LAS VEGAS – A girl from North Buffalo is more powerful in boxing than Don King.
There are few figures more important to the sport than Kelly Swanson, a Buffalo Seminary grad who has become boxing’s top publicist.
Swanson on Saturday night will once again be in the middle of a landmark event. Her most famous – and notorious – client is Floyd Mayweather Jr., who will fight Manny Pacquiao in history’s most lucrative bout.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s here,” Swanson said. “It was talked about for so long, and I always hoped it would happen. But the minute it was announced, you immediately saw how big it was.
“I’ve been involved with a lot of big fights, but this one is even at a higher level.”
Swanson oversees all of Mayweather’s media until well after the final bell sounds in MGM Grand Garden. Her clients also include former middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins and promoter Al Haymon’s “Premier Boxing Champions” series.
She has appeared ahead of notable promoters, managers and fighters on Yahoo Sports’ annual list of boxing’s 25 most powerful people. King can’t crack that poll anymore. Haymon, a mysterious figure who rarely grant interviews, is No. 1.
“I consider her the most successful public relations person in the sport,” said Pacquiao’s publicist, Fred Sternburg. “I don’t think there’s anybody better.”
Mayweather-Pacquiao will be for the 147-pound championship, but Mayweather and Pacquiao also are considered the two best boxers in any weight class. That also puts the mythical pound-for-pound title at stake.
Mayweather has hinted he will make $200 million, win or lose. Pacquiao will earn the other 40 percent of the purse.
You can watch on pay-per-view TV for an unprecedented $99 or spend well over $100,000 to buy ringside seats on the secondary ticket market.
“This is definitely a super-fight,” Swanson said. “It’s crossing over like crazy. Millions of people will watch it.
“I hear from people who never, ever talk about boxing. Women from my church in Brooklyn are talking about it.”
Swanson works out of her Brooklyn apartment, but Swanson Communications is headquartered in Washington, D.C., from her days working alongside former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe.
As a student she thought working as Howard Cosell’s assistant was the dream job. But she veered toward public relations after graduating from the University of Vermont. Her first major client was Olympic speedskater Dan Jansen.
“I never said, ‘I want to work in boxing.’ I just wanted to work in sports,” Swanson said. “But one thing led to another.”
Captivated by boxing
Boxing has captivated Swanson since she watched “Wide World of Sports” with her brothers on Covington Road.
Swanson soon found herself on Bowe’s wild ride to the top and around the world. Bowe knocked out Evander Holyfield in 1992 to become undisputed heavyweight champ.
Through sponsorship deals and charity missions Swanson arranged for Bowe, she met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Swanson solidified her place in boxing with Hopkins and welterweight champ Vernon Forrest. Her company has diversified with Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields and Detroit Pistons forward Caron Butler.
With Swanson’s guidance, Hopkins evolved from a menacing ex-con with a short fuse to a media darling. He’s now considered among the nicest and chattiest sports personalities.
“In boxing, trust me, there’s a lot of egos,” Hopkins said. “If she wasn’t the way she is, with a tough skin and passionate enough for her craft, she couldn’t be in this business.
“She has an attitude that you’re either going to respect or you’re going to get away from. There isn’t compromise with Kelly. If you don’t respect her, she won’t work with you. If you don’t appreciate what she’s doing or saying, she’ll tell you.
“She’s gained that respect, man, and that’s not just in boxing either.”
She generated national exposure for the group home Forrest and his wife financed and operated for mentally disabled adults. Forrest was shot to death six years ago in an attempted robbery.
“She’s a white woman in a black man’s sport,” Forrest told The Buffalo News in 2005. “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.”
For the blockbuster Mayweather-Pacquiao showdown, Swanson Communications staged the grand announcement March 11 in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre wrote:
“The surroundings – a red carpet lined with hundreds of inquiring minds and an equal number of cameras, use of Nokia Theater at LA Live and even some Ben-Hur-like music – left the impression that the entire world cared about this.”
Swanson was delighted with her company’s execution. She has four employees.
“They told me the date we had to do the press conference and the city we had to do it in,” Swanson said. “Nobody bothered me after that. I would get on a conference call with 20 people and give an update, but they didn’t question the location, the running order, how it looks, how it felt, how much money I had to spend.
“When that happens for such a big fight like this, you can have a lot of people – excuse the expression – up your butt to make sure they get what they want. Nobody did that to me because they know I know what I’m doing.”
When it comes to Saturday night’s event, Sternburg said, “Everything you see, she is spearheading.” She has organized news conferences and handled all of Mayweather’s media appearances. She was instrumental in getting both fighters on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine this week.
“I give her a hard time sometimes,” Mayweather said, “but when it’s all said and done, she’s a lady that I love, and she’s a great person.
“There are a lot of people who came my way, trying to be my publicist. There were a thousand people who came my way, wanting to be my publicist, people who worked with some other megastars. But I’m loyal to the people I’m with.
“I’m going to continue to work with Kelly Swanson. She was with me at the beginning of my career, and she’s going to be with me until the end of my career.”
To be a woman working with Mayweather is a tricky circumstance.
Mayweather has been charged or convicted of domestic violence five times over the past 14 years. He has pleaded guilty three times and served two months of a 90-day sentence in 2012.
The transcendent nature of Saturday night’s fight has put Mayweather’s checkered past under scrutiny from the mainstream media that had ignored that background before.
Swanson doesn’t defend Mayweather. Like an attorney, she views her job as necessary for her client.
“In our business or any business,” Sternburg said, “you’re entitled to representation, whether it’s crisis management or public relations. Sometimes in this business your clients have issues, but Kelly always rises above it.”
Mayweather is the world’s most prominent boxer, and he has massive media obligations.
“Our relationship is exactly that: He’s a fighter, and I’m a publicist,” Swanson said. “I manage his press relations.
“All the other stuff he does outside of boxing, I don’t even see him between fights. I just mind my business and do my job. That’s how we’ve stayed together 10 years.”
Swanson controls Mayweather’s interaction only to a point. Once the cameras are recording and the microphones are out, Swanson won’t dictate which questions a reporter can ask. And Mayweather will say whatever he wants.
Without naming names, Swanson recounted what she called “an unfortunate situation,” when CNN host Rachel Nichols pursued an aggressive line of questioning about Mayweather’s domestic-violence accusations.
Swanson said CNN told her there would be only a couple of questions about domestic violence before moving to other topics.
“It’s helped me develop professionally to make sure that any interview he does can be the best interview possible,” Swanson said. “I know what his background is. He does, too. I have to work with that and be careful for him.
“I know there are issues he has to face. He’s done a good job of addressing those things. But, particularly around a big fight, things come up, and the press has to do their jobs, too.”
‘A Buffalo die-hard’
Whether in Las Vegas, D.C. or Brooklyn, her heart never has left Buffalo.
“She’s a Buffalo die-hard,” said Hopkins, a Philadelphia native. “Whenever she’s on vacation she’s going to Buffalo, going to visit her family.
“We always argue about football. She’s going to ride or die with the Buffalo Bills.”
Once Mayweather-Pacquiao is over, Swanson said she would like to explore opening a Buffalo office.
She’s fascinated by the Pegulas and their One Buffalo campaign. She follows many Bills players through social media and sees glorious marketing opportunities going missed.
If she can help Mayweather and Bowe navigate the global media, then representing Bills players should help them maximize their careers.
“I’d love to work with Mario Williams,” Swanson said. “I follow him on Instagram, and during the November storm he was the best. He has a super personality. He’s a lot of fun, and he’s good. I love that giant dog he has, too.
“He could use some help to get national publicity. Many of these guys can.”
But for now, Swanson is scurrying around Las Vegas to promote a historic event and supervise boxing’s biggest superstar.
And those in the know are thankful for it.
“I’m all right with the industry, and the industry’s all right with me,” Swanson said. “I’m proud of my position in the sport.”