Custio Clayton’s mother says she doesn’t want to watch her son box at the London Olympics. She wants to hide under a blanket listening to the TV broadcast back home in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, then let family members tell her if he won or not.
Such is the plight of Elizabeth Clayton, a mom whose son will trade punches to the head and gut with other world-class boxers in win-or-go-home bouts at the Olympics. He’ll wear head-gear, but that does little to settle her nerves. Yet the proud mother has spent much of her son’s 24 years urging him to get to the boxing gym, helping the kid with obvious natural talent and passion clear any hurdles on the path to his Olympic dream.
When Clayton quit boxing for two years as a teen, there was the single mom, pushing the multi-time Canadian champ back to the sport, reminding him of the discipline and commitment it had given him, the dreams he had set. When he became a father at age 17, and again at 22, his mom – with the help of an Olympic-caliber coach – helped him configure a life that included school, parenthood and boxing.
“No matter what, my mom was always on me about going to the gym,” said Clayton in a recent phone interview. “And today, I’m happy for that. I’ve had a lot of help.”
Clayton began boxing as a tiny nine-year-old at Dartmouth’s City of Lakes Boxing Club. Gary Johnson, father and coach of 1992 Canadian Olympian Kirk Johnson took on Clayton. The athletic boy impressed the coach with his strength – walking across the gym on his hands, out-punching kids a whole head taller than him, and begging for a real fight before he turned 11, the sport’s legal age standard.
“I thought those other kids were going to destroy him, he was so tiny,” said Ms. Clayton in a phone interview. “But he beat them, because he was so fast. He didn’t care how big they were – he’d pound on them. After I saw what he could do, I said ‘he can hold his own,’ and the coach was like ‘wow, this little guy is amazing.”
The young boy started training several times a week over the next several years and won three Canadian championships by age 15. But by 16, he wanted to hang out with friends instead of training. Two seasons went by, he unexpectedly became a father to a baby girl. Ms. Clayton urged him to stay out of trouble and get back to the gym.
“It’s hard to juggle kids and boxing, but you do whatever you can for your kids,” said Clayton. “It was a little shocking when the baby came along. I was only 17 at the time, and still in school. But I got myself into it, so I was going to commit to it. I have had lots of help in my life and career, my mom especially.”
He graduated high school and worked in a warehouse to help make ends meet, while his mother worked various jobs. She has also helped with the little girl, Cheyla, who today is almost seven, and Kyreece, a baby boy he had with another girlfriend two years ago. Ms. Clayton worked many jobs in nursing and care-giving to let her son focus some time on boxing. Other family members pitched in too.
In the ring, it’s the coach who has fostered Clayton. While many amateur boxing coaches believe an amateur boxer shouldn’t dabble in pro-style fighting, Johnson has taught Clayton all of it, wanting him to be prepared for any style of fighter he faces. They have watched 100s of videos, which Johnson believes gives Clayton a unique style in his 69-kilogram weight class. The coach has also enabled mentorship for Clayton with his son, the ‘92 Olympian who is now a pro fighter. They have given Clayton special training with the pro in Texas.
Clayton, a welterweight, is one of only two Canadian men who will box at the London Games – the other is super heavyweight (91-plus kg) Simon Kean of Trois-Rivières, Que. While they might not be top medal contenders going in, there is optimism, because Canada qualified only one male boxer for the 2008 Beijing Games. Welterweight Adam Trupish lost out in a lopsided first-round bout there. Canada hasn’t won an Olympic medal in boxing since heavyweight David Defiagbon earned silver in 1996.
“Custio is going to the biggest show in the world now and he stands as good a chance as anyone in that class, because he has real man strength and his mental game is really there right now,” said Johnson. “He really wanted to chase this life-long dream to reach the Olympics, and he had a lot of respect for his mom, and she did a great job helping him.”
In preparing for the Games, Clayton juggled long boxing trips and daily training with the care of his kids – scheduling runs, weights and workouts around school drop-offs. His family surprised him at the Halifax Airport when he arrived home from the Pan American qualifier with an Olympic berth in hand.
Clayton arrived in London this week after training in Ireland for the past month with Kean, Canadian Mary Spencer and fighters from Puerto Rico and Cuba. His class starts Olympic competition July 29.
“Training has been great, and I have done everything I was supposed to do,” said Clayton in an email when he arrived in London. “I feel more ready to fight than ever before.”