TORONTO, ON—Custio Clayton is not unlike a lot of boxers in the world whose talent exceeds his level of recognition. Across the planet, there are fighters grinding away in their respective gyms waiting for a big opportunity to get noticed.
Clayton’s situation is a little more uncommon, however. The 2012 Canadian Olympian is ranked in three separate sanctioning bodies, inside the Top 10 in two of them, and at one point was the No. 1 contender for Terence Crawford’s WBO belt, a position he never lost in the ring. Despite those accolades, the undefeated contender is just a name in the rankings to most American fight fans, as none of his professional bouts to this point have aired in the United States.
That will change on Tuesday night, as Clayton will take on Diego Ramirez at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in the co-feature of Broadway Boxing on UFC Fight Pass. It’s the first time the lauded series has ventured to Canada, a collaboration between top Canadian promoter Lee Baxter and Lou DiBella, and the first time a fight fan outside of the Great White North or the UK can see Clayton fight live on something other than a bootlegged stream.
“I’m just trying to get onto that US platform, and this is a big opportunity,” said Clayton. “You want (fans) to know your name, but they don’t see you, and they only go by what they see. That’s like a lot of the guys in Canada, they haven’t really seen them in the US.”
Despite a vibrant fight scene up north, getting onto a US platform has only happened for a select few Canadian fighters over the years, and even fewer have been able to do it while fighting at home in Canada. Clayton’s cousin, former heavyweight contender Kirk Johnson, fought on American television plenty during his career, but always on the road. When HBO aired Lucian Bute-Librado Andrade II, it was the first time since 1977 (when Nova Scotia’s Joe Borden fought Michael Spinks) that the network had brought its cameras to Canada. Prior to that, you might be able to count on one hand the number of times a significant American platform aired a bout from Canada—a few Steve Molitor world title defenses, an ESPN Friday Night Fights battle between Davey Hilton and Stephane Ouellet.
Since then, Jean Pascal, Adonis Stevenson and David Lemieux have all brought broadcast crews to Canada, but Pascal and Lemieux have had to venture to America often for bigger opportunities later in their careers.
“As a Canadian boxing promoter, your goal is to make a world champion, but economically it’s difficult,” explained Baxter, Clayton’s promoter. “Often times our best fighters have to turn their backs on where they reside and go where the money is. It’s our job to find out how to find the money and find the platform to keep them here. Otherwise, they’re always gonna be the B-side. We’ve had to creatively work to get them opportunities as the A-side and fighting at home, and working with Lou DiBella was an opportunity to do that.”
Clayton is part of the first generation of Canadian boxers who saw fighters from their home country fighting on American networks and getting recognition across the border. At 32 years of age, he is at the peak of his powers, and hoping to have the same impact on the next wave that Pascal in particular had on him.
“What Pascal has done for Canada, that’s something nobody can downplay,” said Clayton of the light heavyweight titleholder. “For me, growing up and getting into boxing, I was at the Nationals and I saw Pascal going for the national team, in the Olympic Trials, and that’s when I realized I wanted to go to the Olympics, seeing those guys. He’s made a statement in Canada.”
Baxter says he hopes the newly formed relationship with DiBella Entertainment and UFC Fight Pass will help provide and open up more regular opportunities for Clayton and other Canadian fighters to be able to fight on home soil in front of an international audience. In his undefeated welterweight, who is one of the top ranked contenders for titles held by Manny Pacquiao, Errol Spence and Terence Crawford, Baxter has a relevant player to help make that happen.
“From a promoter’s standpoint, when you get a fighter as good as Custio, you want to get all the even playing field factors when you go into a big fight. It’s very enjoyable when you have a fighter of that caliber that there’s no one in the division that you’re ducking. I genuinely believe in my heart that he can hang with any one of those big names. And I think it’s my job to get him in a position to get him a fair shot to do that,” said Baxter.
From a strategic perspective, so long as Clayton can continue defeating decent opposition, he will remain in a position to land a big fight. The question now is whether he can gain more recognition in the process, by defeating more notable fighters and doing so on platforms that extend outside of his home country. If he can do that, he may become an intriguing cog in a division that remains one of the most fruitful and glamorous in the sport, and help bring major fights across the border with more regularity.
“Rankings aren’t my issue, I’m already there. It’s staying active throughout the year, and at the same time, I need to start getting names on my resume. Guys that people know in the US and in other places. I’m still getting the right fights under me, but if I got the call right now I’d be ready,” said Clayton.