As if becoming a World champion was not enough, Jem was also instrumental in boxing reform.
When Jem started fighting, it was illegal. It was basically a gambling exercise for the contestants and an opportunity for spectators to gamble on the outcome. The accepted financial arrangement was for each contestant to pay an agreed sum to a stakeholder who would give the total amount to the winner of the fight. A collection would then be taken from the spectators for the loser. It was a brutal, bloody business and was treated by spectators in much the same way as cock fighting or bear baiting. It was a spectacle with an almost totally male following. Watching crowds were vocal and frequently rioted, particularly if a local hero or a contestant they had backed was getting beaten.
Throughout his life Jem sought to reform this mayhem into what we would recognise today as “sport”.
He sought change by his advocacy of rules which would enable a bout to be decided without risking the life and health of the contestants. In particular, he advocated the introduction of fixed length rounds, fixed length contests, the reduction of “knock-out” from 30 seconds to 10 seconds, and the use of “points” to decide a winner, rather than rely on the acceptance of defeat by the loser. Because of his worldwide fame, his advocacy played a crucial role in the worldwide acceptance of the “Queensberry Rules”.
It was his advocacy of the use of gloves, while at the same time being willing to take on and beat opponents without them that was crucial to the acceptance of gloved boxing.
He was party to methods of crowd control by fight organisers which transformed crowd behaviour.
He taught efficient boxing methods to the leading fighters on three continents thus transforming the standard of boxing worldwide.
He was instrumental in the institution of new methods of payment for boxers, enabling many subsequent boxers to become rich, at the same time eliminating the “winner takes all” system where losers could finish up losing all their financial assets as well as their health.
He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the sport of boxing as is is practiced today.
His professional boxing career lasted from 1849 to 1908 (59 years).
He had 37 competitive fights, won 25, drew 5, lost 4, no decision 3.
His last fight against world class opposition was in 1890 at the age of 58 years 10 months.
It is difficult to know exactly how many exhibition bouts he fought, but it was probably about 3,000.
Jem was born in obscurity, he died in obscurity, but during his lifetime, in the days before the “celebrity culture”, he was a huge celebrity.
In Jem’s lifetime colour prejudice was the norm. In the US, society was organised on the basis of segregation. Coloured musicians did not play with white musicians, coloured sportsmen did not compete with white sportsman. Jem fought a virtually single handed battle against this attitude. His open minded attitude towards black boxers, led to a black presence in boxing long before it became accepted in other sports. The following pictures bear testament to his struggle.