“It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.” 

Those were the words the revered sports writer Hugh McIlvanney wrote in The Observer in September 1980 as Johnny Owen lay in a coma in a Los Angeles hospital. 

Johnny, only 24, had mastered communicating with his fists which led him to the “grubby” Olympic Auditorium, in Los Angeles, where he challenged the experienced, and favoured, Mexican boxer Lupe Pintor for the WBC world bantamweight title.

The Scotsman described the highly charged atmosphere as “of a Guadalajara cockfight, multiplied a hundred times.” 

In the closing seconds of the twelfth of 15 scheduled rounds Pintor landed the final brutal blow that knocked Johnny out – sending him unconscious to the canvas. It was indeed a tragedy. Johnny would remain in the coma for seven weeks before he died on November 4 having never regained consciousness. 

The concern and anguish at Johnny’s position was perhaps the greater as, even among boxing’s lightweight divisions, the Merthyr Tydfil fighter’s physical appearance looked out of place. His super thin, near skeletal frame, earned him the nickname the Merthyr Matchstick or the Matchstick Man. 

The National Wales: Johnny OwenJohnny Owen

But that shouldn’t distract from his knowledge of the noble art, his craft in the ring and the fitness and work ethic that propelled him from aspiring amateur to Welsh, British Commonwealth and European bantamweight champion as a professional. 

READ MORE: Memorial for Black Welsh boxer unveiled and call for apology

It was the contrast with the shy, humble character outside of the ring which led McIlvanney to remark how stepping between the ropes transformed this awkward looking, and in some ways socially awkward, “almost invisible personality” to someone who performed with unshakable confidence. 

“He was a really excellent boxer. He lived for the game, he never dated a girl in his life, never drank, he’d say all that could happen after he retired and that damn thing happened,” his trainer and manager Dai Gardiner, in Johnny’s corner that intense, fateful evening, recalled this week when contacted by The National

The National Wales: Dai Gardiner, left, with boxer Robbie Regan Picture: Huw Evans AgencyDai Gardiner, left, with boxer Robbie Regan Picture: Huw Evans Agency

“When he passed away it was devastating,” said Dai who is now 81 and who believes he is the oldest professional boxing trainer still active in Britain. 

“Retire? I probably should,” answered Dai, speaking shortly before heading on his nightly visit to his gym in Gelligaer. 

In 1980 however Dai, who lives in Cefn Hengoed, did step away from the fight game for two years, distraught at the fate of his would be world champion. 

“After Johnny I didn’t train for two years but then opened a new gym,” said Dai who would never return to his former base in New Tredegar where he and Johnny had planned, and worked towards, world domination. 

In Johnny’s hometown he is remembered with a statue, as are Merthyr’s former world-featherweight champion Howard Winstone and his mentor, the champion boxer, Eddie Thomas. 

Johnny stands, fists raised just below his shoulders, left foot slightly forward, at the entrance to a shopping centre. 

Poignantly  the sculpture was unveiled 19 years ago, on a windy and rain-swept November 2, 2002, by Johnny’s father Dick, then 76, and the man who had landed that fatal blow, Lupe Pintor with the scenes captured in a memorable BBC Wales documentary. 

READ MORE: Dic Evans: The watchman of the Ynys Mon coastline

But 41 years on from the boxer’s death – a tragedy which helped change the sport – Dai’s hope is that people will remember Johnny as more than a tragic figure from one of the darkest nights of, not only Welsh but, world sport. 

The National Wales: Parents Dick and Edith at Johnny's grave in Merthyr the Welsh inscription describes him as 'a true son of Wales' and in English states 'He fought the good fight with all his might' and lists his boxing titles Picture: Huw Evans AgencyParents Dick and Edith at Johnny's grave in Merthyr the Welsh inscription describes him as 'a true son of Wales' and in English states 'He fought the good fight with all his might' and lists his boxing titles Picture: Huw Evans Agency

“He was a very excellent boxer. To look at him, in the gym, you’d think the wind would blow him down but he was so strong and he’d spar with boys up to middleweight and he’d have no problem, he’d handle them with ease. 

“He was so strong and a really good runner, he’d do eight miles a day, and never missed a day’s training. 

“He was also a good, nice boy I don’t think he had a bad bone in his body and he would help anyone and he showed that with what he did for his family. He was such a meek and mild boy, what a damn shame, only 24.” 

Their partnership had been formed while Johnny was still an amateur, and just out of his teens, as he eyed a professional career guided by Dai and assisted by his own father Dick who was also in his corner during his fights, including the final bout. 

With the money he’d gained Johnny, the fourth of eight children, who after turning professional in 1976 continued to work in a nuts and bolts factory, bought a greengrocers which his family ran, and still lived with Dick and mam Edith on a Merthyr council estate. 

The National Wales: Edith Owen at home with a portrait of Johnny Picture: Huw Evans AgencyEdith Owen at home with a portrait of Johnny Picture: Huw Evans Agency

He had hoped a world title fight and a few successful defences would earn him £100,000, which was enough to retire. According to Rick Broadbent’s 2006 book, The Big If: The Life and Death of Johnny Owen after expenses, managerial and promotional cuts that final fight, which had cost Johnny everything, had earned the fighter just £6,974.42 before tax. 

Though the boxing authorities spoke of insurance policies they didn’t cover the £94,000 medical expenses. Merthyr would however.  

A public appeal raised £128,000 – and typical of the generosity Johnny was known for – his family donated the excess to the local hospital. The town rallied around again in 2002 to fundraise towards the £40,000 cost of the statue. 

While many thought Johnny’s slender frame had disguised his strength there was also a hidden danger, unknown to anyone until his death - he had been born with an abnormally thin skull. 

The brain scans which all boxers are now required to undergo to gain their licences would have detected what Dick later called “a chink in Johnny’s armour”,  but there were fewer precautions 40 years ago. 

As well as Johnny’s death the early 80s saw South Korean Deuk-Koo Kim and Mexico's Kiko Bejines lose their lives after world title fights and bouts were reduced from 15 rounds to 12. 

Perhaps unbelievably by today’s standards, or even common sense, there was no ambulance at the auditorium and an emergency call to the LA Fire Department paramedics had to be made. At the fight’s conclusion the ring side doctor called for oxygen but even that had to be fetched from a storage area rather than being on hand ringside. 

“When we carried Johnny out, on a stretcher, the fans were chucking beer over us and whatever they had in their hands,” recalled Dai of a grim night that ended in chaos and continued, unnecessary hostility. 

READ MORE: ‘All doors open’ for Olympic champ Lauren

While it is now clear Johnny, despite his talent, shouldn’t have been a fighter, Dai recalls, with pride the spirit and determination that characterised his career. 

Sadly it was that will power which saw Johnny carry on even after he’d been knocked down, for the first time in his professional career, in the ninth round. 

“Pintor was a really tough fighter but Johnny handled him alright until the ninth round when he got caught. He came back to the corner and I was fussing him a bit but his attitude was get off the floor to win it.” 

The National Wales: Dai Gardiner, on the left in both pictures, celebrates with fighters Robbie Regan (left) and Steve Robinson who is also held by co trainer Ronnie Rush (far right) Pictures: Huw Evans AgencyDai Gardiner, on the left in both pictures, celebrates with fighters Robbie Regan (left) and Steve Robinson who is also held by co trainer Ronnie Rush (far right) Pictures: Huw Evans Agency

It’s a spirit and outlook Dai, a former Welsh lightweight champion forced to retire due to an eye injury, understands. He has been obsessed with boxing “ever since I was a little boy” and like the best fighters he works with is drawn to the ring while aware of its dangers. 

READ MORE: Wales' top 10 best boxers of all time

Dai, who throughout his career as a trainer and manager, worked a regular job with British Gas, would go on to enjoy success with Welsh boxers Steve Robinson, who he described as having a similar work ethic to Johnny, and Robbie Regan; both became world champions in the 90s. 

While Dai has tasted the highs of boxing success he will always be aware of the dangers of the fight game: “Johnny Owen has always been on my mind, he’s never shifted, he was dealt a cruel blow.” 

If you value The National's culture and arts coverage, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.