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Page last updated at 06:28 GMT, Friday, 17 September 2010 07:28 UK

Pain of Johnny Owen's death 'still real' 30 years on

Dai Gardiner and Colin Jones pay tribute to Johnny Owen

Johnny Owen's trainer Dai Gardiner says he still carries the pain of Owen's death with him every day.

The Bargoed man, 69, talks on Friday's Sport Wales programme, marking the 30-year date of 'The Matchstick Man's' final, fatal fight against Lupe Pintor.

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

Also paying tribute to Owen is friend and sparring partner Colin Jones.

"We came up through the ranks together, Johnny was a little bit before me," the three-time world welterweight challenger told the Sport Wales show.

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

"There was always a buzz when we went to the shows and Johnny was on the bill.

"He was such a likeable character, no-one had a bad word to say about him in or out of boxing.

"People found it tremendously interesting to watch him box because of his tremendous inner strength. People were aware he was going places from a very early age.

"He looked so thin but the core strength that he had was phenomenal. I can vouch for that first hand from sparring with Johnny, he would stand and trade with the best of them."

Owen, aged 24, had earned his shot at Pintor's WBC bantamweight title with 25 wins from 26 professional fights, but faced easily his most formidable challenge in the bear-pit that was Los Angeles' Olympic Auditorium on 19 September, 1980.

1978 highlights: Johnny Owen v Wayne Evans and Paul Ferreri

"It doesn't seem like 30 years but I carry it with me all the time," said Gardiner, who still coaches youngsters at Gelligaer Amateur Boxing Club.

"He trained very hard [in America], he was very confident, everything went fine.

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

I finished with the sport for nearly two years but I had to come back

Dai Gardiner

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.

Lupe Pintor
Pintor was a formidable champion who had dethroned Carlos Zarate

"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.

"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."

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

Colin Jones
Colin Jones was Johnny Owen's friend and often sparred with him

"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'.

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 finished with the sport for nearly two years but I had to come back," said Gardiner.

"Boxing is with me and I love it. I had to come back to see if I was good enough to train a world champion and, thankfully, I was [with Steve Robinson and Robbie Regan]."

*See the full tribute to Johnny Owen on Sport Wales, BBC Two Wales, Friday, 17 September, 1930-2000 BST

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



see also
Johnny Owen: 30 years on
03 Nov 10 |  Boxing
Sport Wales: The TV Programme
15 Mar 11 |  Wales
Classic Sport Wales
26 Jul 10 |  Wales
Follow Sport Wales' tweets
04 Mar 10 |  Wales
Wales' pugilist princes
15 May 09 |  Boxing
10. Johnny Owen
08 Apr 02 |  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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