BASN Book Excerpts: Boxing In The Shadows

By Tom Donelson
Updated: February 5, 2007

NOTE: Later this month, boxing contributor Tom Donelson will be releasing a book entitled “Boxing in the Shadows”, a history on the plight of African-American fighters. Over the next four weeks, BASN will be featuring excerpts from Donelson’s book.

Today: George Dixon, the first black champion.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — In 1888, George Dixon traveled to London , England to make history. When Nunc Wallace hit the canvas for good in the 18th round, this Canadian fighter became the first black man to ever hold a championship belt.

George Dixon held the featherweight championship belt at a time when black fighter Peter Jackson was denied a shot at the heavyweight division and became a champion 57 years before Jackie Robinson played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Nicknamed “The Little Chocolate”, Dixon gained admiration for his skills even among many of the white reporters of his day. Boxing historian Tracy Callis wrote, “Dixon won nearly 90 percent of the draws and losses on his record, but due to various reasons.”

“He did not get credit for a win; e.g. racial attitude of the times judged him as loser instead of winner (in some bouts), he had to carry opponents in order to get fights, as well as specific rules for a given fight – i.e. the verdict would be draw if no knockout was scored.”

Despite the racial bias of his day, Dixon managed to control the featherweight title for nearly a decade.

Beginning his career as a bantamweight, Dixon moved up quickly to the featherweights and fought the rest of his career at this weight.

Even at this weight, he was often outweighed by his opponents and rarely fought above 118 pounds in a division where the top weight was 126 pounds.

He first laid claim to the title when he stopped Abe Willis in the fifth round in San Francisco. He solidified his claim when he stopped Cal McCarthy in a rematch and knocked out Fred Johnson the following year to ensure his undisputed claim as king of the 126-pound division.

Dixon’s reign of the featherweight crown was split into two parts. His first reign ended on October 4, 1897 when he lost a 20 round decision to Solly Smith in San Francisco .

He regained his crown when he stopped Dave Sullivan in New York the following year. This later reign would last nearly two years before “Terrible” Terry McGovern knocked out Dixon in the eighth round — the first time that Dixon was stopped in a regulation bout. (Dixon claimed that McGovern came in over the weight limit. He would also lose a non-title rematch to McGovern later.)

Dixon tried one more time to gain back the title when McGovern vacated it. He fought Abe Attell twice within eight days. The first bout was a 20 round draw. This bout was followed by an Attell decision victory a week later.

What made Dixon unique was his style. He did not base his style upon strength but speed, quickness and elusiveness. Some dubbed his style the “black school of pugilism” and his influence extended to some of the early greats.

Jersey Joe Walcott, one of the great black fighters of the early 20th century, shared the same manager as Dixon, and Joseph Gans was a personal friend of Dixon’s. Gans studied under Dixon , and Jack Johnson picked up much of Dixon’s style by training with Walcott.

Dixon depended on an excellent jab to set up the rest of his punches, with his best punch being a straight right to the chin.

Dixon mixed in a strong left hook for infighting with his hand speed often proving decisive. His favorite combination featured a left jab to the face followed by a right to the body ending with another sharp jab to the face.

He helped introduce jabbing and feinting to the sweet science and was a great infighter as well. If he had an opponent on the rope, he rapped the opponent with a series of devastating, fast body shots.

His defensive skills included dodging and blocking his opponent’s blows. Ring Magazine Nat Fleischer wrote that Dixon was a “a marvel of cleverness, yet he could hit and slug with the best of them.”

“He was fast, tricky, combative, canny, courageous, a master in every respect of the art of self-defense, a great ring general. His left hand was one of the best in the business. His double left to the body has never been equaled. His right was equally good.”

“The Little Chocolate” could not escape the racism of his day. Dixon fought in the three-day Carnival of Champions at the Olympia Club in New Orleans to meet with most of boxing’s top contenders.

In one match, Dixon fought the amateur champion Jack Skelly with Dixon giving the poor Skelly a boxing lesson. Controlling the action from the beginning, Dixon broke Skelly’s nose and finished him off in the eighth.

The white crowd reacted with disgust, and the police were called to keep the peace. After that point, the Olympia club refused to conduct mixed race bouts. This bout helped to limit black fighters’ access to other main events during that era.

Dixon’s manager, Tom O’Rourke declared, “Of all the fighters I have seen none can compare to Dixon in all around fighting ability.”

“What a wonderful left hand! What a double corking punch to the head and body! What a fighting heart and fighting head! What a superb, all around mastery of the manly art he possessed!”

Boxing historian Herbert Goldman noted that Dixon “fought on the balls of his feet.” This enabled Dixon to exhibit excellent footwork and allowed him to avoid punches, while enhancing his overall defensive skills.

Historian Tracy Callis added, “Dixon was one of the all-time ring greats; He had fast hands and was quick on his feet like a cat.”

“On offense, he hit with both hands but mostly utilized a long, straight left accompanied by a stiff right. On defense, he guarded himself well; His quickness and ducking ability made him a difficult target to strike.”

Even the white press of his era conceded his greatness. The Police Gazette, which was boxing’s leading journal of its day, reported, “Nearly every time Dixon has been pitted against a champion, no matter whether foreign or native, the majority has named Dixon the loser, probably through prejudice, owing to his color, yet he has won.”

The newspaper noted that Dixon was robbed of many decisions including his 20-round draw with Abe Attell in their first fight. Dixon knocked Attell down in the first round, and newspaper accounts of the third round held that when they got in a fierce mix, “Dixon seemed to have the better of the going.”

Dixon staggered Attell in the eighth round and was the stronger fighter at the end. The referee called the match a draw. He should have been a three-time champion but after his second fight with Attell, Dixon never seriously contended for a title.

In his 1891 fight with Cal McCarthy, Dixon had to knock McCarthy out twice! In the third round, Dixon knocked McCarthy out cold but the referee allowed McCarthy’s corner to revive their fighter.

(The fight, held in London , was not fought entirely by the Marquis of Queensbury rules that forbid this activity. The London rules of boxing allowed for the corner to revive their fighter.) This only delayed the inevitable as Dixon eventually stopped McCarthy.

In the late 19th century, there were no boxing sanctioning bodies, and gamblers often controlled the sport. Dixon found himself at a disadvantage when it came to judging. He clearly won many of his draws; but depending upon the rules agreed upon, the result would be entered into the book as a draw.

He defeated and drew with some of the greats of his day including Nunc Wallace, Young Griffo, Solly Smith, as well as future lightweight champions, Frank Erne, Abe Attell and Jem Driscoll.

Dixon fought in 150-recorded fights; but it has been said that he fought in over 800 bouts unofficially. He participated in as many as 33 Championship fights and ended his career in 1906. He died penniless three years later.

Nat Fleischer summed up his career when he observed, “I doubt ever in the history of pugilism has there ever been a fighter of his weight who engaged in so many thrilling battles, most of them finish fights, and yet he was able to remain at the height of his power for so long.”

Dixon was a pioneer in many ways. He impacted an entire generation of black fighters with his style, and in the process brought science to boxing.

NEXT WEEK: The Lewis-Schmeling fights.