THE fight was first mooted in January 1863 by The Era, a British weekly newspaper which became renowned for its sports coverage. They revealed English heavyweight champion Jem Mace was on the lookout for a worthy opponent, preferably from abroad, and named America’s champion Joe Coburn as the ideal candidate. Matchmaking was generally conducted by the press in mid-19th Century, and it wasn’t long before sports writers in New York passed on the challenge to Coburn, who ran a tavern in the Big Apple at the time.
INITIALLY, Coburn was reluctant to accept a proposal to fight Mace in England, as he was holding out for Tom King, who had beaten Mace in 1863 but retired after beating the great John Heenan in the same year. With King refusing to come out of retirement, Coburn settled for Mace and negotiations began some 12 months after The Era’s suggestion. Mace rejected Coburn’s request for him to travel to America for the fight, but the pair would eventually agree on Ireland, where the latter was born.
BY March of 1864, both boxers had begun their respective training regimes with the pair having agreed to fight in the south of Ireland the following October, although the finer details were yet to be thrashed out. The fight was to be bare-knuckled, but each man would spar using gloves. Mace would attract large crowds for public sparring exhibitions across the UK, most notably at Dundee’s Corn Exchange Hall, where up to 400 spectators turned out to get a glimpse of the champion. Likewise, Coburn put on public workouts in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, where locals would turn out to show their support for the man nicknamed “The adopted son of America,” due to his Irish roots.
COBURN arrived in England by steamboat on June 3, 1864, along with his trainer James Cusask. To help cover his travel costs, the Irish-American gave lectures in the art of self-defence in Liverpool, and it was in Merseyside where bookmakers got their first glimpse of the man who would be taking on their national champion. Based on physique, they decided Mace was the slight favourite at 7/4, giving Coburn a 2/1 chance, with no odds available on a draw. Reports from New York traders claimed Mace was attracting bets as short as 5/4, suggesting the American public had little faith in their man.
THE following month, Coburn sailed to Ireland with the intention of fully focusing on his training regime, but his homecoming brought about a mixed response. Fight fans lauded his arrival, but as boxing was still illegal, Coburn was bringing shame to the nation in the eyes of others. Dr Paul Cullen, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin at the time, campaigned against the staging of the fight, pleading Christians to “preserve this Christian country from an exhibition so disgraceful and so well calculated to degrade human nature.” He also ordered priests to voice this from the alter so as to discourage people from attending, but even non-Christians had a gripe, as they blamed a rise in taxes on the policing of pugilistic events.
THE first no-show of the whole affair took place at a bar belonging to Harry Brunton, the representative of Mace, on September 20, 1864. Coburn was due to attend a meeting there to put the finishing touches on the agreed fight, but his integrity was thrown into doubt upon his failure to oblige. Days later, Mr E. James, editor of the New York Clipper and representative of Coburn, arrived in the UK and contacted the Birmingham Daily Post in order to be put in touch with Brunton. Once acquainted, Mr James won a coin toss and they agreed to meet at a location in Dublin at a later date for James to give notice of a venue and also for the pair to agree on a referee.
BY now, fight fever had well and truly gripped Dublin, and indeed the rest of Europe, not to mention America. Several renowned personalities from the pugilism scene came over from England in anticipation of ‘The Great International Prize Fight.’ They included Nat Langham, who beat the legendary Tom Sayers, and Jack ‘The Elastic Potboy’ Hicks – they drank together in Mr Woodroffe’s Tavern in Dublin and courted no shortage of attention and hospitality. Sayers and Hicks were also due to stand ringside during the fight to keep order and enforce impartiality – the “ringkeepers” as they were known. On top of that, celebrated pugilists John Heenan and Jerry Noon also arrived on the island, while Prince Humbert of Italy was rumoured to have made his way to Ireland for the fight.
THE general public did not have it quite so easy, though. A boat-load of fans planned to head to Dublin via Clarence Dock, Liverpool, but a train delay at Chester caused hundreds to miss the ferry. Irish natives managed to find their way to the destination in their thousands, but not without shrewd tactics in order to fool the police. The forces liaised with train ticket offices to try and pinpoint the scene of the crime, but fans knew this was likely to be the case, so they bought tickets for other locations too in order to throw the constabulary. Males were scrutinised and interrogated at every station in the surrounding areas of Dublin, with police desperate to find out the whereabouts of the fight.
WOODROFFE’S Tavern, the same bar Tom Sayers and Jack Hicks could be found drinking, were providing punters with the address at which to find the fight. It turned out to be Powerstown in Tipperary, just under 100 miles outside of Dublin, but the journey deterred only one man – Jem Mace. Coburn and the crowd waited at least two hours for Mace to show, before it emerged that the Englishman had gone back to London instead, citing his disapproval of the choice of referee as the reason. “A more honourable man does not live in Ireland,” said Coburn of Mr Bowler, the designated referee, but Mace was adamant he was a brother-in-law of Coburn’s. Having sold his tavern to finance his trip across the Atlantic, Coburn was understandably aggrieved at the prospect of missing out on his share of the purse, but Mace also claimed his representative Brunton had left him in the lurch in Dublin with no explanation, taking the fight funds with him. Despite attempts to reschedule the bout in the aftermath of the farce, the referee disagreements continued, and Coburn returned to American soon after.
MACE and Coburn did eventually fight competitively in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, seven years after their non-event in Ireland, but still a winner could not be determined as a draw was called due to an injury to Mace after just five rounds. Nonetheless, both men have since been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame under the Pioneer category, with Mace the first to be recognised in 1990, before Coburn followed in 2013.