Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen

First published as: Martin Johnes (2011) Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen, Sport in History, 31:4, 444-463, DOI: 10.1080/17460263.2011.646832

Boxing has a history of attracting the interest of intellectuals and serious writers. The likes of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway have been fascinated not just by boxing’s brutality but also by its symbolic power. It is easy to see in the sport’s drama and struggle metaphors for wider life. Joyce Carol Oates’s seminal On Boxing claimed that to ‘write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization – what it is, or should be, to be “human”’. For Oates, boxing’s moments of ‘greatest intensity’ seem ‘to contain so complete and so powerful an image of life – life’s beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage – that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game’.1

Perhaps at no time was that symbolism stronger than in 1980 when a skinny Welsh boxer died after being knocked out in an American ring. Johnny Owen’s death brought home the realities of boxing; the sport had cost a likeable, modest young man his life. A biography of Owen noted that boxing ‘is really life whittled away to an ugly, simple truth’.2 But, like life, there was no simple truth. Boxing has a moral ambiguity which makes constructing it into anything simple far from straightforward. That did not mean people did not try, but there were always multiple stories to be told: stories about dignity, fate, luck, values, history and communities.

I

Johnny Owen was born in 1956 in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in the South Wales valleys, a town built on iron and coal with a proud boxing history. It had also been home to Eddie Thomas and Howard Winstone, two boxers who reached the sport’s highest levels in the 1950s and 1960s. Like these fighters, Owen came from a solid working-class background. A shy and quiet boy, he began boxing aged eight and gradually became known as a determined and untiring fighter. After leaving school he worked in a nuts and bolts factory and continued to do so after turning professional in 1976. This gave him a steady income but still allowed him to train, and he developed a reputation for a phenomenal stamina. His commitment to training paid off when he won the Welsh bantamweight championship in 1977. By 1980 he was European champion. His income grew as he rose through the ranks and he was able to buy his own grocery store, which prospered thanks to his personal popularity.3 Yet he still lived on a Merthyr council estate with his parents and younger brothers and sisters. Nor was he motivated by greed. He hoped to have made £100,000 by the time he retired. This would have given him a comfortable future but it was hardly staggering wealth by sport’s highest standards. At the start of 1980 Owen listed his seven goals in his diary: a successful business, a house or houses, plots of land, a pub, a holiday, enough money to retire between 27 and 29, and good luck.4

Owen’s rise had not been straightforward. Nicknamed the ‘matchstick man’, his skinny build meant he had to face the assumptions of others that he was too weak to fight. Even as a schoolboy he had lacked visible muscles; one of his trainers compared him to a sparrow, noting there was ‘more meat in a crisp’.5 When Owen was a fully grown man, his manager was harassed by boxing fans and others for letting him fight.6 Dai Gardiner recalled:

“When people bought a ticket for Johnny’s fight, they’d say, ‘I want one for my wife, one for my daughter and one for my mother-in-law’. Everybody wanted to nurse him. I took some terrible abuse off women telling me I shouldn’t let him box. It got very bad. They said I was starving him.”7

More seriously, in 1975 a doctor expressed doubts about Owen’s health to box because he looked so frail. But, after seeing him fight, the doctor admitted that looks could deceive.8 As The Times‘s boxing correspondent put it, he was the ‘matchstick man with fire in his fists’.9

Owen’s chance of a world title came in 1980 when the Mexican Lupe Pintor agreed to a voluntary defence of his bantamweight title in Los Angeles. The Welshman went into the fight ranked number four in the world, with a professional record of 25 wins, one defeat and one draw, but Pintor had a reputation for being a very powerful puncher. In its pre-fight hype, Boxing News concluded that Owen was genuinely ‘world-class’ and that his stamina meant he could upset the odds against the ‘experienced and sometimes dangerous’ Pintor. But it also acknowledged that the fight would be close and Owen would have to survive the first eight rounds to win.10 Bookmakers had Owen as 6–1 and Pintor as 2–1 but the American press gave him no chance. This was down to his appearance rather than his record. The LA Times remarked he had ‘the skinniest limbs this side of an ostrich farm’. Another Los Angeles paper called him the ‘world’s biggest pipe-cleaner – with ears’.11

It was a hostile atmosphere in Los Angeles’ Olympic Auditorium on the night of the fight. Beer and urine were thrown at Owen’s supporters during the warm-up bouts. One fan recalls that the atmosphere was ‘poisonous’ by the time the main attraction began.12 Owen fought well, crowding Pintor and preventing him from throwing his hooks. But he did not really hurt the Mexican, despite the exchanges being ‘hard and uncompromising’.13 A reporter described these rounds as ‘like something out of one of those old Boys’ Own adventure yarns: brave British sportsman hushes screaming horde by getting stuck in against tough-looking foreigner. Owen was giving as good as he was getting, not hitting with the same authority as Pintor but throwing a lot more punches.’14 In the eighth round Pintor appeared to be now on top but going into the ninth the Boxing News reporter still had the fight level.15 The BBC’s Harry Carpenter had Owen winning.16 However, the ninth round saw Owen put down for the first time in his career. He was back on his feet after a count of three but he was dazed and after that the fight slipped away from him. Owen was still hitting Pintor but he was now taking far more of the damage and he went down again in the 12th. Perhaps the fight should then have been stopped but both fighters were cut and it was not all one way. Stopping fights early was a common source of criticism for referees and most preferred to let world-title bouts continue for as long as both fighters seemed capable of defending themselves. Owen had got back up and assumed a fighting stance. Afterwards, the referee recalled that ‘it was a little like a police officer examining a drunk driver when I looked at Owen, but he said to me “I’m alright, sir, I can carry on” and I let him’.17 

Four punches later Owen was knocked down again and this time he went down, not as if he was on the end of hard punch but more like every ounce of energy and strength had been drained right out of him. Boxing News compared to it to someone being shot.18 The referee claimed that Owen was unconscious before he hit the canvas: ‘His pupils were turned up. That’s why I went over and took the mouthpiece out and didn’t bother to count.’19 The fight had been scheduled to be shown afterwards on the BBC but the broadcaster took the decision to only air brief extracts because of how disturbing it was.20

What happened after the fight illustrated the brutal realities of boxing. The Sunday Express noted that while the doctor treated Owen in the ring, ‘his body went into spasmodic contractions. Blood was spewing from his mouth, and his eyes were fixed in a glaze.’21 Pintor’s supporters meanwhile were, according to Ring Magazine, turning into ‘a lynch mob’.22 They threw beer and other objects into the ring. Owen’s cornermen were shoved and pushed and one had his wallet stolen while he was seeing to Owen. A drink was poured over Owen’s unconscious body and the crowd jeered and clapped when he was removed from the ring.23 Owen never regained consciousness and 46 days later he died in a Los Angeles hospital.

II

In the national and international press the story was overshadowed by Ronald Reagan’s victory in the US presidential election, but it was still newsworthy. In Merthyr it was more than that; in Owen’s home town there was genuine grief. Curtains were closed and people huddled in small groups to talk about Owen. A ‘weepy woman’ told the Daily Mirror: ‘He was a lovely boy, so very shy. He was the hero of all local children.’24 The Merthyr Express reported: ‘Johnny’s dead. Those are the words which have been murmured sadly around Merthyr since Tuesday morning, and indeed, will be murmured sadly for a long time to come.’ It noted how he had remained a ‘modest but caring person who won over the people, young and old’ and printed a page of photographs of his community work headlined ‘Johnny the good citizen’.25 Such images dominated people’s thinking and the media coverage. The Mayor of Merthyr noted: ‘He was a gentle person and a gentleman – completely the opposite to the sport he participated in.’ A former mayor of the town claimed ‘People who didn’t like boxing liked Johnny Owen – the townspeople liked him for his personality and character and because he was an outstanding example of the sort of young man we would like to be associated with our community.’26 Moreover, Owen himself was attached to that community and his country. Much was made of his innocence and his commitment to his friends, community and Wales. One paper claimed that ‘Even when parading his talents in England, let alone abroad, he wanted to return home as quickly as possible’.27 Tales were told of celebrations of his victories in a local pub near his training headquarters: ‘There was no champagne, no caviar, no high-living in his hours of glory. For his family and friends it was a pint, pasty and black pudding. For Johnny it was orange juice and a slice of his favourite gateau.’28 Pictures were reprinted of him celebrating becoming European champion with a cup of tea with his mother. None of this was made up or romanticized. It was how Owen was. He really did consider using Sion Rhisart Owain as his boxing name.29 He really did want to go to Disneyland, he had never had a proper girlfriend and he did enjoy cream cakes.30

Owen’s patriotism, modesty, work ethic and ordinariness outside the ring were all qualities that people identified with and his personality added to the sense of tragedy. It was not some hardened thug who had died but a likeable, polite young man. He did not even look like a boxer. It was thus easy for people in Merthyr to see his death as the loss of one of their own. Yet the death of such a man was seen to matter far beyond Merthyr. As an editorial in the South Wales Echo put it, Merthyr, South Wales and the boxing world were all in mourning for this ‘man of great dedication and courage who captured the affection of all who met him because of his quiet modesty …. Johnny Owen was a credit to his family, to his town, and to Wales.’31 Even the Secretary of State for Wales sent a telegram saying ‘All Wales is saddened to hear of Johnny Owen’s death’.32 In the USA too there was a sense that someone unusual had been lost. The referee told the New York Times that when Owen had gone down in the ninth round he had asked him, ‘“John, how do you feel?” In the British tradition, he said, “Yes, sir, I’m OK.” He never lost his politeness, his gentleness.’33

Owen’s funeral was a very public affair. It was held on 11 November, ‘a day on which fallen heroes are remembered’, as his local paper noted. Schools, shops, factories and banks closed and 10,000 people – ‘Mothers and babies, disabled, pensioners, schoolchildren, nurses, garage mechanics, council workmen, brickies, [and] factory workers’ – were said to have turned out to watch the cortège of 160 cars. Many men were in black ties and people remarked it was as if a family member had died. The Merthyr Express reported: “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.”34 One bystander told the paper ‘he was one of us’.35 The coffin was draped in a Welsh flag and the ceremony finished at the graveside with the singing of the Welsh national anthem and Cwm Rhondda, a traditional Welsh hymn much loved by sporting crowds.36

Such a community affair was an echo of the funerals that followed pit disasters and the parallels between Owen and the town’s industrial history were not lost on onlookers. The Times‘s description of the funeral noted how men in the congregation bore the scars of mining, the harsh life that had made many ‘turn to their fists as a passport out of the valley, or a way of finding a better life in it’.37 The Daily Mirror spoke of Owen’s background in a ‘poor hard working family’.38 The Western Mail called him ‘the latest hero of a town scarred by bitter memories’.39 Insiders saw it too. The minister’s address proclaimed: ‘We know about sorrows and suffering in these valleys. We know about it from the depths of a Rhondda pit to the tip above Aberfan.’40

Tragedy and suffering was an image of the Valleys that people there believed in. It was, after all, something very real. The 1966 Aberfan disaster, where, just four miles from Merthyr, a coal tip collapsed, killing 116 children (including a friend of Johnny Owen) and 28 adults, had shocked the world.41 The innumerable underground mining accidents may not have garnered so much attention but they were just as tragic for those involved.42 The scarred industrial landscape was a constant reminder of the price paid for industrial development and its continued presence after pits closed added to a sense that here was a place that had been used and then abandoned as the wider world moved on. Such ideas dated back to the depression of the 1930s, which in 1980 was still in living memory, and had been perpetuated by Welsh writers, broadcasters and politicians. At the 1966 general election, a Labour address claimed: ‘We Merthyr people, with our memories of broken homes and broken hearts of those terrible days, do find it difficult to forgive the arrogance of those ignorant and pompous creatures who merely visit us to hope that they might fool us to vote for them.’43

Within this difficult history people found pride too. Inequalities had not just been accepted; they had been fought against. From nineteenth-century uprisings to twentieth-century trade unions and Labour politics, Merthyr itself had been at the vanguard of a class struggle. This dated back to 1831, when workers had taken control of the town and raised the red flag for the first time in British history.44 Troops were sent to quell the rebellion and they killed around 24 members of the public in the process. The memory of that event was strong and embodied in Richard Lewis, an innocent miner who was hanged after being wrongly accused of wounding a soldier and who became something of a working-class martyr. In such incidents of fighting enduring injustice Merthyr could take pride in its history.45

For many, it was certainly preferable to the present that they saw around them. At Owen’s funeral the minister had proclaimed that ‘Johnny was a man whose body was as clean as his mind. Let not Merthyr forget his example. He was no unwashed hippie with a syringe in his pocket.’46 Those comments were an example of the popular concerns about young people, not least their drug-taking and violence. In a novel about 1977 Merthyr, one character remarks of the town centre: ‘It’s the bloody Wild West, innit? All them kids out to make a reputation for themselves. It’s got worse too.’ Elsewhere the novel notes: ‘Used to be that if you stayed away from certain pubs, you never had to worry. The fighters knew where to go if they wanted to fight, and decent people stayed in their own pubs. Now, you can’t feel safe even in your own home.’47 A 1980 report on unemployment in south Wales, published in New Society while Owen lay in coma, painted a bleak picture of people despairing at the future. In Merthyr the journalist found angry young unemployed men who detested the clichés of ‘how-green-was-my-valley Max Boyce Welshness’ but liked magic mushrooms and English punk music.48 Owen may have been a similar age to these young men but on the surface he had little in common with them.

Such scenes had their roots in the slow decline of heavy industry that had been going on since the 1950s. Although there were developments in manufacturing, economic growth in south Wales had been focussed along the coast and at the bottom of the Valleys. As a result, the more remote industrial communities increasingly felt isolated and ignored. Studies in the Rhondda at the start of the 1970s found an anomic population that felt a lack of leadership, a nostalgia for the past and a sense of not belonging and anti-authoritarianism. Absenteeism was high, as were occurrences of psychosomatic illness.49 Delegates at a 1973 conference about the future of the Valleys reported that people there felt deeply stigmatized and apathetic. They listed the problems of their communities: “Vandalism, industrial closures, unemployment, poor housing, bad urban planning, large estates with no sense of belonging, withdrawal of locally based essential services, having to travel to register complaints, remote central government, decision-making away from the people, lack of civic pride, pollution, run-down of social amenities.”50 In 1974, Mid Glamorgan County Council’s education director wrote bluntly to the Secretary of State for Wales: ‘The Valleys are dying.’51

By 1980 industrial Wales was in the worst recession since the inter-war years. The coal industry was in its death throes, steel was shedding jobs by the thousand and manufacturing firms were closing on what seemed to be a daily basis. Moreover, the election of Thatcher’s Tories in 1979 meant that fighting unemployment was not even the government’s primary economic priority any more. The jobs that were being created often went to women and the gender balance of the workforce was changing. Underneath the Western Mail‘s reports of Owen’s funeral was an advert for a Youth Opportunities Programme. It claimed: ‘There couldn’t be a worse time for unemployed teenagers. Especially if they have no qualifications or experience. It’s like taking a leap off a trapeze.’52 Earlier in 1980 the Daily Mirror had claimed that among the old in Welsh industrial communities there were tearful fears and memories of the 1930s; among the young was talk of ‘anarchy, civil disobedience, a general strike, [and] violence’.53

In such bewildering times, Owen’s death was a story that could be, subconsciously at least, a metaphor for the community he came from. It was a story that people could tell about themselves. Owen may have lost his life but he never lost his dignity and the respect of others. He may have lost the fight but he gave one hell of a performance. He never forgot where he came from and who he was. Yet some saw a degree of hypocrisy in this celebration of Owen, the patriotic hero who represented his town to the wider world. A character in a play set in Merthyr on the day of Owen’s funeral and first performed in that town in 1983 notes:

You used to say, look at that skinny kid. He got no chance. Nice boy, wears a bobble hat, nice boy, nice boy. He don’t stand a chance, he’s only a valleys’ boy. You give him nothing Luigi. Look at him now. Great hero this, fat hero that, yeah. When he’s dead! Typical of this town. Looking for heroes when they die! You got no guts to believe in them. Not when they were trying, when they had the energy, man!54

III

The wider Merthyr public may not have always celebrated Owen while he was alive but the boxing community in the town had. Despite his appearance, Owen was an excellent boxer and boxing was a man’s game. In a climate of shifting gender roles and fewer traditional manly jobs this mattered. By 1980 boxing was even enjoying something of a renaissance after a long period of slow decline after the Second World War. That decline was rooted in the simple fact that getting hit was not a good way to earn a living unless you were very confident you could win. Getting hit was even less fun if you were not being paid for it. Thus, when affluence came to working-class communities in the 1950s and 1960s, amateur and professional boxing went into decline. When it left again in the 1970s and 1980s boxing was on the up and boxing clubs reported increased numbers.

Owen’s death was not going to change that. Billy Vivian, one of his friends and a pall bearer at the funeral, fought three days after his friend died. He recalled: ‘It wasn’t hard to go on because I wasn’t working at the time and I needed the money to pay for Christmas. Calling it off never entered my mind. My wife didn’t say anything. We were upset, because Johnny and I had been much more than sparring partners, we’d been great friends, but you need to make a living.’55

But it was not always much of a living. Although the World Boxing Council had claimed that Owen’s life was insured for $50,000, the policy was actually limited to $25,000 and that would only be paid if there was anything left after medical expenses had been dealt with. Those expenses came to $94,000, so his parents got nothing from the WBC’s insurance. There was a public appeal for the family which raised £128,000, a testimony to the popularity of Owen. His family chose to donate the money to a local hospital and community projects.56 There was also separate insurance with the British Boxing Board of Control, which paid out £30,000, and Owen left, at least according to press reports, £45,189.57 Nonetheless, his father was only too aware of how little professional fighters often actually took home. After expenses and managerial and promotional cuts had been deducted, his son had got a pre-tax sum of £6,974.42 for a fight that cost him his life.58

In the aftermath of the fight, boxing faced significant public criticism. A Labour MP, for example, called for punching to the head to be outlawed in the sport.59 One critic even suggested that Owen’s record had simply not been good enough for the boxing authorities to have let him fight Pintor.60 At first, the behaviour of the LA crowd allowed some attention to be deflected away from whether boxing was to blame. Ray Clarke, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC) secretary, claimed that the fans were ‘animals’ who had not come to see boxing but to see ‘someone beaten up’.61 He did not want any British fighter to appear there again. Boxing News concluded: ‘The mindless, stomach-churning behaviour of the Mexican crowd will stand as a sickening memory of one of boxing’s blackest hours’.62 But the British sport could not play that card for too long because on 27 September there was something resembling a riot at a world title bout at Wembley Arena, with bottles, cans and racist abuse being thrown at the ring. As Boxing News concluded, no longer could people condemn the Mexican crowd: ‘We have animals of our own to match anything they can produce’.63 Some reassurance for the sport did come from an article published in the British Medical Journal in the week of Owen’s final fight. It was a study of serious head injuries caused by sport and admitted to the neurosurgical unit at Glasgow over the period 1974 to 1978. There were 52 incidents and just two were the result of boxing. In contrast, the most injuries (14) came from golf.64

Yet it was difficult for boxing not to reflect on whether something had gone wrong in the sport itself. Boxing News, despite talking up Owen’s chances before the fight, afterwards reflected: ‘Owen, looking like a frail, sickly child against the swarthy, muscular champion was certainly thrown into the lion’s den.’65 Some boxing fans called for changes such as better medical training for referees and a stop to fights after two knockdowns.66 After Owen died the situation became even more uncomfortable. There were limited acknowledgements within the sport that improvements could be made.67 Boxing News now concluded it would be ‘wrong and hypocritical to look for explanations and excuses for his death. There are none, only the cold fact that boxing is a dangerous activity which sometimes causes the death of a participant.’ Nonetheless, it went on to point out that the match had been fair and that there was nothing in Owen’s record to suggest he was at risk.68 Similarly, a sports journalist in The Sun argued that there was ‘no-one and nothing to blame’. Like a boxing writer in the Merthyr Express, he maintained that people would always risk their lives in sport. The Merthyr writer even suggested that it would be a ‘colourless, duller old world’ if they did not.69

The chairman of the BBBoC asked people to remember that Owen had died doing something he loved.70 But critics of the sport were not going to buy that argument. A Western Mail editorial, which itself called for protective headgear to be allowed, noted of the ongoing debates had while Owen was in coma: ‘Brutal, bloody, demeaning, nauseating, obscene – no adjective is too strong for boxing’s critics.’71 A Daily Express sports writer feared that unemployment might tempt ‘too many good young brains and bodies and eyes’ into ‘this unsavoury sport that makes millions for too many people who risk nothing but a few bob’. He hoped the fierce Methodism of Wales would rise ‘to make sure that we shall no longer see boxing masquerade under its banner of legalised assault and battery’.72 A physician’s letter to The Times spoke for many when it asked ‘How many more fit young men have to join the litany of the dead and grievously injured before this obscene “sport” is outlawed?’73 As public debate intensified, a private member’s bill was introduced at the House of Lords in 1981 to ban the sport and in 1982 the British Medical Association conference narrowly voted to campaign for boxing’s abolition.74 A Guardian editorial commented that ‘boxing belongs to the same historical dustbin as cockfighting’.75

The calls for bans never got anywhere. They were simply not realistic in a liberal democracy, especially when most accepted that a ban would just drive the sport underground, where it would be even less regulated. In later years, Owen’s father claimed that you could not stop people boxing. He noted that boxing had given his son his identity and it turned tearaway youths into better human beings and citizens. He did not blame the sport for what had happened; instead he saw life as uncertain and sometimes tragic.76 Eddie Thomas, then a boxing manager in Merthyr, had played no part in Owen’s career but recalled that after the death: ‘I had to ask myself whether boxing is worth the candle. But boxing is in me as it was in Johnny. That isn’t easy to explain because there is more to it than money or fame, or even the knowledge that people who follow boxing are living out a part of their lives through you. There is something mysterious deep inside that keeps leading you back to the ring.’77

Part of that mystery was how boxing gave men who would otherwise have had ordinary or problematic lives something meaningful and self-affirming. The acclaimed boxing journalist Hugh McIlvanney said of Owen: ‘His personality was a small cloud of reticence until he entered the ambience of boxing, in a gym or an arena. Once there, he was transformed from a 24-year-old virgin whose utterances tended to come in muffled monosyllables into a confident, skilled practitioner of a rough but exciting trade.’78 This was far from unusual. Wacquant’s ethnographic work on the sport argued that the ritualistic and routined life of a boxer invited those who led it ‘to discover himself, better yet to produce himself. And membership in the gym stands as the tangible sign of acceptance in a virile fraternity that allows the boxer to tear himself away from the anonymity of the mass and thereby attract the admiration and approval of the local society.’79 This may sound rather grand and noble but it is essentially what boxing does for the individual. In this light, campaigns for the banning of boxing were never going to succeed. By 1987, there were 600 professional boxers in the UK, more than double the figure for 1974.80

IV

Owen was not forgotten after his death. In 1981 a pub opened in Merthyr named The Matchstick Man. A year later, a memorial plaque was unveiled at Merthyr’s hospital which had benefited from £100,000 from Owen’s appeal fund.81 In the 1990s a film script was written, although it was never made, and his belts were put on display in a Merthyr musuem.82 The tragedy of his story grew to some extent with constant retellings. By the twenty-first century one of his early trainers was calling Owen’s death ‘a tragedy for mankind’.83 Some were speculating he might be Wales’s best ever boxer.84 His story was also being told more often. Biographies of him were published in 2005 and 2006 and both brought renewed media attention. In July 2006 a play about Owen was performed at the Wales Millennium Centre. That year the South Wales Echo called him ‘one of South Wales’ finest sons’.85 The spark for some of this new interest came in 2002 when the BBC broadcast a poignant television documentary about Owen’s father’s trip to Mexico to meet Pintor and Pintor’s subsequent return visit to unveil a statue of Owen in Merthyr town centre.86 Paid for by a public appeal, it was Merthyr’s third statue of a boxer and it added to the depictions of Eddie Thomas and Howard Winstone that had been unveiled in 2000 and 2001.

Owen had joined the legend of how something about the Valleys’ history produced not just boxers but world-class boxers. This legend was nothing new. In 1961 Eddie Thomas had claimed that boxers in his small Dowlais amateur gym had the sport in their blood due to mixed marriages between strong Welsh and Irish people. The ‘instinct to box and fight’, was he felt, passed down through the generations.87 This might sound nonsensical but people saw evidence that something special was going on. A 1973 short story claimed: ‘No less than three world champions of the world had been born within a radius of six miles of where they sat. In a pub down the road, there were signed photographs of all three, Tom Thomas, Freddy Welsh, Jimmy Wilde. And hadn’t they all fought their way over the tips and out of the pit in the first instance? It was a local tradition with which they had all grown up. Weren’t they, after all, rather special people?’88

Journalists and local history projects talked of boxing being embedded in Merthyr’s psyche and made connections between the popularity of boxing in Merthyr and the town’s hard industrial past.89 Owen added to that tale. Owen’s biographies drew on the idea that somehow boxing was innate to Merthyr. One claimed that Owen had ‘the steel of Welsh industrial valleys coursing through his veins’ and that the fatal punch knocked out the dreams of his followers of getting out of Merthyr’s ‘slow-death poverty’. It noted the history of struggle for better social and working conditions and political rights, concluding that Merthyr was ‘born out of fight’. Thus, the writer thought, ‘Fighting, in one guise or another, is in the blood of everyone born in Merthyr Tydfil. It has to be. It’s locked up in the genes, part of the evolutionary process of belonging to this great town. The Owens family go back a long way in Merthyr. They were a family of fighters and survivors. They still are. It’s in their blood.’90

Broadbent’s biography was far less sentimental but he too claimed that ‘this was Merthyr and trouble ran through it like a rip tide. From the mining accidents to the street fights, it was a ragged old place, snagged on its bloody past and in constant danger of coming apart at the seams.’ Elsewhere he proclaimed: ‘These were mean streets for tough people. There was the misery of the mines, of Aberfan, of a lack of choice and dwindling optimism.’91

Such beliefs and traditions may have pre-dated Owen’s death but the deepening effects of post-industrialization intensified their purpose in the decades after he died. At the opening of Owen’s statue, a local minister explicitly spoke of the town needing the ‘disciplines of the ring, the dedication and drive that gave Owen heroic status to counter the scourges of modern culture’.92 There was much talk across the Valleys of a loss of hope, community pride and social breakdown. Crime and drugs were seen as widespread problems and communities were perceived to be caught in a downward spiral. Too often the closure of mines had meant the closure of other amenities such as shops, pubs, taxi services and libraries too, a process exacerbated by the wider trend towards out-of-town retail parks. The town centres that were left behind were often tired and tatty, overloaded with charity shops and fast food joints, and with boarded-up chapels and working-men’s clubs to remind people of better times. By 2001, 30% of the population of Merthyr had some form of limiting long-term illness. Life expectancy there was five years less than the healthiest county in Wales. There was nothing new in any of this – in the mid 1960s mortality rates in the Glamorgan valleys had been nearly 30% higher than the England and Wales average – but the fact that people had to live with the consequences of industrial work long after they stopped being paid for it added to many people’s sense of anger at what was happening.93

Yet there was still a feeling that the Valleys were somehow different and special. For all the economic and social worries that existed, in 2003 one Merthyr resident claimed that as a polite, well brought up man, Owen epitomized the town.94 By the turn of the twenty-first century, a large Valleys survey suggested that 85% of respondents felt that there was an acceptable, good or excellent level of community where they lived, and nearly 60% said this made the Valleys different from the rest of Wales. A closer reading of the survey, however, suggests that what people thought represented a good community was probably very different from their grandparents. Only 54% of respondents said they had at least weekly contact with neighbours and almost half of people over 41 did not feel safe in their neighbourhood after dark.95 As two academics claimed in a commentary on the Valleys, ‘over-romanticised notions of community’ were sometimes obscuring ‘the unpalatable facts of everyday life’.96

There are echoes in the celebrations of Owen of the way the history of the Valleys is presented at heritage sites. The emphasis, often rather nostalgic in tone, is on the strength of community and the injustices endured by people within those communities at the hands of external capitalist forces.97 Heritage sites across Britain have thus been much criticized for promoting myths and selective views of the past.98 In a Welsh context there has also been much criticism that they keep Wales rooted in the past, fascinated by where it has come from but unfocused on where it is going.99 Even in 1980 New Society had claimed that history was south Wales’s biggest growth industry. Yet some were well of aware of the sentimentality of such community histories. In 1980, a New Society reporter was told in Glyncorrwg, where the last pit shut in 1966, that Valleys life was a fallacy: ‘Biggest bloody fallacy going. Biggest bloody bastards going, they are. Cut your throat as soon as look as you.’100

Remembering the past and celebrating its heroes might well have been a selective process but it did give these post-industrial communities a sense of identity and in the absence of a strong economic base that was not to be sneered at. Moreover, there is more than a grain of truth running through the nostalgic picture of tough, suffering and politically-marginalized communities painted by heritage sites and believed in by many within the Valleys themselves. Furthermore, across the world, difficult economic and social conditions did nurture boxers; Pintor, Owen’s last opponent, himself grew up in the poverty of Mexico City. Boxing was not something many people blessed with economic choices chose to do.101 It did, and does, require bravery, courage and discipline. In that sense there was much in it to respect. For all the associated romanticism, boxing was evidence that some people did find strength in adversity.

V

Owen was no different to the pre-Second World War boxers of south Wales that Dai Smith has seen as ‘emblematic’ figures, tied to their communities by ‘umbilical cords’, revered for being slightly outside the realms of socially-acceptable behaviour.102 Like Tommy Farr of the Rhondda before him, Owen had become more emblematic of his community because he lost a world-title fight. He showed courage, fortitude and an unwavering loyalty to home but he had been beaten by forces beyond his control. Pintor’s fists had beaten Owen in the way that capitalism had beaten Merthyr; neither was to blame and neither had tried to deny who they were. It might be easy to label that story as selective or nostalgic but it is a perfectly plausible tale and it was one that people in industrial Wales told and believed.

Stories matter. They are more than just entertainment. They are how we make sense of the world and our own lives. But they can also be told in different ways. This is clear in Owen’s case. It might be constructed as the archetypal boxing story of a boy from a tough town who fought his way to the top. It might be, as one biographer claimed, the story of a lucky and successful man who got to follow his dreams and a ‘true path in life’, doing what he really loved.103 Or it might be the case, as his other biographer noted, that

When the novelty of his physique is removed, Johnny Owen could be seen as just another boxer who died for his sport. He was not an Ali or Chavez or a Wilde. He was just another naked boxer, another statistic on the files. Yet he was much more too. Though he never became rich through his popularity or was fêted globally for his skills, he was a reminder that the sport could wear a dignified, respectable face.104

Or, alternatively, Owen could just be used to demonstrate the futility and danger of boxing. But, however the tale is told, Owen is emblematic, another in a long history of boxers that represented, consciously and subconsciously, in life and in death, something more than a mere sport.

Yet it is perhaps easy to read too much symbolism into such emblematic figures. Historians have tended to concentrate on the representation rather than reception of heroes.105 Outside south Wales there must have been many people who did not know or notice that Owen died or those who simply thought how sad and then got on with their lives, forgetting all about him. In Wales the more prominent media coverage made ignorance less likely, but not everyone can have followed the dominant heroic stories told about Owen and, by extension, about his community and communities like it. Some people in his home town must have seen Owen’s death in a different light. Indeed, a plurality of reactions to Owen is likely because traditional working-class communities such as Merthyr were fragmenting as their occupational structures diversified in the post-industrial economy and leisure and family life became more privatized. Demonstrating this plurality is difficult. Historians tend to assume media texts were read by their audiences in the way that their authors intended. The media certainly set an agenda, but people were free to interpret it or ignore it in their own way.106 There must surely have been some residents of Merthyr who saw the public celebration of Owen as an uncomfortable sign of how the town was rooted in the past. Today, there must be many who walk past his statue who have little idea who he was. Yet, as Owen’s death itself became more distant, it was probably easier for people to accept the idea of him of an emblem of Merthyr because both he and the Merthyr he signified were no longer. Celebrating him had become about the past rather than the present. And for those who do remember, whether first hand or through hearing and reading his story, Owen remains a heroic figure.

Notes

1. Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing (London: Bloomsbury, 1997 edn), i, 18.

2. Rick Broadbent, The Big If: The Life and Death of Johnny Owen (London: Macmillan, 2006), 4.

3. Western Mail, 26 June 1980.

4. Broadbent, Big If, 223, 184.

5. Quoted in Broadbent, Big If, 61.

6. Jeff Murphy, Johnny Owen (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2005), 116.

7. Broadbent, Big If, 132.

8. Broadbent, Big If, 79–80.

9. The Times, 28 February 1980.

10. Boxing News, 19 September 1980. Welsh boxing reporters were cautious too. The South Wales Echo (6 September 1980) noted that beyond Owen’s stamina it was Pintor who held most of the aces. Even Howard Winstone tipped Pintor to win: South Wales Echo, 17 September 1980.

11. Quoted in South Wales Echo, 18, 19 September 1980.

12. Desmond Barry, ‘Boxing through the shadows: Howard Winstone, Eddie Thomas and Johnny Owen’, in Wales and its Boxers: The Fighting Tradition, eds. Peter Stead and Gareth Williams (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008), 149–61, quotation from 156.

13. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

14. Boxing News, 3 October 1980.

15. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

16. Broadbent, Big If, 264.

17. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

18. Boxing News

19. New York Times, 21 September 1980.

20. Merthyr Express, 25 September 1980.

21. Sunday Express, 21 September 1980.

22. Ring Magazine report reproduced at http://www.johnnyowen.com/Rpts/owen/world_title.html

23. South Wales Echo, 20 September 1980; Merthyr Express, 2 October 1980.

24. Daily Mirror, 5 November 1980.

25. Merthyr Express, 6 November 1980.

26. South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980. For similar stories from the fight’s immediate aftermath see Merthyr Express, 25 September 1980.

27. South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980. Cf. Merthyr Express, 6 November 1980.

28. South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980.

29. Broadbent, The Big If, 119.

30. Western Mail, 5 November 1980.

31. Editorial in South Wales Echo, 4 November 1980.

32. Western Mail, 5 November 1980.

33. New York Times, 5 November 1980.

34. Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

35. Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

36. South Wales Echo, 12 November 1980; Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

37. The Times, 12 November 1980.

38. Daily Mirror, 5 November 1980.

39. Western Mail, 12 November 1980.

40. Merthyr Express, 13 November 1980.

41. Iain McLean and Martin Johnes, Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Cardiff: Welsh Academic Press, 2000).

42. Between 1945 and 1974 1,819 workers were killed in colliery accidents in the south Wales coalfield: Digest of Welsh Historical Statistics, available at http://wales.gov.uk/cisd/publications/statspubs/digest1700to1974/ch5.xls?lang=en table 5.11.

43. Quoted in Robert Griffiths, S.O. Davies: A Socialist Faith (Llandysul: Gomer, 1983), 256.

44. Gwyn A. Williams, The Merthyr Rising (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1988).

45. See the reports of the 150th anniversary march in Merthyr Express, 11 June 1981.

46. Western Mail, 12 November 1980. Although the minister later wrote to the local paper to say how proud he had been of the town given the respect shown and orderliness of the crowds at the funeral. Merthyr Express, 27 November 1980.

47. Desmond Barry, A Bloody Good Friday (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002), 95, 145.

48. Ian Walker, ‘The Only Thing that South Wales Manufactures Now is History’, New Society, 20 November 1980, 359–63.

49. D. Reynolds, ‘Planning a Future for Rhondda’s people’, in Rhondda: Past and Future, ed. K.S. Hopkins (Rhondda: Rhondda Borough Council, 1974), 258–9.

50. Call to the Valleys Conference, Aberfan, March 1973, in The Valleys Call, eds. Paul H. Ballard and Erastus Jones (Ferndale: Ron Jones, 1975), 43, 41.

51. In Hopkins, Rhondda, 269. For a full exploration of Wales in this period see Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012).

52. Western Mail, 12 November 1980.

53. Daily Mirror, 14 March 1980.

54. Bull, Rock and Nut. In Alan Osborne, The Merthyr Trilogy (Cardiff: Parthian, 1998), 46.

55. Broadbent, Big If, 287.

56. Johnny Owen Appeal Fund, Statement of Income and Expenditure, 22 September 1980 to 9 November 1981 (Merthyr Tydfil Public Library); Merthyr Express, 21 May 1981.

57. Merthyr Express, 21 May 1981; The Times, 4 March 1981.

58. Broadbent, Big If, 321.

59. The Times, 22 September 1980.

60. Denis Leharne, ‘Boxing’s Self-perpetuating Oligarchy’, New Statesman, 3 October 1980, 10–11.

61. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

62. Boxing News

63. Boxing News, 3 October 1980.

64. Kenneth W. Lindsay, Greig McLatchie and Bryan Jennett, ‘Serious Head Injuries in Sport’, British Medical Journal 281 (20 September 1980), 789–91.

65. Boxing News, 26 September 1980.

66. Letter, Boxing News, 17 October 1980.

67. See, for example, the discussion in Boxing News, 14 December 1980. In contrast, see the defences of the sport made in The Guardian, 5 November 1980.

68. Boxing News, 7 November 1980.

69. The Sun, 22 September 1980; Merthyr Express, 25 September 1980.

70. Boxing News, 14 November 1980.

71. Western Mail, 12 November 1980.

72. Daily Express, 5 November 1980.

73. The Times, 11 November 1980.

74. The Times, 27 November 1981; HL Deb 26 November 1981, vol. 425 cc875–94; British Medical Association, The Boxing Debate (1993), 1. For contemporary medical coverage of Owen’s death see The Lancet, 6 December 1980. For overviews of the medical profession’s view of boxing see K.G. Sheard, ‘“Brutal and Degrading”: The Medical Profession and Boxing, 1838–1984’, International Journal of the History of Sport 15, no. 3 (1998), 74–102, and John Welshman, ‘On the Ropes: Boxing and the Medical Establishment in Britain, 1920–90’, in Loisirs & Societe Britannique au XXe Siecle, ed. S. Kadi (Valenciennes: Presses Universitaires de Valenciennes, 2003), 77–90.

75. Quoted in Welshman, ‘On the Ropes’, 87. For further debate see a report headed ‘Making Money out of Brain Damage’, The Times, 1 March 1982.

76. Broadbent, Big If, 330; The Independent, 27 February 1995. Murphy, Johnny, 97–8.

77. The Independent, 28 November 1995.

78. Hugh McIlvanney, McIlvanney on Boxing (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1997), 17.

79. Loïc Wacquant, Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 15.

80. Stan Shipley, ‘Boxing’, in Sport in Britain: A Social History, ed. Tony Mason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 96.

81. South Wales Echo, 20 March 1982.

82. Merthyr Express, 4 November 1993; Western Mail, 26 September 1994.

83. Broadbent, Big If, 209.

84. Murphy, Johnny, 19.

85. South Wales Echo, 27 May 2006.

86. Johnny Owen: The Long Journey, BBC Wales TV documentary, first broadcast 29 December 2002; Merthyr Express, 8 November 2002.

87. Western Mail, 1 March 1961.

88. Alun Richards, ‘Dai Canvas’, in Dai Country (London: Michael Joseph, 1973), 65.

89. For example, The Independent, 28 November 1995, 4 November 2002. Also see a National Lottery-funded community history project on boxing in Merthyr, available at http://www.ironmenofmerthyr.org and Peter Rogers and Carolyn Jacob, Boxers and Boxing in the Merthyr Tydfil Valley (Merthyr: Merthyr Tydfil Public Libraries, 1997).

90. Murphy, Johnny, 14, 39, 53–4, 57.

91. Broadbent, Big If, 29, 34.

92. The Independent, 4 November 2002.

93. Mid Glamorgan County Council, Mid Glamorgan: Issues for the 1990s (1992), para. 3.13; Gareth. Rees and Teresa L. Rees, eds., Poverty and Social Inequality in Wales (London: Croom Helm, 1980); 2001 census profiles.

94. Murphy, Johnny, 41.

95. D. Adamson and S. Jones, ‘Continuity and Change in the Valleys: Residents’ Perceptions in 1995 and 2001’, Contemporary Wales 16 (2003), 1–23.

96. Kevin Morgan and Adam Price, Rebuilding our Communities: A New Agenda for the Valleys (Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 1992), 30.

97. For a discussion of this with reference to the Rhondda Heritage Park see Bella Dicks, Heritage, Place and Community (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000).

98. For example, David Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Robert Hewison, Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline (London: Methuen, 1987).

99. For a critique of Welsh heritage see Geraint J. Jenkins, Getting Yesterday Right: Interpreting the Heritage of Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1992).

100. Walker, ‘The Only Thing that South Wales Manufactures Now is History’.

101. For a discussion of boxing and the ‘ghetto’ see John Sugden, Boxing and Society: An International Analysis (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006).

102. Dai Smith, ‘Focal Heroes: A Welsh Fighting Class’, in Sport and the Working Class in Modern Britain, ed. Richard Holt (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990). The idea of sports heroes as emblems or symbols of their community and its values has dominated recent academic writing on sports stars. For example, Richard Holt, J.A. Mangan and Pierre Lanfranchi, eds., European Heroes: Myth, Identity, Sport (London: Frank Cass, 1996); H.F. Moorhouse, ‘Shooting Stars: Footballers and Working-Class Culture in Twentieth-Century Scotland’, in Holt, Sport and the Working Class; and Martin Johnes, ‘Fred Keenor: A Welsh Soccer Hero’, The Sports Historian 18, no. 1 (1998), 105–19.

103. Murphy, Johnny, 19, 12.

104. Broadbent, Big If, 303.

105. Max Jones, ‘What Should Historians Do With Heroes? Reflections on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain’, History Compass 5, no. 2 (2007), 439–54, 448.

106. For a discussion of audience reception in a sports history context see Martin Johnes, ‘Texts, Audiences and Postmodernism: The Novel as Source in Sport History’, Journal of Sport History 34 (2007), 121–33.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

One thought on “Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen”

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