Custio Clayton aims to end century-long wait for Black, Nova Scotian boxing supremacy

·6 min read

Custio Clayton says he's been ready to fight for a world title for at least two years.

Saturday night in Uncasville, Conn., the undefeated 33-year-old welterweight from North Preston, N.S., faces California-based Kazakh Sergey Lipinets for the International Boxing Federation interim welterweight championship. A win would position Clayton to challenge the division's biggest names – Terrence Crawford, Errol Spence, Shawn Porter or Manny Pacquaio – in bouts that could earn him life-changing paydays and a rock-solid legacy.

But in Clayton's native Nova Scotia, where Black history and pro boxing are intertwined, the wait for a world title stretches back more than a century. A win Saturday night would make Clayton the first Black, Nova Scotian-born boxer to win a world title since Africville's George "Little Chocolate" Dixon, whose title reign ended in 1900. Clayton's aware of his link to pro boxing's Black Canadian roots, and of the history he'll bring to the ring with him against Lipinets.

"When I was growing up, I was always told there were a lot of great fighters from Nova Scotia," said Clayton, who reached the quarter-final at the 2012 Olympics. "I'd be the first to bring a world title back to Nova Scotia in forever. That would be an awesome feeling."

Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

On February 7, 1890, Dixon and then-featherweight champ Cal "The Wonder" McCarthy battled for 70 exhausting rounds before mutually agreeing to end their bout. Because both fighters opted to stop, the bout was ruled a draw. But Dixon, who according to contemporary reports, dominated the action, left the fight as the world featherweight champion.

That bout made Dixon the first Canadian fighter of any colour to win a world boxing title, and the first Black fighter of any nationality to become world champion under modern boxing rules. He would spend most of the next decade as world featherweight champ before losing his title for good in January of 1900.

Two years later Sam Langford, a 19-year-old from Weymouth, N.S., scored a fifth-round knockout over Jack McVicker at the Lenox Athletic Club in Boston, the first win in a pro career that, for a white fighter, would likely have led to a shot at the world heavyweight title.

But Langford was Black, fighting in an era when racism was both blatant and built into the sport's infrastructure. His nickname for much of his career was "The Boston Tar Baby," and he held the Colored heavyweight crown in the 1910s because Jack Johnson's reign as champion triggered a frantic scramble to re-segregate the main heavyweight title.

Johnson won a 15-round decision over Langford in 1906, and after Johnson knocked out Sarnia's Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the first Black world heavyweight champion, he and his management gleefully denied Langford a second fight.

The phrase "Great White Hope" dates back to Johnson's reign, and the quest to find a white fighter to dethrone him. Johnson knew he would make more money pummelling Great White Hopes than he could in a tough rematch with Langford, so when an English promoter put up 3,000 pounds for a Langford bout, Johnson laughed off the offer.

"When London reporters asked when he would fight Langford again, [Johnson] would laughingly reply that he was 'going to draw the color line,'" wrote Randy Roberts in Papa Jack, his seminal biography of Johnson. "In Langford's case it was no joke. Johnson knew he would lose the title someday … but he would not lose it to Sam Langford. And certainly not for a measly 3,000."

Indeed, Johnson never defended his heavyweight title against a Black fighter.

Rich boxing tradition

Since then, several other Black Nova Scotian boxers have appeared poised to join Dixon as world champions, but none has completed the circle.

In 1973 Clyde Gray, of Three Mile Plains, N.S., lost a dramatic 15-round decision to welterweight legend Jose Napoles at Maple Leaf Gardens, the first of Gray's three unsuccessful world title challenges.

Halifax native Ray Downey Jr. emerged from a family of prominent boxers to win Olympic bronze in 1988, and Commonwealth Games silver in 1990, but ended his pro career in 2000 without fighting for a title.

And in July 2002, North Preston's Kirk Johnson, lost by disqualification in a heavyweight title fight he still had a chance to win. Johnson outworked incumbent WBA champ John Ruiz for most of their fight, but also had three points deducted because of low blows. One last foul in round 10 prompted referee Joe Cortez to disqualify Johnson, who was winning on one judge's scorecard.

"You've got rules to follow," Johnson told reporters afterward. "If you break the rules, you lose. I broke a couple of rules. I lost."

Clayton's 'wow' factor

Trainer Eric Belanger, who coaches Clayton at their base in Gatineau, Que., says Clayton has the tools to finish what Dixon started. Specifically, Belanger says, Clayton's rare mix of speed, power and boxing IQ give him the versatility to enact a range of game plans, and could land him among the welterweight division's super elite.

"There's no 'wow,' factor [entering this fight]. This is where we belong," Belanger said. "He belongs in there with every one of the top guys at 147 [pounds]. There's nobody we'd shy away from."

A Clayton win over Lipinets would resonate immediately in his hometown, and across his broad but close-knit extended family.

Former NCAA basketball star and current Israeli pro league point guard Lindell Wigginton is a cousin of Clayton's, as is Johnson, the now-retired heavyweight.

Clayton is fairly certain he's also related to the boxing Downeys – it was an older cousin named Lucas Downey who first brought him to the boxing gym in Dartmouth, N.S., where he grew to love the sport. Soon after joining, Clayton learned the head coach, Gary Johnson, was his great-uncle, and Kirk Johnson's dad.

WATCH | Clayton transitions to pro career after 2012 Olympics:

"There's so much history to go through," said Clayton, who is 18-0 with 12 knockouts. "It just goes so deep."

Of course, a win isn't guaranteed. Lipinets briefly held a world title at 140 pounds, and has 12 knockout wins on his 16-1 record.

Belanger expects Lipinets to move forward and throw heavy punches, presenting a stiff challenge if not a difficult stylistic puzzle. But Lipinets says switching to trainer Joe Goosen has sharpened his in-ring intellect.

"It's like going from a high school education then to college," Lipinets said in a recent news release. "Now it feels like I'm in graduate school."

Clayton, for his part, recognizes the stakes. He spent five weeks training for a late October fight, but his whole career preparing for this moment.

"He's gonna bring it, and I've gotta be ready to be in a fight," Clayton said. "I've been ready. When the opportunity comes, you've got to take it."