Ring of Hire Kelly Swanson, Sweet Science Flack

Boxy Lady: Swanson’s clients say she’s tough enough for the fight game.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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.”

Swanson confirms.

“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.”

Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday at City Desk.

Our Readers Say

Nice story. As a woman it is nice to give another woman her due in what is basically a man's domain. I am a Buffalo resident and know Kelly well. She does a great job with these guys and anything else she undertakes. Thanks for your interest, a well-written story, and the favorable quotes by her boxers.

Doris Hill (her Mom, of course)
Kelly is incredible. We have all witnessed many of these events through Kelly's generosity. My children adore their Aunt Kelly. No wonder. Way to go Kelly!!!
Great Piece!!! I have had the honor of knowing Kelly Swanson for five years now. It’s amazing that someone can be so tough but so generous and kind. Kelly you’re a BLESSING to the sport and those that are privileged to know you.
Kelly Swanson is all pro---no matter what she does. From helping the kids with the SE Tennis and Learning Center, to raising money for the Recreation Wish List Committee, to being a friend, Kelly shows her commitment and professionalism.
Amy R.Goldson
I'm excited for the fight this weekend. For those who need info, this Saturday (December 10), Amir Khan's defending his IBF and WBA Junior Welterweight world championship belts against DC native and Junior Welterweight Contender Lamont Peterson.

On the undercard will be local standouts Seth Mitchell (heavyweight), Anthony Peterson (Lightweight), and "Hurricane" Dusty Harrison (the world's youngest pro boxer- Welterweight).

The fights will take place on Saturday night at the convention center. Tickets are available via ticketmaster and start at $25 for the cheap seats. Also, if you input the code "MAYHEM" you'll get access to special section seating for the DC based fans.

I'm a die hard boxing fan myself and will be ringside for this amazing night of boxing. See you all there!
Yes Kelly is a true professional. When Kelly is at work in or around that squared circle, STAY OUT OF HER WAY!!!! I've known Kelly since her days with Riddick Bowe. I'm proud to know her and as equally proud of the work that she does in the game of boxing. Thanks Kelly for all that you do for the friends that we have in our boxing circle. None of what you do goes unnoticed. Keep up the good work!!!

Sincerely, Kev
I'd like to say Kelly is nice & my dream was too work 4 her a while ago. But not to sure about the ppl under her. I was born in DC raised outside MD. I met Muhammed Ali when I was 7, boxed in the amateurs in my teens, graduated college w/ 2 degrees. Bowe (as mentioned) also lived 2 blocks from me. I always wrote to the Swanson assistants several times (email & hand letters) to get to her & waited to see her b4 & after her office closed in suit & tie just too get noticed. I did this consistently 4 3 weeks. A lady whose name rhymes with a Caesa Wilmer told me she'd never be interested in my talents after handing me my resume back 2 me. This is not a knock on Mrs Swanson she does great things, is classy, & always will be an inspiration. I really wish she just knew that her team could represent her in a better light than from my experience.
I'd like to say Kelly is nice & my dream was too work 4 her a while ago. But not to sure about the ppl under her. I was born in DC raised outside MD. I met Muhammed Ali when I was 7, boxed in the amateurs in my teens, graduated college w/ 2 degrees. Bowe (as mentioned) also lived 2 blocks from me. I always wrote to the Swanson assistants several times (email & hand letters) to get to her & waited to see her b4 & after her office closed in suit & tie just too get noticed. I did this consistently 4 3 weeks. A lady whose name rhymes with a Caesa Wilmer told me she'd never be interested in my talents after handing me my resume back 2 me. This is not a knock on Mrs Swanson she does great things, is classy, & always will be an inspiration. I really wish she just knew that her team could represent her in a better light than from my experience.
Kelly is an incredibly rude over zealous hustler. She treats people around her like dog waste. I witnessed one of her clients, in fact her biggest client put her in place for being too brash with media and fans.
Would love to try to do something PR work work for free for Mrs.Swanson

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