Jewish Journal

Hard Knocks Can’t Keep Her Down

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Feb. 12, 2004 at 7:00 pm

Jackie Kallen's life inspired the film "Against the Ropes."

Jackie Kallen's life inspired the film "Against the Ropes."

With her blonde shag, rhinestone-studded clothing and gleaming high heels, Jackie Kallen turns every head as she breezes through the Four Seasons bar. She's still got that brash, flamboyant streak that made her the most successful female boxing manager, portrayed in "Against the Ropes," starring Meg Ryan.

Her stilettos gave her a leg up -- literally -- after one testosterone-soaked game in 1989. When Kallen's fighter won a match in Atlantic City, she hoisted said shoe up to climb into the ring.

"But the guard stopped me," said Kallen, 57. "He didn't believe I was the guy's manager."

A sportswriter chimed in: "Hey, Jackie, why don't you put on a bikini and come back as a ring-card girl?"

Kallen had a better idea. "I took out a license to work the corner of the ring, so they couldn't keep me out," she said.

The tenacity was typical of Kallen, a former Detroit publicist who was often dismissed as a boxer's girlfriend when she entered the field in 1988. Nevertheless, she persevered and ultimately coaxed underdog James "Lights Out" Toney to three world titles in the 1990s. Along the way, she managed three other champions, including Tom "Boom Boom" Johnson and was dubbed the "first lady of boxing."

"Of course, it looked kind of funny, this little Jewish housewife with those big fighters," she said, in her broad, Midwestern accent. "But whenever I got turned down for a fight or something because I was female, I just came back with a different approach."

"If I couldn't get in the front door, I'd come in through the window or the chimney," she explained. "I'd always find a way."

Hollywood loves a good fight story and especially one with chutzpah. For "Against the Ropes," director Charles Dutton drew on his memories of Kallen, whom he met at a Las Vegas fight when he was working in television 12 years ago.

"She stopped me by placing her hand on my chest," Dutton recalled. "She said, 'I'm Jackie Kallen, and when are you going to put some of my fighters on your show?' And I thought, 'What a ballsy-ass woman.'"

Even so, some early reviews of "Against the Ropes" have said the highly fictionalized film doesn't completely capture the drama of Kallen's real life story, which reads like "Rocky" meets "Erin Brockovich."

Back in the 1970s, she was a journalist, a Reform temple member with two sons in Chabad's religious school, and a publicist for Detroit's famed Kronk boxing gym. While her Jewish friends cringed when they visited the noisy, smelly facility, Kallen was in love with the sport, "because I also am a fighter," she said.

She set her sights on managing and in 1989, met Toney, whose manager had just been killed in a drive-by shooting. "He kicked over his spit bucket, because he was unhappy with the way he had sparred, which I liked," she said with relish.

Kallen convinced Toney to sign with her, and before long, she had a stable of fighters, which she managed like a Jewish mother. She put them up at her home, cooked them high-protein meals, ironed their shirts before press conferences, took them to plays and taught them table manners.

The mostly African American boxers attended her son's bar mitzvahs and wore Stars of David on their trunks in honor of Kallen.

By the mid-1990s, she had become so successful that she earned $400,000 a year and lived in a luxurious home with two Ferraris and a bedroom-sized closet filled with flashy outfits. But in 1994, Kallen suddenly found herself down for the count.

After losing his title, Toney sought another manager; Kallen's mother died of cancer in 1996; her father was incapacitated by a stroke the same year; and in 1997, her husband of three decades announced he wanted a divorce.

Five days later, Kallen hopped a plane for Los Angeles, where she rented a two-bedroom apartment to "make a fresh start," she said. She was delayed, for a time, by a breast cancer scare -- her lumpectomies revealed no malignancies.

But even while grieving her losses, Kallen was brainstorming about how to use her boxing savvy to reinvent herself. "I thought, 'All right, I've lost a round or two, maybe even the fight, but I'm not out of the game yet,'" she said.

The result was her 1997 self-help book, "Hit Me With Your Best Shot: A Fight Plan for Dealing With All of Life's Hard Knocks," and ultimately, her movie.

In 2000, she learned that an old Jackie Kallen biopic project was being resurrected with Meg Ryan attached. Kallen promptly loaned the star her scrapbooks and took her to a variety of fights, including a match of novices in a Simi Valley parking lot.

Screenwriter Cheryl Edwards trekked with Kallen to an inner-city L.A. gym, where they were the only two women in the room. "But no one seemed to notice," Edwards told The Journal. "Jackie was completely in her element."

While turning more heads as she left the Four Seasons bar, Kallen acknowledged that she is no longer a novelty as a woman in boxing. But she still relies on her chutzpah.

"When life offers hard knocks, you have to stay one step ahead," she said.

"Against the Ropes" opens Feb. 20 in Los Angeles.

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