George Dixon

George Dixon, boxer (born 29 July 1870 in Africville, NS; died 6 January 1908 in New York, New York). George Dixon was the first Black world champion in boxing history and the first Canadian to ever win a world championship. Despite his small stature (5 feet 3.5 inches and between 87 and 115 pounds), Dixon amassed several notable accomplishments across a 20-year career and was the first boxer to win championships in multiple weight classes — bantamweight (1890) and featherweight (1891–96; 1897; 1898–1900). A cerebral fighter known as a “pioneer of scientific boxing,” he is credited with inventing various fundamental training techniques, including shadowboxing and the use of the heavy bag. As a dominant Black fighter in the post-Civil War United States, Dixon was subjected to fierce racism. He died in poverty from alcoholism at the age of 37. He was an inaugural inductee into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, and was also named to The Ring Magazine Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

George Dixon, boxer (born 29 July 1870 in Africville, NS; died 6 January 1908 in New York, New York). George Dixon was the first Black world champion in boxing history and the first Canadian to ever win a world championship. Despite his small stature (5 feet 3.5 inches and between 87 and 115 pounds), Dixon amassed several notable accomplishments across a 20-year career and was the first boxer to win championships in multiple weight classes — bantamweight (1890) and featherweight (1891–96; 1897; 1898–1900). A cerebral fighter known as a “pioneer of scientific boxing,” he is credited with inventing various fundamental training techniques, including shadowboxing and the use of the heavy bag. As a dominant Black fighter in the post-Civil War United States, Dixon was subjected to fierce racism. He died in poverty from alcoholism at the age of 37. He was an inaugural inductee into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, and was also named to The Ring Magazine Hall of Fame and the International Boxing Hall of Fame.


Early Years

Dixon was born in Africville, Halifax’s Black community. He moved to Boston with his family when he was a child, sometime between 1878 and 1881. As a teenager, he took an interest in photography and served as an apprentice for a local photographer. It was there that local boxers would appear to pose for promotional photos, which served as Dixon’s introduction to the sport.

He was a quick study and took to the ring like a natural. He was incredibly quick, very sound defensively, could bob and weave with ease, and was an explosive counterpuncher with fast hands and surprising power. Dixon’s first official match took place in 1886 at the age of 16 in the bantamweight division. Standing five feet three and weighing a reported 87 pounds at the time, he won by way of knockout.

Career Highlights

In 1888, Dixon won what he believed was the world bantamweight championship title in Boston. However, given a lack of organizational structure within boxing’s global governing bodies, other international fighters, such as England’s Nunc Wallace, claimed the title of “world champ” as well.

In the summer of 1890, Dixon and long-time manager Tom O’Rourke travelled to England to settle the dispute. On 27 June, Dixon defeated Wallace via knockout in 18 rounds to be fully recognized as the world champion. In doing so, Dixon became the first Black fighter to be crowned world champion in boxing history. (This may have made him the first Black athlete to win a championship in any sport.) He was also the first Canadian world champion of any weight class.

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Dixon’s first successful bantamweight title defence came on 23 October 1890, in a brutal, 40-round contest against Johnny Murphy in Providence, Rhode Island. (It remains the world’s longest bantamweight fight.) For Dixon, such long and exhausting matches were common. His stamina was legendary. He often fought bouts much longer than the modern norm, including one of the longest fights on record — a 70-round match that lasted four hours and 37 minutes and ended in a draw. It is estimated that Dixon competed in over 800 amateur and professional fights during his career. 

After reigning over the bantamweight division, Dixon set his sights on the featherweight division, adding weight to his diminutive frame to reach approximately 115 pounds. He vacated his bantamweight title and on 31 March 1891 defeated Cal McCarthy in Troy, New York, to capture the world featherweight championship, becoming the first person to capture world titles in two weight classes. He remained featherweight champ for the better part of nine years.

Dixon’s nickname, “Little Chocolate,” was applied late in his career and first appeared in print in 1896. According to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Dixon retired with a career record of 50 victories, 44 draws, 26 losses and 7 with no decision. 


Racism

As a dominant Black fighter (who was also married to a White woman, his manager’s sister) in the post-Civil War United States, Dixon was regularly subjected to fierce racism. During one tournament at New Orleans’ famed Olympic Club in 1892, Dixon made easy work of White amateur champion Jack Skelly, breaking his opponent’s nose and knocking him out in the eighth round. Fearing riots, mixed-race matches were subsequently banned at the Olympic Club. This further restricted opportunities for up-and-coming Black fighters when the practice was adopted by venues across America.

Innovations

Dixon had great agility and was a natural athlete, but he was also known as a very cerebral fighter. In 1893, he published A Lesson on Boxing, in which he outlined in detail his boxing strategies and punching philosophy. Dubbed “a pioneer of scientific boxing,” Dixon was known as a skilled defensive fighter who preached precision in the ring. His unique training methods — e.g., throwing practice punches with hand weights; using a speed bag attached to the floor to instill advanced footwork; the practice of hitting a heavy bag — laid the foundation for generations of fighters that followed. In one of his primary training methods, Dixon would punch and dodge an imaginary opponent; this would help loosen muscles and recreate fight conditions while training alone. What is known today as “shadowboxing” is widely regarded as Dixon’s invention.


Alcoholism and Death

Despite reportedly earning upwards of US$250,000 during his career, the final chapter of Dixon’s life was spent in abject poverty. His final boxing match was in 1906. Upon retirement, he became caught in the grips of alcoholism while living on the streets of New York City.

According to Steven Laffoley’s biography, Shadowboxing: The Rise and Fall of George Dixon, Dixon died in 1908 in the alcoholism ward at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. His body was interred at Mount Hope Cemetery in Boston. After his death, a memorial fountain was erected in New York City in his honour, though it was later removed due to street construction.

Honours

George Dixon is widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport. The Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer ranked Dixon as the No. 1 bantamweight fighter of all time. In 2017, Dixon was ranked No. 6 in the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame’s list of the top 15 Nova Scotian athletes of all time. The George Dixon Community Centre in Halifax is named in his honour.

Awards

  • Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1955)
  • The Ring Magazine Hall of Fame (1956)
  • Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame (1964)
  • International Boxing Hall of Fame (1990)

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