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GorDoom
05-25-2006, 05:25 PM
Johnny Owen: Champion of half the world
May 20 2006

Duncan Higgitt, Western Mail


IT WAS the last but one day in February 1978, and Johnny Owen was on the way up.

Having become British bantamweight champion almost three months before, Owen, his father and trainer, Dick Owens, and his manager, Dai Gardiner, had their eyes firmly set on the Commonwealth title. In the way stood Antonio Medina, a competent fighter, and one the Owen camp were taking no chances with, focussing intently on the contest.

After another round, Owen was back in his corner. Gardiner crouched in front of the fighter's stool to talk him through the previous three minutes. As he got into it, he found Johnny interrupting him. "Get out of the way, Dai. You're blocking my view." As Gardiner shifted, his gaze followed Owen's to where the girl holding the round card was sashaying around the ring. "I wouldn't mind going a few rounds with her," mused Owen.

The story, often related with a laugh by those who knew him, points to the enigma that lies at the heart of Johnny Owen, a shy, unassuming man possessed of a seemingly detached, Zen-like calm and an almost unbelievable slim physique (one doctor joked that he could be seen right through if he were held up to the light), but who could be transformed into a cyclone once the bell rang.

Even a quarter of a century after he left us, it is difficult to understand Owen because of the utter devotion he gave to the sport he loved, a dedication that consumed his life and played a part in his death.

Yet even though Owen paid the ultimate sacrifice, there is so much about him to admire, from his modest generosity as a man, to his ruthless determination in training, to his pursuit of excellence as a champion.

So it is perhaps surprising that a full biography of his life has not appeared until now. The Big If, the Life and Death of Johnny Owen (its title comes from Owen's last diary entry, which reads, "Hope everything comes right on the night. If only. It's a big if.") by Rick Broadbent, not only traces Owen's life but also that of his last opponent, the Mexican Lupe Pintor. It contrasts the two fighters' contrasting upbringings and charts the paths they moved along that would eventually cross. Each of the chapters end with a round from their fight, building to its awful conclusion.

John Richard Owens (he dropped the 's' because there was already a boxer called Johnny Owens) was born one of eight children on January 7, 1956, into a family that lived in the Gelli Deg area of Merthyr Tydfil, the only town in the world to boast statues of three boxers - Eddie Thomas, Howard Winstone and Johnny.

His was a lively but happy home. His brother Kelvin Owens, whom Johnny was very close to all through his life, said, "There were five brothers and three sisters. There was always something going on - someone squabbling and fighting. It was that kind of home." Like many Welsh families, Dick's love of boxing soon became a father-son thing. "All five brothers went through boxing," said Kelvin, who still lives in Merthyr Tydfil, and runs a website dedicated to his brother and other Welsh champion boxers.

"Our father encouraged us to do it so that we would learn to stick up for ourselves.

"Phillip (the eldest) didn't stick at it long. Vivian was very good but, as you do, he got involved in all the things that teenagers do, like girls, cigarettes and alcohol. Me, I was Welsh champion. There was John, and then Dilwyn, who also did it for a bit."

Owen soon developed a legendary reputation for training, spending every hour his job as a machine operator and, later, setter would allow. If Johnny or Dick could think of a way to make his regime that bit tougher, they would make the change. So, for example, when Johnny would spend hours chopping logs, Dick would make sure the axe had been blunted first. He also agreed with his father not to be distracted by girls.

"He would tell me, 'Kel, plenty of time for girlfriends after I've retired'," said Kelvin.

The nearby Brecon Beacons would be almost as valuable to Johnny as the gyms in Merthyr Tydfil and New Tredegar. He would often do the last mile of a long run backwards, to strengthen his calves.

Kelvin remembers, "We would take Johnny up into the Beacons for a 10-mile run. On the way is a really nasty hill called the Glyn. Johnny would be running, with my father following behind and all us brothers in the car. When we got to the Glyn, he would make me get out and run Hell for leather some 200 yards up the hill, and John would be expected to keep up. When I was exhausted, Phillip or another one of my brothers would get out and do the same. And on we would go, right up to the top of the hill.

"But training was only part of it. John was mentally tough. There was something in him that was intangible, and it made him supremely mentally strong. Because he was quiet and shy, people would say there wasn't a lot going on inside him. But, believe me, there was a Hell of a lot going on behind those eyes."

However, early on, it was thought that Kelvin showed more promise, despite the fact that Johnny won 104 of his 126 amateur contests, representing Wales 17 times and winning on 15 of those occasions. The family developed a good relationship with Gareth Jones, a boxing writer with The Western Mail, who first met Johnny after his first match as a professional, in September 1976.

"He had not been a great amateur. He had not taken the Welsh title. But he got to meet George Sutton because the man who was going to face him dropped out, so they rushed Johnny through. Here was his first pro fight and he was top of the bill. Many people thought, 'Who is this kid? He's bitten off more than he can chew'.

"Sutton was from a great fighting family, and number three contender for the British bantamweight title - and that was back in the days when being number three mean something, not like it is today with loads of titles floating around. But Owen won it comfortably."

After a further eight fights, including two rematches against Sutton, Owen took the British title from Paddy Maguire in November 1977, becoming the first Welsh boxer in 64 years to hold it. He did it in the teeth of an incredulous boxing public who, along with the pundits, couldn't believe that someone as slight as Johnny could hold his own in the ring. He was noted for a fast and furious style that more than made up for what some said was an absence of a big punch.

"I was the one that gave him the nickname 'the Bionic Bantam', because it was around the time of the Six Million Dollar Man, and I just thought that he would have to be bionic with that shape to do so well," said Jones.

"Everybody goes on about how John didn't have a big punch, but let me tell you - if you were hit by John, you knew about it," said Kelvin.

The Owen camp now turned its attention to the Commonwealth title. In his way stood the rated Australian Paul Ferreri. The pre-match build-up featured the usual psychological trickery from Ferreri, but Johnny disarmed him in an unorthodox way, giving the boxer a knitted doll for his daughter. It was not the first nor the last time he demonstrated his kindness, particularly towards the children of those around him.

The meeting at Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre in November 1978 was a scintillating demonstration of skill from both men, with The Ring magazine reporting that Ferreri's clean hard blows had "little or no effect on Owen", who kept the match at his own tempo until the Australian tired and he got the better of him, winning the title on points.

It cleared the way for a shot at the European title, but what was to follow constituted a mugging of the grandest proportions. Owen travelled to Almeira in Spain to take on local boy Juan Francisco Rodriguez. A catalogue of dirty tricks and outright cheating ensued. Rodriguez had gone into the bout over the weight limit, his camp had almost certainly used wintergreen oil - a blinding agent - on their man's gloves, every conceivable tactic had been pulled to deny Johnny Owen his sleep and psychologically unsettle him (including sending a brother of Rodriguez to shout obscenities at him during the fight ), and Rodriguez butted and elbowed his way through the contest.

Despite all that, Owen had out-boxed his opponent but subsequently had to not only endure the hypocrisy of being wrongly judged the loser, he had his purse withheld as part of a petty revenge by the Spanish boxing authorities after the same thing had happened to one of their fighters who had cheated during a contest in England some months earlier. "He was stitched up on many, many levels," said Jones.

It left Dick Owens and Gardiner apoplectic with rage.

When the return bout took place in Ebbw Vale, Johnny and his camp were determined to prove that he was the superior boxer to Rodriguez, and they planned to do it fair and square.

Interestingly, shorn of underhanded home advantages, Rodriguez acquitted himself well. But the title still went to Johnny. Now the holder of the Welsh, British, European and Commonwealth titles and a Lonsdale belt - "He was champion of half the world", says Kelvin - Owen was all set to challenge Lupe Pintor for the WBC world title.

Like Owen, Pintor had been born into a working class family, in Cuajimalpa, outside Mexico City. Rick Broadbent, who travelled to Mexico to extensively interview Pintor for The Big If, says, "I don't think anyone boxes unless they have to. With the exception of Sugar Ray Leonard, who came from a comfortable background, most people box because it can offer a better life."

However, Pintor had nothing like the close Owens family to support him. His relationship with his father Jose Guadalupe was particularly violent. Pintor senior often viciously beat his son, so much so that the young Lupe once ran away from home and spent some time living on the streets, where he was forced to learn to defend himself and protect his ice-selling business. Training in a gym of champs, he fought many notables, including Alberto Davila before acrimoniously taking the world title from gym mate Carlos Zarate.

The bout was set for September 19, 1980 at the Olympic Auditorium, in front of a Hispanic and Mexican crowd so partisan that the token 200 Welsh supporters had to endure abuse and cups of urine thrown during the fight.

Jones was present. "Apart from two rows of Welsh, it was 100% Pintor fans. The fight was going OK. Johnny had a cut lip and had to keep swallowing blood to hide it from the referee. But Pintor was also cut (above both eyes) and the fight was almost stopped because of it in the sixth."

In fact, most commentators - including those who expected Pintor to easily dispense with this "Matchstick Man" - had Owen ahead for much of the fight.

However, Pintor often used early rounds to look for a way to beat his opponent.

In the ninth, Johnny Owen took the first ever knockdown of his career. He was straight back up, but the fight's emphasis had shifted. For the remaining three rounds, it was memorably said, he fought mostly with his heart.

"In the 12th came the final punch," remembers Jones. "He hit the floor and didn't move."

Johnny was out cold before he landed. His relaxed neck muscles didn't protect his head against the canvas, which fractured it when the two collided.

It later emerged that Owen had an abnormally thin skull and a thick jaw. Had most boxers been caught with Pintor's punch, it would have broken their jaw but would not have driven it up into the skull, as it did with Owen.

Kelvin had not gone to Los Angeles with his father.

"We were in the house when we got a phone call to say John had lost and that he'd been knocked out. Then we had a call a few hours later to say it was quite serious. There were media everywhere - it was on the telly, the radio. Then my father called and told us just how serious it was."

Matters were not helped back in the auditorium. The crowd responded to Owen's knockout by redirecting their cups of "recycled beer", as Jones calls them, towards the ring, while those closer took advantage of the panic by picking the pockets of those trying to get the fallen boxer to an ambulance.

Jones said, "People like (the promoter) Mickey Duff could feel it as he was carrying Johnny out. But what was he supposed to do? Drop the stretcher?"

Owen was taken to the California Hospital on Hope Street, Los Angeles to be operated on, but he fell into a coma from which he would never recover. He died 46 days later, on November 4, having never come around, aged 24-years-old.

Kelvin said, "If you look at it logically, it was an accident. Nobody goes into the ring to kill the other guy. You go to inflict harm, but not permanent harm. It was purely an accident.

"With John's skull, it could have happened any time. Jeff Pritchard, who sparred with him thousands of times, said, 'It could have been me'. If anything, I look on the bright side. It was a world title fight and it was a chance to achieve his dream. He died trying to achieve his dream and doing what he loved best."

Owen's death kick-started a furious debate in boxing and the wider media about the safety of the sport that was to lead eventually to compulsory brain scans. It passed by the Owens family, struggling to come to terms with their terrible loss. "It was very, very hard for them," said Broadbent. "I don't think Dick ever got over it (he would never train another boxer). It was decided that Johnny would fight two or three more fights after Pintor and then get out with his health intact. He agonised over whether he should have pulled out at some stage, even though Johnny would have hated him for it."

"Dick and Johnny were very close," said Jones. "Dick had trained him since he was an amateur. That's quite usual. If you look at the Calzaghes (Enzo, the father, trains Joe, the champion) for example, it's very much a family business. Invariably, 75-80% of boxers have parents who have been involved."

Johnny's mother Edith, who had always feared for the worst for her son and refused to watch him fight, flew out to Los Angeles following a local appeal to raise money for the air fare.

But Kelvin says the family never believed his father could have done more for Johnny. "He beat himself up for years but he shouldn't have. Hindsight's a wonderful thing but even with hindsight there was no reason to stop the fight when you consider that up to the ninth round, John was winning the fight. Harry Carpenter (the BBC's boxing commentator) had the fight at five rounds to two in Johnny's favour, with two drawn.

"He came back again in the 11th. He had absolutely no reason at all to doubt himself. He was still in the fight. You underestimated John at your peril. He had spent his life overcoming obstacles."

The funeral, said Jones, "was incredible. The streets were lined all the way up to Pant cemetery". Around 5,000 people attended, and there were flowers from Tom Jones and Henry Cooper, and messages from Muhammad Ali and the Prince of Wales. National press reports described it as a sad day for Wales and lamented on Merthyr Tydfil losing one of its finest sons.

And there the story might have ended, were it not for a meeting years later between Pintor and the Owens. Shortly after Johnny's funeral, the family had made their feelings known in a telegram to the Mexican, which said, "You are a great champion. You must carry on boxing in memory of Johnny". It galvanised Pintor to continue.

However, in 2001, Graham Walters, a great friend of Johnny's who had carried his skeleton flag into the ring before his fights, was talking with friends after a Joe Calzaghe fight when he came up with the idea of a statue for Johnny.

With Dick's blessing, an appeal swung into operation to raise the 35,000 to have it made. It was when names were being suggested for someone to unveil it that Dick came up with the idea of Pintor. The latter had continued, through highs and lows both in and out of the ring, as a pro boxer until 1995, and Dick decided to go out to Mexico to see him.

Kelvin said, "I think it was beneficial for both of them, for two reasons. The Mexican fans had behaved atrociously. My father for years said how despicable they all were. While he was in Mexico, Pintor took him to a boxing show. He didn't want to go, but afterwards he said how glad he was that he did. He was introduced to the crowd, and many of them said what a great warrior John was, and apologised for the way he had been treated at the time.

"I also think he found a certain peace. I know Pintor did. It was nice after all those years to meet up. Nobody blamed him for what happened, but I know he found some peace from it."

The statue was unveiled on November 2, 2002, to moving scenes with Dick and Pintor holding on to one another. That left one piece of unfinished business.

"My father always wanted a book. He said, 'Nobody's ever told John's story'," said Kelvin.

"I remember Johnny Owen as a fan, when I was around 12," said Broadbent, a sports journalist with The Times.

"He was one of those guys that leave an impression. I got in touch with Kelvin, then in touch with Dick. They were very keen to get something done. As well as a straight biography of Owen, I wanted to look at the aftermath, and what happened to Pintor." Tracking down Pintor, said Broadbent, "wasn't easy". Now a boxing trainer and happily married for a second time, once found he proved to be incredibly helpful and his insights contribute significantly to the book.

Broadbent doesn't believe there will ever be another boxer like Johnny Owen. "He was unique in a lot of ways. There have been better boxers, although Johnny was on the verge of being a world champion. But he was a pure spirit, of the kind we will probably never see again."

Jones remembers fondly Owen's demeanour.

"He called me at The Western Mail after a fight (when he took the title from Maguire), and I later discovered it was the first phone call he'd ever made," he smiled. "I think he was a working class hero. Whether he would have ever achieved Howard Winstone's pre-eminence, I don't know. Winstone achieved more in the ring, lived longer and did more with his time, but John would have made more of an impact on women - inasmuch as they would have wanted to have mothered him. Dick told me he had taken Johnny to a match once, and another trainer had come up to him and said, 'Great boxer, but I do get the urge to put a blanket round him, take him home and give him a bowl of broth'."

"I miss him every day, all of us do," says Kelvin. "I miss having him around to talk to, he was so good at that. For 20 years I couldn't even talk about it, what had happened. But, you know, everybody talks about John the man - he was also champion of half of the world, at a time when it mattered."

Perhaps the last word should be left to Dick Owens. He died in December last year, some 25 years after his fourth son, and just after laying to rest a quarter-century-old rift that had developed between him and Gardiner in the wake of Johnny's death. A tragedy for the Owens, it was sad also for Broadbent as it meant Dick was unable to see the book in which he had played such a major part. His thoughts, recorded shortly before his death and condensed here, form the last part of The Big If.

"Boxing helped make real men and good citizens out of young and, very often, tearaway youths. Time and again, I saw how boxing in this tough town turned out better human beings. It rarely failed.

"To get to the top a person has to be special. To become a champion, one has to have something extra. I only worked with one such champion in my time as a trainer, my son John. Mark my words, he was special. In this sport of boxing...you try to inflict harm on your opponent...and generally endanger his very right to exist. But mostly, after the contest, you love one another like long-lost brothers. This is a fighter's respect. Lupe told me that he had carried Johnny's spirit around with him in his heart for years and hoped that, after our meeting, he could lay it to rest.

"For a father to lose a son is the most difficult of events to accept, but I believe there is a truth here that we can take some comfort from. Perhaps it is better to depart reaching for the stars, doing what your life dictates, following the instincts of your heart, than to live to a hundred years and be forever miserable, disappointed and embittered."

theironbar
05-28-2006, 06:21 PM
Thank you for posting this Gor -- wonderful, affecting article...

GorDoom
05-28-2006, 08:11 PM
Your more than welcome, my friend. I knew our "Across the Pond" members wourld relate to it well.

GorDoom

GanchoIzquierdo
05-29-2006, 06:03 PM
I remember how Mr. Broadbent would post here to ask questions about Pintor. I'm glad he finished his book. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available in the states. I wonder how I can get a hold of a copy.

theironbar
05-29-2006, 07:07 PM
Hi Gaucho -- I went to Amazon UK and they've got it -- here's the link for you -- it looks like a great book:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1405052988/qid=1148943988/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl/203-0904970-1951948

GanchoIzquierdo
05-30-2006, 08:42 AM
Thanks. I'll look into it right away.

GorDoom
06-07-2006, 11:42 AM
Tragic fight of Johnny Owen comes to stage
from Wales.com

A play based on the infamous 1980 boxing match between the Welsh boxing phenomenon Johnny Owen and Mexican pugilist Lupe Pintor is soon to make its way to Wales Millennium Centre.

The centre will stage host the only UK performances of Fighting Words from 19-29 July. The play is a fictional work following the lives of three women in Merthyr Tydfil as Owen, known as the Matchstick Man, went to Los Angeles to fight for the World Bantamweight Championship.

WMC's Theatre Programmer Louise Miles-Crust says, "This is a powerful play about the secrets, dreams and desires of three women in Merthyr as they await the news of their hometown hero. This production, which also forms a part of the Cardiff City of Drama Festival, is a tragic but true story about the legend, Johnny Owen, who died in a coma 46 days after a fatal punch in this fight."

Directed by Tim Byron Owen and written by Sunil Kuruvilla, this Los Angeles cast follow the lives of unhappily married Nia, who yearns for a broadcasting career and was Johnny's confidant, her feisty younger sister Peg, who dreams of becoming a boxer herself and of marrying Johnny when he returns and Mrs. Davies, their sharp-tongued landlady and a local midwife who helped bring Johnny into the world.

As the women breathlessly await the fight result, they also make plans for their own uncertain futures.

Author Sunil Kuruvilla Kuruvilla is a Canadian playwright of East Indian descent.

Fighting Words had its world premiere at the Factory Theatre in Toronto in 2001, and its American Premiere at Yale Rep the following year.

Tickets are priced at £5 for the preview on Wednesday 19 July and £12 full and £10 concessions thereafter. The show will run at WMC from 19-29 July with all performances at 8pm. To book, contact the WMC ticket and information office on 08700 40 2000 or visit: www.wmc.org.uk

kikibalt
06-07-2006, 11:52 AM
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kikibalt
06-07-2006, 12:03 PM
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