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25 OCTOBER 2014

 

Remember Johnny Owen




By Anthony Evans: Johnny Owen's legs were so skinny his knees resembled gold balls stuffed inside sausage skins, and his biceps were so slender they could barely be detected even in the traditional pre-fight poses.

Yet the thin lad from the valley council estate of Gelli-deg in Merthyr, Wales could summon aggression and power seemingly beyond the compass of his frail-looking body. An outright owner of the British championship in addition to being a holder of the Commonwealth and European crowns, Owen was perhaps most proud of his Welsh championship and the fact that he represented the Red Dragon as an amateur on 17 occasions (losing only twice).

His 8stone and 6lbs (118lbs) were spread over an impossibly elongated 5ft 8ins frame. Women used to look at the painfully young looking fighter and curse the men who were callous enough to allow a boy nicknamed the Matchstick Man and the Bionic Skeleton into the prize ring. But, despite his fragile appearance, John Richard Owen was a true fighting man.

At school, Owen did not excel in the class room nor the sports field: but he found a way to escape his shyness when, at age eight, he followed his father and grandfather and began his experiments with the sweet science.

An outstanding unpaid career yielded 106 victories from 124 contests before Owen set about becoming the first Welsh fighter to lift the British title in three generations.

From his very first pro contest, Owen was considered a potential world champion. On his paid debut on September 30, 1976 he beat countryman George Sutton, who was ranked at No.3 by the British Boxing Board of Control. Cutting a swath through the domestic rankings, Owen met and knocked out champion Paddy Maguire in only his ninth professional contest, becoming the first Welshman to claim a Lonsdale belt at any weight in 64 years.

The Commonwealth championship was annexed next, beating the highly rated Australian Paul Ferreri, 58-11, for the vacant crown over 15 thrilling rounds in November 1978. The Ring magazine reported enthusiastically on the young fighter's performance and his chances of winning the European title before challenging for world title honours.

Owen suffered his first setback in an absolute act of larceny in Almeria, Spain, when he was adjudged to have lost over 15 rounds against reigning champion Juan Francisco Rodriguez. The champion, a former world title challenger and Olympic medallist, was given a hometown decision and Owen was robbed of his third major title (plus around 3000 - which Spanish authorities deducted from his purse, citing an incident where a Spaniard has been allegedly short changed in the UK).

However, in the rematch a year later Owen had home advantage and pounded out a 12 round decision from the Spanish fighter to take the EBU title. A world title opportunity now beckoned.

As the Fates willed, it was Johnny Owen's last bout.

Fighting at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, Owen challenged Mexican Lupe Pintor for the WBC bantamweight championship.

Owen's workrate enabled him to take the first three rounds. Probably the fourth, too, but by then the champion's terrible power had begun to speak. Although he was not discouraged once, Owen was dropped in the ninth; tragically, the bell sounded during the follow-up attack and many reporters entered into their notepads that Owen had been saved by the bell.

An all-too familiar horror story unfolded from then on until, ultimately, Owen fell into unconsciousness in 12.

Highly respected ringside reporter Hugh McIlvanney wrote: The extreme depth of his own courage did as much as anything else to take him to the edge of death (in the ring). This calamitous experience could only have happened to an exceptionally brave fighter because Lupe Pintor... had landed enough brutal punches before the 12th and devastatingly conclusive round to break the nerve and resistance of an ordinary challenger. The young Welshman was, sadly, too extraordinary for his own good in the Olympic Auditorium.

After a brave, final fight for life, Johnny Owen later died from his injuries in a Los Angeles hospital.

Now, a generation after his death his family, friends and many admirers have decided to honour him with a statue in his hometown. A committee headed by fan Graham Walters has been formed to raise the 40,000 funds required.

Johnny's father Dick says: The whole family is delighted and moved by this marvellous gesture. Not a day has passed in the last twenty-one years when I have not shed a tear for my son.It has been a dream of mine to see a statue of John in Merthyr Tydfil, now I am hopeful that my dream can be realized.

Johnny Owen, the man as much as the tragedy, should not be forgotten.

Donations - made out to The Johnny Owen Memorial Fund - should be sent to
Mr. Fred Rees (Appeal Treasurer)
180 Tyntyla Road,
Llwynypia,
Rhondda,
Mid Glam,
CF40 2SP
Wales,
U.K.

He died fighting for Wales.



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