The locker room at the Bellahouston Leisure Centre in Glasgow reeks of chlorine. British boxing manager Kellie Maloney sits near the entrance, holding a black clutch purse with both hands, and watching her client, 23-year-old welterweight Tony Jones, go through his prefight routine. A bulletin board on the wall reads, “WIMMING LESSON INFORMA ION.” Two cameramen battle for position near Maloney, and a boom mic hovers for a sound bite. “Just do what you’ve worked on,” she tells Jones. “You’ll be fine.”
Jones is lean, with blond hair and a boyish smile, and on the verge of entering the ring for his first professional fight. He’s bouncing up and down, rolling his neck, shadowboxing. There’s no ventilation in the cramped space, and when he punches through the air, beads of sweat leap from his arm. A few feet away, Jones’ opponent, Matt Seawright, is stretching between two rows of lockers. The 37-year-old journeyman is making his 123rd professional appearance. “I’ve fought so many times, mate,” Seawright tells me. “I don’t know my fucking record.”
Maloney wanders over to the other end of the room, and the cameras trail close behind. The constant attention is starting to feel overwhelming. “Sometimes I think it is all a bit of a freak show,” she says.
Sixteen years earlier in Las Vegas, Maloney, who at the time presented as a man named Frank, watched his star client Lennox Lewis beat Evander Holyfield to claim the world heavyweight title. Maloney dived through the ropes in celebration, wearing an ostentatious Union Jack double-breasted suit. It was then the most lucrative pay-per-view bout of all time, and Lewis was the first Brit since the 19th century to be crowned the undisputed champion of the world. The Boxing Writers Association of America named Maloney a “manager of the year” in 1999.
Maloney returned to London as the most celebrated — and outspoken — boxing manager in the country. He was fêted at halftime during professional soccer matches. His playful Cockney accent and arrogant style became mainstays on national talk shows. “He was everywhere,” Maloney’s former partner Ambrose Mendy says. “He seemed larger than life.”
Maloney went on to work with four more world champs, but she now says the rest of Frank was a persona. “Frank was a character created by the situation that surrounded me,” Maloney says. “To succeed I had to be a little bit of a bastard.” But the collateral damage could be profound. There was his failed London mayoral campaign as a rightwing, anti-gay and xenophobic populist in 2004; the speculations that he pushed one of his most promising fighters to suicide; his infidelities and parental lapses; and, finally, his own suicide attempt.
An event organizer enters the locker room and waves everyone toward the basketball gym that has been converted into a boxing ring. Maloney takes a long exhale. She completed gender-reassignment surgery just eight weeks ago. This is her first appearance as a transgender boxing manager. She had thought it meant leaving the sport behind. But then she received a link on Twitter to a YouTube video of Jones, a factory worker from a small town west of Birmingham, knocking out an opponent during his most recent amateur fight. The accompanying message asked Maloney to manage him. Maloney was skeptical about returning to the ring, but Jones persisted. “She hasn’t gotten a mind transplant,” he likes to say.
Jones isn’t a world-class fighter, but he has offered Kellie Maloney something few other fighters could, or would: a path back to professional boxing. Her transition has gained as much attention in the United Kingdom as Caitlyn Jenner’s has stateside, but Maloney doesn’t come from Hollywood. Imagine if Don King announced he was a woman.
Now, as Jones heads toward the door, Maloney hesitates. She knows what people are likely saying. (At one point, I hear a group of college-age boxing fans near the bar snickering about her. “She’s disgusting,” one says. “She looks like an animal,” says another.) Mendy, her ex-partner, has been critical of her return from the start. “Kellie Maloney is not going to work,” he told me before the match. “Professional boxing is a male sport. This is not Wimbledon tennis. This ain’t a forgiving world.”
In the foyer outside the gym, a teenage girl with blond extensions, who likely recognizes Maloney from her appearance on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother, screams. Jones pauses while Maloney, smiling uncomfortably, joins her fan for a selfie. The lights in the auditorium are dimmed, and Rihanna’s voice blares through the sound system: I‘m friends with the monster that‘s under my bed! Jones starts off and Maloney quickly catches up.
A handful of spectators, mostly men, are scattered in folding chairs around the ring, while the rest of the sparse crowd, many of whom seem barely out of high school, lounge on the pulled-out bleachers. All eyes lock on the 63-year-old Maloney in the front row, with her well-coiffed shoulder-length blond hair and mustard-colored business suit.
“Is that Maloney?” someone asks a couple of rows behind her.
“Looks like it,” another spectator says. “It’s gotta be.”
The boxers touch gloves. For 30 years, Maloney has wanted to walk into an arena as a manager and as a woman, and guide a boxer on her own terms. She just never dreamed it was possible.
As the referee lowers his arm, Maloney leans forward.
The bell sounds. Round One begins.
On March 8th, 1971, a 17-year-old Frank Maloney fell in love with boxing. For weeks, he saved shillings and pennies to afford a ticket to watch the “fight of the century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on closed-circuit TV at the Empire Casino in London. “It was the only event that brought the world to a standstill,” Maloney says now. He went alone around midnight and watched as Frazier beat Ali in 15 brutal rounds. “I was in awe of it all,” she says. “These two men were willing to die in the ring that night. I wanted to feel what they felt.”
The oldest of three boys, Maloney was raised in the working-class neighborhood of Peckham in South London by Irish-Catholic immigrants. Bullied because of his diminutive size and poor performance in class (he was later diagnosed as dyslexic), he left school at 15, to work as a grocery delivery boy and to box. “I came from a tough background,” she says. “I educated myself as I went along.”
He fought 69 amateur bouts and lost just nine times. But his trainer, Billy Kingwell, discouraged him from turning pro. He thought Maloney, only a few inches over five feet, was too small to succeed against top talent.
After a failed stint as a caterer on the southwest coast of England, Maloney returned to London, at 21 years old, and proposed to his first wife Jackie, whom he had met at a school dance. They had a daughter, Emma, and moved into an apartment attached to an East London pub where Maloney tended bar. There was a boxing gym on the second floor.
Maloney managed his younger brother Eugene’s flyweight career, then partnered with Mendy, a rare black businessman in the sport at the time, to build a stable of second-tier fighters. Maloney quickly revealed, according to Mendy, a “special ability to capture a fighter in their most emotive state” — that is, to schedule bouts as clients peaked in terms of training and development. “Everything that he did revolved around boxing,” Mendy says. “He was extremely loyal and unwavering in his commitment.” Maloney eventually earned enough to buy the pub, but he grew frustrated with the limited opportunities to join the upper ranks of pro managers. “Boxing in the Eighties was run by a cartel,” Mendy says. “If you were outside a very small circle, it was nearly impossible to succeed.”
At 35, Maloney was still searching for a world-class fighter. To raise his profile, he borrowed money against his pub to throw extravagant events — an ill-advised publicity tour for the aging middleweight Roberto Duran helped put him £100,000 in debt. He was facing financial ruin when, in February 1989, he got a call from a close friend and boxing photographer, Lawrence Lustig. “Frank,” Lustig said, “how would you like to be the manager of the first British heavyweight champion in a century?”
“Lawrence,” Maloney responded, “are you drunk?”
Lustig was calling from the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas where he had bumped into Lennox Lewis in the lobby. Lewis, then just 23 years old, had recently won a gold medal at the Olympics in Seoul and was now shopping for a manager to turn pro. “I’ve got Lennox Lewis in the room, and he wants to speak to you,” Lustig said.
Maloney impulsively offered to fly Lewis to London for a meeting. “I panicked,” she says. “I took out an American Express and used it to the hilt.” Lewis was born in East London and moved to Canada when he was 12. Maloney pitched him on the idea of returning to his British roots. To sweeten the deal, he offered an unprecedented concession: “I essentially said, ‘Write the contract.'”
Few thought the relationship would last. Maloney was a wisecracking high school dropout, with no championship boxing experience. Lewis was a soft-spoken, chess-obsessed cosmopolitan with unlimited potential. Other promoters tried to poach the heavyweight, but Maloney established a deep trust with Lewis. They would often sit in Maloney’s pub until late at night talking about boxing. “He saw me taking on the world, and he wanted to take on the world,” Maloney says. “We had a common cause.”
In heavy training,” Norman Mailer wrote in The Fight, his account of the “Rumble in the Jungle” championship bout between Ali and George Foreman, “fighters live in dimensions of boredom others do not begin to contemplate.” The same can be said for their trainers, managers and entourage. Before bouts, Lewis and his team would hole up for six to eight weeks in a remote compound in the Poconos. These were some of the worst times for Maloney. His marriage to Jackie ended in 1992, after years of cheating and arguing, and he was increasingly alone with his thoughts. “I drank a lot,” she says. “I would drink to escape pressures and realities of everything.”
Before one training camp, Maloney bought a computer, and began visiting gender-related chat rooms. He found the phone number of a British gender counselor based in the Philippines. Their early conversations got combative. “I was arguing with him,” she says. “I was hoping someone would tell me I wasn’t a transsexual. I was hoping someone would tell me I was a transvestite.”
Transvestites – or cross-dressers – wear clothes associated with the opposite gender. What Maloney was dealing with, the counselor said, was gender dysphoria, the emotional distress caused by “a marked incongruence between one’s experienced and assigned gender.” The prevalence is hard to pin down: current research in the U.K. estimates 20 people per 100,000 are transgender, while recent studies in the United States have found 200 people per 100,000 – about 700,000 Americans – are transgender. Maloney, though born with male anatomy, had inwardly felt like a woman since a “very young age.” But the counselor’s assessment did not come as a relief. “I lost it,” she says. “I told him he was making a mistake. I said, ‘I can beat this.'”
As Maloney began researching other famous transgender people, he found little to feel hopeful about. April Ashley, a British transgender actress and model, was outed in a 1961 article in Sunday People, ending both her marriage and her film career. Although Dr. Renée Richards, a transgender tennis star, won a landmark victory in the New York Supreme Court to compete in the women’s events at the 1977 U.S. Open, she endured brutal public harassment, and later expressed regret for the burdens her fame placed on her family. “A lot of people lost a hell of a lot of things,” Maloney says. “I’m thinking I really got to keep this under wraps, especially in the world I was in.”
In 1993, at a party following a Lewis fight in Wales, Maloney met his “soulmate,” Tracey – a blond flight-attendant 12 years his junior. “He was different than the guys I’d been out with before,” Tracey says. “He was very sweet and kind.” After a brief courtship, they married, and eventually had two daughters – Libby and Sophie. But the union did little to relieve Maloney’s confusion. “I was two people,” she says. “I was Frank Maloney, and I was this woman I didn’t know anything about.”
When sparring sessions in the mountains would wind down, and Lewis and his team would go back to their rooms, Maloney would sneak off to a beauty salon in the local mall. “That was one reason I loved working in America,” she says. “The men there look after themselves. They have manicures. I could do that there and it never drew any attention.” Other times, he would search for a women’s clothing shop and act like he was buying a dress for his wife. “When I got out of the shop, I ball it up and throw it away,” she says. “The relief was gone.”
On November 13th, 1999, hours before the title bout in Las Vegas, Maloney joined Lewis in his hotel room. “Our moment of destiny has come,” Maloney told him. “Tonight you’re going to become undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. It’s something you’ve always worked for. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about. I’ll see you at the arena.” Lewis controlled Holyfield throughout the match, winning in a unanimous decision. For all of Maloney’s spirited celebration in the ring, he skipped the afterparty. “I went back to my hotel room and I just laid there,” she says. “One part of me was really happy. And one part of me was quite sad.”
The day before the Jones fight at the Bellahouston, Maloney attends a weigh-in at a William Hill sports betting shop in downtown Glasgow. Besides managing Jones, Maloney had been asked to promote the main event: the Intercontinental Boxing Organization heavyweight title between Zoltan Csala of Hungary – who has an image Mike Tyson’s face tattooed on his chest – and Gary Cornish, aka the Great Scottish Hope.
The 20 or so people in attendance, mostly employees of William Hill, stand idly in the basement staring at a bathroom scale, while horse races play in an endless loop on mounted TV screens. The weight of each boxer is announced, each flexes gargantuan muscles in turn and the crowd claps dispassionately. For a photo opportunity, Maloney drags a table beside the six-foot-six Cornish and climbs up. Someone yells, “That’s not the first time Maloney’s jumped on top of a table!” Maloney turns red, then lets out a loud, guttural laugh.
As manager of the heavyweight champion of the world, Frank was known for his outrageous behavior. “My life was lived on a stage,” Maloney says now. When former heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe refused to fight Lewis, Maloney printed business cards with an image of a chicken’s head on Bowe’s body, and handed them out to reporters. Before a fight in Las Vegas between Lewis and Tony Tucker, who was managed by Don King, Maloney stuck a Union Jack flag into a life-size cutout of Bill Clinton. King grew agitated, and called Frank a “pugilistic pygmy” and a “mental midget.” Maloney chuckled and thanked him for the publicity. He recalls King’s outburst: “‘What is wrong with him! Only you English can put up with this!'”
“Flamboyant Frank,” as Maloney’s friend Eric Guy called him, “loved the attention. He became much more boisterous.”
Maloney was also vocally conservative about many of the changes happening in London at the turn of the 21st century. “He would complain a lot,” Guy says. The arrival of European immigrants and the imposition of a congestion charge in central London particularly irked him. Then Maloney had a revelation: “Why don’t I change it?”
In 2004, with no political experience, he announced his candidacy for mayor of London as a member of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). “Daddy is quite child like,” says Maloney’s first daughter, Emma. “If you say, ‘No,’ he’ll say, ‘Watch me.’ He likes the challenge, the drama, the controversy.”
UKIP candidates typically stake out positions that are anti-immigrant, anti-gay-rights and anti-Europe. One of the founding members once suggested Muslims should have to sign a “code of conduct” to live in the U.K. Another recently tweeted that a black comedian who made jokes about living in Britain should emigrate to a “black country.” Maloney joined UKIP in 1997. It advertises itself as a party for white working-class outsiders, which appealed to him. His campaign car, a canary-yellow Robin Reliant three-wheeler, toured around town carrying the slogan “From Peckham to City Hall.”
More desperate than ever for press, Maloney agreed to an interview with a community newspaper, The Hampstead and Highgate Express. When the reporter asked why Maloney didn’t campaign in Camden, then the epicenter of London counterculture, he answered because there were “too many gays.” Voters were outraged. One group that might have otherwise supported him, the Gay Conservatives, demanded he end his candidacy. A BBC reporter asked him to explain his position. “I don’t think they do a lot for society,” he replied. “I’m anti-same-sex marriages and I’m anti-same-sex families. I don’t think it’s right for children to be brought up that way.” Maloney went on to win six percent of the vote – three times more than any other UKIP candidate for mayor has ever gained – but his anti-gay views became his larger legacy.
Maloney returned to boxing with a new level of ferocity. He had fallen out with Lewis over a contract dispute in 2001, but soon signed a roster of promising young talent. Those who didn’t sign with him, Maloney now admits, he tried to “sabotage” and “destroy.” “Frank was vicious,” British heavyweight Audley Harrison says. “It was one drama after another.” Maloney bad-mouthed fighters in the press and canceled scheduled fights without warning. “There were a lot of people in boxing who were waiting for him to get his comeuppance,” Ambrose Mendy says.
Meanwhile, his family life was unraveling. “We argued a lot,” Tracey says. After a small disagreement over a mortgage payment, Emma says she and her father didn’t speak for five years. And then, during a boxing conference in Thailand, he skipped his flight home to consult a gender-reassignment specialist. “I realized I couldn’t do it,” Maloney says. “I obviously loved Tracey and I love my children, and I just thought, ‘What would they think? Would their lives be wrecked?’ So I had to push it out. I had to push it away.”
In 2009, Maloney signed Irish Olympic bronze medalist Darren Sutherland. “I put as much effort into signing him as I did Lennox Lewis,” Maloney says. Sutherland showed world-class potential, winning his first four fights, but also struggled with depression. According to testimony at a later inquest, he “felt trapped” in boxing. Maloney warned Sutherland that he would have to pay back part of his £75,000 signing bonus if he quit, but he also enlisted the help of a clinical psychiatrist. Maloney and a member of his team, Joe Dunbar, went to Sutherland’s house to drive him to the first session. They stood outside for two hours, calling his phone and banging on the door. When a locksmith finally let them in, they discovered Sutherland hanging lifeless with his wrists bound together. “It was horrific,” Dunbar says. “It haunts me.”
The sight of his dead fighter gave Maloney a mild heart attack, and he was rushed to the hospital. The police found a note from Declan Brennan, Sutherland’s adviser, that addressed the possibility of Sutherland walking away from the sport. “Frank will destroy you and your family in the media,” Brennan wrote. “They will hunt you down, keep taking photos of you and doing articles about how you fucked up.” At the inquest, Maloney rejected any suggestion that he drove Sutherland to suicide, but Sutherland’s parents blamed Maloney for the loss of their son nonetheless. He was barred from the funeral.
In February, I wait in the car with Emma and Kellie’s mother, Maureen, for Kellie to finish a hair appointment in Kent. A drizzle pitter-patters against the windshield. They’re a boxing family, and the conversation drifts to the recent success of David Price, a bruising heavyweight ranked 10th in the world, and the last fighter Maloney managed before retiring in 2013. “Price is a good fighter,” the 82-year-old Maureen says. “He’s got a lot of jizz in him.”
“You can’t say jizz!” Emma says. “We got a reporter here.”
“You know what I mean,” Maureen says. “A lot of spunk.”
Maloney exits the hair salon and dashes across the street, covering her blond hair with her hands to block the rain. She’s wearing a black scarf and a black overcoat. She squeezes into the back and greets everyone.
“You all right?” Emma asks. Maloney nods. In the last couple of years, Emma says their roles have changed. Now 39 years old, Emma says she feels more like the parent, helping guide Kellie across the great divide.
“I honestly don’t know what I’d do without Emma – she’s like a rock,” Maloney says. “It’s sad to think at a certain point I was mentally prepared to lose my family. I was losing everyone, but I knew I couldn’t stop it.”
One night shortly after Sutherland’s death, Maloney woke Tracey at four in the morning and blurted, “I’m a woman.” “As soon as I said it I wanted to catch the words and pull them back in,” Maloney says. “It was the end of my relationship with her.”
Maloney moved down the road, into an apartment with his two Airedales, Louis and Winnie. He had entertained a mental image of Kellie for so long that she now seemed part of a separate existence. “I lived my life, my feminine side, in my dreams,” Maloney says. “I was a young girl, going through adolescence, growing up and meeting people. She was the happiest person.” But when she looked in the mirror, Maloney saw only a graying man worn by rage. “It’s a terrible life,” she says. “You know, unless you come to terms and accept yourself, no one else can.”
To bring Kellie to life, Maloney traveled to Brighton to meet with Belinda Lawrie, who started a company called In Girl Mode in 2011 after her ex-partner came out as transgender. Lawrie helped Maloney find flattering dresses and taught her the subtleties of makeup application. “It was just building her confidence,” Lawrie says.
In December 2011, Kellie Maloney made her first public appearance. Around midnight, she and Lawrie went out to Pink Punters, an LGBT club an hour north of London. “She was very nervous,” Lawrie recalls. “She is so small. I said, ‘You shouldn’t worry.'”
Pictures of Frank were still circulating on websites of the most hated homophobes in Britain. “I sat in my chair and I didn’t move,” Maloney says. “I was dressed to make sure I never looked like Frank. Makeup can do a lot tricks, hair can do a lot of tricks. And I always had this thing: Who would ever expect to see Frank Maloney in a dress?”
But these early forays only seemed to darken Maloney’s outlook. She cried spontaneously, and she abused pills and alcohol. Emma wondered if her father was terminally ill.
Tracey invited Frank over for Christmas in 2012. Maloney arrived dressed as a man, in jeans and a button-down shirt, with hopes of rekindling the relationship. “He was acting unruly,” Tracey says. “He was drunk and paranoid.” Tracey asked him to leave. “I read the signs wrong,” Maloney says now. “I tried to be the old Frank. I felt totally rejected.”
On the way home, Maloney swallowed a handful of pills – including aspirin, heart medication and blood-pressure tablets – and blacked out. A passer-by spotted him face down in a ditch. Emergency services were called, but by the time the ambulance arrived, Maloney had regained consciousness and decided to drive to Emma’s house, 40 minutes away. Emma found her father in her driveway that night, slumped over the steering wheel.
The next day, they went to a pub for a drink. “I was born in the wrong body,” Maloney told her. “I’m a woman.”
Emma fought back tears. “It’s OK, Dad,” she said. “I was worried you were going to say you were dying.”
Maloney continued to appear in public as Frank, but with the support of Emma and a transgender group called TG Pals, she grew increasingly confident about the prospect of living full-time as Kellie. She began hormone therapy, gave up her boxing license and closed her social-media accounts. “I sat with my family and we agreed to transition very privately,” Maloney says. “We’d say I’d traveled around the world.”
A few hours after Maloney’s haircut, near the Winter Gardens auditorium in Kent, our car passes more than a hundred people lining the street to protest UKIP’s annual spring conference. Some hold signs comparing UKIP to Nazis; others read, “No to racism, No to bigotry, No to UKIP.” Maloney is the night’s “Special Guest Speaker.” Behind the venue, in a secured parking lot, her bodyguard shuttles us through the back door, up a flight of stairs and into a large VIP room with a view of the ocean.
The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, greets Maloney with a wide smile. “Really looking forward to your speech,” he says. A photographer captures their handshake. Farage is wearing a dark suit with a blue and silver tie, his neatly trimmed gray hair frames a surprisingly boyish face. He is in the midst of a media campaign to offset claims of racism in UKIP’s ranks, such as rumors that he sang Hitler Youth songs in cadet school. In January, he asked Maloney if she was interested in running for Parliament. No longer a member of UKIP, Maloney declined, but she offered to deliver a statement instead.
Maloney studies her notes, large and scribbled on small sheets of lined paper. We’re ushered downstairs, into a Victorian ballroom. The current speaker is William Cash, a candidate for Parliament from Warwickshire. He pumps his fist, decrying the “EU oppression” of Britain. The crowd roars approval.
Next, the deputy leader of UKIP grabs the microphone to introduce Maloney.
A year earlier, as Maloney was preparing breakfast in her apartment in London, she heard a knock at the door. In jeans and a T-shirt, with no make up and no wig, she answered to find a journalist from the tabloid Sun on her front step. He was holding a stack of photos of Maloney entering a TG Pals meeting in a dress. “Someone claimed they recognized my voice.” she says.
Maloney’s lawyers were able to get an injunction to temporarily halt the Sun‘s story, but she knew it was only a stopgap. A few days later, on August 10th, 2014, Kellie Maloney gave her first public interview. “I can’t keep living in the shadows,” she told the Sunday Mirror‘s Matthew Drake. “Living with the burden any longer would have killed me.”
According to Maloney’s old friend Lawrence Lustig, there was “total shock” in the boxing community. At least 10 reporters contacted him that day, asking some variation of the same question: What does Lennox Lewis think?
Later that night, Lewis published a statement online:
“This world we live in isn’t always cut and dried or black and white, and coming from the boxing fraternity, I can only imagine what a difficult decision this must be for Kellie (formerly Frank Maloney). However, having taken some time to read Kellie’s statements, I understand better what she, and others in similar situations, are going through. I think that ALL people should be allowed to live their lives in a way that brings them harmony and inner peace. I respect Kellie’s decision and say that if this is what brings about true happiness in her life, then so be it. #LiveAndLetLive
They hadn’t spoken since their professional split 13 years earlier. “I was always there for Lennox,” Maloney says. “And when I needed him, he was there for me.”
Maloney began a series of surgeries in the fall of 2014. She had her Adam’s apple shaved, her lip and forehead lifted, and a nose job. Doctors in Spain warned her against any more cosmetic procedures, but she wasn’t yet satisfied with the result. In November, a facelift in Belgium went terribly wrong; her face blew up and she stopped breathing. She spent four days in a coma. “If they hadn’t operated I would have died,” Maloney says. Pictures of her face swollen like a balloon, with blood oozing from closed puffy eyelids, appeared all over social media. The TV host Katie Hopkins tweeted, “I don’t care what you say, Kellie Maloney is looking blinding.”
Now, behind the podium at UKIP’s spring conference, Maloney looks elegant in a pair of black reading glasses. Emma warned her against speaking here. She feared the party — which, by the looks of tonight’s attendance, is mostly old and white — would use Maloney as a tool to soften its image. But Maloney has been consistent: to accept herself as Kellie, she has to make amends for Frank. “I made a terrible mistake in 2004,” she says. “I made a derogatory remark about the gay community, and to them I apologize.”
The audience breaks into applause, but she keeps her eyes on her notes. She tells a story about a transgender friend who lost her job as director of a shipping company. “What do we feel?” she asks, looking up for the first time. “Frustration. Fear of hurting or disappointing those we love. Fear of rejection.” She ends her 12-minute speech with a poem written by the daughter of a transgender woman who committed suicide a year before: “I won’t judge him for what he’s done/ He felt alone, trapped and torn,” Maloney recites. “Typical man when it comes to emotion/But deep down he was brutally broken.”
Tears pour down her cheek. She takes off her glasses and bites her lip. There is more applause; a few stand. Maloney nods, then walks off the stage. Her eyes are red and her face is flushed white.
A month after the speech, Maloney successfully underwent sexual-reassignment surgery at Nuffield hospital in Brighton. The procedure took only four hours, but she’s still in the hospital when I visit her a few days afterward. The facility is set on top of a hill, and sunlight blasts through the large windows in her room. She’s wearing a red robe and slippers that reveal thin veiny legs. Heather Ashton, head of TG Pals, is in the room, and declares attendance at meetings has seen a six-fold increase since Maloney came out. Despite a large dose of intense pain medication, Maloney seems radiant. “You know the saying ‘You can’t put an old head on young shoulders’?” she asks. “I actually feel like I’ve got an old head on very young shoulders!”
At the sound of the bell, in Bellahouston, Tony Jones and Matt Seawright shuffle toward the center of the ring. They trade half-hearted jabs before reaching out and clutching one another. Jones breaks free, steps back and just for a moment drops his hands. He catches a straight right to the face. Everyone in the crowd stands up.
Maloney stays seated. The kid backpedals away from the pain. Her eyes – emotive and worn – follow his movements through strands of straight golden hair. She’s back in the British limelight as the most famous member of the transgender community. A documentary on her life was released in June. Her new memoir, Frankly Kellie, is due out in the U.S. in October. But right now, she is completely focused on her fighter.
Jones finds his rhythm. He dances, shifting into spaces where he can’t be touched, before darting inside with quick flurries. “Smash ‘im!” Someone in the crowd yells. By the fourth round, Seawright is exhausted, and instead of throwing punches, he hugs. Jones tries to throw combos, but Seawright leans in and headbutts Jones above the eye.
“I’m hurt,” Jones mouths to his trainer. The referee lets the match continue without deducting a point. Maloney leaves her seat and walks over to Jones’ corner. The judges, and much of the crowd, glance over, expecting a classic Maloney outburst. A trickle of blood flows down Jones’ forehead, and Maloney watches silently.
Jones wins by decision. Back in the locker room, Maloney inspects his cut. Jones can’t sit still. “If you asked me a year ago if I’d be walking out with Kellie Maloney . . .” he says, beaming. “Oh man, that felt brilliant.”
On the ride back to the hotel, Maloney stares out the window. It’s raining, and nearly midnight. “Such a build up,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to leave the hall.” For so long she’s envisioned this life – this moment – but now she seems dissatisfied. “Do I want this?” she asks, her voice just above a whisper. “Part of me does, part of me doesn’t.” The rain begins to fall harder on the hood of the car. I ask her what’s next. “I honestly don’t know,” she says. “For 30 years, boxing was my life. And no matter what happens it will always be there knocking on me, saying, ‘You know you got to do it.’ It’s a part of me until they put me in that wooden box.”