Kellie Maloney: Boxing promoter on education, trans visibility, and taking control
Having put together a bespoke sports management course, Kellie Maloney's ready to pass on some of the tricks of the trade. In an exclusive interview on Trans Day of Visibility, she discusses diversity and what brought her back to boxing
Last Updated: 31/03/20 3:44pm
It's 20 years since Lennox Lewis reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world - the last fighter to truly rule the roost.
As Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury continue to wait for the showdown that will one day produce a new boxer supreme, the manager who helped make it all happen for Lewis two decades ago is back in the sport and making plans for the future too.
After Lewis' first bout with Evander Holyfield at Madison Square Garden in March 1999 ended in a split draw, it was the figure famously clad in a Union Jack suit who stirred up such controversy around the decision that a rematch had to be quickly sanctioned. Eight months later in Las Vegas, 'Unfinished Business' saw Lewis defeat Holyfield by unanimous decision to unify the belts. Watching archive videos of the post-fight celebrations, that very proudly British piece of tailoring still stands out.
The wardrobe choices are just one of many changes in Kellie Maloney's life since those heady days, but the know-how of what it takes to be a promoter never left her. She values the memories and insists it's not off limits to use images from the time when she was known as Frank. "Don't run from your past," she tells Sky Sports. "You can run from your past, but you can't hide from it - it will always be there."
In recent years, she's been going back over her boxing career, making notes with the benefit of hindsight. The knowledge will form the basis of a multi-week course she'll deliver, offered by a company called Education Through Sport and Diversity (ETS&D) which she's helped to set up. Amid the pandemic lockdown, the company is offering online courses in core subjects such as maths and English, taught by professionals and which lead to OFSTED-recognised qualifications. Kellie is helping to oversee operations from her home in Portugal and hopes to kick off her own course in person in east London later in the year.
She describes it as everything boxing except the punchbags. "It's more on the management side of it - learning how to put a show together, how to promote that show, how to promote and manage a fighter, and how to deal with the media. There'll be a number of other boxing personalities, from the UK and America, who'll come and give lectures. And we hope the final outcome will be staging a boxing show." The plan is to make the programme free for anyone aged 16 to 24, giving them a range of skills and a first step onto the sports management ladder.
For Kellie, transitioning meant twice stepping away from her own career as a promoter. First came an announcement of retirement from boxing in October 2013, followed 10 months later by the Sunday newspaper front-page story that introduced Kellie to the public for the first time. In 2015, she was back - working alongside Tommy Gilmour to promote Scottish heavyweight Gary Cornish, who was swiftly stopped by Joshua in a Commonwealth title fight at The O2 that September. She made the decision to step away from the Cornish camp when her advice went unheeded.
"To be honest, I wasn't ready," she reflects. "I wasn't strong enough to deal with it. I couldn't handle the rejection I got from a few people, so that's why I walked away from it again."
It was therefore a second surprise to many in the sport when at the start of this year, she was back behind the microphone at another pre-fight press conference. Cathy McAleer, Northern Ireland's only female professional boxer, had seen Kellie on a guest appearance on Celebrity Masterchef and reached out for advice. They ended the call with an agreement to team up. Sat alongside a beaming McAleer in Belfast, with the press hanging on her every word, the Maloney spark had clearly returned. "I'm comfortable with myself now," she says. "It takes a long time."
I hid myself for so long. I feel that if I'd have come out earlier, I would have been a better boxing promoter and manager than I was - and I think I was good!
McAleer won her fight in February, and was set for another in April at Villa Park before the pandemic thwarted her progress. Maloney has been frustrated too - an announcement that at least two more women boxers are joining her stable has been put on hiatus - but is using the time profitably to promote ETS&D instead. The online courses are currently proving popular and she says the whole project is a chance for her to help a new generation coming through, with an emphasis on inclusion.
LGBT+ youth are encouraged to enrol but so are people from every demographic, particularly those who might have struggled at school or even dropped out. "That's why we brought the word 'diversity' in - we don't want to put anyone in a box. We want the courses open to everybody and we want people to mix, get on and accept each other."
One of her ETS&D colleagues is an amateur boxer who she met while giving a talk ahead of an LGBT+ inclusive charity boxing event called Courage, which had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Danny, who is trans, has been putting social media to good use and reaching out to people he knows within the community. "We've become very good friends," says Kellie. "Danny will give lectures when we talk about gender diversity because he's obviously gone through it himself. He walked out of school because he was a "bad arse" - his exact words. Like me, he was a different gender then to what he is now. That's where your problems are, because you can't accept yourself."
Battles and business
She is proud of her achievements but accepts fully where she made mistakes too - the politics, the behaviour, the bravado. Even Maloney's previous nickname - 'The Mental Midget' - is decidedly non-PC today. Since then, meeting other people who are trans, both young and old, has helped to give her the insight she once lacked. "I hid myself for so long. I feel that if I'd have come out earlier, I would have been a better boxing promoter and manager than I was - and I think I was quite good."
She apologises for sounding "big-headed" but the truth is there was huge respect for Maloney's talents, on both sides of the Atlantic - a Manager of the Year Award from the Boxing Writers' Association of America was among the accolades earned while Lennox ruled the heavyweight kingdom. The glory nights masked the inner struggle. "As well as doing my job, I had a personal battle with myself. It affected some of my decisions, and the way I treated people."
As for the derogatory comments made years ago about women's boxing and gay men - "quotes that come back to haunt me" - she won't let others use them to give her the runaround. As McAleer's promoter and an in-demand speaker on LGBT+ issues, Kellie's actions speak louder than the words of her past. She asks only for "the full facts" to be taken into account. "When women started coming into boxing when I was Frank Maloney... commercially, it wasn't acceptable at the time. Professional sport is also a business."
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Thank you @michael.ault.photographer for the amazing photos 💕👊 Saturday night at the, @avfcofficial , it was a great night at @tommy_gun1983 event . Great memories for the team, my supporters and I ! Everyone throughly enjoyed it 🤜 The evening was extra special as my manager @kelliefmaloney made her return to boxing 🥊 Brilliant to have Kellie back into the sport with her wealth of experience and knowledge and I am very privileged, that kellie made this return with me. Great start to the journey and win ! The team and I, are looking forward to the next one real soon 🥊 Thank you to my sponsors at this event : @its4women.co.uk @gmbunion Northern Ireland @thesignatureworks Centra Ormeau Road @oneills.vilamoura Thank you to my team : John Breen , Stephen McGarry @boxlaw247 @joedunbarmusic @judie_blondie #fightingmac #its4women #empowering #females #insport #womeninsport
The plan for Maloney's stable is to build towards an all-female card in Belfast at the end of 2020, with McAleer topping the bill. The 41-year-old bantamweight is determined to land a world title, now a far more rewarding prospect financially than it would have been 20 years ago. There's no getting away from the bottom line, says Kellie. "Look at footballers - they might love playing the game, but they're also getting paid a hell of a lot of money to do it. Anthony Joshua's getting paid an absolute fortune. If it was all amateur sport, it's totally different. But professional sport is a business - that's what people have got to realise."
'I make my own way in the world'
She's optimistic about the future, including for the trans community. "The world's going to change and it's going to get better," she says. "I hope in my lifetime I'll see it when no one will look at a trans person any different to how they look at a genetic male and a genetic female. That's my dream." She doesn't shy away from any of the complexities of including trans women in sport, particularly strength sports like boxing, but asks only for scrutiny of policy, not athletes.
"We're following the rules of the governing bodies. As long as you're inside them rules, that's fine - but there's not been enough scientific or medical evidence to say where the difference is," she says. "There is some difference, we accept that. But we don't know how much you change when you transition. I know that I changed." The debate that continues to rage around the topic is commonly misdirected, she feels. "It's not the trans woman who should be attacked. You'll never get everyone to accept it's right for trans women to take part in sport. But it's the governing bodies who your argument is with."
March 31 is International Trans Day of Visibility, an awareness day that seeks to celebrate the community. In Kellie's world of fight promotion and speaking engagements, there's little room to hide even if she wanted to. "I'm quite a strong personality so I think I make my own way in the world. I support groups like Stonewall, and the trans groups I work with. I understand some people do need that kind of help."
When she most needed assistance, it was of the legal kind. Having lived outside of the public eye following her initial retirement, and fully as Kellie for the first time, she was tipped off that a paparazzi and a journalist were following her. "They turned up at my house at 5 o'clock on a Thursday to tell me they were going to run a story in their Sunday paper. My world went upside down." She praises the barrister who secured the injunction that gave her time. Eventually, she shared her truth with the media on her own terms.
She still feels coming out is "one of the hardest things in the world" and believes for those who are more high-profile, like sportspeople, it's a question of control. "I've seen some gay and trans people who haven't been able to control the media, or not had any say in it and it's just got out there. It hasn't worked out the right way for them," she says. "I was brought up dealing with the media. If you can take control, you know exactly what's happening."
This will be covered in more detail on the course, insists Kellie - "it's a very important topic" - along with all those tricks of the boxing trade, some learned alongside Lennox Lewis and some while stood next to Cathy McAleer. So what's different about her style today compared to then? "I'm much more sympathetic now, a much better listener. I see people's troubles more than I ever did before.
"Before, the world was just black and white - now I see it's a grey area, and there's a multi-coloured area too, both of which Frank Maloney never saw." With her 2020 vision, Kellie's life continues to be a true education.
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