George Dixon: Boxing’s First African American Champion

George Dixon: Boxing’s First African American Champion

Boxing is one of the world’s oldest sports. Boxing has evolved from a bareknuckle competition held in bars, to a heavily regulated sport that generates thousands of spectators. The highest honour one can achieve in the sport of boxing is becoming a world champion. In Canadian boxing history several champions stand out. In the 1950s George Chuvalo dominated the heavyweight division. In the 1990s and early 2000s Lennox Lewis dominated the heavyweight ranks, while Arturo Gatti held championships in two different weight classes. Today, Adonis Stevenson, Bermane Stiverne and Jelena Mrdjenovich hold WBC championships. But before those champions won their title, a small black boxer from Halifax became the first Canadian boxing champion. George “Little Chocolate” Dixon was not only the first Canadian to win a boxing championship, but also the first black man to win a world championship.  Dixon also become the first man to win a championship in multiple weight classes and the first man to regain a championship after losing it. Dixon was able to achieve his numerous accomplishments in an era of racism that saw many blacks murdered. The racism of the era also saw many decisions go against Dixon. George Dixon’s career achievements and contributions to the sport of boxing make him one of boxing and Canada’s all-time greats.
George Dixon was born on July 29, 1870 in Africville, Nova Scotia, a small black community within Halifax.   Dixon was born to a black mother while his father was a white soldier. Dixon’s family would move from Halifax to Boston when Dixon was a youth. While in Boston, Dixon dropped out of school and became a photographer’s apprentice where he would often take the pictures of local sports stars. When a boxer came to the shop and had his picture taken, Dixon instantly became interested in the sport. Dixon would soon purchase a book on boxing, which he read to gain knowledge of the sport and training techniques.
Dixon would have his first professional fight at the age of 16 in November 1886. The fight took place in Halifax, where it was easier for black boxers to get professional fights. Dixon would easily defeat his opponent with a third round knockout.  Dixon would take eleven months off before collecting his second win. After Dixon won his second bout, he engaged on a more regular fight schedule, winning his sixth straight fight by February 1888.  By the middle of 1888, the undefeated Dixon would have his name thrown into title contention. In May 1888, Dixon fought Tommy “Spider” Kelly for the unofficial paperweight title. The nine round fight was ruled a draw. However, Kelly decided to move up in weight from paperweight to bantamweight, vacating his claim to the unofficial title. With Kelly vacating the title, Dixon lay claim to the unofficial title.  In the early years of Dixon’s career, boxing did not have official champions. Instead boxers would lay claims to titles across the globe and were supported by the media.
Dixon would continue his undefeated streak throughout the rest of 1888. But it would be a long difficult road for Dixon to the top of his division. From June to December 1888, Dixon fought Hank Brennan three times. The first meeting was ruled a draw, despite Dixon recording a knockdown in the bout. Fans demanded a rematch which was set for December 4th. Again the fight was ruled a draw after nine hard fought rounds. On December 28th the pair meet in their third battle. Again the referee would rule the bout a draw. The decision angered the crowd and they decided to storm the ring. The crowd would soon move outside where the fans of the two fighters engaged in a riot which had to be broken up by the Boston police.
By the end of 1888, word quickly spread about Dixon’s ability in the ring, training techniques and physical fitness. Dixon’s defensive skills often brought him attentions as it was uncommon to see fights display any kind of defensive maneuvering, body movement and blocking in their fights. Dixon has also been credited with creating shadowboxing. Shadowboxing is a technique still used today that sees the fighter fight an invisible opponent. Dixon has also been credited with popularizing and introducing training and boxing techniques including endurance and sprints running, use of a punching bag, and combination punching.  Dixon’s training techniques add to his legacy in the sport and his greatness. Many athletes can claim they have had an influence in their sports, but few can make claims such as Dixon who essentially invented the backbone of modern boxing training techniques that are still used today.

The year 1889 would help elevate Dixon to title contender in 1890. Dixon would start the year with two wins and a draw. In March 1889, Dixon would be introduced to Tom O’Rourke while training. Dixon would hire O’Rourke as his manager and trainer. O’Rourke would serve in those positions for the majority of Dixon’s 20 year career. Dixon would suffer his first professional defeat when the referee disqualified him for an unintentional low blow.  Despite the loss, Dixon signed on to fight Brennan for a fourth time on October 14th, 1889. Yet again the pair fought to a draw. However, unlike the previous three fights, the forth fight was much longer and lasted 26 rounds. Dixon scored a knockdown in the 24th round but referee ruled the match a draw much to the dismay of the crowd and both fighters’ corners. Police again were called to break up fights following the boxing affair.  With the success of Dixon’s early career, Tom O’Rourke was able to sign Dixon to fight Eugene Hornbacker in New Haven, Connecticut on December 27, 1889. A win would give Dixon an opportunity to challenge for the bantamweight championship. The bout proved to be easy for Dixon as he knocked Hornbacker down four times in the first round before finishing the fight with a second round knockout.
With the decisive knockout win over Hornbacker, Dixon and bantamweight champion Cal McCarthy agreed to a title fight in Boston on February 7th 1890.   On the day of the fight, both fighters weighted in at 114.5 lbs with McCarthy being a five to one betting favourite.  The betting was another example of how Dixon was forced to fight a system that devalued his accomplishments in the ring and overvalued the in ring accomplishments of white fighters.  The fight between McCarthy and Dixon was a marathon. Both fighters battled back and forth, round after round. In the ninth round, Dixon scored a knockdown. The fight would continue on as both fighters’ faces became bruised, swollen and started to bleed. Dixon would score another knockdown in the 62nd round. The fight would go another eight rounds before it was ruled a draw. The fight went seventy rounds and lasted four hours and forty minutes. Dixon now claimed a share to the bantamweight world title.
In June of 1890, Dixon and O’Rourke made the decision to cross the Atlantic to challenge British bantamweight champion Nunc Wallace. Prior to Dixon, no North American fighter had ever defeated an English champion. Dixon was the only black man allowed in the British club hosting the fight. The fight was a fast paced, hard punching affair with both men scoring knockdowns. However as the fight went on, Dixon began to outclass Wallace, eventually stopping him in the 18th round, for a TKO victory.  The victory gave Dixon claim to the British bantamweight title and became the first North American to go to England and win a title fight. Dixon would return to Boston with his eyes set on two goals, unifying the bantamweight championship and moving up in weight to featherweight and capture the division’s championships.
Dixon and O’Rourke returned to Boston and made a list of opponents they wanted to face in order to lay claims to both the bantamweight and featherweight titles. The list consisted of featherweight champion Johnny Murphy. Cal McCarthy, who Dixon needed to decisively beat to erase any doubts about who the undisputed champion was. The third man on the list was reigning Australian bantamweight champion Abe Willis. Despite returning to Boston, Dixon still suffered from racism. On October 23rd, 1890, Dixon would meet Johnny Murphy in a title fight. Dixon controlled the fight from the beginning. However, Dixon was forced to fight in the center of the ring, as the pro Murphy crowd would make racist chants and hit Dixon in the legs with blackjacks and slug shots anytime he came close to the ropes. In the 37th round, Dixon dropped Murphy to the canvas, before finishing Murphy in the 40th round with a knockout almost two hours after the fight began. Dixon was noted and praised for his ability to keep his composure, despite dealing with racial abuse.
Following Dixon’s victory over Murphy, Dixon looked to the next name on his list and a rematch with Cal McCarthy. The two would meet for the second time on March 31st 1891 in Troy, New York.  In an interview with The Washington Post a day prior to the fight, O’Rourke told the reporter that Dixon was fit and expecting to beat McCarthy in the rematch.  The fight with McCarthy did not go anywhere near as long as the previous seventy round meeting. Dixon knocked McCarthy down in the third round.  In the 22nd round Dixon finished the fight by sending McCarthy to the canvas four times before his corner threw in the towel.

With one name left on his list, Dixon challenged Abe Willis. The two would meet on July 28th 1891 in San Francisco. The Australian champion Willis proved to be little challenge for Dixon. Dixon would make easy work of Willis finishing the fight with a 5th round knockout. To further cement his claims to both the bantamweight and featherweight titles, Dixon would defeat British champion Fred Jackson in 14 rounds.  With Dixon’s dominance in 1890 and 1891 in title fights, Dixon became the first Canadian and black man to be the undisputed and unified bantamweight and featherweight champion of the world. Dixon earned his championships through his talent, training, hard work and overcoming adversity. Dixon proved that he is one of boxing and Canada’s all-time greats. Dixon’s accomplishments are made even more impressive when considering white fighters would refuse to fight blacks and would try to bribe them to take a dive in fights. Dixon’s win made it more socially acceptable for a black man to fight and defeat a white man. With Dixon now the world champion, he was looking to profit.
Dixon would continue to fight frequently in the northeast looking to collect purses for fighting lower level competition and four round exhibitions. Between 1892 and 1893 Dixon fought 32 times in Philadelphia.  In September 1892, New Orleans would host the Carnival of Champions. Dixon would earn his largest career purse of over $17,000 to face Jack Skelly for the featherweight title. The Carnival of Champions generated a record gate receipt on tickets sales for boxing. The event sold 10,000 tickets ranging from five to fifteen dollars. As part of his purse for the event, Dixon made the promoter give one thousand tickets to black fans. But Dixon still had to deal with large amount of racism, including being kicked out of his hotel. Dixon would go on to make easy work of Skelly knocking him out in the tenth round to retain claim to the featherweight title.
Following 1892, Dixon’s career arc would have far more negatives than positives. In the five years following, Dixon would defend his title over 20 times. But Dixon also took part in vaudeville shows as a way to make extra money by fighting multiple times a day against people who wanted to challenge the champion. Dixon began to lose interest in boxing and became more interested in buying and gambling on horses, drinking and women. Dixon struggled with his money often giving money to charity and spending more money than he had. Dixon would lose his second career fight, dropping a fourth round decision to Billy Plimmer.  Dixon would continue to struggle with younger, up and coming fighters while his post-fight drinking and gambling created a negative public appeal. Dixon would be arrested for the third time in this period for drunk and disorderly. By June 1896, Dixon had defended his title over 30 times, however the media was sensing that the once unbeatable Dixon was likely to lose his title soon.
On October 4th 1897, Dixon met Solly Smith for the title. The two had fought four years earlier in Connie Island with Dixon easily defeating Smith in seven rounds.  The rematch between Dixon and Smith would go twenty rounds with Smith winning the title by decision.  Dixon was devastated by the decision and broke down in the locker room to O’Rourke who strongly disagreed with the decision.
After Dixon lost the title, his drinking and finances worsened. However his career arc would have one last positive upswing. Dixon would face Dave Sullivan on November 11, 1898 in New York City. Sullivan had defeated Smith for the featherweight title. In their title fight Dixon showed flashes of his past dominance, eventually knocking Sullivan down in the tenth round before the referee stopped the fight later in the round awarding Dixon a TKO victory. Dixon would go onto defend the title 11 times.  With the win, Dixon became the first person in boxing history to recapture a title they previously held. Dixon would go on to defend his title for over a year. The title win showed the determination and commitment to the sport of boxing that Dixon possessed making him one of the sport’s great championships.
Dixon’s reputation in the ring went past his tremendous skills during his prime. Dixon was regarded as a polite boxer who followed the rules, did not a seek fame or over celebrate his victories. Dixon accepted every challenger who wanted to fight and although it is unknown how many fights Dixon actually fought, it is believed to be over 700.
In late 1899, Dixon noticed a sharp drop off in his speed, technique and punching power despite winning several more fights. Dixon declared his fight with Terry McGovern would be his last fight. McGovern and Dixon meet on January 9th 1900, with McGovern being the betting favourite. The fight saw McGovern dominate Dixon in the same manor Dixon had dominated his opponents earlier in his career. McGovern would win by seventh round TKO after O’Rourke threw in a towel following multiple knockdowns of Dixon. The knockout ended Dixon’s run as champion, a title he had held for nine of his 13 years as a professional fighter. Dixon retired following the loss.  At the time of his retirement Dixon was considered the greatest fighter of his weight classes and one of the greatest boxers to ever fight.
After a two month retirement, Dixon made a comeback with little success, forever tarnishing his legacy. After losing a fight in September, Dixon promised to retire again, but was back boxing two months later. Dixon would continue to drink more and train less as his losses continued to pile up. The once great Dixon was broke and had no big purses coming in from his fights. By 1902, Dixon’s relationships with Tom O’Rourke and his wife Kitty O’Rourke had deteriorated with both leaving Dixon.
By July 1902, Dixon relocated to England in an attempt to use his past fame to chase bigger purses. Dixon continued to lose the majority of his fights and was too poor to return to Boston. It was not until a politician visiting England paid for Dixon ticket home before Dixon could leave England. In August 1905, Dixon return to Boston and rehired O’Rourke as his manager. Dixon would continue to lose almost all of his fights.  Dixon would fight his last fight in December 1906 losing in fifteen round decision to an unknown opponent and finally retired for good. Not too long after his last fight, Dixon was living and begging on the streets of New York with no friends. Attempts by Dixon’s fans to get Dixon back on his feet failed and the media reported the end was near for the former champion who had fallen on dark times.
Dixon would die January 6th 1908 in the alcohol ward of Bellevue Hospital. Dixon would tell doctors he had no friends except for former heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan.  The death of Dixon was a sad end to one of boxing’s great fighters who didn’t know how to handle his money and retired six years too late. The late career of George Dixon is not unlikely many boxers who stay around for one too many fights to collect the paycheck such as Muhammad Ali. Ali was a similar iconic champion to Dixon. Ali became the first man to capture multiple reigns with the heavyweight title. Ali notoriously come out of retirement to accept a one million dollar payday only to be knocked out by Larry Holmes.
Despite Dixon’s incredibly depressing life and career following Dixon’s loss to McGovern, Dixon’s career still remains one of boxing’s all-time greats. No champion in history has defended their title more often than Dixon. The life and career of George Dixon changed the sport of boxing both technically and socially.  Dixon’s in-ring and conditioning techniques are still used today by modern boxers. While socially, Dixon made it acceptable for black boxers to fight and defeat white boxers in an era of heavy racism. The accomplishments of Dixon in training and in-ring success make Dixon one of boxing and Canada’s all-time great athletes.

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

The Globe, “Boxing. George Dixon is Dead.” The Globe, January 7, 1908.

The Washington Post, “George Dixon in Fighting Trim.” The Washington Post, March 31, 1891.

The Washington Post, “GEORGE DIXON THE WINNER: Solly Smith Defeated After Seven Hard-fought Rounds. THOUSANDS SAW THE FIGHT The Colored Boy Showed His Superiority All Through, and by His Cleverness Retains the Feather-weight Championship of the World—Smith Made a Game Struggle, but He Was Unable to Withstand the Terrible Left-hand Punches of Dixon. SOLLY SMITH ARRESTED. DIXON’S COLORED ADMIRERS OVERJOYED.” The Washington Post. September 26, 1893.

Secondary Sources:

In Collaboration, “Dixon, George,” Dictionary of Canadian Bibliography, vol. 13. University of Toronto/ University Laval, (1994). http://www.biographi.ca.libproxy.wlu.ca/en/bio/dixon_george_1870_1908_13E.html (accessed November 25, 2014).

Callis, Tracy., and Johnston, Chuck. Boxing in the Los Angeles Area, 1880 – 2005. Trafford Publishing, 2009.

Callis, Tracy., Hasson, Chuck., and Delisa, Mike. Philadelphia’s Boxing Heritage 1876 – 1976. Arcadian Publishing, 2002.

Glenn, Mike. “George Dixon: World Bantamweight and Featherweight Champion.” In The First Black Boxing Champions: Essays on Fighters of the 1800s to the 1900s, edited by Colleen Aycock and Mark Scott, 48 – 59, McFarland, January 2011.

Kirsch, George B., Harris, Othello., and Nolte, Claire Elaine. Encyclopedia of Ethnicity and Sports in the United States. Greenwood Publishing Group, January 2000.

Laffoley, Steven. Shadowboxing the Rise and Fall of George Dixon. Pottersfield Press, 2012.

Somrack, F. Daniel. Boxing in San Francisco. Arcadian Publishing, October 2004.

Smith, Kevin. Boston’s Boxing Heritage: Prizefighting from 1882 to 1955. Arcadian Publishing, October 2002.

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