Most boxing fans remember the late Zachariah “Zack” Clayton as the third man in the ring for Muhammad Ali’s stunning eighth-round knockout of George Foreman on Oct. 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). But Clayton’s involvement in “The Rumble in the Jungle” is not his only brush with history as a referee; the lean Philadelphian became the first African-American to work a world heavyweight championship bout when he got the assignment for the fourth installment of the Ezzard Charles-Jersey Joe Walcott series, in which Walcott retained the title on a 15-round unanimous decision in Philly’s old Municipal Stadium. Clayton also refereed Ali’s final fight, a 10-round points loss to Trevor Berbick on Dec. 11, 1981, in Nassau, the Bahamas, and, during a career that spanned 282 bouts from 1949 to 1984, he refereed fights involving such other Hall of Famers as Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Michael Spinks, Dick Tiger, Joey Giardello, Harold Johnson, Wilfredo Benitez, Floyd Patterson, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Ken Buchanan, Carlos Ortiz, Luis Rodriguez and Jimmy Bivins.
But, as was demonstrated during Saturday’s announcement of the 10-member induction Class of 2017 for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, boxing was not even the sport for which Clayton – who was 80 when he died on Nov. 19, 1997 – achieved his first or most enduring success. An ambidextrous guard for all-black teams in the 1930s and ’40s, Clayton will be posthumously inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 9 in Springfield, Mass., along with George McGinnis, Tracy McGrady, Bill Self, Jerry Krause, Rebecca Lobo, Muffet McGraw, Mannie Jackson, Nikos Galis and Tom Jernstedt.
A true renaissance man, Clayton also starred as a first baseman in the old Negro Leagues for such teams as the Philadelphia Stars, Philadelphia Giants, New York Black Yankees and Bacharach Giants. But it was his skill on the basketball court that made him a standout on any of the teams for which he excelled, most notably the New York Renaissance and Washington Bears, in addition to the Harlem Globetrotters, Philadelphia Panthers and Quaker City Elks. He was a member of two teams that won two World Professional Basketball Tournament titles, the first in the inaugural 1939 season with the Rens, the second with the Bears in 1943.
“I think the Harlem Globetrotters, Renaissance and the Bears paved the way for blacks by defeating the best white teams for the world championships,” Clayton said in 1989. “That was a major accomplishment for blacks in the sport of basketball … We were able to beat the white teams because of our quickness.”
But integration at the two sports in which he was an active participant came too late for Clayton. Major League Baseball was all-white until 1947, when Jackie Robinson and then Larry Doby broke the color barrier, and the National Basketball Association did not follow baseball’s lead until the 1950-51 season, when Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton earned roster spots.
In the area of race relations, however, boxing long before opened doors for black athletes that had remained closed to them in team sports. It is not difficult to imagine someone as gifted as Clayton making his mark as a fighter, had he taken up the sweet science in his younger days. But when Clayton did turn to boxing, he quickly made his presence felt, both as a referee and as a commissioner with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, to which he was appointed in 1972.
His nearly-36-year career as a referee was not without its controversies. There are those who insist he did not penalize or even warn Ali for continually pushing Foreman’s head down, and then giving a quick 10-count when Big George went down. Although his name has often been mentioned as a candidate for induction in the Non-Participant category for the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he has not gotten his call to that hall, or even one to the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame.
But Clayton’s feats on the basketball court now bear the imprimatur of greatness that the New Orleans Pelicans’ superstar, Anthony Davis, said is justified and probably overdue.
“Before I ever played basketball, there was Zachariah Clayton, one of the greatest basketball talents of his time,” Davis said in 2014. “Zachariah Clayton is one of the game’s original pioneers.”
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