Sunday, July 19, 2015

TBG Book Review: The Big If: Johnny Owen

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review By Peter Silkov 

"The Big If: The Life And Death Of Johnny Owen"
Written By Rick Broadbent



“The Big If: The Life And Death Of Johnny Owen” is the story of Johnny Owen, Merthyr’s “Matchstick Man,” who rose from his humble beginnings in a council house in Merthyr, to win the Welsh, Commonwealth, British, and European Bantamweight titles. Owen was an unlikely boxer, both in looks, and personality. He was softly spoken, painfully shy, and self-effacing, and his 5’ foot 6" inch frame was almost emaciated. Yet, when he was inside a boxing ring with his gloves on, Owen became someone else, he was a confident and aggressive fighter, a marvel of perpetual motion, who refused to take a backward step in his fights, and never seemed to tire. Physically, Owen looked like a gust of wind could blow him over, rather than someone who would stand toe-to-toe with the best fighters in the world at his weight; yet, his skeletal frame housed an almost frightening strength, determination, and fitness. Although he lacked a big knockout punch, he would overwhelm and wear his opponents down with the intensity, and tirelessness of his attacks.

Owen’s idol was the legendary Jimmy Wilde, also a Welshman, who ruled the Flyweight division in the 1910s and early 1920s, and who had a similarly skeletal frame like Johnny.
“The Big If” is the story of Johnny’s unlikely rise to boxing stardom that culminated in him challenging Lupe Pintor for the WBC world bantamweight championship on September 19, 1980.  It was a fight that would cost Johnny Owen his life. After shocking the largely Mexican crowd in Los Angeles by going toe-to-toe with their idol Pintor, Owen fell into a coma after being knocked out in the 12th round. Owen would linger in a coma for almost two months, before dying on November 4, 1980, at 24 years old.

The title of this book is taken from the final entry Johnny made in his dairy on the night before his fight with Pintor ‘Hope everything comes right on the night. If Only. It’s a big if.’

Rick Broadbent paints a vivid picture of Owen’s early life, and his closeness to his family, especially his father Dick who had first taught Johnny to box, along with his brothers, in the front room of their Merthyr council house. There is also a second thread in this book, focusing on the life of Johnny’s opponent on that fateful night of September 19, 1980. Lupe Pintor had a horrific upbringing in his native Mexico, where he endured extreme poverty and regular beatings from his abusive father, and found himself living on the streets by the age of 8 years old.
This is a very powerful bittersweet story in which we see two young men who are striving for better lives, totally dedicated to the harshest, yet, most viscerally rewarding sport in the world. Their fate and bodies collided together one September night, changing their lives, and the lives of the people around them forever.

Some have viewed Owen’s life as a tragedy, but that is to ignore the tremendous achievements of his comparatively brief but impressive boxing career.  Up until his fight with Pintor, Owen had never been floored once in all of his 124 amateur contests and 27 previous professional fights. He was, right up until his final fatal fight, a true little iron man.
Ultimately, despite the sadness of Johnny‘s death, The Big If is an uplifting experience. It says a lot about the power of the human spirit and the strength of love and forgiveness.  On November 2, 2002, a statue of Johnny Owen was erected in Merthyr and the person who unveiled it was Lupe Pintor. Months before, Johnny’s Father, Dick, had flown to Mexico to meet Pintor for the first time since Johnny’s death. It was a journey of closure and forgiveness.

Perhaps one of the most poignant things to come through in this book is how deeply, and enduringly, Johnny Owen touched so many people, not just those who he knew on a day-to-day basis in Wales, but many who had never met him, but simply heard of his exploits in the ring.
Ironically, it became known that Johnny had been born with an unusually strong jawbone, but a weak skull. His fatal injury could have occurred at any time during his amateur or professional boxing career, or even in an accident or incident totally removed from boxing.

Indeed, with the advances in medicine and the introduction of regular cat scans for skull thickness tests for boxers and budding boxers in recent years, the harsh truth is that, if Johnny was starting out on his boxing career today he would not be allowed to take up the sport because of his abnormally thin skull.

It is a haunting and realization.

The thought of Johnny Owen without boxing is completely foreign, as Owen was as much a born fighter as a man can be, and boxing not only defined Johnny, it also gave him a way to express himself.
Rick Broadbent has written a powerfully moving book about Johnny Owen, it is a story of courage, triumph, and tragedy.
Ultimately, Johnny’s life is not a tragedy; he achieved too much and touched so many people in such a positive way that is story his truly inspirational.  The underlying message of Johnny’s life and “The Big If” is the good that can come out of tragedy and how Johnny made such an indelible mark during his short life, that he is unlikely ever to be forgotten.

 
Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to www.theboxingglove.com and www.theboxingtribune.com

 
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1 comment:

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