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Jem Mace, the fairground fighter who became a champion

Posted in Historical articles, History, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about Jem Mace originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 307 published on 2 December 1967.

Jem Mace, picture, image, illustration

Jem Mace

James Mace was born on 8th April, 1831, at Beeston in Norfolk. As he grew up, he was destined to fight his way to a fame that will be remembered forever in the history of boxing. He began his career in the rough and tumble world of a travelling boxing booth. At fairs, the booth would be set up and Jem – as he was called – would challenge all comers to fight him for a purse.

In those days, before the Queensberry Rules* were introduced, boxers fought with their fists and often a contest lasted until one or other of the combatants was battered almost to death. Yet Jem was no muscle-bound bully of the ring. When he had finished his rounds in the booth he liked to relax by playing the violin.

Soon Jem progressed from fairground fighting, and on the night of 19th January, 1860, he defeated Bob Brettle to become the middle-weight champion. Although he was defeated several times after that, Jem always managed to get his championship back and he was holding it on his retirement from the ring in 1871.

One of his most famous fights was against Thomas King on 28th January, 1862, when after 43 rounds of hard but even fighting Jem finally won on account of his scientific methods.

In those days the authorities tried hard to stop prize fighting, and in 1867 Jem was arrested for taking part in it. Following this he went to Canada and Australia, continuing his fighting career and becoming the landlord of a pub.

After he had retired from championship fighting, Jem continued to give exhibitions with circuses, but as time went on he was faced with poverty. At last he was forced into being a sparring partner in a small sideshow. The cycle was complete, he was back where he had started only now he was an old man. He continued gamely at this heart-breaking work until his death on 30th November, 1910.

* The Queensberry Rules (called after the Marquess of Queensberry) were drawn up in 1866 and form the basis of modern boxing. The last bare-knuckle championship was held in 1889.

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