- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Charles Dutton is trying delicately to state the obvious: Jackie Kallen is a babe. . “I met her at a fight in Vegas, maybe 10 or 12 years ago.

“I bumped into her, and she was dressed to the nines, man. I was looking at her like, ‘Whoa, boy.’ And I remember walking away, and she said, ‘Charles, when you gonna put some of my fighters on your show?’”

He was then starring on the Fox network’s “Roc,” but he wasn’t thinking about guest spots on TV sitcoms. He was looking at Jackie Kallen.

It was at that moment that Charles Dutton walked headlong into a pole.

There, in an anecdote, is Jackie Kallen’s secret. The most successful female boxing manager in the history of the sport, Miss Kallen plays a man’s game with feminine wiles tucked away in her back pocket. They were there when she needed them. Which was often.

“Jackie would be in a dirty, grimy, smelly gym, but she’d be doing her nails,” says Mr. Dutton, 53. We’re talking in the sitting room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel downtown. Mr. Dutton directs and has a supporting role as a boxing trainer in “Against the Ropes,” a biopic about Miss Kallen that opens today in area theaters. Short and thickly built, Mr. Dutton speaks warmly and laughs heartily.

He lights up at talk of the real Jackie Kallen, who spent precious little time on the set of the movie.

Speaking of her nail-care habits, Miss Kallen herself says in a phone interview, “My manicurist would come right in the gym and give me a manicure. Who says I have to choose whether to be a girl or not? Why? Who says?”

Her voice, a spicy urban-Midwestern patois, is as feisty as a left jab. Meg Ryan, who plays Miss Kallen in “Ropes,” is spot-on with the accent.

Here’s how Jackie Kallen remembers the incident at the pole: “He was embarrassed. But how cute is that? I just thought it was so endearing.”

Can you say, Wrapped around her finger?

Jackie Kallen (born Kaplan) realized that for all their gruff exteriors, the members of the boxing fraternity were just overgrown boys. “They thought they were gonna embarrass me,” she says, recalling many an adolescent prank at her expense. “They tested me all the time.”

The salty language and taunts always came in the company of other men; they fed off each other like boys on a playground. “I always thought, ‘Now that you have an audience, why do you have to be this complete 12-year-old?’” she says in a tone that would send any grown man gazing into his shoes.

Miss Kallen, 57, shopped around her life story — scrappy journalist invades macho sport and becomes “First Lady of Boxing” — for more than a decade before Paramount Pictures finally ran with it. When Mr. Dutton, a Baltimore native making his first feature film here, first saw a working screenplay, there were … let’s say problems of perspective. He knew boxing; had grown up around the sport.

Again, he is diplomatic.

“I said, ‘OK, there’s some stuff in here that’s … not correct,’” he says. “The writer, Cheryl Edwards, didn’t know the gym world. Storytelling she was great at, but, on the gym stuff, I thought this is someone who may not necessarily know what it’s like here.”

Then there was the Meg Ryan factor. Everyone from Cher to Goldie Hawn had been talked about for the starring role. But Meg Ryan? She of nose-crinkling romantic comedy?

Miss Kallen: “At the beginning, I wondered, ‘Is the girl from “Sleepless in Seattle” going to be convincing?’ But as we talked, I realized she’s a lot tougher and smarter than some of the roles she’s played.”

Mr. Dutton, an Emmy-winner for the HBO miniseries “The Corner,” wasn’t even thinking that far ahead. “I was more enthralled by the fact that I may be directing Meg Ryan. I thought, she didn’t get this far in her career by not having versatility.

“When we talked,” he continues, “she admitted that she didn’t know anything about the fight game. So it was a question of getting her to Vegas. We went to a couple of fights together, and she loved it. She took up boxing in the gym.”

Knowing Miss Kallen — knowing her gloriously trashy fashion sense, her un-butch demeanor in the gym — Mr. Dutton noticed during shooting that Miss Ryan was taking the character in the wrong direction; she was defeminizing Jackie Kallen.

“There were moments early on in the film when I thought Meg wanted to go into a gruff kind of truck-driver portrayal,” he says. “I just reminded her that wasn’t the real woman’s experience.

“Jackie kept her femininity in this man’s world. That’s what attracted me to the piece. Here she was: This woman managed to do what 95 percent of the men in that game never do, which is get a champion.”

Jackie Kallen, the daughter of a Detroit trainer, got a champion, all right. Not just one, either; she had four, including the legendary middleweight Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns.

As the movie shows, the boys didn’t appreciate the turf encroachment. Many have yet to accept her presence in the industry. “Even today, there’s almost a vehement resentment of Jackie Kallen with men in the industry,” Mr. Dutton says. “It became ugly. To get back at her, they’d say vicious things about her and start rumors.”

Rumors: She trapped her fighters in bad contracts. Slept with her fighters. Stole fighters from other managers.

“They were all totally untrue,” Mr. Dutton says. “All of her fighters stayed with her. They were never lured away by promises of bigger purses.”

“Against the Ropes” may stir up the boys’ club cauldron all over again. Says Mr. Dutton, “The people who hate Jackie Kallen will really be kicking themselves because now she’s getting a movie made about her.”

Miss Kallen no longer concerns herself with what men think of her; her husband of 30 years walked out on her shortly before production on “Against the Ropes” began, and she’s quite happy that the character in the movie appears to have been permanently single.

In fact, she’s not thinking about boxing or men at all. She’s thinking about movies. “I really would like to do an independent film. I’d like to executive produce,” she says.

“I want to do it. So why shouldn’t I?”

Never count out Jackie Kallen. Jackie Kallen does what Jackie Kallen wants.

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