To watch a modern-day heavyweight boxing contest is to watch two human goliaths go toe-to-toe. Current champion, Tyson Fury, is almost 6 foot 8 inches tall and weighs in and around 18 stone for most of his fights.
His rivals, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, are marginally smaller, but both possess freakish strength, an otherworldly mix of athleticism and power which draws audiences like moths to a flame, the promise of blood and brutality impossible to resist.
When these men share a ring the canvas must be fortified in advance, the ropes made extra taut, the arena soundproofed lest the reverberations cause its foundations to crumble.
Yet it wasn't always like this, heavyweight boxing wasn't always the preserve of the genetically blessed. A little over 100 years ago one of the contenders for the sport's blue riband belt stood 5 feet 7 inches in height and weighed the scales at just over 13 stone.
What's more he was from Wexford.
Born in Ballinclay, Glynn on September 5, 1878, Jem Roche would reach the very pinnacle of boxing, challenging for the world heavyweight title in Theatre Royal in Dublin in 1908.
But his childhood offered no indication of what was to come. The first of five children born to John and Mary (neé Moran) Roche, Jem attended the Christian Brothers School where a passion for another sport was nurtured.
An enthusiastic and skilled gaelic footballer, the teenager became a member of the Young Ireland's Gaelic Football Club and would go on to win a provincial title with the Selskar-based team.
This love of the round ball would continue throughout Jem's life and he was part of the backroom staff of Wexford's 1918 All-Ireland football champions. His other passion as a young man was music and he played trombone with the Holy Family Confraternity Brass and Reed Band in Wexford town. Upon leaving school Jem became an apprentice blacksmith at William Haughton's forge in Abbey Steet, moving on to work with Mike Carton in Scarawalsh and Willie Carroll in Cleariestown.
It was perhaps here that his innate strength was first noted, the wielding of heavy tools, including the sledgehammer, coming naturally to the future fighting champion. Even so, his first foray into the sport was purely accidental, a twist of fate which altered his life irreversibly.
During of evening of rehearsals with the Confraternity Band in the Arts Centre, Jem, then aged 17, was interrupted by a messenger and informed he was to hotfoot it to the Town Hall in Cornmarket.
A boxing tournament was being held there and one of the fighters had failed to turn up. With his reputation as a tough blacksmith already 'forged', the teenager was thrust into the fray, deemed the perfect man to fill the void left by the no-showing boxer.
Having answered the call, Jem faced down his opponent, 27 year-old Billy Murphy. An established fighter, a local pugilist with years of experience. Given the circumstances, and the callowness of the late replacement, Murphy must surely have expected an easy night's work.
However, the debutante made light of the odds and knocked out his more venerated opponent, taking the first step on a career which would bring him fame and success throughout the country.
Unlike Fury, Joshua and Wilder, Jem would never make his fortune in the ring and continued his work as a blacksmith while blazing a trail through the Irish heavyweight scene. Over the next six years he fought in tournaments across the South-East, winning the majority of his bouts by knockout. As previously mentioned he was relatively small in stature, especially for a heavyweight, but he used his supposed shortcomings to his advantage, relying on speed and fleet footedness to evade larger, clumsier fighters before sending them to the canvas with devastating counter punches.
And in 1900, at the age of 22, he became heavyweight champion of Ireland, knocking out Jack Fitzpatrick in four rounds. His prowess in the ring drew the attention of British promoters and later that same year he travelled to London to knock out Tom Davis in the third round of an international heavyweight bout. His winning streak continued with knockout victories over US amateur heavyweight champion, Joe Hagan, and British Army Champion, Corporal McFadden, before he lost and then regained his Irish title in bouts with John Sullivan.
Today, championship fights are scheduled for a maximum of 12 rounds, but there were no such limitations placed on men like Jem Roche. His first fight with Sullivan went the distance, a full 20 rounds, the title changing hands as Jem lost out on a judge's decision. The rematch ended when Jem knocked out Sullivan in the 18th round. In their third and final encounter, the Wexford man settled the dispute once and for all with a points win after 20 rounds of sustained action.
By this point Jem had become something of a local celebrity and regularly featured in the sporting pages of local, national and, occasionally, international newspapers. Despite his burgeoning success and growing fame he remained a humble and modest man, as happy to shoot the breeze with his fellow blacksmiths as he was to talk boxing with ardent admirers.
That fame was to reach its apex in 1908 when, after years of hard campaigning, Jem finally secured a shot at the big one, the World Heavyweight title.
Due to take place on St. Patrick's Day in Dublin, Jem's opponent was French Canadian, Tommy Burns - if that name doesn't sound very French or very Canadian, that's because it wasn't. Burns had been born Noah Brusso but opted to change his name so that his mother wouldn't hear about his exploits in the ring. If Burns fought under a cover of secrecy, Jem Roche was the polar opposite.
His popularity knew no bounds and an army of Wexicans travelled to the capital for the big fight, confident they would be taking the world title home with them. As previously stated, Jem was not your average heavyweight boxer and, even by the standards of that time, was considered 'diminutive'. But in Burns he found a suitable dance partner, a man only marginally taller, and a man who, like Jem, had made a career out of knocking out larger opponents.
The champion was viewed as a 'wizard of the ring', a slick stylist who had even written a book on the art of fighting. He favoured a measured approach, drawing opponents in before finishing them off with devastating counter-punches,
And it was to be one of these which put paid to Jem within the opening round. The following is part of a report published in The Wexford People the day after the contest.
'Burns opened up the fight, he held his fists high up and had them moving in weaving fashion as if he were indulging in mesmeric passes, whilst he continued an encircling movement and treaded his way in and out.
'Then availing of an opening caused by Jem lunging with his left, he flashed in a short arm right twisting punch, which caught Jem between the left ear and eye, and he sank to the ground. It could not be described as a fall; he was on his elbows and knees, but his head rested on the floor of the ring. As if to shake off the stunning effect of the blow, he rocked and struggled to raise himself by the aid of the ring ropes, but slipped back again, and by the time he got to his feet, ten had been counted. No one was more surprised than Burns at the swiftness of his victory; his deftly delivered punch for which he was famous - and it never travelled so far - had rendered the Irishman incapable of rising in time to continue the fight. This chance blow had deprived him of his prospects in the World's Championship Contest.'
At the time it was the quickest knock out in heavyweight boxing history, the referee calling a halt to the contest after 88 seconds. Despite the disappointing outcome, Jem's public remained loyal to their man, the prevailing wisdom being that he had simply been caught with a lucky punch.
Later Roche's response was simple and honest, 'I was just feeling my way before he caught me - testing his methods and sizing him up - when he sent over a twisting right which upset me.'
It was to be Jem's only shot at a world title. He held his Irish title until 1910 and continued to fight until 1913 when he ended his career with a knock out win over a familiar foe, John Sullivan.
Jem Roche retired with a record of 30 wins (23 by KO), 7 losses, and one draw. Whereas many of his contemporaries fell into debt and ill-health at the end of their careers (Tommy Burns among them), Jem flourished. He opened his own pub on South Main Street and trained both local boxers and the county footballers - helping the latter to the All-Ireland title in 1918.
Having grown tired of the publican life he sold the bar and took up as a bookmaker, quickly becoming a regular fixture at local racecourses and greyhound tracks.
He also retained his blacksmith's forge in Slaney Street and at one stage founded a boxing club in Selskar which proved to be a saviour for many Wexford youngsters. His final job was as manager of a commission agent, a role he fulfilled until his untimely death in 1934 at the age of 57. Like many men of that era, and indeed many men of today, Jem bore whatever ailments came his way in silence.
And so, having suffered a serious cut to his foot, Jem chose not to see a doctor, and instead continued about his business, confident the laceration would heal by itself. He walked to work every day, ignoring the pain and the discomfort, until eventually he was taken to Wexford Hospital where it was discovered the injury had become gangrenous and there was nothing which could be done to save his life.
Jem Roche died on November 28, 1934 and was survived by his wife Bridget, daughter Molly, and sons Laurance, John, Pierce and Seamus.
Huge crowds attended his removal and at his funeral on the Friday morning at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Rowe Street where the Funeral Mass was celebrated by Fr. Michael J. O'Neill, Parish Administrator. The funeral cortege was headed by a piper's band and a guard of honour included his former manager, Nicholas Tennant.
A lorry filled with floral wreaths was also in the funeral procession as it wended its way through the silent streets to Jem Roche's final resting place at St. Ibar's Cemetery.
In 1961 a memorial plaque was erected in the Bullring, Wexford to honour this proud sporting son of Wexford. The inscription reads as follows:
'To perpetuate the memory of Jem Roche, Wexford, Undefeated Irish Boxing Champion who died 28 November 1934. "A great fighter, great sportsman, but greater still in his own simplicity and modesty". Erected by his many admirers.'
But the story doesn't end there. Jem's grandson, local playwright, Billy Roche, explains how boxing have become ingrained in the family's heritage.
'Boxing is very much in our family, and Jem is always in there at the forefront of our minds,' Billy says. 'My father, Pierce, was also a professional fighter and he also became Irish champion. We all did a bit of boxing growing up, I fought myself but was never very good at it.'
Although he and the rest of Jem's extended family take great pride in seeing the plaque in the Bullring, Billy believes more needs to be done to preserve the legacy of his grandfather.
'He deserves a statue, this man was the father of boxing in Wexford. If you go back in time and read the news articles you will see how he set the country alight, not just Wexford but all over. He was the Barry McGuigan of his day.'
With thanks to Liam Gaul