The bell had barely finished ringing when Custio Clayton won his first-ever competitive boxing match. He delivered one good punch, sending his opponent (who'd swung and missed already) into the ropes, effectively ending the fight. Clayton's first nine match-ups would end like this, in victory, but this one made him a champ in just 25 seconds.
At two weeks shy of 11 he was a natural, clearly. But his coach (and uncle), Gary Johnson, knew that already. An older cousin had recruited an eight-year-old Clayton, an athletic and competitive kid, from the swing set to "just try" a session at the nearby City of Lakes Amateur Boxing Club. He's been training there with Johnson ever since.
"I just couldn't stop. For me it was about not letting anyone else out-do me. I was always trying to be better, I think that's what it was," says Custio. "The school wasn't that far away so I'd go to school, come home, hang out with my friends and go to the gym. I never missed a day."
His dedication and natural ability won Clayton three consecutive national titles by the time he was 16. But his brain needed a little rest. He took a couple of years away from the ring to be a kid, he says, but returned just as motivated. With the Olympics on his mind he began travelling the world, competing on a national and international level.
Now Dartmouth's 26-year-old welterweight fighter and father of two (Cheyla and Kyreece) is a seven-time national champ. He's a family-man who prefers to keep to himself, soft spoken but confident, competitive but grateful and he's never fought outside of the ring. But above all, Custio Clayton is driven.
This year, his sights are set on bringing a medal back to Nova Scotia from July's Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It'll be his biggest tournament since the 2012 Olympics when Clayton was one of two Canadians to qualify to fight at the summer games in London. After two wins he was dealt a quarter final loss to Great Britain's Freddie Evans that sparked controversy. A tie forced the decision to go to the judges, who awarded the win in Evans' favour, despite Clayton winning both the second and third rounds. Canada fought back and appealed the outcome with hope that repeated infractions by Evans would come to light and make the difference in score, but to no end.
"I know what it's like to be ripped off. I know what it's like to have people against you. To me, as long as I knew that I did the best that I could do, and I performed the best I could perform—and everyone that supported me, as long as they were happy, I was happy. I mean, I gave it everything, and everyone who saw it knew I did," says Clayton, reflecting on his fifth-place Olympic finish. "It was a heart breaker but at the same time I didn't want to show it. I mean knowing I should have won, it hurt...but I couldn't do anything about that."
Since London, the International Boxing Association has tweaked its Olympic rules significantly so that amateur boxers will be fighting closer to pro-style. This not only removes the obligatory headgear, but swaps punch-count for 10-point scoring, leaving the decision in the hands of five judges, a system that Clayton says would have secured him a quarter final win in 2012. It's a hard truth to swallow, but he says everything happens for a reason.
"It's just about knowing the sport is about judging, and judging's not always going to be fair. That's not even just amateur, that's pro...you're going to get judged no matter what, whether you're doing bad or good. To think, 'What can I do to not get judged?' You can't do anything," says Clayton. "That's life, they're going to judge you no matter what. That's the thing about boxing, anything I do within it helps me outside of it. The same attitude I have in boxing, I have outside of boxing. I credit that to my coach, and my mother."
But Clayton would rather focus on the achievement then the upset, leaving the past in the past, tackling one challenge at a time. "The way I wanted the Olympics then, I still want them now. I'm still hungry no matter what. But the next Olympics is still a long way away."
First and foremost his body and mind are set on his immediate goal–this summer's Commonwealth Games. Clayton says he wants to bring home a medal to his kids, to his coaches, to Dartmouth: it's as simple as that. His prep schedule—cardio in the morning, weights in the afternoon, and putting up his dukes at the City of Lakes ABC after dinner—leaves him little time to do anything else but build on what he's learned so far with Johnson and his other longtime coach, Floyd Donovan.
"It's difficult. What we get from the national team, it helps a little but you always need a little more to get where you want to be," he says. Clayton's currently running a Pursu.it crowdfunding campaign to help offset the expenses of making the trip to Scotland to compete. "Most athletes train and do this full-time, to be the best you want to be able to train like the best. It is hard, that's why I'm so happy I have people around me that help me."
He credits his family and his coaches for not only pushing him throughout his 18-year career, but inspiring his positive outlook, too. It's that support system that inspires the best in Clayton, and that makes sure it'll take more than one unfortunate blow to knock him off his feet.
"The mental part is one of the biggest parts of boxing. If you go in there with a mental game plan and in the first round and the game plan isn't working right, you can break right there," he says. "You've always got to have your mental work done and see yourself winning the fight, see yourself doing better.
"In time I'm looking to become a professional boxer, but like I said, I've got another goal," he says. "And I'm just looking to achieve that first."
To support Custio's journey to the Commonwealth Games, check out pursu.it/campaign/custio-clayton