For those who had never seen Johnny Owen perform, the impossibly thin and impossibly pale man who made his way to the ring in the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles did not appear to pose much threat. Given that his opponent was the hard-hitting, more robustly-built bantamweight world champion Lupe Pintor, the Welshman seemed especially outmatched. But Pintor vs Owen defied expectations. Indeed, few could have predicted the young Welshman’s astonishing toughness; fewer still could have foreseen the awful consequences of that toughness.
Brave Johnny Owen, after giving Pintor one of his most grueling battles, was knocked out in the twelfth round. He lapsed into a coma and some six weeks later, he died. He was only 24.
Hailing from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales, Owen was nicknamed “The Merthyr Matchstick” on account of his slender frame. After a stellar amateur career, he had captured the Welsh belt, followed by the British, Commonwealth and European titles. He had lost just once in 27 pro bouts, the victim of an egregious hometown decision against Juan Francisco Rodriguez in Almeria. After that fight, the Spanish authorities held back the Matchstick’s purse, meaning that he went home, quite literally, empty-handed. This struggle, against the disadvantages inherent to a man modest in both background and demeanour, was to mark his career. But the bottom line was that no one should have doubted his having earned the chance to challenge Pintor for a world title.
But Lupe Pintor hadn’t come up the easy way either. Hardened by a rough childhood in Mexico City, he had turned to boxing as a means to ward off the larger boys who bullied him. He ran away from an abusive father, settling on the streets and engaging in combat, both licensed and unlicensed, as he sought to escape poverty. Turning pro while still a teenager, he rose up the ranks before securing a title challenge against the legendary Carlos Zarate in June 1979. Pintor edged a controversial split decision, but the method of victory was irrelevant: he was now a world champion.
Fast forward fifteen months and Pintor vs Owen was the main event for an overflow crowd and while the title-holder may have been from Mexico, the dominant Hispanic contingent of the city treated him as if he were one of their own. By contrast, Johnny Owen and his team, including his father Dick, were jeered at and pelted with rubbish from the stands as they entered the venue.
But in the first few rounds, the slim Welshman shocked the crowd by bringing the fight to the heavy-handed Pintor, aggressively pursuing and out-working him. Given his advantages in height and reach, most expected him to try and out-box the Mexican, but instead Owen initiated a fast-paced slugfest. In the fifth, the gutsy challenger cut his opponent over both eyes, though he himself sustained a nasty gash on his lip, causing him to swallow a significant amount of his own blood.
Pintor came back in the sixth, throwing hooks and uppercuts with malicious intent, and while the indomitable Owen maintained his own high output, none of his blows carried the Mexican’s damaging power. The champion scored with heavy right hands in the early part of round seven, prompting joyful chants and firecrackers from the crowd, but Owen, undaunted, just kept coming forward and throwing leather. And in the eighth it was more of the same, toe-to-toe warfare, with Pintor landing the more telling shots, but Owen refusing to take a backward step.
Then, in the ninth, the beginning of the end. Seemingly leading on the scorecards at this point, Owen was now clearly slowing down and a vicious right hand put him on the canvas at the end of the round, the first knockdown of his professional career. His pride drove him to rise immediately, rather than take the count and give himself time to recover.
Having been saved by the bell, Owen fought on, insisting to the father who trained him that he couldn’t quit now that he was so close to winning a world title. Pintor proceeded to stalk the challenger, raining down hard right hands and targeting his badly-marked face. Owen was knocked down twice more in the twelfth, first by a straight right and then by a short right hook. That blow was the last action of the fight and may well be one of the most haunting punches ever caught on film. Watching it now, Owen crumples, almost in slow-motion, before reaching the canvas. One contemporary writer claimed that the Welshman fell like “a marionette that had had its strings cut.”
Both fighters were picked up after the final bell. The champion hoisted onto the shoulders of his team and paraded around the ring. The challenger was eventually lifted onto a stretcher, which had not been readily available, then carried out of the auditorium. As Owen’s entourage frantically rushed through enemy territory, some members of the frenzied crowd lobbed down debris. Several members of Owen’s team had their pockets picked and opportunistic thieves stole corner equipment and supplies, rendering a troubling scene even uglier.
Owen had two brain operations and spent a month and a half on life support before he passed away on November fourth, having contracted pneumonia in hospital. It was later discovered he had an abnormally fragile skull, an affliction which could only have exacerbated Pintor’s destructive blows. His funeral brought thousands of mourners, many of whom knew him, others who had only watched his brilliance from afar. Boxing reporters focused afterwards on Owen’s shy character as much as his pugilistic talent. For Hugh McIlvanney, it was a poignant irony that this “inaudible and almost invisible [man] … found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”
Pintor was left distraught by the fight’s outcome, only for the Owen family to encourage him to keep boxing. After all, they said, it could always have been the other way round. The Mexican champion went on to retain his title one month after his opponent’s death and competed until 1995.
A statue of Johnny Owen was erected in Merthyr Tydfil in 2002. It was unveiled by Lupe Pintor. — Rob Lownie