Jackie Kallen on swimming with sharks

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From her days in the Kronk Gym to managing fighters via that fiery and unpredictable relationship with James Toney, Jackie Kallen has some story, writes Craig Scott

STANDING over James Toney as he receives instructions between rounds, Jackie Kallen cuts an intimidating figure, snarling across the ring at his opponent, while dressed all in black to match her fighter’s trunks. The black hides the second-hand sweat bouncing from the glistening skin of both men during their championship contest; it also hides the blood. 

Below her, neither trainer nor boxer are paying attention to the man trying to punch holes in Toney; they are using 60 precious seconds to drag themselves back to the same page during a brief hiatus from the heat of battle. Kallen however, an angel on the shoulder of the troubled Michigan great, doesn’t flinch. Her piercing eyes shoot a look from somewhere in the centre of her mass of golden hair, which sits perfectly as though she’d been attending a movie premiere or a glitzy ball.

Despite looking out of place in this picture she would never let boxing count her out and has since helped create roles for women behind the scenes in a sport she remarked was formerly “all males.” Boxing is a different sport now, but Kallen remains as fearless as she was back then, perched on the ring apron, ready to pounce like a defensive mother.  

Now approaching 75 years old and with decades of experience, she tells Boxing News that times have changed, but her principles of effective management remain the same: “With boxers, I try and see what kind of life they had, where they’re coming from, what they’ve been through. Do they want nurturing or that motherly kind of treatment or do they to be left alone and to feel independent? You have to try and figure them out.  

“Whenever I see or work with someone who does have mental health issues, or if they have other issues like drug or alcohol abuse issues, I can’t always solve the problem, but I can work with them, instead of against them. Those things are a lot more common now, people talk about them. You can take somebody, and you can help them, that’s what really satisfies me now. That is a wonderful feeling. If I could do it every day, I would. 

“I think that I was given that skill of being able to motivate and inspire people,” Kallen continued. “I’m such a positive person, and I don’t let negativity creep in, that’s rubbed off on a lot of the fighters that I’ve worked with. I’ve always emphasised the importance of winning, but also the importance of staying humble and accepting defeat gracefully and with dignity. I try and teach the boxers not to talk smack or put their opponents down, because if you lose to the guy that you just said was a bum, what does that mean? You lost to a bum.” 

Interestingly, it was a career in journalism that saw the young Kallen wind up at Emanuel Steward’s Kronk Gym in Detroit, interviewing Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns ahead of one of his bouts in the late 70s. She’d made the jump to covering sports in 1975, previously establishing herself in the world of entertainment, powering her way through interviews with some of the biggest names in showbusiness – Frank Sinatra and Elvis, to name a couple. 

“Sinatra was definitely cooler,” she stated, without a pause for thought. “He was the Rat Pack, the Chairman of the Board, Old Blue Eyes. He was just so cool. Elvis, when I met him, he was on a lot of drugs. It was towards the end of his career and his life; he was a legend and an icon; he was just amazing. But I wouldn’t have used the word ‘cool’ at that time.”

Kallen had cooked dinner for the Rolling Stones at her home in Detroit and spent time with The Beatles in New York, but flashy concerts and album covers would be traded for blood-stained hand wraps and a life immersed in the loneliest sport. 

“I became a boxing publicist for the Kronk gym; Tommy Hearns, Emanuel Steward and that gym that we had there in Detroit. Boxing just became my chosen sport. Once I fell into it, that was it. I kind of saw boxing as a microcosm of life, you know. 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. I had never been to a boxing match prior to that, and I instantly fell in love with it all. Right away, my first fight. I couldn’t wait to go back to the next one. 

“Success in any field, there’s certain things in common. Boxing is no different. Anybody that reaches the top, whether it’s politics, sport or entertainment, there has to be an innate talent; you have to be born with a certain gift in that area. Every successful person that I’ve ever met has that innate ability in their own area. You have two guys who are great football players; why does one become Tom Brady and one doesn’t? Two singers: one becomes Lady Gaga, and one is singing at weddings. It’s that little extra something.”

Kallen references her first client Bobby Hitz, telling us that she was amazed when working at the Kronk and speaking to the heavyweight, realising that not all professional boxers had managers. The pair linked up and a host of other champions followed shortly after.

“It was like going to college for me,” admitted Kallen, the subject of Hollywood film Against the Ropes (2004), starring Meg Ryan. “I learnt so much working with him [Bobby Hitz] and it was while I was working with him that we saw James Toney in there. If I hadn’t been in there with Bobby, I wouldn’t have seen James at all. It was all very fortuitous the way it came together.

“I stay in touch with Bronco McKart, Tom ‘Boom Boom’ Johnson, Lonny Beasley, Pinklon Thomas, Bernard Harris. We talk on the phone, we text each other, we’re all Facebook friends. I love it – it’s great. It’s a pleasure to me to know that these people I worked with 25 years ago still have that closeness. They’re all a special part of my life, and each one of them has a special place in my heart. I still get birthday cards and Mother’s Day cards from these guys, all these years after managing them.” 

Recently in receipt of her COVID-19 vaccine, Kallen remained upbeat despite suffering the loss of a year at the hands of the global pandemic. Her energy and passion are unmatched, and to say that she’s spinning plates would be an understatement. I’d caught Jackie a couple of years ago and remember being struck by her constant optimism – it hasn’t wavered.  

Faced with questions about delays or missed opportunities, she countered, pointing out a string of positives to balance the argument: “Oh my gosh, the year flown by and I can’t say that I did very much or went many places, but it’s been a year. I’m still here, and I’m glad about that. I was gifted with a tonne of energy – I was born this way. I can go all day and still go out all night and have a great time. Even though I’m 75 years old – which to some people might seem ancient, I mean it is, it’s three quarters of a century – but that’s just a number to me. 

“I’ve written a couple of books but it’s much nicer when somebody writes one for you, so I have a writer working on a book about me at the moment. I do a lot of motivational speaking, so I’ve been doing certain things through Zoom and online. Before COVID I was doing my own podcast, but the studio had to close during COVID, so I’m looking forward to starting that back up again with a much bigger platform at the end of the month. 

“The other thing that’s kind of in the works is another show – it’s like ‘So, you think you can dance?’, but it’s ‘So, you think you can box?’ It will be with unknown fighters; not like The Contender, because those fighters were all housed together in the same weight class. This will be a variety of boxers, male, female, different ethnicities. We’re gonna follow their stories and find out why they got into boxing, figure out some of the demons they’re dealing with and what the blessings are in their lives.” 

All the above is underpinned by her continued, direct involvement in the sport of boxing, managing a small number of young prospects, including Connecticut’s undefeated hope, Mykquan Williams, 16-0-1 (7). Kallen told Boxing News she will always have “one foot in boxing,” but achieving a suitable work-life balance eventually became too important to continue running her own gym and taking care of a large stable of professional fighters.

Williams, and Kallen’s other prospects, find themselves in a far different sport than McKart or Hitz did in the 80s or 90s. She’s watched on as the advent of social media has caused careers to sparkle and stall in equal measure. Boxers now “want to know too much,” she explained.  

Ducking fights, worrying about fans’ perception of opponents, and gripping undefeated records with white knuckles just wouldn’t cut it back in the days of the original Kronk crew: “The shift that I’ve noticed is that some of the boxers today are a little softer. I remember when the guy’s attitude would be: ‘Just get me a fight. I don’t care who it is, I’m gonna beat this kid.’

Jackie Kallen
Holly Stein/ALLSPORT

“We didn’t have a lot of tapes; there was no YouTube; there was no BoxRec to look up the opponent. You just got in there and did your job. Now, they wanna know every little detail, ‘He’s too tall for me; he fought so-and-so; he was in the amateurs with a guy I know.’ There’s far too much information available, and now fighters are talking themselves out of fights they could win comfortably. Fighters back in the 70s, 80s or 90s were a little tougher. 

“Back in those days, your record wasn’t out there for the whole world to see. If you lost a fight, the whole world didn’t know about it and it wasn’t that big a deal. Now, it’s out there tomorrow and the world knows tomorrow. It’s a different culture and a different world. The game has changed, so the fighters’ attitudes have changed also.” 

An infamously difficult attitude to change was that of James Toney, undoubtedly Kallen’s shining light and defining relationship in boxing. Toney, a multiple-weight world champion hailing from Ann Arbour, remains one of the most naturally gifted fighters of his generation, and wore shorts printed with the Star of David, paying homage to his manager’s Jewish faith.  

Their union was iconic and unique; the stock images can only tell a small portion of their story. 

Crazy stories circulated of Toney heading to Kallen’s apartment with a firearm after losing to Roy Jones Jnr. The pair had conquered the sport of boxing for years after he shocked and stopped Michael Nunn in 1991, but indiscipline had stopped “Lights Out” from toppling his great nemesis. When I’d caught up with Kallen in 2018, she hadn’t been in contact with James for some time, losing touch by keeping busy. Thankfully, things have changed. 

“I stay in touch with him and his kids,” she revealed with glee. “Last month, my son and I FaceTimed with him, so we’re on really good terms now. James is a huge part of my life and I’m just grateful that we’re back in regular contact with each other. It’s very heartening to me. I guess it was just time [that brought us back in contact]. I called him, I said, ‘Hey – let’s go to lunch.’ So, we did, and it was great. Life just gets in the way sometimes. He was doing his thing; I was doing my thing. But I was missing him, and I wanted to rekindle that friendship, so it’s just been really great.” 

She laughs, discussing her legacy and her desire to be remembered as one of a kind – a pioneer; I explain that I don’t think she has anything to worry about. Kallen humanises a sport famed for its cutthroat, disloyal reputation, and holds her own when swimming with sharks. 

It’s difficult to sum up her impact within the boxing community for aspiring female trainers, writers, PR representatives, or managers. But if she could or if she had to, I get the feeling she’d be back up on the ring apron again, fighting for all of them by fearlessly taking those first steps into the unknown.


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