Friday, May 11

This Boxing Match Was a Real Gem
By Grant Davies

On this day (perhaps -1) in 1871 (or was it 1870?), one of the most unusual fights in boxing history was fought. The prize was to be the Heavyweight Championship of America. Also to be decided was the Heavyweight Championship of the World, which would seem to make the first title just a tad superfluous.

It was said that the fight lasted one hour and seventeen minutes. But given the the historical confusion about the date of the contest, I'm not super confident about that particular stat. The thing that made the fight so unusual was that during the bout, no punches were landed by either contestant. 

It seems the boxers waited a little too long to stop dancing and actually get to the point because soon enough the cops showed up. Of course they intervened, and the whole thing was called off. No decision was rendered and the champ retained his crown.

However, the defending champion's life is a more interesting story than the actual event was. His name was Jem Mace. (That wasn't a ring name, even though he could hardly have made up a better one.) His opponent in the match was an Irishman named Joe Coburn, who was a pretty fair fighter himself, but not nearly as interesting.  Coburn hated Jem, and later (it is said), he tried to have him assassinated.

Jem was an Englishman, and a violinist. In fact, his fighting career actually started when three drunken sailors emerged from a seaside bar just as he was entertaining an appreciative crowd outside. They saw his instrument and broke it into several pieces just for grins. So, as any self respecting violinist would do... Jem kicked all their asses.

Word got around, Jem got a little tutelage from a well known bare-fisted fighter, and his career path was set. After the English people, ( particularly their police) lost their sense of sport, and their sense of humor about fist fighting, he traveled to America where many folks still were happy to pay good money to watch two guys knock each other senseless.

He became the first ever world champion. Today he is known as "The Father of Modern Boxing."  That designation came largely because he was the first to use fancy footwork, a dancing style, and intelligent defensive maneuvers. Oh yeah, and his punch wasn't bad either.

But mostly it's because he pioneered the training methods of today: skipping rope, running distances, and practicing the left jab. Mace was the principle influence in the transition from bare knuckle fighting to gloved contests and was instrumental in the development of ten second counts, time limits to bouts, and uniform ring sizes.

Always the nomad, Mace journeyed the world most of his life. Along the way he got married three times (twice as a bigamist), had numerous affairs, and fathered fourteen children by five different women. (None of whom seemed to resent it.) He made a ton of money in his life, but he was a better fighter than a gambler, so all of it disappeared. In 1910 he died a pauper back in his native England.

If life is a diamond, Mace's life might be described as rough cut. But you have to admit, the guy was a gem.

Learn more about Jem Mace at

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