Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Big If by Rick Broadbent book review in The Daily Yomiuri on 1st July 2006

The story of a fatal blow
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Big If
By Rick Broadbent
Macmillan, 337 pp, 6.99 pounds

Thirty years ago, world title fights involving heavyweights such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Joe Frazier would attract massive TV audiences all over the world. Ali and Foreman's "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974 inspired a hit single at the time and later made it onto the big screen in the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings.

John Owens grew up in South Wales during this time and, like his father Dick, developed a passion for boxing that would take him to the brink of the bantamweight world championship. Tragically, it also led to his death following his challenge for the title at the age of 24.

In The Big If, The Times of London sportswriter Rick Broadbent not only chronicles the life of the boxer who took the nom de guerre of Johnny Owen (dropping the final "s"), but also his opponent on that fateful night in September 1980, Lupe Pintor.

Owen was an unlikely boxer, his 1.72-meter, 50-kilogram body earning him the nickname "The Matchstick Man" while his shy demeanor and gentlemanly ways went a long way to reminding people that the sport's description as "The Noble Art" is not as incongruous as it might appear.

In the ring, his lack of a knockout punch meant that he tended to grind down opponents with his athleticism and technique rather than hit them with sledgehammer left hooks that would put them on the canvas. Sadly, this was to play a part in his tragic story.

Born into poverty in Mexico City, Pintor suffered beatings from his father and sold ice in the stifling heat of the barrio to make a living, with his business becoming so lucrative that he was forced to fight off thieves, a necessity that was to become his livelihood and, eventually, earn him the world crown.

Broadbent focuses on the lives of both fighters in a fascinating way that gives the reader an insight into how two young men from backgrounds that were seemingly poles apart--Welsh valley boy and Mexico City street urchin--had more in common than one might think.

From an early age, both had a purpose in life--to be No. 1 at their chosen sport. Of course, this should be the aim for all athletes, but Broadbent's interviews with those who knew Owen, as well as Pintor himself, illustrate how focused they both were in this respect.

That is one reason this story will appeal to a broad audience. You don't have to be a boxing fan to enjoy this book, though a basic knowledge of the sport will help. It is a human drama, with characters thousands of kilometers apart, that climaxes in Los Angeles and ends with resolution between the two families.

The world title fight is described round-by-round between the biographical chapters on the two combatants throughout the book, a technique that maintains the interest of the reader in Owen's background as well as his ultimate crack at glory.

Owen died 46 days after a punch to the jaw from Pintor that sent him into a coma, though tests revealed that the Welshman had such an abnormally strong jawbone--magnifying the force of the blow to his skull--that it could have happened in any of his previous 151 fights (124 amateur, 27 professional).

The repercussions of his death reverberated across the boxing community, and the book ends with Dick Owens traveling to Mexico to meet Pintor for the first time in 22 years, where he invited the Mexican to unveil a statue of Johnny Owen in his hometown of Merthyr Tydfil--a compassionate gesture that illustrated the respect both men had not only for each other but also for the man whose untimely demise was responsible for bringing them together.

The Big If is a fitting tribute to a Welsh sporting hero, and Broadbent's quote from sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney's report of the fight sums up the bravery of a young man who followed his dream of becoming the best in the world and paid the ultimate price: "The extreme depth of his [Owen's] own courage did as much as anything else to take him to the edge of death."

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