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Mace was the first hell-raiser international super sports star, before, Ricky Hatton, Mohammad Ali, Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran and Mike Tyson......

So many fighters, ancient and modern, have attempted to prove nothing succeeds like excess. And many have had their lurid lives portrayed for posterity in a variety of books, plays and movies.

We are aware of the outrageous behaviour of notoriously-flawed individuals like Raging Bull Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran and Mike Tyson. Every era has someone whose outside-the-ring antics have caused jaw-dropping disbelief.

But how many fans can identify this character whose scandalous personal lifestyle outraged Britain?

Married three times,  twice bigamously; he also kept two teenage mistresses. A seducer of dozens of women, he fathered 14 children by five different mothers.

We are talking about Jem Mace, a blacksmith’s son from Norfolk. He was born 177 years ago and was universally recognised as the bare-knuckle world heavyweight champion.

Mace’s riveting story is brought to life by Graham Gordon, a specialist in 19th-century history, and I highly recommend his book, Master of the Ring.

It is no exaggeration to say Mace was the Muhammad Ali of his age, the first global sporting superstar.

Even within the constraints of 19th-century transport and communications Jem’s fame and notoriety went before him as he fought in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Mace began fighting at 14 in 1845, taking on lads from surrounding villages.

An accomplished violinist Mace decided to earn his living as a prize-fighter though the sport was illegal.

He joined a boxing booth and, for £2 a week, took on all-comers, developing skills not seen before.

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.

Jem 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.

Known as the father of boxing, Mace was loved equally by the working classes and the aristocracy he was on first name terms with the, Lord Lonsdale, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII.

Because he was hounded by police, Mace sailed for the United States where he was just as popular and beat Tom Allen in 1870 to win the world title.

Mace’s brilliant ring-craft ensured he was in demand as a coach and was constantly taking part in exhibition bouts, even into his late seventies.

He was an astute businessman who owned goldmines, circuses, hotels and pubs among other ventures around the world.

It’s estimated he earned £750,000 in his lifetime, today’s equivalent of £20million.

Unfortunately Mace was a prolific gambler. When he died at 79 he was penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Yet Jem was one of the greatest Victorians, revered by the public alongside Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli.

In his later years Mace gave after-dinner speeches always bemoaning the lack of good English heavyweights. Now where have I heard that lament before?

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Copyright © Jason Mace 2008