1886: Slavery had only been abolished for two decades, and Black men and women were being lynched for nothing more than the colour of their skin. Halifax-native George Dixon, born and raised in Africville in the city’s north end, fought his first boxing match of a long and illustrious career that would take him all over the US and across the Atlantic, where he was the first North American to successfully challenge an English boxer.
At a time when boxing was evolving, and was often a deliberately over-looked illegal activity, Dixon would rise to be champion in multiple weight categories and become one of the wealthiest and most lauded Black men of the era. Twenty-two years later, at age 37, he died in obscurity and poverty in the alcoholic ward of New York’s notorious Bellevue Hospital. A man ahead of his time, able to transcend his colour and his humble upbringing, to survive in a society rife with racism, he was the first and greatest Black boxer of all time. And yet George Dixon’s story has been lost to history, obscured by others – Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Leonard to name a few- who only trod in the footsteps he printed across the sport. Until now.
Shadowboxing by Halifax author Steven Laffoley is the award-winning, first biography of the rise and fall of a complex, fascinating and flawed athlete, credited with pioneering many of the techniques still in use today. Well-researched and well-written, Laffoley weaves Dixon’s story with the brutal details: Black people were murdered – lynched by white men never brought to justice. In this culture, Dixon dared to fight and beat white men, and it is a testament.to his carefully honed skills and innate talent, that he could risk the hatred faced by people of colour.
I have to admit, I have no interest in the sport of boxing; this book was far outside my usual genre. However, Laffoley has written such a deeply personal and engaging look at a daring man – daring to defy colour boundaries, daring to love a white woman, daring to push himself to the pinnacle of his sport – that I was completely gripped. The details of Dixon’s boxing matches are so engrossing, that despite not knowing anything about boxing going into this, I was able to understand and even enjoy the accounts, and found myself cheering Dixon on. It was a lesson, not just about boxing but about the Black experience on both sides of the border in the decades following the end of slavery in the US, how far we have come and yet, how very far we still have to go.
While George Dixon spent most of his career boxing in the US, he is still a Canadian athlete, and his story is deeply entrenched in Canada and in Nova Scotia in particular. A study of not just a sport, but an era and, at its heart, a real if flawed man, this book deserves an important place in the history of Canada and Nova Scotia.
For nearly two decades now, Steven Laffoley’s numerous fiction and nonfiction books have explored the compelling people, unique character, and uncommon stories of Nova Scotia. He lives in Halifax.
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