Hey Joe, where you going with no gloves on your hands?


The first official entry on Irishman Joe Coburn’s boxing CV lists his professional debut as a clash with England’s Ned Price at Spy Pond outside Boston in 1856. Although some say referee Louis Bleral declared that contest a controversial draw to save himself the large sum he’d wagered on the outcome, all present testified that they received value for money.  Coburn and Price traded punches for, depending on which account you believe, 106 or 160 rounds. The placement of the zero scarcely matters. Either number captures the spirit of the time.

More than a century and half after a nearly four-hour epic that would go down in fistic lore and prompt Price to walk away from fighting, Coburn was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York this week. In a class set to be headlined posthumously by the great Arturo Gatti, Coburn’s presence is an acknowledgement of his role in the early days of a sport where the Irish contribution was at that time always outsized.

If the press release heralding him as a boxing pioneer listed him as a native of Middletown, County Armagh, there is a rival claim alleging he was born in Carrickedmond, County Louth on July 29th, 1835 before the family moved north. Either way, he sailed to America in 1850 with his mother Mary, his brothers James and Michael, and his sister Mary-Anne. The teenage boy started his working life as a bricklayer but, like so many Irish in the second half of the 19thcentury in New York, bareknuckle boxing became his vocation.

“His superiority in the ring is is due mainly to his quickness of movement, not his physical strength,” went a report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “He delivers a blow like a pistol shot and jumps back in an instant, and is on his guard before his opponent can return the compliment, inflicting punishment without receiving any in return.”

After that impressive professional bow against Price, Coburn’s career suffered over the next few years from the disorganization and chaos that afflicted the fight game in that era. Even Cyberboxingzone.com, the pre-eminent boxing history site lists encounters on his resume where the opponents and the outcomes remain unknown. Still, there is no question that in 1862, he took possession of the Heavyweight Championship of America after John C. Heenan refused to get in the ring with him, an event recorded in a song the opening verse of which reads:

“You gallant sons of Paddy’s land I hope you will draw near
It’s of an Irish Champion brave I mean to let you hear,
His name it is Joe Coburn from Erin’s fertile shore
He has now challenged Heenan for £10,000 and more.”

He held the title for three years and his reign showcased all the problems that would afflict boxing forever after. After defeating Mike McCoole in another 67-round classic of the genre in Charlestown, Maryland in 1867, all attempts to get it on with Tom King and Jem Mace, the best of the Englishmen at the time, were thwarted. When Mace refused to fight in America, Coburn went back to Ireland in 1863 to try to arrange a bout there. Following protracted negotiations, a venue was settled upon, Pierstown, Wexford, but the two camps couldn’t agree on a referee. An all too familiar tale.

By the time they eventually fought in 1871, Mace was the champion of the world. Having surrendered his own title in 1865, Coburn’s two fights against his English rival both ended in draws, one in bizarre circumstances when the police intervened.  Thereafter, his career declined and his life took what was an all too typical turn for boxers in New York in the 1870s. He ended up in court for shooting at two policemen in the city, an event which, demonstrating his celebrity, drew hundreds of onlookers to the trial each day. Sentenced to ten years hard labour, he ended up serving only five but his propensity for violence had become part of the public record.

“Joe Coburn used to clean out a bar-room in this city,” went a report in the New York Times in 1883. “Who ever heard of Joe using his fists in his unnumbered broils? Pistols, beer glasses, bottles or anything that might do injury if hurled in a certain direction, were his weapons.”

When he got out of jail a year before that withering account of his reputation, there was such goodwill towards him that a benefit night was held at Madison Square Garden, the expressed purpose of which was to make him enough money to fund the purchase of an up-town saloon. Acknowledging his previous issues, he vowed never to touch drink again himself because it had caused him so much grief. On that particular evening, more than 3000 turned up, some of them paying way over the odds to bolster the coffers, to witness an event the highlight of which was Coburn sparring several rounds against John L. Sullivan, then champion of the world and the most famous athlete in America at that time.

There were several more exhibitions against Sullivan over the next few months and later, Coburn took part in some experimental bouts where the fighters wore gloves which had been soaked in a preparation of lamp-black so that spectators could better see punches landing.  Before his death from pneumonia in 1890, there were also further altercations with the law, the charges ranging from robbery to public drunkenness. When they came to read the citation explaining his entry into the boxing canon this weekend, they should have recited some of the lyrics from “The Cowardly Englishman”, a song about Coburn’s challenge to Jem Mace.

“My age is nine-and-twenty and my weight eleven stone,
I’m five feet eleven and a half in height and Irish every bone,
I never met a bully yet of fifteen stone or more,
Was ever fit to conquer me all on Columbia’s shore…”



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