousness evaporates from him. His name is Lupe Pintor of course and he's here to celebrate a man who he's never really forgotten about - the late, great Johnny Owen.