Jem Mace - Master of the Ring

About a decade ago the controversial Black US boxer Mike Tyson visited our shores. At a press conference he was asked by a reporter which character from all of our history would he like to meet if somehow he could travel back in time. Tyson - actually a well-read and self-educated man - answered unhesitatingly that his choice would be the nineteenth century English pioneer of modern boxing James (Jem) Mace. He was then astonished to learn that no-one, apart from the sports journalists in the room, had even heard of him. Tyson was unaware of the custom in Britain of brushing under the carpet the achievements of English worthies. Such was Mace’s charisma, drive, influence and talent, in more than one field, that in any country other than ours his would be a household name.

Jem who?
Jem Mace was born in Beeston, Norfolk in 1831 into a poor rural family. He became phenomenally fit and strong, and lived to the (then) ripe old age of 79 – so 2010 is the hundred year anniversary of his death.
Jem started out in the age of so-called pugilism, and because of the outlaw status of this form of entertainment he always described himself on documentation as a musician or a violinist. Mace, though initially unschooled and illiterate, was a cultured man; an accomplished fiddler and composer of tunes. He was a natural showman with the confidence to become a pioneer of this side of sport as well as the purely physical and technical side. Additionally he was a top class ‘pedestrian’ (the nineteenth century term for a competitive runner), wrestler and fencer; all of which he used to help him in his quest to mould the complete boxer. Mace even had a hand in the re-establishment of the Olympic games in Liverpool in the 1870s, but it is as the supreme pioneer and practitioner of ‘fightcraft’ that this Englishman will go down in history. It is gratifying that although few in England know of Jem Mace, his achievements are known in the US where it is not the custom to give undeserved praise to foreigners. 
Many modern day fight fans think of boxing as a Black, Italian, Cuban, Mexican or even an Irish dominated sport but in Jem Mace’s day its home was in England. It subsequently became popular in Ireland but England in those days had a healthy pioneer spirit and a lean, tough and raw working population, all of which lent itself to the development of prize fighting. Jem Mace lived in a time of great social change in England. It was a rough and ready society that Mace joined when he left his unhappy Norfolk homestead at the age of fifteen to literally make his way in the world. 

The Swaffham ‘Gypsy’
It is hard to think of a more interesting or accomplished man around which to tell a story. Mace’s fighting nickname was the ‘Swaffham Gypsy’ but this was a misnomer and a theatrical handle, and Mace, whilst hardly a patriot, was nevertheless a self-avowed ‘Anglo-Saxon’. In fact he always greatly resented the Gypsy tag although it’s fair to say that he was extremely friendly with that community, particularly with his cousin Pooley, his long time sparring partner who accompanied him on his travels and whose father – Mace’s uncle – had married into a Romany family. This was perhaps the source of the gypsy controversy, along with the fact that Mace was an experienced ‘breaker’ of horses who worked for the gypsies in this capacity, as well as being a non-conformist and a lifelong wanderer and adventurer.

Rise to the top
Jem Mace soon learned the tricks of the trade, namely to harden his hands and face by ‘pickling’ them for the local prize fights but he quickly outgrew the local opposition, and before long he found himself in the capital, sponsored by Nat Langham, an earlier champion turned businessman who supplied bodyguards to the ‘toffs’. Mace entered bouts for the London prize ring (L.P.R.), the organisation that dominated bare knuckle contests and made the early rules. The followers of the L.P.R. were known as the ‘fancy’ and it is from here that the term ‘fan’ is derived. Mace became the biggest attraction of the brutal ‘fight to the finish’ L.P.R. shows, which to avoid the attention of the police were held on desolate beaches and windswept marshes - complete with “hooligan” English and Irish hangers on. Mace eventually won the championship of England from an immensely tough and skilled East End stevedore called Tom King, although King, who was considerable larger and heavier than Mace, regained the title in their next bout. Even Mace was not invincible and he faced this and another setback on his rise to the top. However, at his peak there was absolutely no one with his array of talents, mainly because he alone pioneered the ones that made all the difference. He also had a punch and a fighting heart that few could match and none could exceed.

Innovator & Visionary
The contribution Mace made to the sport went beyond his ability as a fighter. He was always questioning rules and procedures and thinking of ways to improve the sport. Mace was generous in passing on his ideas and, like other Englishmen of the time, he helped set new standards and create new rules, which benefited the participants and increased the sport’s popularity. He was the first man to properly introduce science into all aspects of the sport, first in his mastering of defensive techniques. He developed the left jab (originally pioneered by Langham) and introduced his own innovation of feinting (basically a surprise punch). Mace made great use of footwork, which was anathema to his contemporaries who were mostly sluggers, and used lightening sledgehammer one-twos, all of which wowed the crowds. He is also believed to have been the first boxer to use a skipping rope as a training aid to agility. Seasoned fans and journalists of that era would testify to the fact that Jem Mace in full flow was a revelation the like of which had never been seen before; and on at least one occasion a section of the crowd – in their ignorance – branded him a coward for not allowing himself to be hit, such was his hitherto unseen defensive prowess. But even in these early days, and more particularly later on when Mace came to set up schools of boxing in England, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, he always tried to pass on all he had innovated in order to polish the sporting spectacle.

Mace was also a visionary in that he realised that the underground bare knuckle game would not last much longer and he was instrumental in introducing gloved contests, ten second counts, time limits to both bouts and entire fights, and specific ring sizes. In much of this he anticipated the Queensbury rules.

Global Superstar
Mace eventually grew tired of contests being continually targeted by police and magistrates and his ambition and wanderlust took him to the United States. He quickly became both a pioneer of the sport and a celebrity there, setting up training facilities and shows in, among other places, New York and San Francisco. It was in 1870 in Kennerville, Louisiana that he beat Tom Allen (an Englishman who had become a naturalised American) for the first recognised championship of the world at any weight. Both fighters were heavyweight but size and weight differences were barely recognised back then. The contest was a huge sporting spectacle which was easily won by Mace in 44 minutes in front of a crowd of politicians, soldiers returned from the Civil War, journalists and ordinary fight fans. The event and its location are commemorated today by a bronze statue of the two pugilists.
Some time after this, when Mace had become effectively the first global sporting star, he became a target of the Irish community, which was newly arrived in the US as a result of the potato famine, and determined to dethrone the hated Englishman and fulfil what they saw as their rightful destiny to have one of their own as the world’s top fighter. Mace never antagonised the Irish in any way, and indeed - ever the gentleman - he befriended as many as possible. This did not stop their hostility, but he was not intimidated by them and despite the large number of Irish fighters in the US and their aptitude for boxing they never managed to find someone to beat him – although Joe Coburn, an Irish expatriate who despised Mace, came closest when the bout was declared a draw. The nearest the thugs among them came to their goal was after the second Mace / Coburn bout when Irish gangsters under the protection of the corrupt Democratic New York governor, John Morrissey, tried to assassinate him. Sailing back to live once again in England after these experiences, Mace is said to have felt keenly aware of his Englishness.
Everything Mace did was touched with style and class and everywhere he went in the U.S. he was presented with belts and plaques to add to his boxing trophies and as tokens of the esteem of his admirers. The silver-workers of 1870s California were so impressed with Mace’s boxing master classes that they presented him with an ingot inscribed “To James Mace; Champion of the World: Presented by the Miners of California. This is a brick and you’re another”.  Another nice anecdote has him present in New York when the famous Central Park was opened to provide fresh air and recreation for the urban workforce. Whilst all the ‘dandies’ strolled in their new surroundings, Mace – sportsman to the last - whipped off his coat and started doing ‘pedestrian’ circuits of the park in anticipation of today’s ever present joggers.

But as celebrated as he was in the US, it was in Australia that he was probably most influential. He arrived there in 1877 aged 46, and whilst he still fought contests (as he did – incredibly – into his 70s) Mace was nevertheless past his fighting prime. Another expatriate Englishman called Abe Hicken, who was a prize-fighter from Birmingham ran the fledgling boxing scene in that sports-mad country, but Mace disliked his greed and underhand methods and he soon pushed him out of contention, setting up a Brisbane venue called the White Horse that was to become a conveyor belt of Aussie boxing talent fighting in ‘Macean’ style. Such fighters included Larry Foley, Frank Slavin and Jim Hall, and these and other Australians would shortly come to dominate the U.S. scene in the 1880s as the English had in the 1860s.
Mace might easily have been killed once again when one evening in an obscure outback town, and after he and his entourage had given their displays of boxing, wrestling and fencing to a small audience, four heavily armed and dangerous looking Irishmen rode up and on hearing the English accents demanded an extra show from the exhausted warriors. This could easily have turned nasty as they just happened to be the famous Ned Kelly gang, not known as lovers of the English. But as usual Mace dealt with the situation and won Kelly`s grudging respect. The fact that Mace had taken the time and trouble to train and nurture the aforementioned Larry Foley - an Irish born Australian who subsequently joined Mace in the White Horse venture - would not have been lost on Kelly. It might have impressed upon him that it was the British state, and not ordinary Englishmen, that was indifferent to Irish suffering. Many generations of the English working class had also experienced that indifference, and endured hard and short lives.

Recognition and Acclaim
Jem always lived his life to the full and his story is dramatic and fascinating by any standards. A compulsive and hopeless gambler (who died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave as a result of this addiction); a veritable ‘womaniser’ who fathered at least fourteen children by five different women, and who married four times, twice bigamously – indeed his total disregard for convention and authority was probably one more reason why he earned the admiration of Mike Tyson. Mace’s spirit of adventure and determination to hone the craft of boxing even saw him in his mid-60s take off for South Africa to set up yet another training school, although the trip was short lived due to manifest difficulties.
The heavyweight champion at the turn of the century, the Cornish born Bob Fitzsimmons, was Mace`s protégé from his time in New Zealand. Another title holder - and perhaps the best boxer since Mace himself – the American ‘gentleman Jim’ Corbett hailed the Englishman as “the man who elevated our sport”. Many similar tributes came forth from greats such as ‘kid Mc Coy’ (real name Norman Selby but ‘Gaelicised’ due to the fevered pro-Irish atmosphere in late 19th century USA). The countless sporting venues, gyms, booths, contests, competitions and boxing clubs that Mace opened and ran over the course of fifty years in five or six countries and on four continents all add to the sum total of interest and achievement. But the real story of Gem’s life is that of a man who pioneered the modern sport of boxing more than any other individual and who also happened to be an Englishman who had a self-confidence and generosity of spirit that enabled him to mould and perfect the sport. Mace brought it into the mainstream and widened its appeal. As with Association football, cricket, both rugby codes, and other sports, the English are rarely given credit in Britain for bringing the sports into being or for providing standards and rules that are born of a belief in fair competition. Part of what makes the sports so popular and such a spectacle is the rigid codes, rules and discipline. It is only by winning ‘fair and square’ by means of ‘fair play’ that winners gain widespread recognition and respect.
It was the willingness of the English to share their sports with others during the period of Empire – to play and perhaps be beaten by foreigners – that enabled the sports to spread around the world.

English Through and Through
In the 2007 biography of Jem’s life the author, Graham Gordon, makes much of his gypsy connections, and although it is almost certain that Mace was of East Anglian, English and Anglo-Saxon stock, there seem to be those who are determined not to accept this, and we should not be surprised if any forthcoming film of his life takes advantage of the doubt sown by those who would find it convenient to portray him as anything but English. Mace himself was always adamant that he was not a gypsy, and he was hardly unaware of his origins coming as he did from a close knit and settled English community; nor was he the type to be for any reason ‘in denial’ as the modern vernacular would have it. Also Mace actually liked and ‘mucked in’ with the Romanies, so what other reason would there be for his stance other than that he was being truthful? It is not clear why it has taken quite so long for Mace to finally begin to regain some deserved fame, but perhaps we should attribute this partly to English phlegm. Of course, Mace’s nationality inhibits his fame in that were he Black or Irish-American or Italian-American or anything but English, his story would be tailor made for Hollywood and all the ethnic lobbyists and current trends would win the day. But if I am right in noting that there is a slow but steady renaissance in all things English, then the story of Jem Mace could just dovetail neatly with these winds of change.
Reading between the lines of Jem’s life one gets the distinct impression that there is an air of ‘destiny’ about Jem Mace, in a similar way perhaps to Elvis or Muhammad Ali. ‘Force of Nature’ is another descriptive label that seems in keeping with his whole ethos and life. If there is any justice in this sport obsessed world then very soon the ‘Corinthian’ figure of Mace will stand out as possibly our greatest athletic talent; the forerunner of English sporting all-rounders such as C. B. Fry and the Compton brothers - Leslie and Dennis, and the single biggest influence on the world’s most popular one-on-one contact sport. 
Jem lived the life of one of England’s great characters and heroes, a man who also stood out amongst some of his contemporaries in that he was open and friendly towards the Black boxers who were starting to emerge on the fight scene; men like Peter Jackson. Jem Mace commanded respect wherever he went, and for genuine reasons, and so it seems fair to say that he was the living embodiment of the famous ‘winning lottery ticket’ adage in respect of his Englishness.

After a remarkable life the final bell tolled for Jem when he died penniless in Jarrow on November 30 1910. He was laid to rest in an unmarked  paupers grave in Anfield Cemetery, Liverpool on December 6. In 2002 a memorial headstone paid for by the Merseyside Former Boxers Association was finally placed by his grave. It’s epitaph was a fitting tribute to a true English hero, who from humble beginnings achieved so much, and who will be remembered forever as one of the greatest boxers who has ever lived.

“Where hardy heroes nature’s weapons wield.
He stood unconquered, champion of the field.
Time counts him out. But memory will remain.
We ne’er will look upon his like again.”

James (Jem) Mace
April 8th 1831 – November 30th 1910

This is an edited version of an article by John Gregory that first appeared in The Steadfast Journal
Further reading -

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