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Combat Sports History: George Dixon, the first Black world champion in any sport

Born in 1870, the Canadian boxer also became the first man to hold the title in multiple weight classes.

World Boxing Champion
 George Dixon poses for a portrait circa-1890. Dixon was the first Black world boxing champion in any weight class. 
Photo by: FCA Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images

George Dixon was born in Africville, Nova Scotia’s Black community, in 1870, although he moved with his family to Boston when he was around ten years old. It was in Boston, working as a photographer’s assistant, that he was introduced to the sport of boxing, as the studio was frequented by boxers getting promotional photos taken. George was a natural, and had his first fight at age 16. At 5’3,” he fought as a bantamweight and won by knockout.

Dixon’s career would span twenty years and 163 fights, with 74 wins—36 of those coming by knockout.

In 1888, Dixon won the world championship bantamweight title in Boston. The only problem was, Englishman Nunc Wallace also claimed to be champion of the world. Dixon and his manager, Tom O’Rourke, traveled to London to settle the issue. Dixon won by knockout after 18 rounds, becoming the first Black world champion in any sport, as well as the first Canadian world champion.

Dixon achieved another first by becoming the first fighter to hold the belt in multiple weight classes, in bantamweight and featherweight. Ring Magazine named him the greatest featherweight of all time.

Another first was achieved in 1899, as Dixon defended the featherweight belt. His opponent, Young Pluto (real name, Joseph Brown), was also Black, and the fight marked the first time two Black men fought for a world championship.

Although these bullet points facts are impressive, perhaps even more notable is the tremendous impact Dixon had on the way fighters fight. Known as the “pioneer of cerebral boxing,” Dixon not only revolutionized technique within the ring, he changed the way fighters train. Dixon is credited with developing and popularizing shadowboxing and use of the heavy bag, as well as a speed bag attached to the floor to improve footwork.

Dixon wrote a book about the sport in 1893, A Treatise on Boxing. In it, Dixon advocates an elegant approach in the ring, with a sophisticated understanding of boxing which belies the notion that early fighters were just slugging it out.

Although the fight is from the very end of his career, when Dixon was long out of his prime, footage of Dixon in the ring still exists.

Despite Dixon’s success in the ring and his marriage to Kitty O’Rourke, his manager’s sister, Dixon’s life was marked by the times in which he lived. Post-Civil War America was rife with fierce racism, and Dixon’s career was a lightning rod for this hate. Dixon participated in a “Carnival of Champions” at the Olympia Club in New Orleans. When Dixon beat the brakes off Jack Skelly, his white opponent, the reaction of the crowd was so dangerously intense that many promotions put a halt to mixed-race bouts.

Although Dixon successfully defended his belts many times, his career took a turn in 1900. He would never regain the world championship, and went on multiple losing streaks. Dixon also struggled with addiction, both to gambling and alcohol. He continued to fight until 1906. Not long after he retired, he was destitute, living and begging on the streets of New York City. Dixon had earned over $250,000 in his career, equivalent to a little over $8 million today.

Dixon died on January 6, 1909, in the alcohol ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave.

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