SCARCE Johnny Owen: The Welsh "Matchstick Man" 1956 to 1980 who tragically lost his life in an LA ring challenging for Lupe Pintor's World title, commemorative Edwardian fine bone china plate. Made in England measuring 8 1/4" in diameter.
Johnny Owen (1956-80) was one of the purest sportsmen produced by any country, a man whose boxing talents belied his skeletal frame, but his life and career is forever overshadowed by its tragic end at the hands of Lupe Pintor.
The ‘Matchstick Man’s’ formidable work ethic was evident from the outset as he embarked on a successful amateur career from the age of eight.
Raised on a tough housing estate in Methyr Tydfil, Owen never fell foul of the distractions of many of his contemporaries, and running and boxing training were his life. Shy and quiet but with a wicked sense of humour, Owen famously never had a girlfriend.
When he turned professional in 1976 there was much clamour for his signature, the fighter and his father and co-trainer Dick Owens eventually deciding to work with Dai Gardiner at his New Tredegar gym.
Gardiner was no believer in easing a professional in and matched Owen (as a fighter he dropped the ‘s’ from his surname) hard from the start. The policy nearly came unstuck against Neil McLaughlin in the youngster’s second fight, an eight-round draw in Derry, Northern Ireland.
The Welshman’s perpetual-motion work-rate shocked the hardened professionals he came up against, though, earning him the epithet the ‘Bionic Bantamweight’.
“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.”
The Merthyr man quickly came to dominate the Welsh scene and moved rapidly up the domestic rankings before dethroning British bantamweight champion Paddy Maguire at the National Sporting Club in November, 1977 just his 10th fight.
He kept winning, including a memorable British defence against spirited fellow Welshman Wayne Evans at Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre.
Owen was back at the same venue a year later to challenge tough Australian Paul Ferreri for the vacant Commonwealth crown.
Many felt that former champion Ferreri would prove too much for the frail-looking youngster, but Owen’s non-stop pressure broke him towards the end and the Welshman claimed a superb points victory.
The European crown was the logical next step, Owen’s management agreeing to take him to Almeria to challenge champion Juan Francisco Rodriguez.
All of Spain seemed to be on Rodriguez’s side, with multiple accusations of gamesmanship from Owen’s camp in both the build-up and the fight itself.
The Welshman seemed oblivious to all the distractions and dirty tactics and totally dominated the fight, but at the end of the 15 rounds the hometown decision went to the champion.
The ‘loss’ was the first of Owen’s professional career and, to add insult to injury, the Spanish authorities withheld his purse, leaving him to return to Merthyr with, literally, nothing.
He was soon back to winning ways, though, and when a year later he got another chance to challenge Rodriguez for his European crown, it would be in Ebbw Vale. Owen was in the mood for revenge and dominated a 12-round contest to emerge as the new continental champion.
An impressive victory over John Feeney followed, the third defence of his British crown that secured the Lonsdale Belt for Owen. There was nothing left to prove on the domestic or European scene, and the World stage now beckoned.
The route to a World title chosen by his management team could not have been more difficult, though. Standing in his way was formidable WBC World champion Pintor, a stocky, powerful and vicious Mexican slugger who had dethroned the great Carlos Zarate.
What is more, the fight was to be held at the intimidating 10,000-seat Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, where the champion was guaranteed fervent Mexican support.
Some still argue that the title shot could have been secured in Wales and that Owen was given insufficient time to prepare in the heat of southern California, but few in Wales felt that the fight was a mismatch.
“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 appearance 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.
“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.”
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 LA’s 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.”
Johnny Owen - 7th January 1956 – 4th November 1980 - R.I.P
Johnny Owen (January 7, 1956 – November 4, 1980) 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 Bantamweight Championships of Great Britain and Europe and became the first ever Welsh holder of the Bantamweight Championship of the Commonwealth.
He challenged champion Lupe Pintor for his version of the World Bantamweight title in September 1980, losing a torturously difficult contest by way of twelfth round knockout. Owen never regained consciousness, fell into a coma and died seven weeks later. A statue commemorating his life and career was unveiled in Merthyr Tydfil in 2002.
Early Life & Career
Johnny Owen was born John Richard Owens, the fourth of a family of eight children to working class parents Dick and Edith Owens in Merthyr Tydfil on January 7, 1956. He began to box at the age of eight and enjoyed a lengthy amateur boxing career 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 running amidst 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 Bantamweight Championship 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 Ferreri to 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 Rodriguez of 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 Almeria amid 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 gamesmanship designed, 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 Vale and 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 Belt outright in the process. An impressive record behind him, his next outing would be to Los Angeles and an encounter with the reigning World Champion.
One Too Many
A Mexican slugger, 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. Following the knockout, Owen lay flat on his back for five minutes and he was then taken out. The promoters’ insurance paid about $94,000 in medical costs, but did not pay any death benefits to survivors.
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.
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, the statue was sculpted by James Done.