Jackie Kallen: Another Uphill Climb

26.09.05 - By Bernie McCoy: William Shakespeare, a celebrated playwright of note once penned, "Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt." Jackie Kallen, a boxing figure of note, has had a career that goes far to prove the validity of those words. You've probably heard of Jackie Kallen; maybe it was when she was managing the burgeoning career of James Toney; possibly, it was as a result of the movie, "Against the Ropes", based on that part of Kallen's life; or maybe you've seen her co-hosting the NBC-TV boxing reality show, "The Contender."

Jackie Kallen has been around and for as long as she has, she has always faced doubts, not from within, but from others who constantly carped that she couldn't, or shouldn't, do things that had not been done before, particularly by a woman. But almost always, Kallen ignored those doubts and, seeming to heed the words of the immortal Bard, never feared the attempt. I recently spoke with Kallen, by phone, from Los Angeles, in a wide ranging interview that covered several aspects of her wide ranging career.

Jackie Kallen comes to boxing with the legitimacy that a great fight town such as Detroit confers, "It was hockey, first, for me, growing up", Kallen remembers, "but my grandmother, a schoolteacher, had Joe Louis as a student, so I heard a lot about boxing, early. In 1978, I was working for a suburban newspaper outside Detroit and I interviewed Thomas Hearns. Shortly thereafter, I took a job doing publicity for him and that led me to increasing involvement in the sport of boxing and eventually resulted in my management of James Toney."

In those days, the 70's and 80's, boxing in Detroit meant the Kronk Gym. "It was one of the first and best lessons I received in the sport," Jackie recalls, "the importance of good management, in that case, Emmanuel Steward. The sport is littered with stories about how weak and ineffectual management leads to the downfall of some very good fighters....the former heavyweight champion, ' the baddest man on the planet ' is a case study. Kronk's management style was to take almost every fighter that came into the gym, evaluate each one and pick the best of the best and provide them with total hands-on management. In that way Kronk was operating in the boxing business the very same way Berry Gordy and Motown Records was running their music business. Two Detroit businesses, both doing it exactly the right way, and, as a result, getting to the top."

Following her association with James Toney, Kallen eventually found her way into the world of Women's boxing. She was commissioner of the IFBA (International Female Boxers Association) and subsequently managed Molly McConnell, a 4-1 fighter from Portland, OR. and was preparing newcomer Demi Nguyen for her professional boxing debut. She recently gave up management responsibility for McConnell and Nguyen when she became associated with Arnie Rosenthal and Ken Weiss and their syndicated TV show, "A Ring of Their Own."It's a unique programming effort," enthuses Kallen, "all-female boxing shows featuring quality fighters in competitive bouts. It gets away from the usual big name female fighter in against a "walkover" opponent."

If you haven't seen "A Ring of Their Own", it's an action packed two hours, edited to eliminate much of the "down time", the minute between rounds for example, and the result is more ring action than any other boxing program, male or female, currently on the air. Add the fact that Women's boxing features fast paced two minutes rounds and the result is a boxing show well worth searching the dial for. Kallen notes that the primary goal of the show is to establish selected quality fighters on the syndicated shows, culminating with a PPV special, where the "best of the best" fighters square off against each other. "It's a programming formula that has worked for Vince McMahon and the WWE," Kallen notes, "and we feel it's a perfect fit for the sport of Women's boxing."

"A Ring of Their Own" has signed Elena Reid, a top rated bantamweight, Asa Sandell, an undefeated super middleweight from Sweden, and Lisa Brown, the newly crowned WIBC/WIBF super bantamweight champion, to contracts for appearances on the program. Reid and Sandell will be featured in the next show scheduled for October 8 at Harrahs Casino in Laughlin, NV.

Kallen's experience overcoming challenges in the boxing business will be put to good use with "A Ring of Their Own." As a syndicated TV show, it does not have a regularly scheduled time slot, relying on local clearances for airings, usually scheduled two or three weeks after the "live" card. The TV show currently does not a clearance in the New York television market, a major gap in national coverage. But Jackie Kallen has a "been there, been through that" attitude, "We're (Arnie Rosenthal and Ken Weiss) continually trying to upgrade our TV clearances and, of course, New York is a major priority. We're also in the process of putting together a highlight reel of our past shows, which should make believers out of a lot of skeptics as far as the sport of Women's boxing is concerned. Our goal is to get a permanent time slot, maybe on one of the niche, alternative programming cable networks, Spike TV as an example. Believe me, when those ' TV suits ' get a look at the highlight reel, some eyes are going to be opened."

Women's boxing on TV has never been an easy sell, as evidenced by the fact that the self-proclaimed programming pinnacle of boxing, HBO, has yet to broadcast a female bout in the over thirty years they've been televising "live" bouts. "A Ring of Their Own" is still in it's formative stages, but with Jackie Kallen on board, one gets the feeling that the growth may be about to accelerate.

Kallen is a big believer in the sport of Women's boxing. "All you have to do", she notes, "is spend some time in a gym and watch these women work their butts off, not just one or two but every one of them; they're all working as hard as they can. This is not a knock on the guys, but, women just seem to take it more seriously, they go hard all the time. And that's why the talent in the sport has never been deeper. The female fighters are now turning ' pro ' out of gyms, not out of tough-women contests or martial arts, but out of gyms and the amateur ranks and when they're ready to (professionally) debut, they know how to box, not fight, box.

Kallen continued, "The sport is still growing and there's only upside for female fighters. The examples of the LPGA, the women's tennis tour and the WNBA indicate that the time is right for women in the sports world. Female boxers don't have the benefit of a tie-in with the male sport like the tennis tour, which plays at the same major tournament venues as the men, and certainly not like the WNBA, which is directly subsidized by the NBA. But, there's no question in my mind, this is the time for women in the ring."

Kallen, who last season was a co-host on the critically acclaimed NBC show, "The Contender", was asked whether she could envision a female version of the show, which, this year, will be broadcast on ESPN. "That's on my wish list", Kallen replied. "In fact I think that 16 women in the same house, competing in the ring would make a great show. Their ' back stories ' are so much more diverse than the men. You have college graduates, truck drivers, straight women, gay women and the drive that got each of those women into the gym in the first place adds up to some very compelling stories. Do I think it will happen? It's a long shot. Going to ESPN gives the show much more of a niche appeal, the viewers on that network are mainly male sports fans and it might not be the best programming environment for a female ' Contender ', and that's a shame because it's a great concept."

As far as the second season of the "Contender", Kallen is disappointed that NBC didn't give the show more time to develop. "I thought we received enough critical praise from the mainstream press to warrant another year on NBC. The ratings weren't huge, but the ratings weren't huge for ' Seinfeld ' or ' Cheers ' in their first years and those shows turned out pretty well when they were given time to build an audience."

Right now Jackie Kallen's primary focus is "A Ring of Their Own" and the sport of Women's boxing. Both the show and the sport are looking at an uphill climb. But Jackie Kallen is used to uphill climbs. She climbed those boxing hills before; she's climbed those TV hills before; arriving at the top of the sport with James Toney and at the top in TV with the "Contender." Along with Ken Weiss and Arnie Rosenthal, Jackie Kallen is part of a formidable team that Kallen states, has as a goal, " move the sport forward for generations (of female boxers) to come and blaze a new trail in the sports and TV world." Jackie Kallen has done it before and it would be foolish to bet against her this time, but no matter what happens, one thing is certain, it won't be because of Jackie Kallen "fearing to attempt" to climb the hill.

Article posted on 27.09.2005

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