Jem Mace: an extraordinary man with a huge legacy
- Credit: Archant
Of the many blue plaques that adorn various buildings in Norwich, two are dedicated to boxers.
One, in St Stephens Street, marks the 1971 visit to the city by Muhammad Ali, who was on the last leg of a promotional tour for Ovaltine.
The other is in Swan Lane – named after the White Swan pub which once stood there and was once run by Jem Mace.
Both men had a defining influence on the sport of boxing. Their lives, their worlds, could not have been further apart.
James 'Jem' Mace was born at Beeston, a few miles south of Swaffham, in 1831. The 79 years of his life on earth were lived to the full. His is a story of travel and adventure, illegal fighting, innovation, controversy and, in the end as it was in the beginning, poverty.
What Jem Mace brought to boxing was something so simple you wonder how the sport could have done without it: instead of two grown men throwing bare knuckled fists at each other for as long as interest and, sometimes, their lives permitted, Mace worked with the Marquis of Queensbury, the man whose rules now govern the sport. Between them they promoted, rather than invented, the boxing glove. In 1867 gloves were made compulsory under Queensberry Rules – and Mace set about telling the world about them.
It is almost inconceivable today to consider professional fighting without the aid of gloves. For one thing, a losing fighter wouldn't last long: the damage would be too much. The winner might not be in a decent state either: anyone who has seen a boxer's knuckles after 12 rounds will testify that they are not always a pretty sight.
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Mace was also one of sport's great 'characters'. He had a lover in every port, three marriages, 14 children by five women and an attitude to boxing - he was nicknamed the Fancy - that drew criticism from many who believed him a charlatan. He was an innovator in the art of the squared circle; he danced, he defended, in an era where all-out attack was the only tactic. He was a man ahead of his time.
Mace was also a pioneer: he travelled the world at a time when most people rarely left their home town. He owned a circus, a hotel, race horses, and he gambled away a fortune.
He began boxing in fairground booths, but it was an era when the sport was vicious and brutal: there were few safety measures and a fight went on until only one man was left standing.
In the corner were men wagering money: if their man fell, they pushed him out to fight on. Lives were lost amongst the brutality.
The sport was outlawed and 'promoters' went to great lengths to avoid detection: the location of a prize fight was a secret until just before it was due to start. Then, trains would fill with spectators – and police. Some unscrupulous promoters would sell tickets, pocket vast amounts of money and then tip off the police, who prevented the show from going on - leaving the promoter in pocket and everyone else out of pocket.
In the excellent book Fifty Years A Fighter, Mace spoke of his childhood days, of the Ploughshare Inn at Beeston where 'one could always be sure of seeing a fight there on a Saturday night. Not a quarrelsome fight, you understand, but just a ding-dong battle to decide which was the better man'.
Mace left home in his teens and joined the circus, taking his violin with him and making ends meet either playing outside pubs or using his fistical skills.
At the age of 18 he headed for Yarmouth. Outside a pub he tuned his violin but was attacked by three fishermen. In a rage, he fought two of them before the third ran off. By the time he had finished, a crowd had gathered and left money. A gentleman thrust a sovereign in his hand and said 'you ought to be a prize fighter'. Mace was on his way.
He became champion of England in 1861, went to America, where prize fighting flourished, and toured the country, giving exhibitions. Someone tried to kill him in Mississippi, he returned to England but was soon back in the US, this time with boxing gloves. In 1877 he headed for Australia and schooled a generation of Aussie boxers. He toured New Zealand and discovered future world heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons.
His last recorded fight was in 1909 when he was 78 years of age. He died a penniless busker in Jarrow and was buried in an unmarked grave in Liverpool. In 2002, the Merseyside Former Boxers Association placed a memorial headstone by his grave.
Mace took the Queensberry Rules around the world – boxers have been eternally grateful.