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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
• 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?