WITH close cropped hair and staring from under hooded and scarred brows, the fighter strikes a traditional pose. The poker face betrays burning self-belief and belligerence. This is Birmingham’s Jem Carney, a 5ft 4ins bundle of fury who featured in one of ring history’s most brutal, bloody and controversial battles – a 74-round, three-hour epic that should have been rewarded with the world lightweight title.
Instead, what unfolded on that November night in the incongruous setting of a Revere, Massachusetts, barn – a band playing to mask the illegal gathering – has seeped into fight infamy.
With American champ Jack McAuliffe exhausted and battered near senseless, his anxious backers stormed the ring.
Fearing a riot and the arrival of law enforcement officers, the referee decided on diplomacy and declared a draw. At 4am on November 16, 1887, West Midlands terrier Carney became the recipient of boxing’s first major trans-Atlantic robbery.
Carney, now near completely forgotten, was not a particularly nice individual. He was unlikely to land a part in panto. He possessed a white-hot temper, was a feared street fighter and mastered every dirty trick in the book.
Carney was a product of his surroundings. As a child, he fought hunger. Parents Michael and Mary brought their brood to Birmingham as the potato famine took its toll.
As an impoverished street urchin, Carney battled prejudice from those who resented the flood of immigrants from Ireland. As an athlete, he fought pain near beyond endurance. Of his July 1880 draw with George “Punch” Callow – an open-air contest that took place in quagmire conditions – one sports scribe wrote: “It became an obscene battle fought at the extremities of human durability and stamina.” Like what would transpire in eight years’ time, it was reported that it lasted 74 rounds. Rounds were different back then of course, the timings of them nowhere near as strict as they are today. Even so, it was still an unthinkably long time to be fighting. Jem boxed most of that marathon with a broken hand.
As a boxer, Carney tasted tragedy. In a woodland clearing in Cuttle Mills, Sutton Coldfield, on October 7, 1881, he mercilessly hammered blows at Jimmy Highland’s midriff. With his ribcage smashed, brave Jimmy could, by the 43rd round, fight no more. He died of internal injuries three days later and Carney was charged with manslaughter.
As a boxer, he faced prison. He was acquitted of the charge, but served six months for taking part in a prizefight.
Back then, society didn’t ban the sport because of risks to participants. It was the corruption, theft and public disorder that went hand-in-glove with matches that MPs took issue over.
The hardships prepared Carney for the bloodbath against McAuliffe, a man seen as the bright future of the game: he used science and footwork, not savagery.
Carney, mean as a scrapyard dog, sailed to the States to shame the Golden Boy into meeting him.
He made American fans stand up and take notice by facing Jimmy Mitchell, the American champ who bragged he’d never been dropped.
On a barge 30 miles up river from Long Island, on June 18, 1887, Jem sent him sprawling time and again. With Mitchell down four times, his corner called surrender in the 11th round. Carney received 2,000 dollars for victory in a fight referred to as a world title fight in some record books.
According to the Evening Bulletin, fans present witnessed “the greatest fight ever seen in this country.”
The American public wanted McAuliffe to put the Birmingham upstart in his place. It was the dawn of the gloved era, but only just. In front of a select audience in the secret location, the gladiators wore tight gloves reported to weigh only three ounces.
That audience so nearly witnessed the early, emphatic McAuliffe victory they craved. Carney was dropped three times in the first by his laughing, taunting opponent. Frustrated by the dancing figure before him, Jem demanded McAuliffe stand and fight. “I’ll give you enough by and by,” sneered his tormentor.
Gradually, Carney’s body shots took their toll. The young upstart was slowing, his counters were no longer razor sharp. The smile had left his face.
For Carney, however, there were still crises to overcome. According to the Somerset Herald – that’s Somerset, Massachusetts – he suffered “a terrible right-hander to the bridge of the nose which split the organ open”. That didn’t bother Jem – he’d spent a lifetime tasting his own blood.
McAuliffe was dropped in the 15th and, from then on, both took turns to stagger each other.
The fight was now in the trenches and Jem thrived on trench warfare.
“Carney,” wrote the St Paul Daily Globe, “is undoubtedly one of the wickedest fighters in the world. Several times his seconds and the referee had their hands full to prevent his losing on a foul by kicking or striking his opponent who, from the 20th round on, tried to win on a foul.”
The American feigned a low blow, then attempted to get his opponent slung out for biting. Carney simply grinned, flashed a bloody smile and explained to the ref he’d lost his teeth some rounds earlier.
By the 45th round, McAuliffe was near done – yet he battled on against an opponent whose left eye was closed tight.
“The 62nd round was marked by terrific exchanges,” reported The Herald. “Both fought like demons and took their punishment like men of iron.”
McAuliffe’s fans first stormed the ring in that round and Carney was at the forefront of the melee, shoving them back.
“In the 71st, 72nd and 73rd,” wrote the Globe, “it was a plain case of ‘win, wrangle or tie’ on the part of the McAuliffe party. McAuliffe was a gone man and he wanted his friends to give in for him, for Carney knocked him down repeatedly and chased him all around the ring.”
The badly injured boxer was finally saved in the 74th session, with another invasion destroying the ring completely. The barn owner, having been tipped off the building would be torched if Carney won, demanded an end. The referee, with a full-blown brawl on his hands, happily agreed.
Carney, who died in London on September 11, 1941, aged 84, had risked life and limb for nothing.
He had only one more competitive fight after McAuliffe, losing on a foul for throwing his opponent to the floor.
In January, 1889, it was reported he had retired and opened a pub in Cardiff. Make no mistake, when Carney shouted time at the bar, the punters finished their drinks sharpish.