Mace, Jem


Jem (James) Mace was born on 8th April 1831 at Beeston, Norfolk, the fifth of eight children born to William Mace, a blacksmith.

A middleweight, Mace succeeded in out-boxing heavier opponents thanks to his dancing style, clever defensive tactics and powerful, accurate punching. He pioneered the left jab and worked on the art of feinting and slipping punches. He was a defensive master, but could also knock men cold with a single blow. Jem Mace brought a more scientific style of fighting to the ring than did most of his predecessors. He became known as the father of boxing and often fought boxers much heavier than himself.

Mace began fighting at 14 years of age in 1845, taking on lads from surrounding villages. He was a skilful violinist and started his working life as an apprentice cabinetmaker and as a busker. While busking outside a public house on Marine Drive in Great Yarmouth, he was set upon by four drunken fishermen, one of whom broke his violin. Mace knocked out two of the men and the other two fled. A spectator gave Mace a guinea and suggested that he became a prize-fighter (bare-knuckle fighter), thus starting his career.

Before the age of 21 years, in 1850, he fought the Norwich Champion, John Pratt, losing after 69 rounds, taking just over two hours. Mace finished the fight with two broken hands. A rematch was made, but Pratt forfeited the fight for £25. However, they did meet in the same year and Mace whipped Pratt in 10 rounds lasting 30 minutes. The year later he beat the Suffolk Champion at Harleston and the Lincolnshire Bull Dog and won £10.

The prize ring was brutal in the extreme. Men smashed each other’s faces to a pulp with bare fists, pickled to make them iron-hard. While boxing has always included punching, historically it also included grappling techniques like throws, arm locks, chokes as well as kicks. Punching, scratching, kicking, throwing, stomping, and strangling were all acceptable.

Prizefighting was illegal and usually took place in isolated places away from the eyes of the police. Crowds of up to 10,000 would walk long distances to see a fight. These techniques were banned during the several rule changes, which turned bare knuckle boxing, into the modern sport of boxing with the drawing up the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in the 1867.

Mace defeated Slasher Slack in Norwich in 1855 in nine rounds and nineteen minutes winning £5. His success brought him to the attention of Nat Langham, an English middleweight bare-knuckle prize fighter, who hired him to man his touring boxing booth, taking on all comers for £2 a week, thus developing his skills.

In 1861, Mace agreed to fight Sam Hurst, considered the English middleweight boxing champion, by virtue of his victory over the title-claimant, Tom Paddock. Hurst, a noted wrestler, outweighed Mace by about one hundred pounds. Mace eluded Hurst’s rushes and in the eighth round, knocked him unconscious. Mace was now the middleweight boxing champion of England.

As middleweight champion, Mace toured the country in a circus before facing Tom King, the heavyweight champion of England, in 1862. Mace had taken notes on King’s style, an unusual practice in those days. On a cold, rainy January day, Mace struggled for 22 rounds with the larger King, who outweighed him by about 25 pounds. King’s punches closed Mace’s left eye and almost closed his right. In the 30th round, Mace back-heeled King, who fell on his head. In the 43rd, a left to the throat and a throw to the ground ended it for King. Mace fought over half the fight with a broken arm.

In 1869, as he was hounded by police, he moved to the United States, where prize-fighting was still flourishing and where he was just as popular as he was in England. In New Orleans he beat Tom Allen in 1870 to win the world heavyweight title.

Even within the constraints of 19th-century transport, Mace also fought in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa and was acclaimed as the man to whom we owe the changes that have elevated the sport.

Later, Mace continued as a purely exhibition boxer and his last recorded entry into the ring was in 1909 when he was 78 years of age. Mace was an astute businessman, who owned goldmines, circuses, racehorses, hotels and public houses, among other ventures around the world.

Mace married three times, twice bigamously. He also kept two teenage mistresses. He was a seducer of dozens of women and he fathered 14 children by five different mothers.

During his life he made and gambled away a considerable fortune. It is estimated that he earned £750,000 in his lifetime, today’s equivalent of £20 million. He died on 30th November 1910, as a penniless busker in Jarrow, Durham and was buried in an unmarked grave at Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool. In 2002, the Merseyside Former Boxers’ Association erected a memorial headstone by his grave.

Mace was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame, New York in 1954. It is no exaggeration to say Mace was the Muhammad Ali of his age, the first global sporting superstar. 

Unveiling of the Jem Mace plaque, 2016.