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Johnny Owen by Jeff Murphy

Release date: 10th January, 2005
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing

List Price: £7.99
Our Price: £6.39
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Johnny Owen
By Jeff Murphy
Mainstream Publishing price: £6.39

Perhaps the hallmark of the truly great sportsmen is the way in which they make their chosen calling look easy.

Walk around any golf course in the land on a Sunday morning, for example, and you will invariably see big, burly men putting all of their energy into trying to smash the living daylights out of a golf ball, assisted by a driver with a head roughly the size of a small football. Conversely, if you watch a professional golfer swing effortlessly through the ball in a perfect arc, you will see how a Titleist can career 300 yards in a straight line. It makes you sick, but timing is the key.

Certain footballers - Peter Lorimer and Bobby Charlton are perhaps the two best examples - were blessed with the same gift when it came to striking a football, although in the boxing ring, there have been few fighters who, pound-for-pound, could extinguish an opponent as readily as the slightly-built Johnny Owen.

It was the Welshman's timing that made him a sporting genius, for when you looked at him, he gave the impression that were a decent gust of wind to come along, it would knock him down. Yet his ungainly, almost skeletal appearance, replete with sticky-out ears - he was nicknamed 'the Matchstick Man' - belied an inner courage almost beyond belief.

Owen and his seven siblings were born and raised in a three-bedroom council house in Merthyr Tydfil. Without the necessary physique to play rugby, Owen concentrated on boxing, however ill-suited he may have first appeared, and rose quickly through the bantamweight ranks to become British, Commonwealth and European champion.

Watching him in the ring was a remarkable experience. As he jogged and bounced in his corner before a fight, he appeared to have spindly, muscle-free arms, he looked under-nourished and his legs were far too thin, but he had the heart of a lion and the gift of impeccable timing. By 1980, he was the leading contender to take on Lupe Pintor, a an extremely tough Mexican then in possession of the world crown.

Few foreign observers gave Owen a chance when he arrived in Los Angeles for the world title fight. The doubters had not previously seen him in action, but were duly amazed at the Welshman's stamina, courage and tenacity as he stood toe-to-toe with the Mexican champion. By the twelfth round, however, Owen was clearly fatigued whereas Pintor had found a second wind. The fight ended when the Mexican floored the challenger; Owen's life ended 46 days later. He never recovered from the coma Pintor's vicious punishment had invoked.

Apart from reliving this poignant tale, Jeff Murphy has taken the story further and recounts the reunion of Owen's father (and trainer that fateful night in September 1980) with Lupe Pintor in Mexico. Even reading Murphy's account brings a lump to the throat, so it's no surprise to learn that as the two men shook hands in 2002, there were tears on both sides.

Mr Owen senior never returned to the boxing ring following his son's death and Lupe too, despite retaining his world crown, was severely affected; he now trains young, hopeful fighters in his native land, no doubt on the look-out for one who possesses that instinctive timing that was the principal feature of Johnny Owen's ring craft. He can count himself lucky if he ever sees it again.

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