If you have seen any of the Rocky movies, you might remember how Rocky prepared in the gym. He would bob and weave as if he were actually fighting. He would pummel a heavy bag with punches. He would punch a smaller bag with incredibly quick hands. Those watching a boxing movie may never stop to think about how those training practices began.
The pioneer of scientific boxing was George Dixon. He was born in Nova Scotia Canada in 1870, but his family moved to Boston when he was young. Growing up, he worked as an apprentice for a photographer. This was when he got to know boxers when they needed promotional photographs.
Despite his size (5’3.5” and less than 100lbs), George decided to try his skill at boxing. He won his first fight at the age of 16 by a knockout.
Two years later, George won what was thought to be the bantamweight world championship. Boxing was not well organized as a sport, and another boxer in England claimed that title. To settle who the true champion was, he traveled to England. He defeated the other boxer in an 18-round knockout and became the first Black fighter to be crowned a world champion. It is also believed that he was the first Black athlete to be a world champion in any sport. The year was 1890.
He went on to become a world champion boxer in two weight classes. In his career, he fought in over 800 bouts. Boxing matches at the time were much longer than today. George’s longest fight consisted of 10 rounds, lasting close to 5 hours.
As a Black fighter, with a White wife, George not only had an opponent in the ring but one outside the ring in a number of racist venues. Many White boxers refused to fight him.
The tragedy of George’s life was that he died in poverty due to abuse of alcohol. The year was 1908. He was 38 years old.
At the time, little was known of the dangers of the health effects of repeated blows to the head. Photographs of George showed that he did not wear a helmet. There should be little doubt that his alcoholism was spurred on by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
George Dixon, the pioneer of shadow boxing, was perhaps a pioneer in another way. His tragic death would become an omen of the peril of athletes in many sports where repeated blows to the head are common.
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“A champion doesn’t become a champion in the ring, he’s really recognized in the ring. His ‘becoming’ happens during his daily routine.” – Joe Louis