Jeff Pearlman

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Kelly Swanson

#245
The best publicist in sports has been by Floyd Mayweather's side and witnessed the rise and (heartbreaking) fall of Riddick Bowe. So why the love for 7-Eleven coffee? POSTED February 9, 2016

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Over the course of two decades in the business, I’ve dealt with an endless conga line of publicists—95 percent of whom stink.

I mean no offense. It’s just that, well, no matter how many times you call, I’m not writing about a foam cheese head, or interviewing Menudo’s former road manager. I don’t want to meet Rex Hudler, or try tuna ice cream or sit in on a conference call with the seven living members of the 1933 New York Yankees.

Sorry. I just don’t.

Kelly Swanson gets it. She’s always gotten it, even since I was a young buck at Sports Illustrated and she was pitching boxing-related stories. Kelly is a journalist’s publicist—meaning: A. She knows her stuff; B. She won’t waste your time with trash. Wanna know if a PR person is trustworthy? Wait for him/her to say, “Look, I know you probably won’t wanna do this, but I have to at least try.” That’s the sort of publicist I dig. That’s Kelly.

For more than 20 years, Kelly has been the biggest publicist in boxing. Her clients are legendary, her fights larger than life. She also happens to be one of the coolest people I know, despite her apparent disinterest in granola and Malik Rose.

One can visit Kelly’s site here, and follow her on the ol’ Twitter here.

Kelly Swanson, to hell with Floyd and Hopkins. You’re the undisputed 245th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Kelly, boxing is one of the most criticized, lambasted sports on the planet. And yet, you’ve devoted much of your career to it. Why? And what do you think people misunderstand about the sport?

KELLY SWANSON: Boxing is an uncomfortable sport to watch if you don’t know or understand it. Most people don’t know how to watch boxing and therefore they don’t see its technical side through the offensive and defensive skills that are displayed during a fight. It’s actually similar to any of the other contact sports, such as football or hockey, when two or more make aggressive contact. From what I am reading these days, I think I would want to be a really good fighter over a football player.

Also, the fighters love to fight. They absolutely love to do it. For most of them, who sauntered in or were sent to their neighborhood boxing gym as young troublemakers, it’s the only way out of what are some terrible circumstances, whether it’s their family situation or their local surroundings with negative influences. I see their passion and their plight and I am OK with trying to help them make their world a better place for themselves and their families. It’s their backstories that make for unbelievable copy. Several fighters’ stories I have pitched have ended up on A1. That’s thrilling to me as a publicist.

J.P.: You work a ton with Floyd Mayweather—a marvelous boxer and the closest thing we have to a villain in pro sports. So … what’s he like as a person? As a guy to work with? Are we missing something when we label him as “bad.” And is he truly trying to orchestrate a certain image, or is he a guy who just can’t help himself.

K.S.: Floyd was an extremely hard-working and dedicated professional athlete who took his craft very seriously and became one of the greatest fighters of all time. As far as working with him, which I did for more than 10 years until he retired this past fall, he has always been respectful and appreciative of my help. I was able to do a job for him that he needed, and in so doing we had a lot of success. He probably executed more than 5,000 interviews over the 10 years we worked together. As a small business, he contributed greatly to the overall success of my company during these years. He was very loyal to me and I to him.

As for who Floyd is as a person, few get to see or know the real one. A lot of fighters are very insular. Floyd lives by himself. When he is alone, or with his closest friends, which is a very small circle by choice, he is reserved and actually pretty quiet.

But having grown up in the public eye and accumulated the wealth he has, I believe it is confusing for him at times. I think because of the nature of the “bad” guy persona crafted as part of his “image,” and his willingness to “show off” his success with bravado and flash, people either love him or hate him. He has taken his share of criticism from a lot of people.

Yes, he has had his own personal failings that are well documented and known to everyone. But he has also paid for those failings and is doing the best he can to not make the same mistakes again; to be a better person all around. You have to respect someone, whether you like him or not, for doing that. It’s the nature of humanity.

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J.P.: You spent many years working with Riddick Bowe, one of the great heavyweights of the past 30 years and one of the saddest boxing sagas of quite some time. Why, just recently the New York Daily News ran the story, “Riddick Bowe, former boxer, says he will Tweet anything for $20.” And it was true. Kelly, what went wrong with Riddick Bowe? And how does it make you feel when you see former clients done in by the sport?

K.S.: It’s very sad what happened to Riddick. He had such a gigantic, fun-loving personality when he was fighting and he was a very happy guy. But he also had personal hardship when his marriage fell apart (his first wife was the mother of his five children). I don’t think he ever recovered from this and instead of relying on the people that helped secure his financial future, he turned his back on them and made some bad decisions to find himself in the situation he is in now.

J.P..: Back in 1991, you got in a heated exchange with a fighter named Elijah Tillery, but I’ve never heard the details. So … what happened? And did you ever make up?

K.S.: Very funny JP, and only because it is you will I answer this question. Riddick fought Elijah Tillery and we were all staying at the same hotel for fight week. Every time I saw this guy, he would say, “Yeah, don’t worry, come Sunday, you’ll be working for me!” So the night of the fight, after Bowe beat him, I went around to his corner (he was still in the ring) and said, “Yeah, Elijah, ha ha ha (or something like that)” and he turned and spit at me. It was disgusting and thankfully it landed on my clothes. But trust me I never let that happen again! Who was I to think I could go toe-to-toe with a real prizefighter, let alone a heavyweight!

J.P.: This might sound simplistic, but why do so many boxers end up broke? I mean, some of these guys make millions upon millions. Is it background? Is it people leeching on? Why?

K.S.: Why do so many athletes end up broke? I don’t think it is just boxing but I do think there is more responsibility in the other sports, the ones that have commissions, team ownership and other resources, to not let this happen on such a regular basis.

Boxing is a sport of the streets and fighters don’t have a great “trust” gauge. So when it comes to their money, they would rather keep it to themselves than work with others to help them with their savings and investments. It’s sad because it never works.

J.P.: So I know you grew up in Buffalo, I know you’re based out of New York City—but why did you become a publicist, and why a boxing publicist? When did you first know this is what you wanted to do?

K.S.: I didn’t know I wanted to be a publicist right away, but I did know fairly young, maybe high school, that I wanted to work in sports. I grew up with three brothers and all we did was play and watch sports, one of which was boxing. When I moved to New York City after college, I started to look for a job in sports and landed a public relations job at a small sports PR firm. It was great and my career took off from there.

I have worked and do work in many other sports besides boxing (you can check our website). But a lot of my business comes from the sport and it is our niche. I am delighted that I have had such a successful career and boxing has been a part of that success. When my agency was chosen to handle the overall publicity for the Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight, in addition to handling Floyd’s individual PR, that was the greatest compliment to our success. It was a tremendous job, which came with an enormous amount of responsibility. We were congratulated for our efforts.

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J.P.: You’re the best publicist I’ve ever dealt with, and it’s not even close. But I wanted your take—what makes a good publicist and what makes a shitty one? Are there obvious differences dividing good vs. awful?

K.S.: Thanks JP. That’s a huge compliment as I am sure you have worked with many good ones. I think the single most important part of being a good publicist is to know and have passion for your clients, whether they’re persons, products or events. Know the intricacies of what makes their stories unique, fresh, new, different, odd, topical, time sensitive and relevant. Also you have to know and study the person you are pitching to. I’ve heard horror stories from my friends in the media about calls they received from publicists asking them to cover something they aren’t even remotely covering (ah, I think you told me that, too). Unfortunately there are too many publicists that are just told to “pitch” because it’s their job and not their passion. That’s when they are shitty.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

K.S.: Couple of great moments—When Riddick Bowe won the world heavyweight title; this past year working on one of the biggest event in sports history—Mayweather vs Pacquiao.

Lowest—doing a press conference for a coffee table book on Notre Dame and no one showed up. It was my first assignment with this client, the publisher, and I was mortified. This past year when I found out members of the press will create falsehoods just to infuse themselves into a story they have no business being a part of, rather than just to cover it, if in fact they even have a real assignment to cover. Ridiculous.

J.P.: Give me your absolute craziest story from your boxing experiences.

K.S.: Would probably have to be working with Bernard Hopkins when he fought Tito Trinidad. We were in Puerto Rico promoting the fight. During the press conference, which was open to the public, Bernard took the Puerto Rican flag out of Tito’s hands and threw it on the ground. All hell broke lose and we basically had to run for our lives. That was crazy!

J.P.: There was recently a piece in Sports Illustrated on Don King, and how he’s now this sorta sad, washed-up has-been. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of King experiences. Was he as awful as they say? And what would you say is legacy is in the sport?

K.S.: Not that awful and his legacy would have to be that he created the most dynamic boxing promotions and storylines of all time in the history of the sport. Very hard working, and although he isn’t what he used to be, he is around at the tender age of 84 and still working as hard as he can.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KELLY SWANSON:

Hagler-Leonard—who do you think won?: Hagler

• Rank in order (favorite to least)—Malik Rose, Jake Locker, Boom Boom Mancini, Yom Kipper, Shamu, Empire State Building, granola, brown rice, Eight Men Out: Boom Boom Mancini, Shamu, Yom Kippur, Empire State Building, bottled water, brown rice, granola, Eight Men Out, Malik Rose, Jake Locker and Boise.

• Five nicest athletes you’ve ever dealt with?: Caron Butler, Felix Trinidad, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Bob Beamon and Sam Shields

• One biggest jerk?: As a publicist can’t kiss and tell! Sorry!

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope, but I have the dream all the time. I always wake up!

• One question you ask Bill Frist were he here right now?: As a former heart and lung surgeon, do you eat southern BBQ, ribs in particular?

• We give you one start in a WNBA game—this coming season. You play the entire game. How many points you score?: If I am lucky I hit my favorite shot—the 3-pointer from left side, back of circle. Made it every time in high school.

• I just paid $5 for a coffee drink. This seems ridiculous. In 14 words, tell me why I’m wrong: I just saw 7-Eleven has $.50 small special. Sometimes fancy coffee is worth it, but 7-Eleven has good coffee too.

• Fill in the blank: “When I see Muhammad Ali, I feel …” Love.

Celine Dion calls. She wants to hire you as her personal publicist. Two guaranteed years, $45 million per. But you have to cut off one finger, get a Celine tattoo on your left knee and legally change your name to Pen Case IV. You in?: Which finger?

  • sanford943

    I would have asked Bill Frist how he could diagnose Terry Schiavo buy just watching a video. I would have suspended his doctors liscense for that.

    • Paul C

      A-freakin’-men. This putz actually had the gall to defend his embarrassing claim afterwards, by stating that his remark that she was “not somebody in persistent vegetative state” did not amount to a “medical diagnosis,” because after all, medical doctor though he is, he would never presume to make a medical diagnosis when acting as a Senator.

  • Ted Mark

    Curious why Boise is listed as least favorite. Wasn’t even on the list. Might be a story in that.

  • wil blake

    I would ask Kelly Swanson if Rock Newman always maintained the same persona. And if Bowe could have stood up in fights against Tyson or Lewis.

  • Pd Cash

    I am not much of a sports fan. I admire teamwork and as a military officer it was what we were either training to do or we were doing it. I tend to admire athletes who are in individual sports. That goes with military training as our focus was individual skills being necessary for the accomplishment being a part of a crew, a squad, or a team. The military always has organized competitive athletic series. I was fortunate enough to have sufficient skills in three different sports to be competitive at the post level and in one not conducted in an on-post setting, motocross. My military sports were racket ball, swimming, and boxing.

    I finally got around to linking to the story at hand, no pun intended. I enlisted and went through all the individual training to my chosen specialty of light weapons Infantryman. Later I completed Infantry Officer Candidate School (OCS). There were two kinds of people in the Infantry, those who wanted to be there and those who wanted to be anywhere else.

    I distinctively remember a confusing comment made by our hand to hand combat instructor at the beginning of that block of instruction. He told us that at the end of this instruction… I waited for him to say some hyperbole about being champions, but was surprised to hear him say, “You will know just enough about disarmed combat to go downtown, whenever you might a get a pass, and get your collective asses kicked”. I was confused until the instruction actually began. We did everything ‘by the numbers’ so we could be talked through the position of each step in the dance known as hand to hand combat. We were not on position number 3 of the first maneuver when I realized how true his statement had been.

    I know for some of the fellow soldiers, it was the first time they ever put their hands on another person and the other person ended up on the ground and they felt exhilarated! But I knew enough about fighting to know that anyone who assumed position number one of any of the maneuvers before me with the intention of doing me harm was never going to make it to step two. It was my second disappointment with my Army experience. The first was all during the first few days while in the Reception Station and before moving up to “Tank Hill” where Basic was done then on Fort Jackson, SC, I just had this image of a tank, you know… a track mounted 50 tons of steel able to hurl 25 pound exploding shells for thousands of yards and strike enemy targets with great precision. All during the time we were getting ready to go up on tank hill, I wondered which tank they had on display up there. Finally, we arrived and I found the hill was named for the water tank on its summit.

    I had read a lot of military history and the combat almost always had disarmed combat in it somewhere. It was the summer of 1964 and having just come from High School and being 17 years old, I was looking back at the military and seeing the latest large military engagement in Korea had a great deal of hand to hand combat, but we seemed concentrated on weapons. Even the bayonet training was another set of dance steps. Accurately putting holes in paper seemed to be the entire emphasis. I did not start really looking forward until there was a lot of talk about someplace called Vietnam.

    I remember reading accounts of the First Air Cavalry Division in the IA Drang Valley and a story of a Sergeant who, following a battle, was found dead in his foxhole and the bodies of five enemy soldiers were either in the foxhole or on its parapet. So, hand to hand was still important.

    I found the block of instruction on disarmed combat in OCS was a repeat of Basic Training and I was even more disturbed by it. I steeled myself to learning what was later coined as “combatives”, or fighting successfully against a person who wasn’t counting on anything but being the only one alive in the next minutes. I looked at Martial Arts and though it was far more effective than the dance steps I already knew, it seemed to be out of place if tried in someplace like a foxhole in the Ia Drang Valley. It needed to be a lot more like street fighting and much faster paced than worrying about keeping your left up and keep jabbing. I was never going to face an opponent who was alone and I needed to think of the best circumstances being only two opponents with more on the way.

    When my time came to go to Vietnam as an individual replacement instead of deploy with a unit, I knew wherever I was assigned, I was going to be the newest, least experienced, least trusted guy there and I was going to be leading a platoon of about 35-40 guys who would all be wondering if I was going to do something stupid and get them killed. We had a few days of downtime when I first arrived and I spent it getting to know them. The real surge of drugs had not hit yet, but I knew I had a couple of MJ smokers. They were not liked by the rest of the platoon and seen more as someone who might do something stupid than I was. Not a great deal of joy over that, but I had to take what I had.

    I asked each one of the platoon members in private conversations what they felt was their biggest weakness in combat. I got a lot of answers, but combatives was always in the top three. I found out of the last 5 guys either killed or wounded bad enough to go back the States, four sustained their worst wounds in combatives. The last one was killed by friendly fire with a short round of mortar fire.

    I organized us into combatives on the second morning I was in the base camp. My Company Commander told me it was a bad idea as down time between missions was usually a time to get drunk for the men, and I should leave them alone. I got them together the next morning to talk about it and pretty soon we were divided up into groups of twos. The smokers teamed up and as planned, the platoon Sergeant took one and I took the other one. We beat the daylights out those guys that morning, and the rest of the troops loved it. We kept them apart and switched the guys around several times a day. The smokers were never teamed together to do anything.

    In 6 months, I was transferred to battalion to be the assistant operations officer for the battalion. We had not had a casualty in that 6 months, except for one of the smokers who shot himself in the foot, leaving a blood soaked smoking hole in the bottom of his fox hole and tried to blame it on a sniper. His M16 barrel was warm and the blood soaked hole had an M16 projectile at the bottom of it and there was one expended shell casing in the hole and his wounded foot had a boot on it with powder burns all around the bullet hole. The bullet hole was matched the size of the smaller in diameter M16 and could not have been from an AK47 His fox hole buddy was standing behind a tree nearby taking a leak and reported hearing a muffled M16 going off and saw the smoker was out of sight in the hole and moaning. The evidence was not in his favor and he lost the courts-martial. Once one smoker would be going on to the prison hospital at Leavenworth for three years before being discharged with a Bad Conduct Discharge and never coming back to the unit. The other smoker seemed to be coming around to the program after seeing the program come around to his buddy.

    The men in the platoon were very glad that had learned combatives and the Company Commander had me teach him and the other platoon leaders and sergeants the basics of it and the whole company had it down in no time. My first job at the Battalion was to set up a battalion wide program on combatives. Every assignment I had gave me more knowledge of combatives.
    Now back to the boxing story – several years later, I was a company commander in the 82d Airborne Division commanding one of the 27 Rifle Parachute Infantry companies in the division. Yeah, we did combatives. I sort of got wrangled into seeking a slot on the Division’s Boxing Team. This was an intra-mural competition, so I was the only officer on the team with 59 other guys who always wanted to draw my number so they could kick an officer’s ass. A little explanation, there is no rank on a sports field in the US Army. I think the other members of the team thought I was going to be an easy take down. I worked very had to stay in the light heavy weight division as those guys in the heavy weight division were animals. We wore 16 ounce gloves and fought three rounds of three minutes each. Most guys were having a hard time keeping their hands up by the second half of the third round and that is when I did my best work. I trained hard, ran a few miles before coming in each morning when we were at Fort Bragg and then ran another 4 or 5 miles, often in the loose sand hills on the Red, White or Blue trails, I carried 5 pound weights in my hands if we were not doing a ruck and rifle run. I played Racket Ball several times a week and swam at least 4 miles a week. I fought 9 fights won 5, lost 3 and a split decision on the other 1. One of the three I lost was a knockout, not a TKO, this guy found a tiny hole in my set up and cleaned my clock. I was in the ring and then I was smelling some really bad smell and trying to locate the hand connected to the voice asking me how many fingers he was holding up. It was not the first time or the last time I was knocked out, but it sure was the worst. The kid who knocked me out was right there, and apologizing to me! He was genuinely sorry he had knocked me out. He had knocked guys down before, but never out. He thought he killed me. We became very good friends.

    The real reason I went on that boxing team was because my soldiers wanted me too. I don’t believe any of them wanted me to get knocked out, but the whole company came to every fight I had and screamed their heads off whenever I deflected a jab. And it all came out of combatives. I had been two’d up with just about all of them at one time or another and I told them all to not pull any punches, don’t do any of the fatal, or permanent damage moves, but to make it as real as possible because I damn sure was. And I always picked the biggest guy in the bunch to two up with me on the first exercise, and I never knew who was going to come out on top. In hand to hand combat, the victor was known before the dancing began! Combatives were eye-gouging, trachea crushing, roll back neck snaps, knee drops to the back between the shoulder blades, pulling apart the tendons in the front of the neck just above the sternum, digit breaks, joints bent in ways nature never intended and a few dozen ways to split the acorns. It was nothing about getting your opponent to say uncle, it was the same as the rifle range and aiming at center of mass. Every session started and ended with a safety briefing and emphasized they were learning to kill another person as quickly and quietly as possible, then recovering in preparation of doing it again. I told every one them, at every training session that they were going to become a killing machine and if they misused this knowledge, I would testify against them in court and proclaim their bodies were fatal weapons. I’ve stayed in pretty good touch with almost all who remain alive and attend several reunions a year. I have never heard of a single instance of their training being misused, but I often introduced to wife or child as the guy who taught Dad to stay alive combat.

    I always thought my biggest responsibility was to my soldiers, to bring them home alive and unscathed. My second imperative was to have each on trained to perform the duties of the next higher rank. I felt the only way I could have a lasting effect on the US Army was to be sure capable soldiers were promoted and those who were not capable were trained to be.
    r had me accompany him to a meeting with Battalion Commander and we were all issued an operations order for a movement out of the camp after dark tonight and, a short downtime and then a daybreak movement to a village for a cordon and search that should begin about 20 minutes after daybreak. It was the second closest village to our camp, but that made them more important than a village miles away. If the Viet Cong were to force a village to hide weapons and other implements of war, they would want to do it close to us. I knew enough to read faces of the locals. Nothing happened, but we did find hidden weapons in one hooch occupied by a single mother with two kids. Another platoon was handling it, but we found out her husband had not been killed as was the general story, but had been abducted to fight with the VC, but she said he did not want to go, but if he had not, one of his children would be killed. It would be the same deal if he failed to fight.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life