USA TODAY US Edition
Transgender promoter gets back in the game
Maloney hopes to find acceptance in boxing world
“Everything is new when you become a woman. ... I’m now the person I needed to be. But change is part of it, every day.”
Kellie Maloney, boxing promoter who reached the pinnacle of the sport as Frank Maloney
America might have been ready for Bruce Jenner to become Caitlyn, accompanied by a flurry of tabloid breathlessness, a moving ESPYs speech, a sexualized photo shoot and, of course, a reality TV show. But is the most male and macho of sporting disciplines, boxing, prepared for a transgender figure of prominence?
Kellie Maloney is ready to find out.
Maloney, 62, formerly was Frank Maloney, an outrageous British promoter who helped guide Lennox Lewis to the undisputed world heavyweight championship.
Standing 5-3 and often clad in a British flag designer suit, Maloney was an unlikely yet perfect sidekick to aloof Lewis and an equally well-suited rival to promoter Don King, who christened Maloney the “pugi-
-listic pygmy” and a “mental midget.”
When Maloney decided two years ago to begin the process toward gender reassignment and publicly identify as a woman, she thought it would be the end of her boxing career.
Yet somewhere along a tortured path that involved a Christmas Day suicide attempt, 23 surgical procedures including one that left Maloney in a fourday coma, a surprise plea from an enlightened young boxer and current celebrity status as Britain’s “Caitlyn,” a reality set in. For all Frank Maloney accomplished, Kellie Maloney has her own dreams wrapped up in the spit, sawdust and showbiz that is boxing and is ready to get after them.
“Everything is new when you become a woman,” Maloney told USA TODAY Sports as she sipped wine on the terrace of her Portuguese villa and petted her docile Airedale terriers, Louie and Winnie. “You learn to sit differently, cross your legs differently, stand up differently, eat and chew differently. I’m loving this. I’m now the person I needed to be. But change is part of it, every day.”
Professionally, she also is in untested waters, fearful of abuse and rejection but refusing to be shooed away by it. The unbridled cruelty of social media assailants aside, Maloney has generally enjoyed support and got a good-natured response when she recently ventured to a small British boxing show.
“I want to get back into boxing for me,” she said. “Just to show that I can. To get that sense of achievement again. It is scary, but it is exciting. I am not afraid of failing, because I don’t think I will. What I don’t want is rejection, being seen as a freak or a pervert or a weirdo.” ‘FRANK WAS LOSING BATTLE’ Maloney’s second home cosies up to the hills above the coastal resorts of the Algarve, Portugal’s southern sunshine haven, and is found via a maze of angular streets and pathways.
It was amid these breathtaking surrounds where Frank Maloney hid from the world and wrestled with his identity, and where Kellie Maloney was born.
Even when Lewis ruled the heavyweight class in the late 1990s, Maloney would sneak out of training camps in the Pocono mountains and visit a sex shop to buy transgender magazines, bypassing the pornographic material in search of articles that shed light on gender dysphoria.
In Las Vegas, Maloney would buy women’s clothes, then discard them. In New York, there were visits to Miss Vera’s Finishing School For Boys Who Want To Be Girls, a center for the transgender community. Into Maloney’s late 40s, the feelings of identifying as female were gaining in strength and clarity.
“Frank was losing the battle,” Maloney said. “Kellie was taking over.”
The pain of living a lie was permanent, and it only served to further spike Maloney’s irascible nature.
“I knew Frank for a long time, but he never struck me as a person who was comfortable or content with himself,” boxing promoter Kathy Duva said. “I could never put my finger on it, but now we know why.”
Maloney began to privately live as a woman in 2011, taking a second home where she kept clothing and secretly ventured into public spaces. It allowed her to gain confidence, but it wasn’t as simple as that.
On Christmas Day 2012, Maloney became locked in a heated argument with then-wife Tracey, drank heavily and retreated to a bathroom and downed whatever pills came to hand. Later, after telling Tracey and their three daughters he was going for a walk, Maloney collapsed in the street, a bleak experience Kellie describes as the tipping point in her gender reassignment decision.
Early in 2013, Maloney started hormone therapy, followed by surgery later in the year. In all, she had four operations, including the 23 surgical procedures, one of which left her in a coma because of difficulties in stemming bleeding during a facial procedure.
In August 2014, with the British tabloids threatening to out her, Maloney went public, and seven months later she completed her gender reassignment.
“It was very up and down at first, very emotional, and there was a lot to try to understand and accept,” said Maloney’s eldest daughter, 39-year-old Emma Young. “There are still times when it is a challenge, when I think it would have all been easier if my dad was a (postal worker) or something and not well known and we could have gone through all this in private. But our relationship is definitely stronger and closer now.”
Maloney met Duva on a recent trip to New York and was encouraged to join the small but determined group of women working in American boxing. She agreed with Duva’s assessment of her former self.
“I don’t like to talk about myself in the third person, that’s for boxers,” Maloney said with a chuckle. “But Kellie is calmer than Frank. Frank was an annoying little bastard.” FLAMBOYANT HISTORY Back in the day, betting against Frank Maloney was no wise move. As a largely unknown London promoter, he took on Olympic champion Lewis after the fighter’s gold medal performance in the 1988 Seoul Games, and life thereafter changed forever.
Maloney took private jets, got the best tables at the finest eateries and was often seen ringside, a frenetic hive of activity accompanied by a playboy image that Maloney fostered to hide the pain of being a “woman trapped inside a man’s body.” Since childhood, Maloney had “felt different” and says she realized as a teenager she belonged as a woman when reading an article about transsexual model April Ashley.
Finding the solution took nearly 50 years.
“Frank is dead, and Kellie is reborn,” Maloney said. “I’m proud of what Frank achieved, but the more I live like this it feels like it happened to someone else.”
Frank Maloney’s tempestuous nature and flair for publicity often led to hilarious results. Maloney was so incensed when Lewis’ first fight with Evander Holyfield ended in a draw — a decision most thought was unfairly generous to the American — Maloney urged the British government to break off diplomatic relations with the United States.
There were madcap adventures, raucous nights out, parties galore. Things will be a little more low-key when Kellie comes back to do business in America.
Modern American boxing is ruled by some giant forces; the HBO and Showtime networks control the purse strings; and the sport’s managerial guru, Al Haymon, seems to have his hand in everything.
“That’s all true,” Maloney said. “But if you find the right fighter, you get your chance. I did that before. I can do it again.”
Maloney promotes three fighters, all British-based, including Tony Jones, a light welterweight with a 2-0 record. Last year, Jones decided he wanted Maloney to guide his career and made repeated pleas via social media, email and telephone.
Maloney was set on retirement, so in a final attempt, Jones drove from Wales to Maloney’s London base, armed with gifts and flowers, and spelled out his case.
“You might have changed sex, but you haven’t had a brain transplant, have you?” was his most persistent argument.
“If anyone chooses to be backward in their thinking and have a problem with me or Kellie, it is their loss,” Jones said. “As Frank she was smart enough and determined enough to reach the top in British boxing. I see it as a privilege to be working with her.”
Yet Maloney thinks America could be where her future lies. Caitlyn Jenner’s journey at the very least helped the transgender community gain a broader base of understanding.
“I don’t want to just come to America, I want to conquer America,” Maloney said, “What would I bring? Professionalism, but also some humor, some color, and show that your background and history doesn’t matter.” AMBITION NOT LACKING While Maloney does not actively seek to be a role model for the transgender community, she understands the seriousness of the issues many face. That is why, when it was suggested by British journalists that Frank Maloney becoming a woman was a publicity stunt, Kellie was deeply wounded. “Stupid,” she said.
Publicity and attention are now no more than byproducts of Maloney’s profession. “I used to love it,” she said. “Talking for the sake of talking, getting myself in the papers.” Yet while Kellie lacks the almost maniacal drive of Frank, she is not shy of ambition.
“If Kellie could achieve half of what Frank did, that would be amazing,” Maloney said. “I have this inner desire to achieve something. I’d love to go back to Las Vegas or New York with a fighter.”
As sunset drops over Maloney’s back patio, she chuckles that, in terms of attire at least, Kellie is far more conformist that Frank.
But what, she wonders, would the reception be like at a huge Vegas fight night, from a packed crowd fueled by alcohol and blood lust? Sure, Jenner was applauded at the ESPYs, but that was a black-tied throng on its best behavior.
Boxing would seem to be as tough an environment for a transgender individual as there could be.
“There is a particular testosterone level in any kind of combat sport,” said Cyd Ziegler, a cofounder of Outsports.com. “It’s the reason you don’t have many female promoters, period, forget about trans women. If Kellie returns, she will be breaking down a lot of barriers and turning a lot of heads. She has the opportunity to really blaze a trail.”
Don King, 84, knows how to turn any question into a promotional opportunity, and years ago he would rarely miss a chance to needle Maloney. But when asked about his former rival, King threw his head back and smiled.
“There is nothing negative I could ever say about Kellie,” said King, who has not seen Maloney since transition. “Frank was a great manager and a great promoter, and we had some wonderful promotions. Kellie’s decision was honest. Nobody ever had to know. You have to respect her for that, and I do.”
Boxing matchmaker Jon Pegg hired extra security for a fight card in England that Maloney attended, fearing there could be hostility or violence. It was in a working-class area of a workingclass city, Birmingham, but Maloney was treated with courtesy and no small sense of admiration.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but when I saw people coming up and wishing Kellie well, that’s when I thought that this is really going to turn out all right,” Pegg said. “To be honest, I actually like Kellie a lot more than Frank — she’s a lot nicer. I think the boxing community will get to see that, too.” FINDING HUMOR IN SAGA Maloney is still nervous but expects to attend more and bigger boxing events in the near future.
“You never know what is going to happen,” she said. “I have been in that world of boxing. I have heard the comments about women and seen the lack of respect. At times, I was part of it myself, and I am ashamed of that.”
The fear of rejection is a constant companion for members of the transgender community. The goal of most transgender individuals is to “pass” — when a person who has transitioned from the opposite sex goes unnoticed in public settings.
Yet there is a paradox. Maloney has done a stint on the UK’s Ce
lebrity Big Brother television show and is aware that future success in boxing will only lead to her being recognized more often. And, contrary to the wish of most every transgender person, each of those people will know she was once Frank.
“It is hard to pinpoint why, but in my mind that is different,” Maloney said. “If someone knows I am a transsexual because they recognize me as Kellie and know I used to be Frank, that is fine. I would much rather that than someone seeing me as just another person and thinking that I am a man in women’s clothes or something.”
At dinner with a small group of friends in a restaurant by the marina in the seaside town of Vilamoura, Maloney is equal parts philosopher and humorist.
“Time will tell how this all works out,” she said, raising a glass to toast the table. “But time means something else now, because my life is so different. Most people can’t understand because they’ve always lived their life as themselves. That didn’t start for me until very recently.”
As life has found some stability, Maloney has managed to find the funny side in the whole saga, and when it comes to telling raucous and often dirty jokes, Kellie has lost none of Frank’s legendary wit.
Lowering her voice as if to share a secret, she regales about being recently propositioned by a married Irish golfing tourist, who, with a cheesy pickup line, promised that “a surprise” awaited if Maloney accompanied him back to his hotel.
“Not as big as the surprise he’d have got,” she deadpanned, as the group descended into hoots of laughter.
And with them Kellie Maloney laughs along, not just at the story but at her new freedom. It is the laugh of a promoter who maybe has a future she never thought possible, in a body she never thought she’d have.
Boxing is the most uncompromising and brutal of sports, its political corridors more vicious than the ring itself. But it is not somewhere to fear for Maloney, not now, not after what has come before it.