NEW YORK: Kelly Swanson’s family reunion in Europe had to be cut short. Floyd Mayweather was finally going to fight Conor McGregor.
Two years ago, Swanson’s family planned a reunion in Austria, where her brother resides. However, she had to cut the trip down to under a week. Her work, specifically the so-called "Fight of the Century," was calling.
For 12 years, Swanson has represented boxing champion Floyd Mayweather through every controversy, punch, and parry, from his days of "Pretty Boy Floyd" to "Money Mayweather." True to her client’s nickname, Swanson has managed PR for the three highest-grossing boxing matches in history: Oscar De La Hoya vs. Mayweather in 2007 ($136 million), Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez in 2013 ($150 million), and Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao in 2015 ($410 million). Mayweather vs. McGregor, scheduled for August 26, could break the undefeated champ’s own record.
"I felt like [the fight] was going to happen; I just didn’t know it would be turned around so quickly [for] August," Swanson said in a phone interview while scanning 860 unread emails.
When Mayweather’s camp let her know the fight was scheduled, she had two and a half weeks to plan the press tour and fill the stands.
"Oh my gosh, are people really going to come in the middle of the week to a press conference?" Swanson recalled thinking at the time. "They’re not fighting; they’re just going to talk."
Coordinating with Mayweather Promotions, Showtime, and the UFC, Swanson cobbled together press events in venues in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Each drew thousands of fans and hundreds of media members.
The four-city tour turned into an endurance test of escalating tension between the two fighters, marred by accusations of racism and homophobia. Behind the scenes, the tour was a frantic race to fulfill media obligations and hit schedule times. When the Mayweather team landed in London for the final event, for example, it didn’t have time to stop at the hotel; it went straight to Wembley Arena.
"Whatever we asked of [Mayweather], he would participate," Swanson says. "I think that’s a big part for any athlete to understand: you have to be successful on the field, in the ring, or on the court. But it does take time, energy, and commitment to create opportunities off the court, and that means financial gain, too."
Unhittable in the ring
Lauded for his defensive genius with only one official knockdown on his record, Mayweather has an uncanny ability to generate headlines - not all of them positive.
The pre-fight media narrative usually pits Money Mayweather as a villainous alter ego and his opponent as the challenger who could finally end his streak. Swanson said he doesn’t shy away from the unsavory typecast or the fans howling for his defeat.
"That was not necessarily a plan of PR execution," Swanson said. "But as it’s unfolded, there’s a lot of mixed emotions about Floyd, and so you have people that love he’s unseated in the ring, and other people who see him as some arch villain and want to see him get beat. It works both ways, because it puts money in his pocket. No other fighter in the history of the sport has been able to generate the financial success he has."
However, Swanson said she thought the invective thrown around during the press tour got out of control. After McGregor made a series of race-baiting comments, Mayweather countered with a string of ill-conceived insults, including a homophobic slur at the final press event in London.
"If I could do it over again, there would be a couple moments I wish we could take back," Swanson said. "[Considering] the things being said to him, he could’ve had a much stronger reaction. But he had that one blip. And it was unfortunate. I know he felt badly about saying it in the way he said it. He wasn’t trying to insult gays. It just happened."
Fights are commonly preceded by staredowns and shouting, but new levels of ego and personality are distinctively coloring this fight. The tour turned into what the New York Post called "some kind of bad vaudeville act resorting to gutter language."
That wasn’t entirely by either accident or design.
"Whatever it takes," Swanson said. "In publicity, you have to understand what your product is, and be able to maximize its potential. So in this case, if it’s the personalities driving the train, that’s OK."
When Floyd became Money
Swanson was representing Mayweather when he was still Pretty Boy Floyd, an ambitious kid with a "great smile and kind face." Meanwhile, she had launched her own shop, Swanson Communications. Mayweather brought on Swanson as he pursued his own ambitions, namely becoming a pay-per-view fighter and staging his own promotions, through longtime manager Leonard Ellerbe, now the CEO of Mayweather Promotions.
"For the first couple fights, I have to say he didn’t know my name," she recalled. "He just knew he had a PR person. But he’s always respectful, always says thank you, which I appreciate, because some people take for granted the hard work you put in."
Swanson called Mayweather his own PR machine. Unlike other athletes who don’t know how to create a profile, managing Mayweather "wasn’t about managing expectations," she said. "He always had a vision. It was just about getting that image accomplished."
In 2006, Mayweather bought himself out of his Top Rank contract, giving him more control over his own career. He began to stage his own fights and take a cut of total revenue. Three years later, Mayweather came out of a two-year break from the ring and shed his Pretty Boy moniker for Money.
"I remember getting the call: ‘Hey, Floyd’s going to change his name to Money Mayweather,’" she said. "I said, "Really? Where’s this coming from? We worked so hard to get Pretty Boy accomplished!’ I had some angst, but it all worked out. I give him a lot of credit for seeing that vision."