Nova Scotia's Custio Clayton faces top contender on path to fight for world title

·6 min read
Nova Scotia's Custio Clayton faces top contender on path to fight for world title

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

When Custio Clayton and Jaron Ennis square off in an IBF title eliminator bout May 14, they'll compete for a prime position in pro-boxing's talent-rich welterweight division.

"Title Eliminator" is boxing jargon for what normal sports call a semifinal, and the winner between Ennis, a blue-chip prospect from Philadelphia, and Clayton, a veteran contender from North Preston, N.S., earns the right to fight for the IBF world championship.

But where Ennis, who is 28-0 with 26 knockouts, is fighting mainly for a chance at a world title and the big money bouts that will accompany it, Clayton, 2012 Olympian, is also competing for a place in Canadian sports history.

Again.

In October 2020, Clayton and Sergey Lipinets fought to a draw in an IBF interim title fight. One judge scored the bout for Clayton, overruled by the two who scored it even. A single extra point on either of those cards would have made Clayton the first Black Nova Scotian fighter to win a world title since George "Little Chocolate" Dixon won the world featherweight title in 1890.

"You're always fighting to prove something," said Clayton, who is 19-0-1. "You're always trying to make history. I just want to prove that I'm an elite fighter, and that I'm here to win."

This time, Clayton faces the same task, but in a changed welterweight landscape it is, potentially, a much tougher challenge.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Ennis on verge of breakthrough

When Clayton fought Lipinets, unified champion Errol Spence still hadn't returned from the fiery car crash that hospitalized him in November of 2019. But now Spence is back, displaying his trademark mixture of skill and aggressiveness, pummelling Yordenis Ugas in a title fight last month. Afterward, Spence called for a showdown with Terence Crawford, the undefeated WBO champion, and another of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport.

If this were the NBA, Spence and Crawford would be LeBron James or Stephen Curry — brand-name stars with long resumés and a well-earned sense of seniority. Ennis, then, would be Jayson Tatum, a spectacular talent on the brink of a breakthrough. In this scenario, Clayton might be Brandon Ingram — skilled but unsung, an all-star talent without the accolades.

Except in basketball, everybody plays everybody else eventually, and under-the-radar players with all-star potential get to prove themselves against established performers.

But in boxing, an opponent's popularity factors into the equations that make fights. The more eyeballs each fighter brings to a bout, the more valuable that event is to promoters and sponsors, and the more lucrative it is for all stakeholders.

That setup explains why Jake Paul headlines pay-per-view cards, and why UFC champ Kamaru Usman thinks he can talk his way into a bout with Canelo Alvarez. But it also highlights Clayton's dilemma.

Bigger-name fighters have little incentive to fight somebody who might beat them, but who can't make them richer.

"We don't bring the payday or the recognition to a guy like Errol Spence or Keith Thurman," said Eric Belanger, Clayton's trainer. "What we do bring is the risk, and that's a terrible combination unless you force something to happen."

Getty Images
Getty Images

Ennis treating fight as his showcase

And Clayton is clearly the B-side fighter in his next bout. Ennis' Instagram following (185,000) outnumbers Clayton's (39,000), and Ennis has already headlined several fight cards on Showtime, the U.S. cable network airing next week's bout. The managerial outfit Premier Boxing Champions represents both fighters, but only featured Ennis on its podcast, where he mused about a future showdown with former champion Keith Thurman.

"That would be the fight that makes my name," he said.

But when asked about Clayton, Ennis treated the bout, and his opponent, as a showcase for him, declaring that high-profile fights will come, "as long as I shine or make a statement by stopping … this guy."

Name recognition isn't a problem for Clayton in North Preston, where he grew up, or Dartmouth, where he now lives with his wife, Charis, and their five children. People at home also know him as a cousin of Canadian Kirk Johnson, the 1992 Olympian who twice fought for a world heavyweight title, and of Lindell Wigginton, who plays for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks.

WATCH | Clayton transitions to pro career after 2012 Olympics:

Clayton first started boxing as a grade-schooler, coached by Kirk's father, Gary, after being introduced to the sport by a cousin named Lucas Downey — another surname instantly familiar to longtime followers of Canadian boxing. Ray Downey won Olympic bronze in 1988. His father David Downey reigned as Canadian middleweight champion in the 1970s.

Clayton isn't sure whether he's related to that branch of the Downey family, but they're all heirs to Black Nova Scotia's rich boxing legacy. It stretches back to Sam Langford, from Weymouth Falls, N.S., who won 178 pro bouts between 1902 and 1926 but never fought for the heavyweight title. After Jack Johnson won the heavyweight crown in 1908, he promptly re-drew the colour line, reasoning, correctly, that beating up Great White Hopes paid better than fighting Black challengers, and preventing a rematch with Langford.

And it starts with Dixon, who grew up in Halifax's Africville neighbourhood, and became both the first Black world champion of any nationality, and the first Canadian of any colour to win a world boxing title.

For his part, Clayton recognizes that entire communities are invested in the outcome of his showdown with Ennis.

"I'm confident in what I can do," he said. "As long as I'm happy with what I've done, and made a lot of other people proud."

Joining Dixon in that exclusive club will mean conquering Ennis, a loose-limbed boxer who blends in-ring smarts with stunning punching power. Where Clayton and Lipinets fought to a 12-round draw, Ennis faced Lipinets six months later and knocked him out in six rounds.

But the Clayton camp cautions that results against a common opponent like Lipinets don't say much about how Ennis' style will mesh with Clayton's. Lipinets is a solid boxer and committed body puncher; Ennis ate a few hard punches but overwhelmed Lipinets with speed. Belanger points out that Ennis has never faced a fighter as versatile as Clayton, who is equally comfortable boxing from distance or exchanging punches at close range.

Clayton is also densely muscled, with a physical strength that's rare among welterweights. And he will enter next Saturday's fight after a nine-week training camp in Las Vegas, where top-flight sparring partners abound.

So while it's understood that Ennis is the best fighter Clayton has faced, Belanger says Ennis has never fought an opponent with Clayton's pedigree and skill set.

"He's our biggest test, and we're his biggest test," Belanger said. "It's going to be a tense, closely contested boxing match that eventually has a fight break out."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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