World champion boxer, circus owner, bar proprietor, musician and ladies' man, Jem Mace experienced enough to fill two or three lives during his 79 years – not least, practically inventing the professional sport of boxing. His career started as a bareknuckle fighter in an exhibition booth and ended with the tireless promotion of glove boxing, during which time he had helped draw up the Queensberry Rules, the basis of the sport as we know it today. It was a life that took him into the history books.
This sporting legend was born in Beeston, in Norfolk, on 8 April 1831, the fifth of eight children. He couldn't read or write but he could play the violin. At 18 he was busking in Great Yarmouth when three drunk fisherman smashed his fiddle and picked a fight. To their horror, Jem discovered he was also a talented brawler, and having despatched the three assailants, he became an exhibition fighter at a travelling fair. From there, Mace became a champion, fighting all the big names in the boxing world. He fought as a middleweight, but he was fly on his feet and meticulous in the placing of his punches. It was enough to bring him victory against men much heavier.
Prize-fighting (bare-knuckle boxing) was illegal in Britain and Ireland, and Jem had to miss at least one fight because he was cooling his heels in a police cell. Fights were like illegal raves. For one of Mace's fights, this one in Ireland, spectators learned of the location at a pub in Dublin, and then had to travel 100 miles to the venue down in Tipperary, avoiding police officers posted at every railway station around the city.
The law was far more lax in the US, and when things got too hot on this side of the Atlantic, Jem sailed for America, where the local press drily noted the influx of boxing fans, recognisable by “their broad shoulders, round heads, huge moustaches and flashy watch-chains.” In fact, boxing was the great social leveller, where bookies, fighters, crooks and toffs would all mix easily. Still, it didn’t stop at least one fight ending in gunfire, and Mace fled once more.
In fact, Jem was good at disappearing acts. All his life, he was catnip to the ladies. His first marriage, to a schoolteacher’s daughter, lasted long enough to produce a son, Alfred, but Jem had a restless soul and off he went, abandoning his wife and their baby. It wouldn’t be the last time, and young Alfred was so angered by his father’s godless, circus-performing ways, that he became a hellfire preacher. Jem’s conquests included a liaison with a scandalous American actress, and with several younger ladies. He eventually racked up three marriages (two of them bigamous) and 14 children by five women.
He was an extraordinary man. He trained and worked with black boxers when the sport was plagued by racism, championing the Canadian fighter Sam Langford's bid for the world title. He worked for a while for Pablo Fanque, Britain's first black circus owner and inspiration for the Beatles's song Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite. He was the proprietor of a bar in Liverpool and then a saloon in New York. He ran a hotel in Melbourne in Australia and played the violin on Broadway. And beyond all that, his boxing career still stands as the longest in history: his final appearance in the ring was at the age of 78. He made a fortune, of course – but true to his wild ways, gambled it all away, dying penniless in 1910 in Jarrow.
He was buried in an unmarked grave, but his memory lived on; almost a century after his death, the Merseyside and Wirral Former Boxers Association had a headstone made to honour the man who had helped turn boxing from a slightly shady free-for-all into the respectable professional spectator sport worth millions today.