The suspicious, wandering eyes of the fighters at Detroit’s infamous ‘Kronk’ gym slowly focused on their source of intrigue. Pen and paper in hand, conducting an interview with the legendary Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns, was Michigan-born publicist Jackie Kallen.
The gym was steeped in history when it had burned down tragically last year, but back in the seventies, it was a hub for fighters desperate to prove themselves from wide-ranging, underprivileged backgrounds. Kallen didn’t fit in. The boxers, who were unaware of her résumé, were skeptical as she buzzed in-and-around the facility. In ’77, when she was introduced to the sport of boxing, it was entirely as James Brown had warbled; A Man’s World.
When speaking exclusively to Boxing Social, the First Lady of modern boxing shed some light on her introduction to media at a time when ‘celebrity’ was approaching its peak.
“I was mostly [interviewing] musicians, actors, TV stars, politicians. Really, anybody who was a celebrity in any way, was someone that I was interested in talking to. I started pretty young. When I was about eleven-years-old I started taking creative writing classes and entering different contests.
“I had a wonderful time meeting the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali… Anybody who was anybody, really. I figured once you’ve met people at every level there’s nobody you can’t talk to and no situation you can’t handle.”
Casually, Jackie opened up over her big break, an interview with a band who would later become enormous on both sides of the Atlantic, “I think my first interview of that nature was the Rolling Stones and that was back in ’64, the first time they had come to the United States. Detroit was one of the places they visited and I had the chance to interview them while they were in town. I invited them to my home for dinner and just spent some time with them. That interview was the entrée into getting some of the others because it was very well-respected, it opened the door to a lot of great opportunities.”
Despite forging a successful and highly-respected career within the music industry, it was a chance meeting with one of her City’s own that thrust her into the grips of the sport. Kallen may have been from a middle-class background, but her determination to ingratiate herself with all walks of life paid dividends when walking into Emmanuel Steward’s gym.
People had been talking about Thomas Hearns in the Motor City. Kallen had been no stranger to interviewing The Beatles or other such artists with fanatical followings, but her introduction to the rangy ‘Hitman’ had left her entirely captivated.
“I was always the only female in the locker room, the only female at the press conferences. It didn’t bother me a bit, I’m fearless. When I was sent to interview Thomas Hearns it was my first experience with boxing. I had never been to a boxing match prior to that and I instantly fell in love with boxing! Right away, first fight. I couldn’t wait to go back to the next one. It became a passion, just… instantly.
“I kinda saw it [boxing] as a microcosm of life, you know?” she told me, beautifully.
“Everybody has a fight in their life. Fighting for your health, fighting for equality, fighting for a better salary, fighting to get along with someone. We all have to fight our own battles and just to see those two people, stripped down in the ring, no team, nobody else with them – it kinda reminded me of life in general. I was just fascinated by it!
“I instantly became a boxing fan, and a boxing writer. Then I became a boxing publicist for the Kronk gym, Tommy Hearns, Emmanuel Steward and that gym that we had here in Detroit. Boxing just became my chosen sport. Once I fell into it, that was it.”
Falling hard and fast at the feet of the Sweet Science, she continued to establish herself amongst the inner-circle at the ‘Kronk’. Building press-kits, interviewing fighters, sculpting biographies for boxers who had previously lacked media exposure – she had become an invaluable commodity. Kallen revealed she even pestered the ever-patient Steward, requesting lessons on the art of wrapping hands and healing fighter’s cuts in the corner.
Working hard to learn the finer facets of the business, Jackie was at home in the gym, however those outside of it’s four walls remained unimpressed. Now, the sport plays host to Olympic boxing for women, and figures such as Ann Wolfe and Laila Ali have achieved Worldwide acclaim for their professional contests throughout the nineties. Paving the way for her female peers wasn’t part of the plan, but Kallen became a gatekeeper.
“It was tough then [working in boxing as a woman], because there weren’t any. The men weren’t very respectful, especially some of the older guys, they had no idea what I was doing. You know, was I dating one of the fighters? Was I dating one of the trainers? They just couldn’t figure it out – what was I doing in this gym? It took a while.
“It took a while until they got used to it, but they could see I was working. I was taping and taking notes and at that time, I was a publicist, so eventually they got used to me being there. It was still a big deal to other people away from the ‘Kronk’ gym within the business. They still couldn’t figure it out, but in the gym with the guys, I was accepted.
She continued, “By the time I was in a position to go into management, I knew every aspect of the sport. You could never learn these things anywhere else, without someone like Emmanuel Steward teaching you. He was wonderful and he was really patient with me. He wasn’t a chauvinist. He wasn’t the kind of man who said, ‘Women don’t belong in the gym!’. He was really generous with his time and with his knowledge. I loved the sport for all the right reasons…”
Despite her unbelievable career, working with names from Sinatra to Steward, Jackie was yet to fully experience the highs-and-lows of boxing. As a publicist and a worthy self-taught second in the corner, it was management where she finally thrived. A maternal figure, with children of her own and from a religious background following Judaism, Kallen was hardly the stern-faced, icy stereotype the sport was familiar with.
Her introduction to boxing management happened purely by chance, triggering her involvement with World champions, appearing and advising on television shows and a Jackie Kallen Hollywood biopic starring Meg Ryan [Against the Ropes (2004)].
“I ran into a fighter who’d come to town to fight George Foreman, named Bobby Hitz, who was a heavyweight. He didn’t have a manager and I thought, ‘Wow – that’s weird!’, because all of our guys were under Emmanuel Steward and they all had managers and trainers. It was very organised, so I couldn’t understand why this guy came into town to have this major fight and he didn’t have a manager(?).
“I asked him if he was interested [in working with me] and he said he was. It was like going to college for me! I learnt so much working with him and it was while I was working with him that we saw James Toney in there. If I hadn’t been in there with the heavyweight, I wouldn’t have seen James! It was all very fortuitous the way it came together.”
The complex James ‘Lights Out’ Toney had come from a broken home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fighting from middleweight to heavyweight, his career continually zig-zagged between brilliance and balking. Jackie walked into the gym with her heavyweight client and laid eyes upon a smaller, troubled man that would change her life.
I’d read of their turbulent relationship in Don McRae’s ‘Dark Trade’, but their bond was forged long before the glitz and glamour. With Toney wearing a Star of David emblazoned on his eerily-plain black trunks, he paid homage to his manager.
Of their first meeting, Jackie told me, “He didn’t like how he sparred and he threw a temper tantrum! Underneath that temper tantrum, I realised he wants to be the best. He loves what he does. It’s very easy to be mediocre, you start out and you’re already average at something. You have to work hard to excel and he was willing to work hard. He was his own worst critic and if he didn’t think he looked good, he would come back the next day with a vengeance to look better.
“It wasn’t easy [working with James]. I can’t say that every day was a picnic, because it wasn’t. His talent was just so outstanding that I felt it was worth learning to deal with his mood-swings and to work around them in order to bring the best out of him. I knew he had championship talent. He just had to curb that attitude.
“It took a lot of patience, but I’m a mother so when you raise children you learn how to deal with moods and tantrums. I think being a female made me far better equipped to deal with him. I think a male manager would have got into fist-fights over some of the things that transpired. I was able to handle it differently, because I had a different mentality. I kind of mothered him, more than censored him. I wanted to encourage him to be the best he could be.”
I asked Kallen her opinion of Toney’s career, with many claiming he had squandered his God-given talent. She told me, “I certainly tried to get him to maximise his potential at middleweight and super-middleweight, and also to get as many wins as he could at those weights. Nobody could really beat him at his best at that weight. His biggest problem was always making weight, but in my opinion he is one of the greatest fighters of the last fifty years! Specifically, his defence was just impenetrable. He was just a naturally gifted fighter and you cannot take that kind of talent away from a man. He was just a great fighter. We had a wonderful six years and we accomplished a lot, I wish nothing but the best for him! I owe a lot of my success to his success.”
Now, aged seventy-two and full of unrelenting energy, Jackie retained that sense of enthusiasm she had oozed as a young reporter in Detroit. Times had changed, yet her passion remained. Rachel Charles, of LA-based boxing company Sheer Sports, told me that ‘without Jackie, there would be no-one like me’. I wondered if boxing’s matriarch was aware of her importance to women like Rachel – or those that had come before her.
Her weekly routine now consists of two podcasts, writing her latest book and working on television prospects. She managed one fighter, the young Mykquan Williams from East Hartford. I’d spoken to Mykquan for a previous feature and he told me that Kallen had supported him from an early age, flying to attend his amateur bouts and filling him with a sense of importance.
“I’m older now. I’ve got family, you know? I have children, I have grandchildren and things I like doing and at my age. I don’t wanna spend all my time in a boxing gym anymore”, Kallen confessed. “When I see somebody with talent, I want to be about [to help]. I want to help them reach their goal and he [Mykquan] will become a World champion. That’s the pleasure of the business now.
“When you’re younger, it’s about the money. ‘Oh, I’m gonna buy a Ferrari, I’m gonna buy diamonds, I’m gonna buy a fur…’ At this stage in my life, I’ve done all of that. For me, the thrill now is taking a young kid like that and watching him develop. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing you changed that person’s damn life. That’s the fun of it for me now!”
As she slips gracefully into the twilight of an unbelievable career, Jackie now has the pleasure of picking her passion-projects. Her faith in young prodigy Mykquan was unwavering, and he waxed lyrical when asked about her influence on his career thus far. The son of a murdered father when he was only a baby, Williams had felt support from Kallen since he was a fourteen-year-old amateur fighting in Connecticut.
Although boxing had become a smaller part of her career, the man who sparked her love for the sport has recently become her business partner. Jackie and long-time friend Thomas Hearns have launched their own promotional company in Detroit, dedicated to bringing back the nights experienced by James Toney and many others.
“We wanna put on show like they used to have in Detroit when Thomas was fighting here or when James was fighting here. We want people to come to shows, watch fighters develop…”
She continued, “You know, James fought every month, so people watched him develop and it was the same with Tommy Hearns. We want to start a program like that again where we have regular monthly fights. People can come out, watch the fighters develop, watch them go from four rounds to six rounds and [eventually] watch them bring a title fight back here.”
Figures in boxing don’t come more motivated and driven than Jackie Kallen. Her achievements in a sport she struggled to break into, now eclipse the vast majority of its participants. She was never meant to succeed. World champions, books, movies and hosting shows with a legend of the sport – she had done it all. What is important to her now may be different, but her determination and energy remains steadfast.
The First Lady of boxing; Jackie Kallen is truly one of a kind.
“If there’s a legacy I can leave behind, it’s about self-help and it’s that they [kids] have potential to be more than they’re told they can be. If you can’t see that in your own mind, you’ll never achieve it. You have to believe you can be more and if you believe it, you can achieve it!”
Article by: Craig Scott
Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209