How do we decide who is the world’s greatest at anything? It is necessary to have a yardstick. For a sportsman, he must be a world champion.
Jem was a world champion. However, over the years there have been numerous boxing world champions, so that does not put him above others in that select band.
He must fight as a heavyweight, other weight divisions are limited, heavyweights have unlimited opposition.
Jem fought as a heavyweight.
He should be capable of beating bigger men.
Jem’s fighting weight varied between 136 lbs and 175 lbs. His height was 5 ft 9½ in, tiny by today’s standards. Most of his opponents were bigger than him, some much bigger.
He should be the first.
Jem was the first acknowledged world heavyweight champion, when, as the English champion he beat Tom Allen, the American champion in 1870.
Oddly, he was also the last world “bare fist” heavyweight champion when he successfully defended his title against Joe Coburn in 1871.
He should succeed in spite of external problems.
Mohammed Ali achieved incredible feats in spite of opposition from boxing authorities and the US government.
Jem achieved equally incredible feats in spite of being a virtual outlaw and being constantly under the threat of arrest and imprisonment on 3 continents (boxing was considered assault and hence illegal until late in the 19th century). And he espoused a despised minority.
He should have a long career.
Jem’s boxing career lasted 50 or 60 years depending how you measure it. This is far, far longer than any comparable boxer, before or since.
He should be flexible.
Jem fought with and without gloves and to a variety of rules.
Convinced yet? In addition to his boxing career, Jem was a boxing promoter, a circus and stage performer, a circus owner, a violinist, a fencer, a boxing school teacher and proprietor, a licensed victualler and a gambling establishment proprietor. In his spare time he managed to own race horses, marry 3 times, have children by at least 5 different women and have an affair with a famous actress. He managed to do more living every week than most of us manage in a lifetime.
Having made and spent several fortunes, he died in poverty on a Gypsy encampment. In spite of these circumstances, his fame was such that when his death was announced every major newspaper in the whole English speaking world carried the news. I can sense some of you thinking “no-one is that famous” and “if he was, why haven’t I heard of him?”
To answer the last question, it is necessary to understand the extraordinary attitudes to him following his death.
There are clearly other contenders but Jem has to be a very strong favourite for being considered the world’s greatest boxer.