Tuesday Night Fight Talk: 25 years ago today...Remembering Johnny Owen’s final fight
20.09.05 - By Barry Green: Author’s note: Upon completing this article I discovered Leavander Johnson is fighting for his life. My prayers, as well as those of all boxing fans, are with Leavander at this time.
Article posted on 20.09.2005
Twenty five years ago today I had just turned nine years old. What I remember most about that time was that I was petrified of David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes video, my mother looked a lot like Chris Evert, and Welsh fighter Johnny Owen fought for the world bantamweight championship against Lupe Pintor of Mexico. I’m not sure why I was scared of a silly pop video but it probably has something to do with the clown suit that Bowie wore, and despite resembling the tennis star, the only backhand mum ever threw was when I wouldn’t eat my sprouts. But I recall Johnny Owen’s face like it were yesterday, because he seemed just like I was back then- a skinny little boy.
During the run-up to the fight, which took place at the Olympics Auditorium in Los Angeles, I watched interviews with Johnny and was amazed that someone seemingly that young was allowed to fight for the world title. He hardly looked any bigger than I did and it was almost like one of my buddies was going into the ring to fight for the title. Indeed, my brother and I looked forward to settling down in front of the TV to watch the replay of the fight, which took place the day before (19th). My brother’s hero back then was Steve McQueen, if you’d have asked me that week who mine was I’d have said ‘Johnny Owen’. I had been a boxing fan for a whole year, and I was looking forward to a battle that would become as good as the first contest
between John Conteh and Matthew Franklin (aka Saad Muhammad, of course), which was then my favourite fight. My mother, whose father was a good friend of local welterweight Ernie Roderick back in the 1940s, watched the fight with her two sons and we wanted a new British world champ, we already had three in Alan Minter, Maurice Hope and Jim Watt- and Johnny Owen was going to be the fourth.
Johnny was definitely ready for the task in hand, nicknamed the ‘Merthyr Matchstick’ after his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales and for his ghostly, frail appearance; he had fine, upstanding boxing skills and was competent enough to become European Bantamweight Champion earlier that year. Experts predicted a close bout and it lived up to its billing. My memory of the actual fight is somewhat clouded and the early rounds are a blur, but I vaguely remember Johnny being in the lead at the halfway stage and it looking increasingly like Pintor would need a knockout to retain his title. Since the fight I learnt that Johnny was indeed ahead on the scorecards at the midway point and was still leading as the fight entered its ninth stanza. It was then that the tide turned in favour of the stronger champion. Badly cut and perhaps on the verge of being stopped, Pintor unleashed a wild right hand that floored Johnny, who from then on was fighting on rubbery legs and soon fought purely in survival mode.
In round 12 Pintor floored Owen twice, the second time Johnny crumpled to the canvas with an horrific shudder, one of those moments that seems to happen in slow-motion when you fear the absolute worst and your stomach churns and somersaults. Referee Marty Denkin immediately signalled the end of the contest, sensing something desperately wrong with the beaten Welshman. Johnny lay unconscious and was taken out on a stretcher and rushed to hospital. It was to be Johnny Owen’s second- and last defeat in the boxing ring. Of course, this was only Johnny’s final fight in the ring, he had another fight on his hands- the fight to stay alive.
For the next six weeks Johnny lay in a coma, gravely ill, it wasn’t until I was watching the BBC programme Sportsnight that I learnt he had died on Novmber 4th 1980. His photograph, that of a smiling, vulnerable jug-eared ’boy’, appeared behind Harry Carpenter when he broke the sad news to the viewers. This image was emblazoned on my mind for the next few weeks and I
began to realise that boxing was a brutal sport that can end tragically. To this day whenever I witness (or hear) of an accident during a boxing contest it always evokes that same photographic image of Johnny Owen.
In 2002 a statue of Johnny Owen was unveiled in his hometown. The guest for the opening ceremony was Lupe Pintor. A BBC documentary crew was there and the reunion between the great Mexican fighter and Johnny’s family was so touching, as this beautiful act of forgiveness was played out for all to see. Pintor said that he would one day like to become a citizen of
Merthyr Tydfil and when he died he wants a statue of himself next to that of Johnny Owen- inextricably linked for all eternity. The Mexican warrior carried on his career successfully after his fight with Johnny and in another cruel twist of fate, his next defence of the WBC title he held came against Alberto Davila, whom he beat on decision. Davila eventually became champion of that very belt three years later, his defeated opponent Kiko Bejines, died three days after the bout from head injuries.
Following the death of Johnny Owen the usual calls for the banning of boxing came creeping out of the woodwork from the usual ‘parasites’ like the American and British Medical Associations. This fight took place 10 months after the much-publicised death of Willie Classen following his knockout loss to Wilfred Scypion. The key difference in that fight was that Classen had been knocked out in two rounds against Tony Sibson in London just over a 'month' before. More recently still Guyana’s Cleveland Denny lapsed into a coma following his Lightweight battle with Gaeten Hart on the Duran-Leonard undercard in Montreal. The former bout could have been prevented with stricter regulations in place by not allowing Classen to fight and Denny was victim to a ‘standing eight count’ rule that was not then in effect. However, nobody could dispute that the ‘Merthyr Matchstick’ was fit and ready for his title challenge, Owen was on a roll having lost just once in 27 fights (a defeat later avenged) and his death was a tragic accident that only an autopsy (or prior brain scan) could detect. The medical report revealed that Johnny had an abnormally thin skull and the tragedy could have occurred at any point in his career, irrespective of who he was fighting.
Despite this, the BMA noted that this was not long since Angelo Jaccopucci died after his KO loss to Alan Minter, in which the ringside doctor was found guilty of manslaughter, and again called for boxing to be banned. These calls will probably once again resurface now that Leavander Johnson’s lies in a coma but as I write yet another sportsman lost his life in the UK Rallycar Championship (on Sunday). This, like boxing, is a dangerous sport, where the protagonists know the risks and choose their own destination in life, although organisations like the BMA often choose to ignore other sports as bashing boxing its favourite pastime. Alas, this article does not concern technicalities and morals but reads as merely a tribute to Johnny Owen, as well as the hundreds that have given their lives in the boxing ring, too numerous to mention here. But none quite affected me more than when Johnny Owen died.
When a fighter is fatally injured, a strange sense of guilt comes over us as fans. It’s a though we are partly to blame because if nobody paid to watch these fights then perhaps they wouldn’t happen. One often feels like they could, at any second, turn their back on the fight game forever. But then wouldn’t then lead to forgetting the fallen boxer forever, pretend it never happened. But by staying with the sport, we too preserve the memory of brave men like Johnny and Deuk Koo Kim and Benny Paret and all who lost their lives in the most noble form of combat. Even at nine years old I decided to stick it out and it inspired me to join the local boxing gym, where I would learn to defend myself the skilled and proper way. My active part in boxing didn’t last long as my best weapon was the left jaw to the right glove but my love for the sport is as strong as ever.
Within the space of a month between the beginning of November and the first week of December 1980, three ‘famous’ deaths had an effect on my family in some ways. My mother, like the whole community, was devastated by the assassination of John Lennon, my brother’s hero Steve McQueen had lost his battle against cancer and three days before that my new hero Johnny
Owen lost his final battle. While Johnny never had the superstar status of Steve McQueen or the influence on world culture that John Lennon had, his death saddened me more because he was a prize-fighter, pure and simple and he was like me- just a kid with a dream. A dream neither of us would ever really fulfil. The difference is, he plied his trade in the toughest of arenas and paid with his young life, while I merely watch these brave men give their all in the ring and like to feel some sort of affinity with them, to make up for the imbalance of bravery and skill that they have in an over-abundance.
A quarter of a century later, my mum still looks like a bit like Chris Evert, I’m still scared of clowns and I still occasionally think about Johnny Owen. I never knew him personally of course but I always felt a kinship with him because he could have been one of my friends. I was at that impressionable age when one begins to realise that everything around us will one day be no more. But Johnny Owen’s lasting legacy is that magnificent bronze statue in the heart of his community- and how many of us can hope to be remembered in that vein? Not many, just a select chosen few, the ones that made a difference and affected people’s lives- like Johnny Owen did. Me? I’ll be lucky if my son makes a voodoo doll of me out of plasticine. Rarely does a week go by when I don’t think of the ‘Merthyr Matchstick’ and for a few seconds I feel sad that his life was cut short so soon. Then a warm smile appears on my face as I realise he died doing what he loved best, doing what he ‘was’- and he was a fighter. And a damn good one at that.
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