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Book Review

In His New Book, Jerry Izenberg Pays Homage to the Golden Era of Heavyweights

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JERRY IZENBERG’S “Once There Were Giants”: — Anyone who saw the great 2004 biopic about Ray Charles, Ray, might recall what Jamie Foxx, who won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his spot-on portrayal of the R&B legend, said in explaining Charles’ mid-1960s excursion into country music.

“It’s the stories, man,” Foxx, as Charles, said of the title character’s surprisingly effective take on an entirely different American art form than the one which initially had brought him acclaim.

Boxing, perhaps more than any other sport, provides rich and engaging material for those with a keen enough eye to get to the heart of the matter, and the literary skill to express that knowledge in prose that all but leaps off the page of a book or newspaper column. Put into that context, it might be said that Jerry Izenberg’s latest treatise on the fight game, Once There Were Giants: The Golden Age of Heavyweight Boxing, contains as many subtle hints of venerated guitar pickers Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie as of iconic sports writers A.J. Liebling and Paul Gallico. Then again, no comparison of Izenberg to anyone else is valid; like his friend, the late, great Muhammad Ali, the 86-year-old columnist emeritus for the Newark Star-Ledger is an original, a master wordsmith and observer of the human condition who can take familiar source material and wring from it small gems of fresh insight that glisten like diamonds in the noonday sun.

The premise of Izenberg’s 216-page journey into an era of big-man boxing that was and perhaps forever shall be unmatched is as straightforward as a stiff jab to the nose. It begins with an introductory chapter on mob influence that stained prize rings until the late 1950s before moving on to the figurative launch of that golden age, with Sonny Liston’s back-to-back, one-round thumpings of Floyd Patterson, and extending through Evander Holyfield’s disqualification victory over ear-gnawing Mike Tyson. Along the way readers again are treated to the best, and sometimes worst, of Liston, Cassius Clay/Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks, Tyson and Holyfield, with nods toward such important contributing characters as Gerry Cooney and Leon Spinks.

It was a 35-year period of sustained heavyweight glory so deep at the top end that the gifted likes of Jerry Quarry, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams and Cooney never held even a sliver of what once was deemed the most prestigious title in all of sport, but has since been severely devalued by the proliferation of sanctioning organizations only concerned with their own self-serving little realms. (Note:  Izenberg mentions Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe only in passing, contending that their prime years did not fully intersect with other principal players in the golden age.)

Izenberg pulls no punches in his disdain of the convoluted mess that has made shared championships the norm, complaining ofa tsunami of alphabet-soup commissions, each using an assortment of acronyms (and) making enormous money grabs  that would change boxing forever. Their names were ludicrous: World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association, International Boxing Federation – none of which was global, and none of which was respected as a council, an association, or a federation. More than one of their ersatz titles often carried the suspicion that they had arrived cash-on-delivery because of the private fiefdoms and sanctioning fees those bodies fiercely guarded and collected from each title fight – or, as they might put it at the Wharton School of Finance, the more titles, the more money.”

At this point, you’re probably thinking Once There Were Giants doesn’t really contain anything that a reasonably astute fight fan doesn’t already know. But that isn’t always the case, and even in going over well-trod ground he turns phrases with the nimbleness of the Ali Shuffle.

Consider this tasty tidbit on the evolution of Frazier’s renowned left hook, which caught even me a bit off-guard seeing as how I have covered boxing in Smokin’ Joe’s adopted hometown of Philadelphia for many years and had numerous conversations with the man himself as well as with his children, Marvis Frazier and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde.

“One of my dad’s jobs was to care for the pigs,” Marvis says in relation to his father’s childhood as a field laborer in his birth town of Beaufort, S.C. “They had one that was 300 pounds and Daddy used a stick to get him to move. And the pig turned on him and chased him.”

Joe, who then around 12 years old, ran, tripped over a rock and broke his left arm. There was no money for a doctor. The arm had to heal by itself and could no longer be extended anywhere near as far as the right arm. This may have been the reason Frazier had to work so much harder than most fighters to develop strength in that arm.

It would become his most powerful weapon by far, giving him what had long been known in the gyms of Philly as a Philadelphia left hook – a misnomer in his case because of its genesis. What it was, was a Beaufort-inspired, hell-raising left hook.

It was a leaping left hook from Frazier that floored Ali in the 15th and final round of what arguably is the most significant boxing event of all time, the “Fight of the Century,” which the squatty Philadelphia brawler won on a unanimous decision on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden.

After the fight, Izenberg – and it says much about the respect with which he was held by those he wrote about – was invited to grab a bite with Frazier, which enabled him to bear witness to something other reporters did not get the opportunity to see.

“We went out to eat, and while we stood in front of a deli, three little kids came running up,” Jerry writes. “One of them said, `My daddy says Muhammad Ali was drugged.’

“Anger flashed in Joe Frazier’s eyes. `Go home and tell your daddy he is right. He was drugged. I drug him with a left hook.’”

Of the steady stream of limousines carrying fur-clad, jewelry-festooned men and women that pulled up in front of the Garden for Ali-Frazier I, Izenberg suggests there might have been an ulterior motive other than boxing for the beautiful people to make an appearance.

“Freddie Guinyard, a friend of Joe Louis who ran an after-hours joint in Detroit, noted my puzzlement,” Izenberg writes. “Let me explain,” he said, and he began to point at the cars. “Numbers, Detroit; Girls, L.A.; Drugs, New York City. It’s not what you might think. These people don’t give a s— about Ali. All they care about is he beat The Man (the government), which is something they’ve tried to do all their lives, and that’s cool with them.”

Of his trip to Zaire to cover the Oct. 30, 1974, “Rumble in the Jungle,” won by Ali on a shocking, eighth-round knockout of the seemingly invincible George Foreman, Izenberg finds time not only to cover the action inside the ropes, but to set that bizarre scene before and after in bold strokes.

The trip was historic on the one hand and an ordeal on the other, Jerry admitting to having a “perceived romance” inherent in traveling to “such an exotic locale to write about a sports event that, from the crudest of crumbling stadiums in Kinshasa, would be beamed to the world by what was then the most sophisticated of satellites.”

Of Zaire’s dictatorial president, Mobutu Sese Seko, Izenberg discerned not even the thinnest scintilla of actual grandeur. “The name Mobutu had given himself was President Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Wa Za Banga of Zaire, which translates to `The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” (But) even that was incomplete. In addition to his `endurance and inflexible will to win,’ there was also his ability to murder, steal and maintain happy ties with the CIA. He had already been fingered by Amnesty International for the torture of political prisoners and had not hesitated to support episodes of strategic genocide in neighboring Rwanda when it serves his purpose.”

Many years after being taken down by Ali, George Foreman reaffirmed an ancient truth to Izenberg: Styles really do make fights.

“It’s simple,” Foreman said. “Styles dictate every fight. I never had trouble punching down to a shorter man. The uppercuts were the reason. I could fight Joe a hundred times and probably beat him 99. But I could fight Muhammad a hundred times and he’d probably beat me 99. Yet when Joe and Muhammad fought each other, trust me, it would have been life and death a hundred times.”

Just a couple more examples of Izenberg’s ability to cut through the bullspit with grace and clarity:

Of Las  Vegas, the sunless, timeless netherworld that has become the prime landing spot for megafights: “Vegas is a place where nobody knows what time it is because the clickety-click of dice on green felt tables respects no hour. There are no clocks in the casinos and no daylight streaming into the rooms. There is no afternoon, no concept of tonight or tomorrow. A dealer on the lam from Louisiana once told me, `In this joint, it’s like you’re working on a submarine. There is only now.’”

Of Cus D’Amato, who managed Patterson and Tyson as if every waiter was trying to poison their and his food:  He was “a boxing mentor who spoke in parables and wrapped himself in an impenetrable cloak of paranoia.”

Of cackling, electric-haired promoter Don King: “On the battlefield of boxing, victory often goes to the man with the tenacity of a pit bull, the patience of an inch-worm, and the track record of Caligula. And in that time and place, Don King was the unchallenged wearer of the only triple crown.”

It took me only a day and a half to consume Once There Were Giants from cover to cover, but it was time well spent.

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Book Review

Thomas Hauser is the Pierce Egan of Our Generation

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Thomas Hauser is the Pierce Egan of our generation. Two centuries ago, Egan chronicled the goings-on in the world of prizefighting in a series of articles. When he had completed a bunch of these, he knotted them together in a compendium under the title Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient Pugilism. The first volume was issued in 1813. Four more volumes would follow.

Pierce Egan was drawn to the sport of prizefighting during the so-called Regency Era in England when prizefighting, although an outlaw sport, enjoyed a great burst of popularity. Aristocrats and commoners alike, bluebloods and lowlifes, caravanned to the big fights which of necessity were held outside areas of dense population. But, as indicated by the sub-title of “Boxiana,” Egan was also interested in the history of prizefighting which pre-dated the Regency Era. He wasn’t the first historian of the Sweet Science (a term that he coined), but he was certainly the most influential. Nearly 200 years after his death, a fellow interested in learning about the roots of modern prizefighting is encouraged to start by dredging up a reprint of “Boxiana.” (Or, if one doesn’t wish to be that immersive, checking out one of several collections by the great New Yorker essayist A.J. Liebling who rucked Egan out of obscurity.)

Which brings us to Thomas Hauser.

In common with Pierce Egan, Hauser gathers previously published articles about boxing into a book. A Hauser compendium has become an annual tradition at his publishing house, the University of Arkansas Press. Hauser’s latest offering, the 15th in the series, is fresh off the press. It bears the title Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing. TSS readers will recognize some of the nuggets as they first appeared at this web site.

Two hundred years from today, if mankind still exists, folks interested in the goings-on in the world of boxing during the first decades of the 21st century, will be directed to the writings of Thomas Hauser. And I have no doubt that a complete set of his annual anthologies, although released in paperback, will be a prized collectable.

Pierce Egan did round-by-round reports of major fights, but he was more interested in things that happened outside the ring. He saw the big picture; prizefighting as an ecosystem. Hauser likewise views the sport through a wide lens. The power brokers command his attention, as do those on the periphery. Hauser once wrote a story about ring card girls that was a fun read and would have also fit neatly as an insert in a textbook on the sociology of work.

“The boxing scene,” wrote Hauser, “is about so much more than the fights.”

In his role as an investigative reporter, for which he has won several awards, Hauser has written extensively about PED abuse in boxing and about the failings of the New York State Athletic Commission.

There’s less about PEDs in his newest book than in previous editions, inevitable perhaps considering that boxing activity in 2020 was stunted by the pandemic, but the NYSAC gets its usual comeuppance. The agency “has long been a favor bank for powerful economic interests and a source of employment at various levels for the politically well connected,” says Hauser, who informs us that for several higher-up employees, and one woman in particular, the job there is basically a sinecure and a good paying one at that.

Another recurrent theme in Hauser’s writings is boxing’s waning popularity among America’s youth and what can be done about it. In a story titled “Why Doesn’t Boxing Attract More Young Fans?” Hauser lists 11 reasons why it doesn’t, each of which can be reconfigured into a prong to be used in a campaign to stanch the erosion and reverse the trend.

None of Hauser’s compendiums would be complete without book reviews. Several years ago, Hauser wrote that “the written history of Muhammad Ali is an ongoing construction” and, in 2020, new construction continued at a brisk pace; there was a spate of new Ali books.

Hauser, needless to say, is well-versed in the subject matter. He interviewed more than 150 people for his 1991 book, “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times,” long considered the definitive Ali biography, and he takes a fine-tooth comb to any book that traverses the same territory. Factual inaccuracies gall him and he doesn’t hesitate to point them out in reviews of books concerning Ali by Todd Snyder, Stuart Cosgrove, and Rahaman Ali (Muhammad Ali’s brother) and in a book for young readers ostensibly co-authored by book-seller extraordinaire James Patterson.

“Broken Dreams” is divided into four sections, the last of which is titled “Boxing and the Coronavirus.” There are some stories in this section that I suspect wouldn’t make the cut if Hauser were assembling the book today. He writes that “the restoration of normalcy (in boxing) will be a long, slow process.” With the benefit of hindsight, the future wasn’t quite so gloomy.

Among my favorite stories in Hauser’s newest compilation, which clocks in at 308 pages, is a long piece about Gleason’s Gym which, like Madison Square Garden, is currently in its fourth location. There are 44 components in all, modules of various length, and it’s the sort of book that one can open to any page and find something interesting.

Notes

Thomas Hauser and Pierce Egan have other things in common aside from their association with prizefighting. Both wrote about other things. Egan, who died in 1849, achieved his greatest success with a work of fiction, Life in London, about the escapades of Corinthian Tom and his country cousin Jerry, excitement-seekers who flouted the norms of society as they caroused about the London metropolis. The book gave rise to a long-running play, to a popular 18th-century expression (“Tom and Jerrying” denoted a rowdy night on the town), to a once-popular Christmas cocktail, and to a cat and mouse team in a children’s animated cartoon series.

In his review of Hauser’s Ali biography, Dave Anderson of the New York Times noted that this was Hauser’s 14th book and that seven of his previous books were novels. Among the non-fiction books that Hauser authored prior to “Ali” was “The Execution of Charles Horman” about the murder of an American journalist who disappeared in Chile during a right-wing military coup. It was adapted into the Oscar-winning screenplay for the movie “Missing” starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek.

Lastly, a caveat: Although A.J. Liebling thought Pierce Egan was a real hoot, the average reader will likely find Boxiana hard to digest. The book is freighted with slang terms, some of Egan’s invention, that long ago disappeared from the lexicon.

Egan eventually turned away from boxing cold-turkey, purportedly disgusted by too many fixed fights. If Hauser follows his example, let’s hope that it doesn’t happen any time soon.

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Book Review

Russell Peltz’s “Thirty Dollars and a Cut Eye”: Book Review by Thomas Hauser

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Russell Peltz’s “Thirty Dollars and a Cut Eye”: Book Review by Thomas Hauser

Russell Peltz has been promoting fights for fifty years and is as much a part of the fabric of Philadelphia boxing as Philly gym wars and Philly fighters. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004 and deservedly so. Now Peltz has written a memoir entitled Thirty Dollars and a Cut Eye that chronicles his many years in the sweet science.

Peltz started in boxing before it was, in his words, “bastardized by the alphabet groups” and at a time when “world titles still meant something.”

“I fell in love with boxing when I was twelve,” he writes, “saw my first live fight at fourteen, decided to make it my life, and never looked back.” He promoted his first fight card in 1969 at age 22.

Peltz came of age in boxing at a time when promoters – particularly small promoters – survived or died based on the live gate. Peltz Boxing Promotions had long runs at the Blue Horizon in Philadelphia and both Harrah’s Marina and the Sands  in Atlantic City. His journey through the sweet science included a seven-year stint as director of boxing for The Spectrum in Philadelphia. At the turn of the century, he was a matchmaker for ESPN.

Along the way, Peltz’s office in Philadelphia was fire-bombed. He was robbed at gunpoint while selling tickets in his office for a fight card at the Blue Horizon and threatened in creative ways more times than one might imagine. He once had a fight fall out when one of the fighters was arrested on the day of the weigh-in. No wonder he quotes promoter Marty Kramer, who declared, “The only thing I wish on my worst enemy is that he becomes a small-club boxing promoter.”

Now Peltz has put pen to paper – or finger to keyboard. “The internet is often a misinformation highway,” he writes. “I want to set the record straight as to what actually went on in boxing in the Philadelphia area since the late-1960s. I’m tired of reading tweets or Facebook posts or Instagram accounts from people who were not around and have no idea what went on but write like they do.”

Thirty Dollars and a Cut Eye is filled with characters (inside and outside the ring) who give boxing its texture. As Peltz acknowledges, his own judgment was sometimes faulty. Russell once turned down the opportunity to promote Marvin Hagler on a long-term basis. There are countless anecdotes about shady referees, bad judging, and other injustices. Middleweight Bennie Briscoe figures prominently in the story, as do other Philadelphia fighters like Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, and Matthew Franklin (later Matthew Saad Muhammad). Perhaps the best fight Peltz ever promoted  was the 1977 classic when Franklin knocked out Marvin Johnson in the twelfth round.

There’s humor. After Larry Holmes pitched a shutout against Randall “Tex” Cobb in 1982, Cobb proclaimed, “Larry never beat me. He just won the first fifteen rounds.”

And there are poignant notes. Writing about Tanzanian-born Rogers Mtagwa (who boxed out of Philadelphia), Peltz recalls, “He couldn’t pass an eye exam because he didn’t understand the alphabet.”

Remembering the Blue Horizon, Peltz fondly recounts, “”The Blue Horizon was a fight fan’s nirvana. The ring was 15-feet-9-inches squared inside the ropes. No fighter came to the Blue Horizon to pad his record. Fans wanted good fights, not slaughters of second-raters.”

That ethos was personified by future bantamweight champion Jeff Chandler who, after knocking out an obviously inept opponent, told Peltz, “Don’t ever embarrass me like that again in front of my fans.”

Thereafter, whenever a manager asked Peltz to put his fighter in soft to “get me six wins in a row,” Russell thought of Chandler. “I enjoyed promoting fights more than promoting fighters,” he writes. “If I was interested in promoting fighters, I would have been a manager.”

That brings us to Peltz the writer.

The first thing to be said here is that this is a book for boxing junkies, not the casual fan. Peltz is detail-oriented. But do readers really need to know what tickets prices were for the April 6, 1976, fight between Bennie Briscoe and Eugene Hart? The book tends to get bogged down in details. And after a while, the fights and fighters blur together in the telling.

It brings to mind the relationship between Gene Tunney and George Bernard Shaw. The noted playwright and heavyweight great developed a genuine friendship. But Shaw’s fondness for Tunney stopped short of uncritical admiration. In 1932, the former champion authored his autobiography (A Man Must Fight) and proudly presented a copy to his intellectual mentor. Shaw read the book and responded with a letter that read in part, “Just as one prayer meeting is very like another, one fight is very like another. At a certain point, I wanted to skip to Dempsey.”

Reading Thirty Dollars and a Cut Eye, at a certain point I wanted to skip to Hagler.

There’s also one jarring note. Peltz recounts how, when Mike Jones fought Randall Bailey for the vacant IBF welterweight title in Las Vegas in 2012, Peltz bet five hundred dollars against Jones (his own fighter) at the MGM Sports Book and collected two thousand dollars when Bailey (trailing badly on the judges’ scorecards) knocked Jones out in the eleventh round.

“It was a tradition from my days with Bennie Briscoe,” Russell explains. “I’d bet against my fighter, hoping to lose the bet and win the fight.”

I think Russell Peltz is honest. I mean that sincerely. And I think he was rooting for Mike Jones to beat Randall Bailey. But I don’t think that promoters should bet on fights involving their own fighters. And it’s worse if they bet against their own fighters. Regardless of the motivation, it looks bad. Or phrased differently: Suppose Don King had bet on Buster Douglas to beat Mike Tyson in Tokyo?

Philadelphia was once a great fight town. In 1926, the first fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney drew 120,000 fans to Sesquicentennial Stadium. Twenty-six years later, Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott at same site (renamed Municipal Stadium) to claim the heavyweight throne.

Peltz takes pride in saying, “I was part of Philadelphia’s last golden age of boxing.”

An important part.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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Book Review

Literary Notes: “George Dixon” by Jason Winders

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BOOK REVIEW by THOMAS HAUSER — George Dixon was boxing’s first Black world champion.

“For a decade leading into the twentieth century,” Jason Winders writes, “few Black men were as wealthy and none were more famous. To a Black culture cementing its first national heroes, Dixon was the single-most significant athlete of nineteenth-century America. He fought constantly as a professional – maybe against a thousand opponents in his lifetime. While most were exhibitions against rather faceless foes, a hundred or so of those bouts were chronicled by both Black and white presses. A half dozen came to define an era.”

In George Dixon: The Short Life of Boxing’s First Black World Champion, 1870-1908 (University of Arkansas Press), Winders gives readers a well-researched, well-written, entertaining account of this remarkable man.

Dixon was born on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on July 29, 1870. Quite possibly, one of his grandfathers was white. Sometime in the 1880s, the Dixon family moved to Boston.

Dixon fought his first fight at age sixteen. Writing about him one year later, Winder notes, “He was just a kid. Thin lead weights slid into his shoes between his bare feet and leather soles so he could climb above one hundred pounds and legally be allowed to compete. He had the body of a boy – thin, gangly, with arms slightly longer than his diminutive frame should have allowed. At first, he fought at 108 pounds. As the years went by, he developed into a genuine bantamweight and fought at 112 pounds. Then he went up to 116 pounds, then to 118, and then to 122, all apparently without suffering any loss of skill.”

There are few visual images of Dixon in combat. Contemporaneous written accounts suggest that, at his peak, he had remarkable defensive skills, excellent timing, superb footwork, an uncommon ability to judge distance, and an educated left hand. He was blessed with courage, patience, the ability to endure punishment, and an iron will. His training regimen was sophisticated for its time.

A handful of fights were of particular importance in Dixon’s storied ring career. On June 27, 1890, having journeyed across the Atlantic Ocean, he knocked out British bantamweight and featherweight champion Nunc Wallace in Soho, England. That raised his profile exponentially. Nine months later in upstate New York, Dixon knocked out Cal McCarthy in a rematch of an 1890 draw to claim to the American portion of the featherweight crown. Then, on July 28, 1891, in San Francisco, he knocked out Australian bantamweight champion Abe Willis.

“His bout against Willis,” Winders writes, “would solidify Dixon as the greatest fighter – not just Black fighter – of his division in the world. With this victory over Willis, George Dixon became the undisputed world bantamweight champion, the first Black man to earn a world boxing title. And it all happened before his twenty-first birthday.”

Then, for good measure, Dixon knocked out the newly-crowned British featherweight champion Fred Johnson in Brooklyn on June 27, 1892. That further solidified his kingdom.

These triumphs came at a time when boxing was becoming ingrained in America’s national consciousness. The Police Gazette, with a weekly circulation that ran as high as 400,000 copies, was America’s most popular tabloid magazine. Editor Richard K. Fox relied heavily on the sweet science to sell the publication. In 1889, roughly sixty percent of its headlines dealt with boxing. Now, with Dixon at his fighting peak, the Police Gazette called him “the greatest fighter – big or little – the prize ring has ever known.”

Winders puts the importance of those words in context: “Perhaps today we read over words like ‘slave’ and ‘master’ too easily. But the mindset that fueled centuries of this thinking did not die with the stroke of the Great Emancipator’s pen. It was deeply embedded in American culture. Just a generation before the Dixons arrived in the United States, the Black body was nothing more than a tool of labor, an expensive shovel or plow horse used and abused by a white master. Now a Black man was asserting his manhood by way of sport, beating white men with his near-bare hands, rising to heights higher than any man his size no matter what color. Dixon stood as champion, inspiration, among the wealthiest and best-known men in the country. More than a fighter, Dixon came to represent hope.”

That said; in truth, Dixon regarded his celebrity standing as belonging more to himself than to Black America. “In the ring,” Winders writes, “he was a hero to the Black man. But he lived in a white world rather contentedly.” Dixon’s manager, Tom O’Rourke (who took half of Dixon’s earnings) was white. Dixon was married to O’Rourke’s sister. Dixon was widely admired for his ring skills. But equally important to the narrative, he was not regarded as a threat. “Much of his widespread acceptance,” Winders notes, “hinged on his smaller-than-normal stature.” And despite being married to a white woman, he had always “known his place” in society. Tom O’Rourke, Winder recounts, was often “quick to make mention of that in the press.”

In all his research, Winders was able to find only one instance in which Dixon was reported as speaking publicly about his meaning to Black America.

On May 22, 1891, Dixon was honored at the Full Moon Club in Boston’s West End, the center of the city’s Black community. Speaking to an audience of mostly young Black men, he declared, “I have always tried to do my duty. I have never yet entered the ring but that I was conscious that I was not only fighting the battle for myself alone, but also for the race. I felt that, if I won, not only credit would be given to me, but that my race would also rise in the estimation of the public.”

“This moment,” Winders observes, “among the thousands of mentions of Dixon in the press of the day, is an outlier. Never again in the reporting did he speak about a ‘duty’ to his race. Certainly, his actions in the years that followed were not in line with what Black America expected – or needed – from him. Never political or bombastic, rarely confrontational or rebel-rousing, Dixon never embraced his race duty more publicly than this moment.”

In September 1892, Dixon further solidified his importance when he participated in a historic three-day fight festival called The Carnival of Champions at The Olympic Club in New Orleans.

On September 5, Jack McAuliffe knocked out Billy Myer to retain the world lightweight crown. More famously, on September 7, James J. Corbett dethroned John L. Sullivan to claim the heavyweight championship of the world. In between these two fights – On September 6 – Dixon defended his world featherweight crown against Jack Skelly.

Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans had been the slave trading capital of the United States. Now, a Black man and a white man were exchanging blows there. And the battle was waged before spectators of both colors.

“Among the earliest arrivals for the Skelly-Dixon bout,” Winders writes, “were Black spectators for whom a large section on one of the upper general admissions stands had been set apart. It was a first for the club – an amazing sight in the heart of the former Confederacy. Among the crowd of two hundred Black men were prominent politicians and regular men lucky enough to snag a ticket. Five thousand people had filled the arena. City councilman Charles Dickson, a prominent member of the Olympic Club, welcomed Dixon into the ring and then warned the crowd that the upcoming contest was between a Black man and a white man in which fair play would govern and the best man win.”

Dixon knocked out Skelly in eight rounds. His fame and the adulation for him would never peak that high again.

The Carnival of Champions showcased Dixon in a way that he hadn’t been showcased before. “Until that moment in New Orleans in September 1892,” Winders observes, “Dixon was an insulated fighter. Then he landed in the middle of forces already in motion, forces still lingering from the after-effects of slavery and the Civil War. All of those forces would gain strength that summer and continue through Dixon’s lifetime as societal forces shifted to a more aggressive approach toward limiting Black opportunity. Shielded from those forces for years, Dixon would soon experience them head-on without the protection of the white world in which he inhabited. The Carnival of Champions was not a moment when George Dixon changed the world. It was the moment when Dixon left his sheltered existence and became part of it.”

“Immediately after the Dixon-Skelly bout,” Winders reports, “Olympic Club members regretted pairing the two.” Olympic Club president Charles Noel publicly stated, “The fight has shown one thing, however, that events in which colored men figure are distasteful to the membership of the club. After the fight, so many of the members took a stand against the admission of colored men into the ring as contestants against white pugilists that we have pretty well arrived at the conclusion not to give any more such battles. No, there will be no more colored men fighting before our club. That is a settled fact.”

In the same vein, following Dixon-Skelly, the New Orleans States editorialized that there was “inherent sinfulness” to interracial fights and complained that “thousands of vicious and ignorant negroes regard the victory of Dixon over Skelly as ample proof that the negro is equal and superior to the white man.”

Meanwhile, as the forces of repression were pushing back against gains made by Black Americans during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, Dixon’s ring skills were eroding. In addition to competing in official bouts, he was fighting in hundreds upon hundreds of exhibitions as part of traveling vaudeville shows.

“In advance of the troupe arriving in town,” Winders recounts, “a notice was posted that fifty dollars would be given to any person who could stand up before Dixon for four rounds. During these engagements, Dixon met all comers and often fought fifteen men irrespective of size in the same night – an immeasurable toll on his small frame.” A newspaper in West Virginia noted, “Dixon is meeting too many lads in his variety show act. His hands cannot certainly be kept in good condition with such work. He has used them so much in these four-round bouts that they are no longer the weapons they were.”

As for official fights, Winders reports, “Noticeable cracks in Dixon’s once spotless technique were developing. Dixon’s speed was waning. His punches were no longer beating his opponent’s attempts to block. His grunts were louder and more emphatic as blows that would once find empty space were now landing squarely on his face.”

Lifestyle issues were also becoming a problem. Again, Winders sets the scene:

“When it came to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, Manhattan’s Black Bohemia embodied the newer and more daring phases of Negro life. On these streets, visitors found a lively mix of vice and vitality with clubs packed nightly with free-spending sporting and theatrical people, as well as those hoping to catch a glimpse of those famous patrons. The area had become a national symbol of urban depravity, noted mainly for its gambling houses, saloons, brothels, shady hotels, and dance halls that stayed open all night. And while few boxers of this period were residents of New York City, they all found their way to Black Bohemia. Dixon began to frequent Black Bohemia and, by the time he became a regular, he was bleeding money into the district’s many establishments. The ponies got some; George couldn’t resist craps; and then there was booze to be bought at high prices for everybody. And he drank. Dixon would tear off $5,000 as his share of a win and it would disappear, one way or another, in a few days.”

“Dixon got rid of his money faster than any fighter I ever knew, except myself,” John L. Sullivan noted.

Dixon lost his featherweight title to Solly Smith in 1897 but regained it the following year. Then, on January 9, 1900, he fought Terry McGovern at the Broadway Athletic Club in New York. McGovern administered a brutal beating. The fight was stopped by Dixon’s corner in the eighth round.

“I was outfought by McGovern from the end of the third round,” Dixon acknowledged afterward. “The blows to my stomach and over my kidneys were harder than any I ever received. I entered the ring as confident as ever, but after going a short distance, I discovered that I was not the Dixon of old. My blows, although landing flush on my opponent, had no effect.”

After Dixon-McGovern, The Plaindealer (a Black newspaper in Topeka, Kansas) editorialized, ” The race has no gladiator now to represent it. We are in darkness, for Dixon’s light has been put out.”

On March 30, 1900, less than three months after losing to McGovern, Dixon opened a saloon called the White Elephant in the heart of the Tenderloin District. He was a poor business manager and his own best customer. Prior to fighting McGovern, he’d said that the McGovern fight would be his last. It wasn’t.

The White Elephant failed and Dixon kept fighting. Over the next six years, he engaged in 77 official bouts, the last of them on December 10, 1906. According to BoxRec.com, he won only thirteen of these encounters. Overall, BoxRec.com credits him with having participated in 155 recognized boxing matches with a final ring record of 68 wins, 30 losses, and 57 draws. In Dixon’s era, when a fight went the distance, there was often no declaration of a winner.

Meanwhile, Dixon began drinking more heavily. As Winders writes, “He increasingly celebrated his victories with or drowned his troubles in alcohol. That led to numerous confrontations with police. His personal demons were clashing with public sentiment toward Blacks in the wider society. His celebrity no longer shielded him. In public, he was prone to violent outbursts and fits of rage. In private, he was beholden to his own dark vices. Few Black men were as pitied, and none named more frequently from public square and pulpit as a cautionary tale of modern excesses.”

In due course, Joe Gans succeeded Dixon as the most famous and successful Black boxer in the world. After defeating Battling Nelson on September 3, 1906, Gans made a show of publicly offering Dixon a job as head bartender at a hotel that he owned in Baltimore. But the job never materialized.

“I never heard anything from Joe about going to Baltimore,” Dixon said later. “I guess he was advertising his show when he said that. But his hotel would sure look good to me right now”

“It isn’t what you used to be,” Dixon told an interviewer. “It’s what you are today. The men who followed me in the days of prosperity can’t see me when I am close enough to speak to them.”

On January 4, 1908, Dixon was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in New York.

“He was wasted and worn,” Winders writes. “To the doctors, he famously said he had ‘fought his last fight with John Barleycorn and had been beaten.’ His condition became worse and continued sinking. He died at 2 p.m. on January 6, 1908. He was thirty-seven years old. His funeral service in Boston was the largest funeral gathering for a Black man in the history of the city.”

Winders has done an admirable job of recounting George Dixon’s life. He places people and events within the context of their times and brings names in dusty old record books to life. He writes well, which is a prerequisite for any good book; does his best to separate fact from fiction; and is sensitive to the nuances of his subject. He also avoids the pitfall of describing fight after fight after fight, focusing instead on the ones that mattered most. Readers are transported back in time to the Olympic Club in New Orleans for the three-day Carnival of Champions in 1992. Dixon’s sad beating at the hands of Terry McGovern in New York in 1900 is particularly well told.

Winders also performs a service by stripping away the myth of Nat Fleischer as a reliable boxing historian.

“Much of Dixon’s story,” Winders writes, “has been left in the hands of Fleischer. Although he is an icon to many, not all are enamored by Fleischer’s ability to recount the past. His research and record keeping leave much to be desired. His biographies and record books are rife with errors.”

Winders then approvingly quotes historian Kevin R. Smith, who labeled Fleischer’s best-known writing about Black boxers (the five-volume Black Dynamite series) as “heavily flawed,” called some of his other offerings “downright ludicrous,” and declared that Fleischer was “unabashed in his use of poetic license, making up sources and fictionalizing events when unable to unearth the true facts.”

Less than a year after Dixon died, Jack Johnson journeyed to Australia and dethroned Tommy Burns to become the first Black man universally recognized as heavyweight champion of the world. “Historians want to start with Johnson,” Winders writes, looking back on that moment. “But why not Dixon? By ignoring him, we have lost the point where the story of the modern Black athlete in America begins.”

One reason many chroniclers start with Johnson is that so little about Dixon is known. “Historians,” Winders acknowledges, “have placed Dixon at the forefront of boxing pioneers, but they often don’t seem to know why beyond a few lines related to his ring resume. Outside of some isolated examples, sport history – indeed, Black history – rarely celebrates his accomplishments. There is an odd silence in his isolation. Dixon sits tantalizingly, even frustratingly, close to us – just over a century ago. Surely, his life should be too recent to be lost to time.”

Winders has done his part – and then some – to save us from that loss. George Dixon: The Short Life of Boxing’s First Black World Champion, 1870-1908 is as good a biography of Dixon and portrait of boxing in that era as one is likely to find.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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