Merthyr, a town with boxing in its DNA

BOXING runs through the DNA of Merthyr like the lettering through a stick of Barry Island rock.

Almost wherever you turn in the town of Merthyr, 23 miles north of Wales’s capital city Cardiff, there are reminders of true greats of the ring; imposing bronze statues, wall art, museum exhibitions, all fondly remembering the people’s champions. Buildings, since fallen into decay and demolished – even a pub – have carried the names of Merthyr’s famous boxing sons.

The likes of Jimmy Wilde, Howard Winstone, Johnny Owen and Eddie Thomas have been immortalised in film, art and the written word… can any other confined geographical location on earth have produced so many boxing greats?

As one 1973 short story claimed: ‘No less than three 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?’

An extract from ‘The Early History of Boxing in Wales’ on the Wikipedia website may offer an insight into why Merthyr has played such a significant role in Welsh boxing over the years:

‘The opening of the South Wales Valleys to industrialisation in the mid-1800s saw a large influx of commercial immigration. This was followed by an improved transport network, which in turn allowed larger crowds, and larger wagers, to be brought to the sport of boxing. When the Taff Vale Railway was extended to Merthyr Tydfil in 1840, the locals celebrated by a contest between Cyfarthfa champion John Nash, and Merthyr hardman Shoni Sguborfawr.

‘The adoption of boxing as a sport for the underprivileged in industrial Wales is compared, by Welsh historian Gareth Williams, to the living conditions of the emerging towns themselves.

‘Towns like Merthyr, one of the heartlands of the world’s iron industry, with its dire health and living conditions, along with a high rate of industrial injury and death, reinforced in the minds of the working class that life was short and brutal. The sport of boxing, though exploitative of the common man, was still a means to rise above the poverty of everyday life and glamourized the primitive.’

An opinion poll run in Wales in 2003-04 listed Wilde amongst 100 Welsh Heroes, alongside historical figures like Dic Penderyn, the political martyr famed for his role in the Merthyr Rising of 1831.

Merthyr’s boxing phenomenons have gloried in such nicknames as The Mighty Atom (Wilde), The Merthyr Marvel (Eddie Thomas), The Welsh Wizard (Winstone) and The Matchstick Man (Owen), carrying their humble town’s name with distinction to all corners of the world.

Wilde, born May 15, 1892 in Quaker’s Yard, Merthyr Tydfil,  is often regarded as the greatest British fighter of all time. Also variously described as ‘The Ghost with the Hammer in His Hand’ and ‘The Tylorstown Terror’ due to his bludgeoning punching power, Wilde was the first official world flyweight champion.

While reigning as the planet’s greatest flyweight, Wilde would take on bantamweights and even featherweights, and knock them out. As well as his professional career, Wilde participated in 151 bouts judged as ‘newspaper decisions’, of these he boxed 70 rounds, won 7 and lost 1, with 143 being declared as ‘no decisions’. Wilde has the longest recorded unbeaten streak in boxing history, having gone 104-0.

Eddie Thomas was born in Merthyr on July 27, 1926 and went on to become not only a Welsh boxing champion, but a highly successful boxing promoter and manager, boasting the likes of Colin Jones and world champions Winstone and Ken Buchanan among his stable.

After turning professional in 1946, Thomas won the Welsh welterweight title in 1948, the British welterweight title in 1949, and the European welterweight title in 1951, retaining it for only four months. He held the British Empire title for a period in the same year.

Thomas, who began his working life in the mines, later became a businessman, held office as Mayor of Merthyr Tydfil in the mid-1990s and was awarded an MBE. A BBC TV programme, ‘Champ from Colliers Row’, was made about him in 1997, shortly after his death.

Eddie Thomas statue in Merthyr

Following his retirement, his interest in boxing was soon revived by the speed and elegance of a 15- year-old Howard Winstone, whom he watched win his third schoolboy title, and he kept faith with the youngster when a horrifying hand injury (which cost Winstone the tips of several fingers) kept him out of the ring for three years.

Trained by Thomas, he came back to win the 1958 Empire Games gold medal at bantamweight, and then launched a dazzling professional career which saw him win two Lonsdale Belts, the British and European featherweight titles, and engage in three classic world title challenges against the magnificent Mexican Vicente Saldivar. When Saldivar retired immediately after their third fight, Winstone finally became world champion by stopping Mitsunori Seki for the vacant WBC title, and, as recalled by boxing writer Harry Mullan, “Thomas’s clear, soaring voice led the celebratory singing from the Albert Hall ring”.

Thomas was honoured for his work on the bleak morning in Aberfan in 1966 when a slag heap engulfed the local school. He was among the first at the scene, using his mining expertise to organise the futile rescue attempts and salvaging many of the children’s bodies himself. The people of his own community never forgot his efforts, and in 1992 gave him the freedom of the town and in 1994 elected him mayor.

As for Winstone, he defended his newly won world title in July 1968 against the Cuban, Jose Legra, on home soil in Porthcawl. Although Winstone had beaten Legra twice before, he was knocked down twice in the first round. He continued fighting, but sustained a badly swollen left eye, which caused the bout to be stopped in the fifth round. Having lost the world title in his first defence, Winstone decided to retire at the age of 29.

Howard Winstone fight programme

He continued living in Merthyr after retirement. He, too, was awarded the MBE and later was made a Freeman of Merthyr Tydfil due to his boxing accomplishments.

In 2001, one year after his death, a bronze statue of Winstone by Welsh sculptor David Petersen was unveiled in St Tydfil’s Square, Merthyr, and years later he beat Owen Money, Richard Trevithick, Joseph Parry and Lady Charlotte Guest to be named ‘Greatest Citizen of Merthyr Tydfil’, in a public vote competition run by Cyfarthfa Castle and Museum as part of the centenary celebrations to mark Merthyr’s incorporation as a county borough in 1905.

The life of Howard Winstone was made into a feature film called ‘Risen’, starring British actor Stuart Brennan and released in 2011.

But perhaps most fondly remembered by all, not only in Merthyr, but across Wales, is the name Johnny Owen.

John Richard Owens was born on January 7, 1956, but his is a story cut short in tragic circumstances.

Dubbed ‘The Merthyr Matchstick’, Owen survived only a brief career before losing his life bravely challenging for the world bantamweight crown. Owen took on Lupe Pintor, El Indio, from Mexico, on September 19, 1980, but was knocked out in the 12th round of a tortuously difficult contest, spending 46 days in a coma before he died in a Los Angeles hospital on November 4.

Also known as ‘The Bionic Bantam’, he held the bantamweight championships of Great Britain and Europe and became the first ever Welsh holder of the Commonwealth bantamweight title.

A statue commemorating his life and career was unveiled in Merthyr Tydfil in 2002 and, in an academic publication by Martin Johnes entitled ‘Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen’, it was noted that Owen was not forgotten after his death.

“In 1981 a pub opened in Merthyr named The Matchstick Man. Four years later a memorial statue was unveiled at Merthyr’s hospital which had benefitted from an appeal fund set up after Owen’s death. In the 1990s a film script was written, although it was never made, and his belts were put on display in a Merthyr museum… 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’s finest sons’.”

Pintor visited Merthyr to unveil a statue of his world championship opponent, paid for by a public appeal, in the town centre.

Johnny Owen fight memorabilia in a museum at Cyfartha Castle, Merthyr

Johnes continued: “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.

“This might sound nonsensical but people saw evidence that something special was going on… 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. Owen added to that tale.

“His 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 ever 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’.”


Sources include: Wikipedia, People’s Collection Wales, You Tube, ITV Wales, Stories of a Post-industrial Hero: The Death of Johnny Owen by Martin Johnes, Harry Mullan (The Independent)

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