With the fight being held in Almería, Rodrígues’s hometown, there were shouts of hometown advantage, underhanded tactics and foul play. This began way before the fight, as Owen and his team were to share the same training facilities as Rodríguez in Almería, once Rodríguez had finished his sessions. However, what transpired was Owen and his team waiting hours for Rodríguez and his team to finish, eating into Owens training time.
Read Part 1
At the weigh-in, Owen was marginally over the required 54 kg weight limit, which he was able to remove after a makeshift training session of running up and down his hotel stairs. However, Rodríguez was also over the 54kg limit, but by a much larger margin, which he wouldn’t be able to remove by simply running up hotel stairs. Johnny Owen and his team headed back to the hotel with the outlook being that they would be returning to Britain. However, Owen and his team were later informed by his manager that the Spanish Boxing Officials had cleared Rodríguez to fight, which was incredibly reckless and dangerous.
Come Fight Night in Almería, Johnny Owen and his team really had been through the mill. The fight took place in the towns Bullring (plaza de toros), where Johnny Owen was taunted and booed by the capacity crowd when making his ring walk. His team were concerned by the local judges so much that they fixated on stopping Rodríguez and taking the decision away from the judges. The first round was uneventful, with both fighters settling into the fight and feeling each other out. Once the first round finished, Johnny Owen headed back to his corner and the first incident of foul play was heard. Johnny’s Father and trainer, Dick Owen, could smell wintergreen oil, a substance used and placed on fighters gloves to cause a burning sensation to their opponents eyes, ultimately making them blind. The referee ignored Dick Owens claims.
The fight continued to be a nasty encounter for Owen, with Rodríguez illegally using his head and elbows and even attempting to screw the thumb of his glove into Owens eye. However, this did not deter the Merthyr man, and he continued. In the 10th Round, Owen headed to the middle of the ring, where he watched Rodríguez sitting on his stool for several additional minutes in the corner, before finally getting up and taunting him and rallying the crowd!
Appallingly, the decision was given to Rodríguez over 12 rounds. Johnny Owen and his team returned to Wales empty handed and quite rightly furious. The Spanish Boxing Federation even withheld £1,200 of Owens purse, as revenge over a Spanish fighter being made an example of in Britain some years prior (which had absolutely nothing to do with Johnny Owen). The whole thing stunk. However, Johnny Owen would have his payback, and this time, on his home soil.
After returning from Almería, Johnny Owen fought a further six times in 1979, winning all of them (4 KO, 2 Points) and retaining his British & Commonwealth Titles in the process, fighting across England, Scotland & Wales. There would be one more fight for Owen in January 1980 before the much needed and anticipated rematch with Rodríguez. After beating Glyn Davies by KO in round 5, the stage was set for the second showdown with Rodríguez. And this time it would be held in the Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre in Wales. This was down to the fact that Rodríguez could not get any competitors willing to face him in his hometown, and who could blame them? This saw Rodríguez head over to Wales to defend his European Title once again (Rodríguez had been knocked out by Argentinian Modesto Gomez three fights prior).
The rematch was a much more professional affair, with sportsmanship actually taking place. Owen set the pace for the fight and pressed Rodríguez hard, hurting him after trapping him on the ropes in the sixth round. The 1,800 spectators roared Johnny Owen on to a points victory over 12 rounds, seeing their man become the rightful European Bantamweight Champion. The sky was now the limit for Johnny Owen, and this was the case as he was offered a lucrative opportunity to fight for the WBC World Bantamweight Title against the reigning champion, Lupe Pintor of Mexico. What would happen to Johnny Owen however, was truly heartbreaking.
After defending and retaining his British & Commonwealth Titles against John Feeney in June 1980, Johnny Owen signed to fight Lupe Pintor in what would sadly be Owens final fight. The fight would take place at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 19 September 1980.
The Grand Olympic Auditorium in L.A can hold 10,000 spectators. Come fight night, it is said this number was greatly exceeded. Situated in downtown L.A, the area was at the time referred to as Hispanic L.A. The crowd was predominantly made up of Mexican fight fans in support of Pintor. It was estimated that the travelling Welsh fans were outnumbered by ‘100 to 1’. It is also rumoured that Johnny Owen was told that ‘if you win the fight, make sure you catch the very first plane home’.
Lupe Pinto represented Mexico at 16 in Central & South America. Born in Mexico City into a neighborhood classed by Pintor as ‘La Colonia’, meaning the neighborhood had no jurisdiction and was incredibly impoverished. Almost a forgotten neighborhood. Pinto stated ‘sometimes, the big humiliate the small’. This was why he got into boxing, to defend himself from the big ones, and one day beat them up. Once he started earning a nice salary from boxing, this was his reasoning for continuing in the game, and why he continued to love the sport.
The stage was set. Johnny Owen would be fighting for the WBC World Title. The Merthyr Man would be reaching for the stars in a bid to become Wales next World Champion. In front of a packed and hostile Grand Olympic Arena, Johnny Owen made his final ring walk. The majority of American fight fans had never heard of Johnny Owen, let alone seen him fight, meaning he headed into the fight as a huge underdog.
As both men touched gloves, the bell was about to sound on a fight which would change both men’s lives forever, and also boxing. When the first bell rang, Johnny Owen was ferocious, embarrassing all the naysayers who had not heard of him, and also embarrassed Pintor, who had overlooked Owen massively. He was at times dominating the fight, and not allowing Pintor to fight his fight and do the things he would normally do. He was on his chest and ensured he didn’t allow him any breathing space. Realising Johnny Owen was a serious threat, Pintor went to war with the Merthyr Matchstick. Through rounds 1 – 6, observers had it very even, with some having Owen leading. Owen did receive a very deep cut to his lip in the fifth round which bled drastically, leading to him swallowing a lot of blood for the remainder of the fight.
Johnny Owen kept coming and coming and fought like a man possessed in that fight. Pintor was bloodied and cut in the fight, and there were real concerns from fans that Johnny Owen might just walk away with that WBC World Title. Pintor would really have to dig deep to save his title. And that is exactly what he did in the 9th Round, where he exploded a right hand onto Johnny Owens chin, which put Owen down for the first time in his professional career. That old saying; one punch can change a fight. Rounds 10 & 11 were tough for Owen, but he struggled through them. There were calls for the fight to be stopped at the end of the 11th round by the referee, which sadly did not happen. The 12th round would be the final round that the brave Johnny Owen ever fought.
The Merthyr Matchstick came out from his corner, determined. Bloodied and wounded, he would not let his pride be burned or his dreams be shattered. The brave Owen tried to push forward, but Pintor was just too strong. He was knocked down in the 12th, but wearily rose to his feet. With 25 seconds remaining, Pintor landed a strong right hand which connected incredibly cleanly with Owen. The punch knocked Owen to the floor and heartbreakingly, he would never get back up again.
When Owen crumpled to the floor, the referee, Marty Denkin, immediately called an end to the bout. Denkin stated that he saw Owens pupils roll to the back of his head. Owen suffered convulsions in the ring, with the shocking image of blood pouring from his mouth. The BBC deemed the scenes so disturbing that they cancelled the replay of the fights and edited the highlights. Owen was taken to California Hospital Medical Center where he lay in a coma for 46 long days and nights. Upon arrival, Doctors removed a blood clot from his brain after three hours in theatre. The hospital received over 100 calls and telegrams from well wishers and fans within 24 hours of the fight.
What transpired from the neurosurgeon treating Johnny Owen was that he had an incredibly delicate Skull, and a very strong jaw. Without going into too much detail, the punch which landed on Owens jaw had pushed up into his brain, causing devastating damage, which was irreparable. Owen then went through a second operation which was done to relieve pressure on his brain. Sadly, Owen the contracted Pneumonia which worsened his state. A third surgery was required, however Owen was still unconscious. Although it was believed the Merthyr Man was improving, he contracted pneumonia a second time, which devastatingly ended his life on November 4th, 1980. Johnny Owen was 24 years old.
Upon returning to Wales, the mourners came in their thousands. Johnny Owens coffin lay in a public area in the Merthy Parish Church, where thousands of visitors came to pay their respects for the brave young boxer. He was buried in Pant Cemetery on November 11th, with thousands of floral tributes being sent, including from Muhammad Ali and Sir Tom Jones. The Merthyr Express read ‘They came in their thousands. They braved the rain and chilling winds. Silent and patient, they awaited their turn to pay their respects to a fallen hero of the town of Tydfil the Martyr. They were the mourners who extended beyond the family, beyond the sporting world, beyond the town itself who were moved to grieve over the death of a brave young boxer’.
It is said that Merthyr Tydfil closed on the day of his funeral. Shops, factories and workplaces shut down for the day. This was the great effect that the death of one of their own had on the town. They were all mourning. Owen was praised for his sportsmanship, having never been seen to throw a foul punch or any form of underhanded or illegal tactics. His great determination was not that of only winning, but how he represented a society and his people. He was an incredibly humble and kind man, with quiet and reserved tendencies who just loved the sport of boxing. If he saw an opponent slip, he would allow him to get back up. If you beat him fair and square, he would be the first to shake your hand. He wasn’t one for the glitz and glamour, but the feeling of belonging and portraying the sport in a positive light.
The legacy of Johnny Owen lived on, and continues to do so. A year after his death, a pub in Merthyr changed their name to the The Matchstick Man. The following year, a plaque was placed at the Prince Charles Hospital in Owens memory, with the Johnny Award Courage and Carers Award presented every year. He had a community center named after him in Merthyr and in 2002 a statue was unveiled of Owen in the town center of Merthyr, unveiled by his Father Dick Owen & Lupe Pintor, who had travelled over from Mexico to be there. After the death of Owen, Pintor contemplated quitting the sport after the feeling of such guilt. Owens family and the people of Merthyr persuaded him to continue, and to fight as an honorable World Champion.
Johnny Owen remains a heroic figure in the South Wales Valleys, and rightly so. His story should live on in the world of boxing to display how humbleness, love of the sport and sheer determination can lead you the highest of heights, and to also display the excruciating lows that the sport can bring.
Rest easy, Johnny Owen. Your story shall live on.