Custio Clayton: Global Ambition

Whether in Canada or elsewhere, there are few welterweight prospects whose talents match those of Custio Clayton. The Dartmouth, Nova Scotia native, who trains out of Club de Boxe de L’Est in Montreal, is a veteran of the 2012 Olympic Games and on Tuesday he headlines the next Groupe Yvon Michel card at the Casino de Montreal. Tomorrow’s test isn’t treacherous, but such is the plight of an unusually gifted fighter who is still seeking pro experience. For Clayton and his team, it’s another leg of a journey that ends in global renown.

Now an undefeated professional, he lost a controversial decision at the Olympics to Fred Evans of England, in which he was felled by a ‘countback’ tiebreaker which deems the boxer who threw more punches the winner. Despite the harsh result, Clayton remembers it fondly. “I always look at it with joy,” he says. “[The decision] is something I couldn’t control, so I’m not down about it. It was a great opportunity and a great experience.”

Clayton boxed well at the Olympics but didn’t get the desired result.

At 28, the compact, muscular Clayton is not a young prospect. Nevertheless, the men guiding him—Eric Belanger and Douggy Berneche, his trainer and manager, respectively—insist that extensive amateur careers can refine the contours of a diamond. But however comprehensive his experience was, once a boxer transitions to the grueling, physical professional style, even the most skilled amateur must continue learning.

To date, Clayton’s opposition has been weak and if he’s to realize his potential better talent must find its way into the opposite corner. While he’s aware of this, the even-keeled fighter accepts that talented upstarts are often forced to start their careers slowly, since established pros are adverse to taking on risk for little financial recompense. “It’s about patience and timing,” says Custio. “You don’t get the fights you really want, but you take what you get and try to learn from it.”

Clayton spars Francis Lafreniere at the Grant Brothers gym as Berneche looks on.
Clayton spars at the Grant Brothers Gym as Berneche looks on. Photo by Manny Montreal.

Custio has won six in a row by stoppage and his opponent on Tuesday, Mexico’s Jose Emilio Perea, however experienced and game he may be, has lost six of his last eight. It may be a small victory if Perea wins a round, much less lasts the entire 12. Conscious his charge needs better opponents, Belanger envisions multiple step-ups, in which Clayton faces an intelligent boxer, then a puncher, and finally someone who combines elements of both. In theory, this will ensure he can navigate through adversity versus a truly world-class talent.

“He’s probably the most complete fighter I’ve ever worked with,” Belanger says. “The potential for this kid is yet to be seen, that’s something I promise. Everything about him is what you want for a professional athlete and what you dream about as a coach. He doesn’t have weight issues. He doesn’t have legal issues.”

Berneche cites Clayton’s maturity as one of his greatest assets and says “he puts boxing before everything.” The fighter has a young family and away from the gym he maintains a relatively low-key lifestyle. “Since I got older, it’s a lot different. I don’t like to be too live. I just like to be around my kids.”

Landing a jab against a helpless opponent.

For someone so calm in conversation, Custio boxes with an aggression that belies his peaceful nature. He can tailor a fight plan to his opponent, and either box or punch, depending on what’s advantageous. Since turning pro, Belanger has worked to develop Clayton’s jab and has since focused on improving his inside fighting skills. “He’s turning into a real boxer-puncher,” the trainer says. “He’s got a seek-and-destroy style, so you can’t switch without eating two or three shots from him. But he’s also extremely slick defensively. He doesn’t do big motions, so he’s not a flashy fighter. He does a lot of very subtle things.”

Speed and power are the twin virtues of athleticism, and while Clayton has them, it is defense that Berneche extols as his strongest attribute. He says Custio’s only been seriously staggered once as a pro, during a sparring session against middleweight David Lemieux, when he caught a flush right hand, from which he recovered quickly. It will be interesting to see if Perea, who has 15 career stoppages, poses even the slightest physical threat.

In addition to Belanger and Berneche, another shot-caller invested in Clayton’s progress is Yvon Michel, the Montreal promoter who organized the Casino series to give local prospects exposure. The difficulty in developing a fighter of Custio’s caliber, for all parties involved, is finding suitable opponents. As his manager, it is Berneche’s duty to ensure Michel secures opposition that will facilitate Clayton’s improvement, but because of the finances involved, this can be tricky. Still, Belanger says he’d like Custio to be recognized as a top ten welterweight within a year. He’s slated to appear in four bouts in 2016 and three next year. Everyone’s cognizant there’s little time to waste.

Clayton victim
He’s steamrolled early competition, but Clayton will have to step up soon.

It’s an interesting time for upstart welterweights, as boxing’s erstwhile glamour division is seeking a new star. While there’s been some competitive jostling at its top, no one seems poised to exercise the same grip over over it that Floyd Mayweather once did. Kell Brook is a fine boxer with an unimpressive résumé; Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter have enjoyed marketing pushes disproportionate to their abilities; and the fast, fragile Amir Khan, only recently knocked out by Canelo Alvarez, is perpetually one bomb away from forming a crater on the canvas. Aside from Brook, the best of the group might be Texan Errol Spence, who Berneche mentioned as an eventual dream opponent.

Only seven fights into his pro career, and with no auspicious names on his Boxrec page, Clayton’s still some distance from these fighters, but there’s no trepidation in his camp. “Eventually I want to be known around the world,” he says, stating his ambition to  succeed Jean Pascal, Adonis Stevenson, and David Lemieux as Montreal fighters who have gained their share of the international spotlight. As an aggressive, crowd-pleasing battler whose style and personality will appeal to fans, there’s no reason to think Clayton’s name won’t resonate outside of Canada.

Belanger is among those who are certain Clayton will reach the top. “I think he’s going to be a superstar. I think he’s going to be a world champion, and I think he’s going to defend the world title many, many times,” he says, before adding, “We just can’t take ten years to get there.” Today, Clayton is a vastly talented fighter known mostly on a local level. Time and better opposition will determine if he can forge a career on premium cable.         Eliott McCormick

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