Few sporting deaths have hit the consciousness, and conscience, of the British public more than that in 1980 of Welsh boxer Johnny Owen. Thin, if wiry, the determined ‘Matchstick Man’ from Merthyr Tydfil was challenging for the world bantamweight title – his ultimate sporting dream. He was in Los Angeles fighting the reigning champion, Mexican Lupe Pintor. Owen never recovered after a 12th round knock-out.
Johnny Owen was one of a line of fine boxers from Merthyr Tydfil. Quiet, reserved, with a skeletal frame, he was a terrier in the ring – full of perpetual motion and a relentless determination. Commonwealth and European champion, Owen had won 25 of his 27 professional fights. He was ready in 1980 for the ultimate challenge, a WBC world title fight.
His thin frame always looked young and frail against the experienced Mexican. Yet, Owen was a fighter. The contest was level after eight rounds. Then Owen started to tire. A final thundering right sent him to the canvas towards the end of the 12th round. He lost consciousness and slipped into a coma. Seven weeks later, he was pronounced dead, aged 24. It transpired that he had an unusually delicate skull. The accident could have happened at any time.
Over 20 years later, in 2002, a distinctive statue was unveiled in his memory in a central shopping centre in Merthyr Tydfil. The frail form, the protruding ears, determination in the face, Lonsdale belt around his waist – it is a warm but haunting statue. The statue was unveiled by Johnny Owen’s father accompanied, movingly, by Lupe Pintor. The unveiling ceremony was concluded with a rousing rendition of the Welsh national anthem.