Statue of Owen in Merthyr Tydfil
|Real name||John Richard Owens|
|Nickname(s)||Merthyr Matchstick / The Matchstick Man|
|Height||5 ft 8 in (1.73 m)|
|Born||7 January 1956|
Merthyr Tydfil, Wales
|Died||4 November 1980 (aged 24)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Wins by KO||11|
John Richard Owens (7 January 1956 – 4 November 1980) was a professional boxer from Wales who fought under the name Johnny Owen. His fragile appearance 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 on 19 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 and 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 7 January 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.
Owen was a quiet, reserved, friendly character outside the ring. Inside the ring Owen was a formidable opponent with determination and strength in contrast to his frail looking body and possessed impressive stamina built by long hours running up the steep hills of the South Wales Valleys.
He finally turned professional in 1976, winning his debut match with a points victory over fellow Welshman George Sutton, in Pontypool, on 30 September; at the time, Sutton was ranked number three contender for the British title.
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 and was widely expected to be a difficult, if not insurmountable obstacle to the comparatively inexperienced Owen. Ferreri's shots were clean and hard and both men boxed well in a fight that went the full distance of fifteen rounds. Towards the end, the Australian began to wilt, his punches seeming to have little effect on Owen as he continued to pressure Ferreri. The judges saw the contest Owen's way and he was proclaimed Wales' first Bantamweight Champion of the Commonwealth.
Owen's victory allowed him to challenge for the division's European title, held by Juan Francisco Rodriguez of Spain. It was Owen's eighteenth contest and his first overseas and was seen as a controversial match. The fight took place in the champion's home-town in Almeria amid a series of 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. During the contest itself, the champion was stated to have elbowed and butted Owen throughout the contest, whilst his seconds were believed to have smeared his gloves with an agent for the purpose of obscuring his opponent's vision. Owen, who had appeared to dominate the contest, was to be the victim of a hometown decision and 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. Four months later and Owen successfully defended his British Championship for the third and final time, winning a Lonsdale Belt outright in the process. His next outing would be to Los Angeles and an encounter with the reigning World Champion.
Final bout and death
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 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 19 September 1980.
Despite the difference in the fighters' frames, Owen held 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 moved in the champion's direction and from the tenth round Pintor was in the ascendency. Misfortune came with twenty five seconds left in the twelfth. A final right sent Owen to the canvas, with Pintor retaining his title. Following the knockout, Owen lay flat on his back for five minutes and was then taken out. The promoters' insurance paid about $94,000 in medical costs, but did not pay any death benefits to survivors.
Owen, who it transpired had an unusually delicate skull, never regained consciousness and, despite extensive surgery, fell into a coma. He was pronounced dead on 4 November 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.
Historian Martin Johnes has argued that Owen was an "emblematic figure who represented both the ideals of Welsh working-class communities and their suffering and courage in the face of adversity and tragedy". Johnes's research demonstrates how Owen's story was told and retold, with its meaning and relevance shifting in the postindustrial environment of Merthyr and South Wales.
- Johnes, Martin (2011). "Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen". Sport in History. 31 (4): 443–463. doi:10.1080/17460263.2011.646832.
- Boxing: The Champions (Ken Jones & Chris Smith, The Crowood Press, 1990), pages 180–3.
- Welsh Warriors. A complete online source
- Johnny Owen: Champion of Half the World by Duncan Higgitt of the Western Mail
- This extract from The Big If, by Rick Broadbent, details the atmosphere before the Pintor fight:.
- For more on Owen's statue in Merthyr Tydfil
- Professional boxing record for Johnny Owen from BoxRec
- Martin Johnes, Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen’,Sport in History (2011) https://www.academia.edu/1800300/Stories_of_a_Post-industrial_Hero_The_Death_of_Johnny_Owen