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Johnny Owen: 30 years after the Matchstick Man's death

2002: Johnny Owen's father, Dick Owens, makes his peace with Lupe Pintor

By Sean Davies

The 4 November marks the 30-year anniversary of Johnny Owen's passing.

The story of the 'Matchstick Man' is dominated by its tragic end as the frail-looking Welshman was beaten into a coma in a Los Angeles ring by Mexico's Lupe Pintor on 19 September, 1980.

But Owen was no defenceless boy.

The Merthyr man had earned his shot at the WBC bantamweight title with 25 wins from 26 professional fights, his only defeat a highly controversial points loss to Juan Francisco Rodriguez in Spain that he later avenged in Wales.

He had been boxing since he was 10-years old and, despite his appearance, Owen had a remarkable work-rate and could trade with the best in the division.

1978 highlights: Johnny Owen v Wayne Evans and Paul Ferreri

"He looked so thin but the core strength that he had was phenomenal," said three-time world welterweight title challenger Colin Jones.

"I can vouch for that first hand from sparring with Johnny, he would stand and trade with the best of them."

Owen's perpetual motion work-rate had won him the British, Commonwealth and European titles, taking the painfully shy, hugely popular 24-year-old from headline shows at Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre to LA's intimidating 10,000-seat Olympic Auditorium.

"He trained very hard [in America], he was very confident, everything went fine," said trainer Dai Gardiner on the 30-year anniversary of the fight.

"He had won British, European and Commonwealth titles - he was ready for a world shot."

Controversy still surrounds the decision to take Owen to a venue where he would face not just the formidable Pintor, but the full fury of the Mexican's fervent Latin American support.

Johnny Owen
Johnny Owen is a legend in his home town of Merthyr Tydfil

Some still argue that the title shot could have been secured in Wales and that he was given insufficient time to prepare in the heat of southern California, but Owen had trained as mercilessly as ever and eagerly awaited his shot at glory.

"There was a real buzz around Wales before the fight," said Jones. "Johnny was always fantastically fit and Dai Gardiner knew how to get the best out of him."

Taking no heed of the ridiculing of his skeletal frame from the US media, Owen stunned the home crowd with a thrilling start, and bewildered Pintor with his tireless, peppering punching.

"There were a lot of Mexicans in the auditorium, they gave us problems, it was jam-packed there," said Gardiner. "But Johnny was very professional, took it in his stride and started very well."

In the fifth round he threw 148 shots and had already cut the man known as 'Guadalupe' over both eyes.

But Pintor's bull-like strength was evident, and, although he had landed few punches, the Mexican had opened a cut in his opponent's mouth that left Owen swallowing large amounts of blood.

"Up to the eighth round everything was going really well, the American promoters were getting worried," said Gardiner.

"Johnny looked so frail, they hadn't even thought he could fight."

By the seventh, distance began to open up between the boxers, leaving Owen more exposed to his opponent's long, dangerous shots.

He was caught in the ninth, but it was a snap knock down and he was quickly back into the fray.

"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.

Johnny probably shouldn't have fought me because his style was more like an Olympic boxer

Lupe Pintor

"He was bleeding very badly from his lip from the fourth round, but we didn't think there was any trouble. I couldn't have stopped the fight because it was going so well."

By the 12th Owen's punch resistance was gone and he was dropped by a fierce, straight right.

He bravely got back to his feet, but collapsed horrifically from a huge right uppercut - and never recovered consciousness.

"The 10th and 11th went very well, then the disaster struck in the 12th," said Gardiner. "I knew it was bad straight away, he just crumbled."

Despite the problems he had faced in the fight, Pintor would later say: "Johnny probably shouldn't have fought me because his style was more like an Olympic boxer.

"He was scoring points, not with hard shots, but they were fast and there were lots of them.

"For him to have someone in front of him who was capable of hitting him with hard shots over 15 rounds in a world championship bout, that was going to tell.

"Keeping up that rhythm - that endless rhythm - was going to wear him down in the later rounds."

2010: Dai Gardiner and Colin Jones pay tribute to Johnny Owen

Owen was stretchered out through a rabid auditorium, the Welsh entourage having urine thrown at them and their pockets picked as they left the ring.

"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.

Jones added: "Any Welsh sporting fan can remember where he was that sad night.

"I was having a meal out and can remember seeing it on television - I can honestly say it was one of the saddest days of my life."

Owen was taken to California Hospital, the Merthyr Express organising a campaign that quickly raised the funds to send his mother Edith to join his father Dick at his bedside.

He underwent an operation to remove a blood clot from his brain.

Hopes fluctuated over a harrowing two months, before pneumonia finally claimed the life of the much-loved 'Matchstick Man' on 4 November.

It was later found that he had an unusually fragile skull and thick jaw, meaning that the fatal blow could have come at any time in his career.

"I carry Johnny in my heart all the time, I always think of that fight," said Gardiner. "Every year around the time of the anniversary I go up to his grave."

see also
Pain of Owen's death 'still real'
17 Sep 10 |  Boxing
10. Johnny Owen
08 Apr 02 |  Boxing
Wales' pugilist princes
15 May 09 |  Boxing
Wales' greatest US fight nights
25 Mar 08 |  Boxing
Boxing legend Owen's father dies
17 Dec 05 |  Wales
Crowds remember boxing legend
02 Nov 02 |  Wales
Wales' boxing history in photos
24 May 09 |  Boxing
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales

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