Johnny Owen (
January 7, 1956– November 4, 1980) was a successful professional boxer from Wales. His fragile appearance and astonishing abilities earned him many epithets, including ‘the Bionic Bantam’ and ‘the Merthyr Matchstick’. During his brief career, he held the BantamweightChampionships of Great Britainand Europe and became the first ever Welsh holder of the Bantamweight Championship of the Commonwealth. He challenged champion Lupe Pintorfor his version of the World Bantamweight title in September 1980, losing a tortuously difficult contest by way of twelfth round knockout. Owen never regained consciousness, fell into a comaand died seven weeks later. A statue commemorating his life and career was unveiled in Merthyr Tydfilin 2002.
Early life & career
Johnny Owen was born John Richard Owens, the fourth of a family of eight children to
working classparents Dick and Edith Owens in Merthyr Tydfilon January 7, 1956. He began to box at the age of eight and enjoyed a lengthy amateur boxingcareer taking in some one hundred and twenty six fights. Highlights of his amateur exploits were the winning of several Welsh titles and an impressive international record representing his beloved Wales.
A quiet, reserved, friendly character outside the ring, his appearance and character were in total contrast to what he would become once he had stepped inside the ropes of a boxing ring. For once inside the ring, he was a formidable opponent with determination and strength that seemingly were impossible to summon from such a frail looking body. Johnny Owen's style was one of perpetual motion coupled with skill and knowledge of the noble art. The sheer ferocity displayed when he stepped between the ropes - often thought surprising in one so slight - and incredible stamina built by long hours
runningamidst the steep hills of the South Wales Valleys, brought him greater success in the pro ranks
He finally turned professional in 1976, opening his account with a points victory over fellow Welshman George Sutton, in
Pontypool, on September 30; at the time, Sutton was ranked number three contender for the British title - a fine win for Owen in his very first professional contest.
Owen enjoyed an auspicious start to his professional career, lifting the
BantamweightChampionship of Wales after just six contests and knocking out Paddy Maguire to claim the British title after only ten. Guided by manager and trainer Dai Gardiner, Owen steadily grew to dominate the domestic bantamweight scene and by the end of 1978 felt ready to take on his first, big, international test.
His encounter with
Paul Ferrerito contest the vacant Bantamweight Championship of the Commonwealth, delivered one of the finest performances of Owen’s entire career. Ferrari, Italian born and resident in Australia, had held the title before – not to mention a clutch of other belts – and was widely expected to be a difficult, if not insurmountable obstacle to the comparatively inexperienced Welshman’s ambitions. Yet – and almost improbably – an enthralling encounter ensued. Ferreri’s shots were clean and hard and both men brought enormous skill to bear on a fight that went the full distance of fifteen hotly disputed rounds. Towards the end, the Australian began to wilt, his punches seeming to have little effect on an opponent relentlessly piling on the pressure. The judges saw the contest Owen’s way and he was proclaimed the first Bantamweight Champion of the Commonwealth that Wales ever had.
Owen’s victory paved the way for a shot at the division’s European title, held by
Juan Francisco Rodriguezof Spain. It was the Welshman’s eighteenth contest and his first overseas and continues to be regarded, by everyone who was there, as a travesty. The fight took place in the champion’s backyard in Almeriaamid a series of spectacular allegations of foul play by the challenger’s camp. Rodriguez was said to have exceeded the weight limit and his camp to have engaged in gamesmanshipdesigned, amongst other things, to disrupt Owen's sleep. It didn’t stop there. During the contest itself, the champion was stated to have elbowed and butted his way through the rounds, whilst his seconds were believed to have smeared his gloves with an agent for the purpose of obscuring his opponent's vision. As if that wasn’t enough, the challenger – who had appeared to dominate the contest – was to be the victim of a hometown decision and, adding insult to injury, the Spanish boxing authorities withheld his purse – apparently an act of spite inspired by an incident that took place in England, some months before.
Until the meeting with
Lupe Pintor, this was Owen’s sole professional defeat and was avenged a little less than twelve months later. With the European Championship once more at stake, Rodriguez journeyed to Ebbw Valeand acquitted himself bravely on the way to being relieved of his crown. Four months later and Owen successfully defended his British Championship for the third and final time, winning a Lonsdale Beltoutright in the process. An impressive record behind him, his next outing would be to Los Angelesand an encounter with the reigning World Champion.
One too many
Mexicanslugger, Lupe Pintor had edged a controversial split decision over stable mate and long-time champion Carlos Zarate to lay claim to his WBC World Bantamweight title. Zarate may have retired in disgust, but Pintor proved to be a worthy successor and few rated Owen’s chances when they came together at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles on September 19, 1980.
Ringside, there were some who expressed concern when they cast their eyes over Owen’s skeletal frame and astonishment when he seemed to be holding his own against the assertive champion. When the bell rang to signal the end of the eighth round, most observers had the Welshman ahead, but he was tiring fast and, in the ninth, suffered the first knockdown of his professional career. The momentum of the whole fight suddenly lurched in the champion’s direction and from the tenth Pintor was in the ascendency. Catastrophe came with twenty five seconds of the twelfth round still to go. A final, thundering right sent the challenger thudding to the canvas and Pintor had retained his title.
Owen, whom it transpired had an unusually delicate skull, never regained consciousness and, despite extensive surgery, slipped into a coma. He was pronounced dead on
November 4, 1980, aged twenty-four.
Pintor’s blows were never established as the cause of death; the tragic event was purely an accident that could have happened at any time due to the delicate nature of the challenger`s skull (this was in the days before brain scans became compulsory). Owen’s family, far from blaming the World Champion, telegraphed him shortly after their loss and encouraged him to go on fighting. Twenty years later, a memorial to Johnny Owen was unveiled in Merthyr Tydfil. At the request of the late fighter's father, the unveiling was performed by Lupe Pintor.
List of British bantamweight boxing champions
* "Boxing: The Champions" (Ken Jones & Chris Smith, The Crowood Press, 1990), pages 180-3.
* [http://www.johnnyowen.com/ "Welsh Warriors"] . A complete online source
* [http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk/0700sports/1000boxing/tm_objectid=17107402&method=full&siteid=50082&headline=johnny-owen--champion-of-half-the-word-name_page.html "Johnny Owen: Champion of Half the World"] by Duncan Higgitt of the "
Western Mail" is an excellent source of anecdotal evidence: .
* [http://www.panmacmillan.com/extracts/displayPage.asp?PageID=4035 This extract from "The Big If", by Rick Broadbent, details the atmosphere before the Pintor fight: ] .
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/2390049.stm For more on Owen's statue in Merthyr Tydfil]
* [http://www.johnnyowen.com/johnny_owen.html Johnny Owen]
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