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."