The typical 19th century bareknuckle fighter is commonly regarded as a durable brawler who thought nothing of battling and bleeding for 60, 70 or 80 rounds, until either he or his opponent dropped from sheer exhaustion. The resulting bouts, we have come to believe, may not have been artistic, but they invariably pleased the crowds.
That image is somewhat misleading. A number of the fights between bareknucklers were such turkeys that the participants probably could have been sued for defrauding the spectators—had the sport been legal.
Two of the most celebrated miscreants were Jem Mace and Joe Coburn, who fought as heavyweights although they weighed only 165 pounds. They were both good boxers, but for some reason getting together in the ring brought out the worst in both of them.
When it was announced that the two would meet in May 1871, an excellent match appeared to be in the offing. Mace was recognized in Britain as the heavyweight champion, but at 40 he was somewhat past his prime. His career dated all the way back to 1850 when, as a teenager in England, he took on John Pratt, the Norwich champion, in a 69-round bout in which the heavy-hitting Mace broke both hands while losing. Mace later defeated Pratt in 10 rounds.
In those days fights were not divided into three-minute rounds separated by one-minute intervals; instead, the contestants started out at a point in mid-ring called "scratch" and fought until one of them slipped or was knocked down. That terminated the round. The fight ended only when one of the boxers was unable to continue.
In his prime a decade later, Mace beat the Black Wonder, Bob Travers, in a fight that required two days to complete because of an untimely interruption by the police. In 1861 he defeated a 224-pound boxer-wrestler named Sam Hurst—who went by the curious sobriquet The Staytleybridge Infant—in only 40 minutes. Mace came to the U.S. after the Civil War and scored his first major victory here in 1870, beating Tom Allen in New Orleans. After the bout Mace announced that he was retiring to his saloon at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City.
Allen's second for his fight with Mace was 35-year-old Joe Coburn, an Irish immigrant who had beaten most of the good American heavyweights. In desperate need of opponents and money (he had lost all his dough betting on fights), Coburn challenged Mace to a bout. Fight fans agreed that it would be a natural, and Mace decided to unretire.
For nearly six months the upcoming championship fight was a constant topic of conversation. The New York Herald noted, "Even the soft depths of the feminine heart were aroused and wagers of dozens of gloves and elegant bouquets, with seats at the opera, were frequently offered and taken. New bonnets and glitteringly gilded boxes of bonbons were articles of frequent interchange upon decisions of feminine opinion."
On April 30 it was announced that the fight would take place in Canada, just across the border from Buffalo, so that American authorities could not interfere. Canadian officials promptly said that the participants would be arrested if they tried to stage the fight at the designated location. Of course, this threat only added to the air of excitement.
On May 4 another complication arose when Coburn, who had already arrived in Buffalo, received word that his wife had died. Speculation began on how long the fight would be delayed by this development, but Coburn announced almost immediately that the bout would proceed on schedule. In one of the more notorious New York saloons, Jim Coburn, the boxer's brother, said, "Well, of course he was kind of put out. It was so very sudden. But then he's game and can stand a darned sight more than that."