She wasn't afraid to step in the ring


Charles S. "Roc" Dutton says he pretty much walked into an immovable object the first time he saw the real-life boxing manager Jackie Kallen, played in knockout outfits -- "Barbarella outfits," says Daily Variety -- by Meg Ryan in the new Dutton- directed movie, Against The Ropes.

"She was dressed the way you see women dressed on fight night," Dutton recalls. "It was at a Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fight. There was nothing skin-baring, but Jackie was dressed, I would say, seductively stylish, and I was checkin' her out -- you know, checkin' her out -- and I walked right into a pole."

That was at least 10 years ago, and Dutton, a longtime boxing fan who remembers seeing fights at Steelworkers' Hall on Dundalk Avenue back in his Baltimore days, doesn't mind sharing the humiliating ringside memory. Especially now that his film has finally arrived in theaters -- the opening was delayed last year because of the war in Iraq -- and retrained the spotlight on the woman who inspired it, Jackie Kallen, the self-proclaimed "most successful female boxing manager in sports history."

Under Dutton's direction, Ryan plays Kallen brassy and tough -- Erin Brockovich meets Rocky -- the lone woman trying to achieve success in the ultimate macho sport by managing and promoting fighters. Ryan's Kallen is an empowering character, a woman willing to stand toe to toe with the tough guys and mobbed-up mugs who dominate the boxing culture. And yet, and yet ... there are those clothes: leathery, skin-tight -- this Jackie Kallen uses her cleavage as much as her brains.

Not that there's anything wrong with that ...

'Position of more power'

"What you see in the movie isn't far from the way the real Jackie dressed," says Dutton. "I used to see Jackie on TV in the '80s and '90s, and I looked very closely and used to say, 'Damn, what has she got on?' "

Kallen, Dutton points out, wasn't as scantily clad as the "round-card girls" -- strip-club performers who step through the ropes and hold up placards so the crowd knows what round of a fight they are about to see -- but Kallen certainly drew a lot of attention to herself. Which, of course, is part of the story: a woman as interested in promoting herself as much as her prizefighters. She was good at both.

The real-life Jackie Kallen was a sportswriter in the mid-1970s -- her first jaunt into male-dominated arenas -- who became a publicist for boxers. She was skilled at "making them all sound like champions" and getting press attention.

"Back when I was working as a publicist," Kallen says, "I was doing everything, setting up photo shoots, writing up press kits. I decided that I needed to be in a position of more power."

She opened her own public relations agency, specializing in promoting athletes, especially boxers.

Her first client was a man she had interviewed as a journalist -- Thomas "Hit Man" Hearns. Kallen helped Hearns become a better public speaker. By the 1980s, she had become so steeped in the fight culture that she decided to get into the promotion end of the sport herself.

Most of the established promoters still regarded her as a press-kit gofer, or someone's girlfriend. But Kallen was negotiating contracts, lining up trainers -- Dutton plays one in Against the Ropes -- and training her fighters in the art of the press interview.

'I loved my fighters'

Kallen managed boxers, including light-heavyweight James "Lights Out" Toney, to world championships, and became a minor media and sports celebrity along the way.

"What I was doing wasn't what was expected from a white Jewish woman from the suburbs," Kallen says. "But I loved my fighters; I loved the sport and I loved the challenge of helping young men realize their dream."

One key difference between the real Kallen and the one played by Ryan: The real one was married with children while she built a breathtakingly busy career in the cutthroat world of boxing.

"The original script had her married with children, leaving her family to pursue her career," says Dutton. "And it had her in a romantic relationship with the TV sportscaster [played by Tim Daly]."

But those story lines disappeared so the film could focus on the main event -- the relationship between Jackie and her first successful fighter, Luther Shaw (played by Omar Epps).

It's a movie about two people on a journey -- a woman discovering a fighter, and the two of them discovering untapped power within themselves.

"This is a movie about a fighter discovering his humanity, and not becoming intoxicated with fame and power," says Dutton. The woman who promotes the fighter had to ward off the same temptations.

"I think there's a lot of me in the movie," says Kallen, now a grandmother, who still owns a gym in Detroit, handles fighters and travels the country giving motivational talks.

"Everyone has their faults, their flaws. I am comfortable with the way I'm portrayed. If someone sees that film and comes away thinking, 'There was a woman with guts, who believed in herself and got others to believe in themselves,' then it's a success."

And the revealing clothes and stunning hair that sent Roc Dutton into a pole 10 years ago? That was all part of The Jackie Kallen Show.

"I wasn't about to change just because I'm in an all-male world, or cover up," she says. "I always dressed and looked like a girl. I keep my nails polished 24 / 7 and wear heels. I like being a girl."

Against the Ropes opened Friday and is playing in several area theaters. To read The Sun's review of the film, go online to / movies.

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