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Buffalo native Kelly Swanson fights through pain and prejudice to reach top of boxing world

Kelly Swanson was transfixed, sitting cross-legged in her parents' house on Covington Road in North Buffalo. That was where, on Saturday afternoons, she would gaze upward at the little TV and drift into fantasy.

Her daydreams had nothing to do with Commander Tom.

"When I was a kid I always watched 'Wide World of Sports,'" Swanson said wistfully.

"Saturdays, that was it, sitting with my brothers. I remember the day Muhammad Ali was fighting Jimmy Young (April 30, 1976) and thinking "Man, I'd love to be there. That looks so cool and exciting.' "

Howard Cosell mesmerized the bubbly teenager. Cosell was the journalist on the scene of glamorous events, talking to glamorous people about glamorous things.

Swanson yearned to see worlds outside of Buffalo, and thoughts of a boundless future helped her escape the pressure of a household torn by divorce and, later, two numbing deaths.

"There was a point in my life when things were tough for my family, when I thought I could just go off to Hollywood or go work for Howard Cosell or go off and watch fights," Swanson said. "Even though we didn't have a lot, my parents always told me I could be anything."

Her parents never thought her fantasyland would involve bleeding eyelids, busted knuckles and concussions.

Swanson has made her mark in the testosterone-soaked world of boxing. As a publicist, she has helped orchestrate the careers of former champs Bernard Hopkins, Riddick Bowe, Vernon Forrest and Hasim Rahman. She has worked for promoters Don King and Bob Arum.

"There are certain moments that you look back on in boxing history and will always remember," Swanson said. "For some of those I was there. I helped plan it. I helped execute it."

Swanson's career can't be defined by boxing alone. Buffalo Bills running back Willis McGahee is a client. She has worked with Olympic speedskater Dan Jansen, slugger Sammy Sosa and Maxwell House coffee.

Boxing, however, is at the core of Swanson Communications, her public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

In a five-week span she will have worked three major bouts, including last Saturday night's middleweight title fight in Los Angeles in which Hopkins lost to Jermain Taylor in a split decision. Arum's company, Top Rank, contracted her services for Floyd Mayweather's pay-per-view victory over Arturo Gatti on June 25 and the Madison Square Garden show headlined by junior welterweight champion Miguel Cotto's triumph over Mohamad Abdulaev on June 11.

Her reputation in the boxing community was underscored when a group of political power brokers asked her to join the movement to pardon Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champ, who was convicted of trumped-up charges. She spoke on the steps of the Capitol alongside Sens. John McCain, Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch and the filmmaker Ken Burns, whose documentary "Unforgivable Blackness" detailed the prejudices that plagued Johnson.

"I know that I know my boxing," Swanson said. "Maybe because I'm a woman that knowledge is not as highly rated as the old boys talking to each other, but my results have made sure I've advanced in the business. I don't think it's this male world that women can't participate in. Women are in the industry."

A few women work in the boxing business. Kathy Duva is the CEO of the promotional firm Main Events. Manager Jackie Kallen was the inspiration for the motion picture "Against the Ropes."

But there was no blueprint for Swanson to follow when, 17 years after Ali fought Young, she brokered one of boxing's most lucrative endorsement deals. She negotiated for Bowe a $1 million signing bonus on a deal potentially worth $15 million with sportswear manufacturer Fila.

"She was a wide-eyed, innocent Buffalo girl, but she's a special person," said Bowe's former promoter, Rock Newman. "She had many strikes against her. She had to endure a quadruple standard, not just a double standard. Here's a white girl in a man's world that is filled predominantly with minority athletes."

Said Forrest, the former welterweight champ: "She's a white woman in a black man's sport. She's like a minnow, swimming to survive in a pool of sharks. But she knows what she's doing. Maybe we should call her a baby shark because she's got teeth."

Escaping reality

Swanson's childhood was an intermingling of opportunity and heartache.

She attended the Campus School at Buffalo State and then Buffalo Seminary on a scholarship. She swam for the Water Buffaloes, played field hockey and skied. She went on to major in political science at the University of Vermont.

But life at home was often sorrowful.

Her father, Paul Swanson, worked mostly in automotive sales. Her mother, Doris, was a guidance counselor in the Buffalo school system. They divorced, and shortly thereafter her dad died of natural causes at age 49.

Two years later tragedy struck the family again. Swanson's younger brother died when he fell asleep at the steering wheel the day after he graduated from Buffalo Alternative.

"As the going got tough, (television) was a way to get out of the hard times," said Swanson, who calls herself a "fortysomething" bachelorette. "There was a reality that if I'm going to really do this I have to move to New York, that being able to escape into the TV would help me escape from what's going on with my family at the time."

So she went to the Big Apple and hoped something big would happen. While managing at La Rivista Palatine Restaurant in the theater district, she met former light heavyweight champ Jose Torres, who was working for the New York Athletic Commission at the time.

That crucial connection facilitated her networking. She accepted assignments from the commission to judge amateur wrestling, and in 1985 she took a job with Alan Taylor Communications, a public relations company for which she eventually handled corporate Olympic accounts.

Swanson felt after six years at Alan Taylor she had made enough contacts to create her own company. In 1991 she started Swanson Communications out of her Brooklyn apartment with Jansen as her cornerstone client.

Jansen was supposed to be the star of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. He had been the clear-cut favorite four years earlier in Calgary, but his sister died of leukemia the day of his 500-meter race. He wiped out in that event and again in the 1,000 meters and went home without a medal.

With Jansen poised to claim his destiny in Albertville, Swanson had a tremendous story on her hands, the stuff PR executives dream about. Alas, he finished fourth in the 500 meters and 26th in the 1,000 meters.

That was a monumental choke, but it also helped forge Swanson's reputation. She still managed to get Jansen's face on the Corn Flakes box.

Hello, Bowe

Swanson found her way to boxing in a big way in 1992, when she began to work for Bowe and Newman in an unofficial capacity. The relationship worked so well, Bowe persuaded her to move her operations to Washington, D.C., and join him full time.

In November 1992, Bowe defeated Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas to become the undisputed heavyweight champ and defended his crown three months later by knocking out Michael Dokes in one round.

Swanson had struck the landmark deal with Fila, and the company sent them on a victory tour. Bowe, Newman and Swanson met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and Nelson Mandela in South Africa. They made humanitarian stops in Nairobi and Somalia.

"That whole ride was really great," Swanson said. "Riddick was very popular. His fights on HBO were getting tremendous ratings. Just to be asked to be a part of that whole experience, I couldn't even describe it as a job. It was, like, "Is this really happening?' I wasn't just a face in the crowd. I was in this. Not only was I there, but I was an important part of it."

Swanson also knew that being in the middle of the boxing world wouldn't always be so appealing.

She was involved in the 1996 Madison Square Garden riot that broke out after Andrew Golota was disqualified for hitting Bowe with repeated low blows. Golota's rabid Polish fans tried to storm the ring. Swanson punched one of them - and took off in fear.

"I thought "If my grandmother could see me now,' " Swanson said.

Swanson's mom is no boxing fan, but she's proud of her daughter's career.

"Boxing is pretty barbaric," said Doris Hill, now remarried. "I don't prefer the sport, but she's a strong woman, and she has a strong sense of balance."

Aligning the stars

Swanson has since severed ties with Bowe. He served time in prison for kidnapping his estranged family. His defense attorneys cited brain damage from boxing as a reason he committed the crime, but now that he's free he has resumed fighting.

Swanson has a pair of star clients in Hopkins and Forrest. Both praise her for helping them cross over into mainstream sports stardom, no small feat when it comes to African-American boxers.

"I think she's a great woman," Forrest said. "She's been an extremely integral part of my career and my success in boxing. I went from a pretty known fighter in the boxing community to a known fighter in sports, period.

"I credit her for getting my name out to the masses. She made me one of the most popular fighters in the world."

When Forrest joined up with Swanson, not many people knew about the group home for mentally disabled adults he owned and ran with his wife. But soon the story was on HBO, in Sports Illustrated and in newspapers around the world.

Swanson also has done a magnificent job in marketing Hopkins, an ex-convict from Philly whose blunt nature doesn't exactly make him a Madison Avenue darling. But she has been instrumental in getting him on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and the cover of a popular video game.

"That's my girl," said Hopkins, who held the record for most consecutive middleweight title defenses with 20. "She'll be riding out with me until my career comes to a good night. She tames the media, dog. And there ain't too many people who can tame the media."

Swanson apparently knows how to handle her boxers as well. Fighters are a notoriously irascible lot. They're independent by nature and don't like to be told what to do. Many also lack refinement. The chance of confrontation can be high.

"I have seen her get in a fighter's face and tell him what he was doing was self-destructive and would be hurting himself when his own handlers wouldn't say a thing," Newman said. "She was the one that cracked the whip on this 6-foot-5, 250-pound heavyweight champion who was being a knucklehead. She told it the way it was, and damn the torpedoes."

Newman said Swanson's effectiveness comes from her ability to speak in plain terms with people from all backgrounds, whether they wear neckties or Everlasts. He noted she's neither cloying nor haughty.

"She has to talk with executives and talk their language, and then she has to walk with an athlete and speak his language," Newman said. "She does it with ease and she's quick to gain people's confidence. She doesn't do it with the sycophant-type of approach."

To right a wrong

She has witnessed numerous flash points in sports history. She has traveled the globe. She has met world leaders.

Her involvement with the movement to get a presidential pardon for Johnson ranks near the top. In October she stood alongside prominent senators and congressmen and spoke on the steps of the Capitol.

"You have these moments in your life where you say "Wow, I've come a long way.' That was one of those moments," Swanson said. "I couldn't stop thinking "Boy, won't my parents be proud?'

"I really felt like an expert. I know boxing inside and out, and I have a passion for it. I was able to say what these senators and congressmen might not have known about. It was great to feel appreciated and respected by these tremendous men."

Johnson was a boxing pioneer whom Arthur Ashe once called the most significant black athlete in history. Johnson broke a monumental color barrier by winning the heavyweight title in 1908.

That alone upset the establishment. But, as detailed in Burns' documentary, Johnson further roiled the waters with his unabashed fondness for white women. He was convicted of transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, even though he eventually married her.

"Jack Johnson's been dead for quite a long time, but if there's justice to be done, she's one of the few speaking for a man who's no longer here," Hopkins said.

Burns admitted that having an attractive white woman on the team might help Johnson's cause, but the filmmaker insisted that wasn't the reason she was handpicked.

"She's a hard worker, she's genuine, she tells the truth and you can count on her," Burns said. "She's incredibly smart and knowledgeable.

"At the end of the day in any profession it's not so much your sex or what you look like; it's how good you are at what you do."