Visiting The First Black Champion and The Boston Strongman



Visiting The First Black Champion and The Boston Strongman

The cemeteries in New England aren’t like the ones I knew in my childhood.

I grew up in Ohio, where the cemeteries tended to be large, flat expanses, increasingly owned by large, mostly faceless corporations who in recent years have become a predatory force in the death business.

But the cemeteries in New England are older, independent, and full of pride.

Many of them predate the founding of the United States.

They are often integral to the history of the small towns they occupy, filled with early town leaders, the parsons and judges and mayors. The towns have grown up around these tiny plots, giving the cemeteries an often haphazard feel to their placement.

There’s one practically across the street from where I live. It’s called the Drake Cemetery.

Maybe it has a few dozen headstones standing, the oldest dating back to 1681.

And only a rustic stone wall, hand set without mortar – who knows how old – separates it from my mechanic’s shop, only ten feet away.

Moving to Massachusetts as a boxing fan, I knew I was moving into an area rich in boxing history.

A rabble-rousing temperament crackles through Massachusetts’ history. Founded by Puritans who broke free of the Church, later generations would break free of the Puritans.

“Witches” danced naked in the woods and the drumbeat of the American Revolution was beaten from barstools in Boston taverns. In the nineteenth century, Boston became a leading fight town, equal to New York or Philadelphia or San Francisco, and prominent before Las Vegas and Atlantic City first dealt their hands.

The roughhouse heart of New England, Massachusetts’ fight history extends from John L. Sullivan to Micky Ward.

And now I found myself living in the thick of it.

On the wall above where I sit and write, I have a little board with images pinned haphazardly on it, postcards with various historic figures, mementos, and the occasional note.

There’s a trio of male figures – a priest, a painter, and a boxer – a loose personal trinity for me, like totems; Padre Pio, a twentieth century Italian saint who experienced stigmata; Diego Rivera, the Mexican muralist and sometimes husband of Frida Kahlo; and John L. Sullivan, the pugilist credited with shepherding the sport from its bare-knuckle days into the gloved, Marquis of Queensbury era that continues to this day.

Known as the Boston Strong Boy, Sullivan was born in the fall of 1858.

His parents hoped he would find his vocation in the priesthood, but Sullivan dropped out of school to play professional baseball.

As his body and strength matured, he took to prizefighting.

Sullivan became the de facto heavyweight champion in a time when there was no regulation or sanctioning bodies. Not only was boxing not regulated, it wasn’t even legal. Fights had to be held clandestinely, advertised only by word of mouth, the time and place of a fight passed through “the fancy,” that informal clique of fight fans in the know.

When Sullivan faced Jake Kilrain in 1899 for a bloody 75 round battle that is regarded as the last bare-knuckle fight in the US under the London prize Ring rules, they squared off in an undisclosed Louisiana location.

Train tickets read simply “New Orleans to Destination.”

Sullivan’s career ended with his first loss, a defeat by “Gentleman” James J. Corbett in 1892. “I fought once too often,” he remarked.

John L. Sullivan passed away in 1918, and was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Roslindale, MA. Some reports list Jake Kilrain as a pallbearer. Others name Corbett.

I had moved to Tyngsboro, a small town less than an hour north of Roslindale. I wanted to connect with some of this history and explore my new home state. A little sojourn to Roslindale seemed in order.

The cemetery was easy to find, and it was a beautiful one.

Most of the cemeteries I had first visited, like the small one next to where I get my oil changed, were colonial period cemeteries.

Their plots were laid out in tight grids, often in the strict shadow of the Church. But Mount Calvary was different. It featured rolling hills and winding lanes. It was an intentional, beautiful space.

Mount Calvary was part of a movement towards “rural” cemeteries in the first half of the nineteenth century.

People were discarding the dour Pilgrim’s view of an Earth estranged from God. They favored the American Transcendentalism associated with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. This worldview saw the hand of God in touch with the natural world. And it sought to cultivate that feeling of spiritual connection through projects such as “rural” cemeteries.

I visited Mount Calvary with my girlfriend on a clear day late in April.

The spring sun was warming the ground. Whispering trails of cirrus clouds filtered the Spanish sky blue overhead. Trees were budding their first bit of green. After the long, gray winter, this was a rejuvenating sort of day, the kind of day made for stretching one’s legs and exploring.

We had copied directions from the internet.

At Mount Calvary, we headed straight to the Sullivan family plot.

Section 3, Lot 24, Grave 3. John L.’s grave was easy enough to locate.

Photos online showed us what to expect. His is the tallest monument in the near vicinity, standing perhaps 12 feet tall. The centerpiece of the memorial is a tall, dark obelisk, topped with a cross.

Large and imposing, but well proportioned and carved with decorative leaves and geometric designs, the Sullivan obelisk memorializes several members of the Sullivan family, including the Boston Strongboy.

Here he is presented simply as John, one of the family; no special mention of his status as champion is made.

Engraved on the cross are the letters “IHS,” which are often said to mean “I have suffered.”

A fitting epitaph for a prizefighter, but “IHS” is actually a Christogram, an ancient way of writing Jesus’ name in shortened form, the letters approximations of Greek letters.

Ringing the family plot is a low stone wall, decorated with the initials JLS. On the day we visited, someone had planted a small Irish flag in the ground next to the memorial.

One thing I love about boxing is the sheer volume of mythopoetic lore that fills out its history, and the unalloyed joy with which we pass these unverifiable tall tales from person to person.

Sullivan’s gravesite is no stranger to such stories. Obituaries made the dubious claim that no casket large enough for the Boston Strongboy existed in the state of Massachusetts, and one had to be special-ordered from New York.

Another story goes that because Sullivan died early in February, the coldest time of year in New England, the ground was so frozen that gravediggers used dynamite to open the stubborn Boston ground.

My girlfriend and I had a wonderful time in Roslindale.

After the visit to Mount Calvary, we found a local restaurant and had a nice lunch.

Our visit to the cemetery had been a pleasant occasion, with good food, good weather, and good conversation.

I posted a few photos to my social media, received warmly by friends and boxing nerds alike.

It wasn’t long before we brought up the idea of making another day trip to another cemetery.

Consulting histories of Massachusetts boxers, I realized we had unwittingly passed close to another champion.

Next to Mount Calvary is Mount Hope, a similar rural style cemetery. Interred there is George Dixon, aka Kid Chocolate.

A featherweight, he was active around the same time as John Sullivan.

Despite his size, Dixon was tough as nails. Referee Billy Roche wrote that “Little Chocolate boxed like a phantom, slugged like a diminutive longshoreman.”

Records of his matches are spotty, however. BoxRec lists 153 bouts, but others claim upwards of 1000 fights.

Regardless of the number, what is clear is that Dixon became the first Black world champion – in any sport – as well as the first Canadian champion.

In Mount Hope, we found his memorial with little trouble. His headstone is tall and striking.

Dixon died young and impoverished, only 37 years old and in the alcohol ward of Bellevue in New York, claiming the only friend he had left was John L. Sullivan.

His trainer helped arrange bringing Dixon’s body back to Boston, and ordered him a grave marker that read “Here rests the gamest pugilist who ever lived.”

That stone is gone now, and a new one marks his resting place.

The new stone has an impressive relief carving of Dixon’s face in quarter profile. The stone, with a rounded top and carved with ivy leaves a Gothic letter “D.” It rests on an older plinth and reaches about five feet total in height.

Although his life ended in tragedy, Dixon left behind an incredible legacy. Sam Austin of the Police Gazette wrote that George Dixon was “a fighter without a flaw.” But Dixon’s legacy goes beyond his own talent in the ring.

Dixon greatly improved training for boxers, partly through his 1893 book, “A Lesson on Boxing.”

He also assisted in the training of other Boston-area Black fighters, including Joe Gans and the Barbados Demon, Joe Walcott.

Dixon’s influence extended to Sam Langford, the Boston Terror, and even the Galveston Giant, Jack Johnson. He is also credited with inventing the speed bag and shadow boxing.

I again posted photos to social media. Spurred on by the positive response to my John L. Sullivan post, I added a more detailed history and more photos to the George Dixon post. And again, the posts were well-received.

It was also very timely. By chance, George Dixon was in the news that week. Up in Nova Scotia, where Dixon was born, a new memorial was unveiled for this too-often overlooked Canadian champion.

Dixon was raised in a Black community there, known as Africville, made up of formerly enslaved people.

In Nova Scotia, Dixon is memorialized by a large mural, and as of June 2023, a public plaque also notes his contributions to sport.

Death is a great many things. Often, it serves as a reminder of our present condition: that life is fleeting and precious.

How did Shakespeare call it out in Macbeth? Out, out, brief candle!

Visiting cemeteries leaves me feeling contemplative. The vastness of that undiscovered country (Shakespeare again) inspires more questions than it provides answers.

Our word monument comes from the Latin monere, which means “to remind,” itself deriving from an earlier Proto-Indo-European root, men-, meaning “to think.” To remember is to access the past; to think is to access the future.

John L Sullivan and George Dixon were two of Massachusetts’ earliest champions, both gone for over a century before we visited their graves.

I had been more familiar with the exploits of Sullivan than I had been with Dixon.

Exploring the local history of these Massachusetts cemeteries was teaching me better, deeper ways to understand boxing’s past.

I felt a sense of quiet gratitude now, having been stirred to learn something new, something unexpected. And grateful to be able to share the experience, both with my girlfriend and through social media.