George Dixon (1870-1908)
Widely regarded as one of the top boxers of the late 19th century, George Dixon was renowned for his stamina, speed, and defence and was the first Black athlete and first Canadian to win a world title. Born in Africville, Halifax, and competing primarily out of the boxing hub of Boston as a bantamweight and featherweight, he became the first fighter to win world titles at multiple weight classes and the first to have multiple reigns with a world title. Credited with inventing shadowboxing, his innovative training techniques improved in-ring performance. Dixon’s technical approach was widely adopted among pugilists of his era and remains central to training regimens of modern boxers. He confronted racial prejudice throughout his life and career, using his platform as world champion to create opportunities for Black boxers and Black boxing fans and regularly used his in-ring earnings to contribute to causes combating discrimination.
Dixon started his boxing training after moving with his family to Boston, Massachusetts. Those around him noticed his natural skill, which included fast feet, a remarkable ability to bob and weave, and incredibly quick hands, all of which made him a very effective defensive fighter. Not the most physically-imposing boxer—he was 5’4” and weighed between 87 and 115 pounds while an active fighter—he used these skills to launch his career.
His first official fight was in 1886 in Halifax, where he knocked out Young Johnson. After fighting exclusively in Boston for the next four years, he travelled to England in 1890 where he knocked out Nunc Wallace in the 18th round to win the undisputed world bantamweight title. With the victory, he became the first Black boxer to win a world title in any weight class. Dixon, who competed primarily in the United States, confronted racism throughout his career, but used his popularity to challenge discrimination. For instance, he regularly got promoters of his fights to reserve seats for Black fans, a practice which was unheard of at the time.
Given the nickname ‘Little Chocolate’, he resigned the bantamweight championship following his only title defence so that he could move up a weight-class. Less than a year later, he beat Australian Abe Willis in San Francisco to claim the world featherweight title, in the process becoming the first boxer to ever hold two different world titles. He would have three separate reigns as featherweight champion, making him the first fighter to lose and regain a title.
Outside the ring, Dixon was known for his innovative training style. His 1893 A Lesson on Boxing outlined many of his strategies, which included using hand weights, a speed bag attached to the floor to improve footwork, and hitting a heavy bag. Arguably his most important innovation, though, was shadowboxing. This technique involves punching and dodging an imaginary opponent, which both builds muscle and recreates fight conditions when training alone. Widely used by future generations, shadowboxing represented a significant innovation to the training regimen of boxers.
Dixon’s last fight was in 1906. He died in Bellevue Hospital in New York City on 6 January 1908. Still a revered figure within boxing at the time of his death, the local New York City boxing community organized a fundraiser to pay his hospital bills and arranged for his body to be interred in Boston’s Mount Hope Cemetery.
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