There are at least a handful of truly great boxing writers; at his best, Hugh McIlvanney was among them. In “Onward Virgin Soldier: Johnny Owen’s Last Fight,” he tells the story of a young, talented, rail-thin Welsh boxer. In 1980, Owen fought bantamweight champion Lupe Pintor. After a close fight, Pintor took over in the late rounds and knocked Owen out in the 12th. Owen never recovered consciousness, and he died six weeks later.
As the story concludes, McIlvanney describes the phone call that Owen’s mother receives. It is predictably, movingly awful. McIlvanney imagines Mrs. Owen feeling intense bitterness toward boxing, and he wonders whether “the game is worth the candle.”
Then, however, McIlvanney adds this:
But our reactions are bound to be complicated by the knowledge that it was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression. Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he became astonishingly positive and self-assured. He seemed to be more at home there than anywhere else. It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.