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Most women you see in the ring on a big fight night are carrying a card telling you what round’s coming up.
But if the fight’s big enough, you might also see Kelly Swanson.
Swanson ranks among boxing’s public relations powerhouses. The downtown offices of her firm, Swanson Communications, feature signed trinkets from clients including Rock Newman, Floyd Mayweather, Oscar De La Hoya, and Bernard Hopkins.
“Face it, boxing’s a man’s world, on all sides,” says Hopkins, the greatest middleweight of the last half-century. He hired Swanson a decade ago. “Her job is to get the reporters and fighters together, and in this sport, that’s all men. But you got to go through her, and Kelly doesn’t take nothing from anybody. She puts reporters in their place when they need it, and she keeps fighters in line. Is everybody in a man-dominated business gonna love a woman as tough as Kelly Swanson? No. But everybody respects her.”
These days, Swanson’s tasked with drumming up media interest in the Amir Khan/Lamont Peterson title fight, scheduled for Dec. 10 at the Convention Center. The plan includes papering the town with 50,000 fliers and posters, throwing a birthday party for Englishman Khan with the British Embassy, arranging open workouts for both fighters complete with deejays and kids from the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation boxing program, and organizing a public weigh-in, which should draw a large batch of Peterson followers, since he grew up in the area.
The nation’s capital was once a great fight town. Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Willie Pep, Rocky Marciano, and Sugar Rays Robinson and Leonard all fought inside city limits back in the day. (Robinson, generally considered the greatest pound-for-pound fighter who ever lived, fought twice at Uline Arena and once at Griffith Stadium.)
But you can’t be a great fight town without great fights. Before the Khan/Peterson matchup, the last notable title bout here was in 1993, when Riddick Bowe KO’d Jesse Ferguson at RFK Stadium. “This could mean more fights come to Washington,” says Mark Taffet, who heads the pay-per-view boxing division of HBO, the network broadcasting Khan v. Peterson. HBO hasn’t televised a D.C. fight since Bowe v. Ferguson.
Swanson was at that fight, too, in Bowe’s corner. In fact, she served as Bowe’s publicist for his entire pro career. She’d met him at the 1988 Olympics, when she was working for a New York PR firm that represented the U.S. team.
Swanson had gotten hooked on boxing as a kid in Buffalo. “I think it all started watching Muhammad Ali fight Jimmy Young on TV,” she says. “But I know by high school I loved boxing, and was spending a lot of Friday and Saturday nights watching the fights on TV.” So she spent every free minute in Seoul watching the boxing tournament and getting to know the fighters, including Bowe, who won a silver medal.
Newman, who grew up in Prince George’s County and went to Howard University, says he met Swanson when they both did business with former heavyweight champ Michael Spinks. He says Swanson helped steer Bowe to his managerial stable. Newman, in turn, credits himself with getting Swanson to relocate to his beloved D.C. after she formed her own firm.
“God almighty, we had an incredible run,” says Newman, “and Kelly was there every step.”
Bowe was often considered a trainer’s nightmare, ballooning out of shape between fights and not always letting on that he was aware of his tremendous physical gifts. But he seemed a publicist’s dream.
Take away Mike Tyson, and no modern prizefighter was ever involved in more wacky news than Riddick Bowe. His heyday was book-ended by major fracases, with plenty of craziness in between. It started in 1991 at D.C.’s old convention center, when Bowe’s bout with Elijah Tillery ended with a brawl between the fighters’ camps after the first-round bell. The televised madness climaxed when Newman jumped up on the ring apron to put Tillery in a headlock, sending him head over heels onto the arena floor.
“There was some bad blood between Tillery and Kelly that led up to that,” remembers Newman with a giggle. “She was one of us.”
“At the press conference before the fight, Tillery just started yelling at me, ‘You’re going to be working for me! You’re gonna be with me!’” she says. “And then right after the big riot, I’m at the ring yelling at him, ‘I’m not working for you! See? I’m still with Riddick!’ And Tillery looked at me and just spit a big gob at me.”
Swanson found herself in the middle of another riot at a 1993 Bowe/Evander Holyfield title fight in Las Vegas. In the middle of the 7th round, an ambitious gate-crasher known as Fan Man flew into the ring using a powered parachute. Bowe’s seconds pounded Fan Man while he was still caught in the ropes. But when the real fight resumed, challenger Holyfield took over and captured Bowe’s heavyweight belt.
Then there was the pre-fight press conference brawl in 1994, when Bowe gave his upcoming opponent Larry Donald a one-two barefisted combination to the jaw. The pro bono fisticuffs seemed to be just what the fight needed, bringing worldwide attention to Bowe’s first bout since losing the title to Holyfield.
But the punches were totally from the heart, says Swanson. “Riddick heard about Larry going around talking shit about him and his family while training,” she says. “By fight time, he was really pissed. I saw they were going to be sitting next to each other separated only by the podium at the press conference, and I knew there’d be trouble. And he just clocked him.”
Swanson swears press conference punches, cliché as they’ve become in boxing, are never scripted. “It’s never fake. Never fake. Never!” she says. “It happens because its two guys who are about to fight for their lives, and their families, and their livelihoods. And, my God, they’re fighters! I have never been involved in anything where it’s been faked or encouraged.”
The worst donnybrook Swanson witnessed came in 1996, when Andrew Golota was disqualified for a series of low blows against Bowe in a Madison Square Garden bout. The cockpunch barrage crippled Bowe and sent his corner into attack mode. While Golota, subsequently nicknamed the Foul Pole, was being pummeled, fans joined in the melee. Ten people were arrested. A front-page New York Post headline called it a “Garden Riot.” Mayor Rudy Giuliani went on air to threaten more arrests.
“Actually that one was very scary,” says Swanson, who admits to running from her ringside seat to the dressing room as soon as trouble started. “I might be tough, but I’m not stupid!”
None of the brushes with danger made Swanson wish she’d chosen another career. “The first Bowe/Holyfield fight was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” she says. “I was sitting so close to the ring I could bang on the canvas. The crowd was screaming one round for Riddick and one round for Evander. And Riddick won the world championship. That left me with just a cool feeling that will never go away.”
Swanson’s seasoning was evident after Hopkins’ title fight last month with Chad Dawson in Los Angeles. The match ended abruptly when Dawson body-slammed Hopkins to the canvas in the second round. Hopkins, a lord of discipline who still holds a title at age 46, claimed that he couldn’t continue; Dawson and the crowd called him a faker. (Hopkins’ injury was later verified by an MRI.) As seconds from both camps traded profanities and a brawl seemed imminent, Swanson could be seen on the pay-per-view telecast scurrying around the ring with a reporter’s notebook gathering quotes for the press release.
“In the heat of all the chaos,” says Hopkins, “what was Kelly doing? She was doing her job. She was in the ring, but she wasn’t carrying a round card. She’s tough, and she’s a pro.”
In case I wasn’t getting his point, Hopkins tells me: “I wouldn’t even be talking to you now if Kelly didn’t tell me I had to.”
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