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.