- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2015


When Fred Sternburg began working for Charlie Brotman’s public relations firm, he got a taste of the boxing world when he helped out with the publicity for Sugar Ray Leonard’s historic bout against Marvin Hagler and Leonard’s rematch with Tommy Hearns.

But it was working with Riddick Bowe where Sternburg got a full helping of the insanity of being in and out of the ring in boxing.

He had the assignment of working with Bowe for the Brotman team on his fight against Elijah Tillery at the Washington Convention Center in 1991 — a brawl that ended with the two fighters kicking each other in the ring, Bowe’s manager, Rock Newman, climbing on the ring apron and pulling Tillery over the ropes, and a riot that spread out into the streets.

“I am in the ring trying to get in between these guys, thinking, ‘Bowe can’t get disqualified, it will derail his shot at the title,’” Sternburg said. “People said, ‘What did you think you were going to do in there? They could have crushed you.’ A few days later, we took Bowe on the mea culpa tour, apologizing for what happened because he didn’t want to get suspended or anything. He looked at me, laughed, and said, ‘That is what we needed in the ring, Fred Sternburg. Good move, Fred.”

You may see Sternburg, born and raised in Bethesda, in and out of the ring on May 2 for the much-anticipated Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, protecting Manny Pacquiao as his long-time public relations man who has helped create the Pacquiao story. With him right there in the middle of the action in Las Vegas will be Kelly Swanson, the imagemaker for Mayweather since 2005 and another former Washington public relations executive who also got her start working with Bowe.

Swanson was working for a public relations agency in New York when Bowe turned pro. The Vermont graduate who grew up watching boxing on television with her brothers said she “didn’t set out to be this boxing PR woman, but it worked out well for me.”

She moved to the District and began working exclusively with Bowe, and, along with Newman, helped create the story of the popular heavyweight champion who would travel the world meeting Nelson Mandela and Pope John Paul II. And with Bowe, no day was ever quite normal.

“For me, I didn’t really how crazy it was at the time,” Swanson said. “Riddick had Rock as his manager, who understood public relations and marketing. Rock always pushed the envelope to make sure that the publicity was always strong. It was a lot of fun. Traveling around the world with the heavyweight champion, it was wild stuff.”

And now, nearly 25 years later, the two former District PR gurus who met during those wild Bowe days are front and center in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, which is being billed as the biggest of its time.

The two of them may be opposite sides, but they have a mutual respect for one another.

“We have worked together, we have worked on different sides,” Swanson said. “He is great to work with because he is such an old-school PR guy, and I am pretty creative myself, and together we have made some pretty strong promotions. I have a lot of respect for him.”

“We first worked together with Riddick Bowe, then we worked together when Top Rank put us together for some fights,” Sternburg said. “I think she is really good and smart and works hard. I think she’s great. What she has done with [Bernard] Hopkins and Mayweather alone is great.”

Swanson has been with Bernard Hopkins since 2001 — when Hopkins, before a fight against Felix Trinidad, threw down the Puerto Rican flag and stomped on in during a stop in San Juan. “We ran for our lives,” Swanson said.

She is fiercely loyal to Hopkins, though, as well as Mayweather — despite the challenges that come with working with such volatile personalities.

“With all clients I work with, they see that I respect their process, that it is all about them,” Swanson said. “My job is to make it comfortable for them. Here they are about to go into the ring to fight for their lives, and if I can handle the media requests for them in a comfortable way — know their personalities, their moods — that is what has worked so well.

“I’ve been with Floyd 10 years,” she said. “I just do my job. I understand what I there to do, and not get caught up in all the hype and everything else that is going on with them. When it comes to fight time, I just make sure he is comfortable, and it has worked out really well.”

She has seen it all in boxing, working as a manager for a Washington fighter named Jermaine Fields, and recently, in Brooklyn, while working out at Gleasons Gym, took part in a charity boxing tournament. “I raised $13,000,” Swanson said. “It was a lot of fun. But I retired from boxing, 1-0, with one knockout.”

Sternburg is known for the creative knockout blows he lands out of the ring — his most famous being the postcard campaign in the early 1990s to get attention for Washington welterweight contender Derrell Coley and a title shot against Pernell Whitaker.

“I had thousands of postcards printed up and spent hours licking stamps,” Sternburg said. “I’m surprised I didn’t die from that. I hit every friend and friends of friends and relatives to send them out. They were pre-printed with, ‘I’m a boxing fan and would really like to see Pernell Whitaker get a title shot against Derrell Coley.’ We got an Associated Press story, a USA Today story. [HBO boxing executive] Seth Abraham wondered, ‘Who the hell is Derrell Coley and why am I getting these postcards?’ It was a riot. We didn’t get the fight, but we got him a lot more recognition. He was a featured fighter on USA Network’s ‘Tuesday Night Fights,’ and may have fought on that show more than any other fighter.”

The days of postcards are over for Sternburg, as he now manages the image of one highest-profile athletes in the world in Pacquiao.

“When he beat [Oscar] De La Hoya, his stature in boxing changed,” he said. “But when he went on Jimmy Kimmel and sang, I think Kimmel was even surprised at how fun he was. I think that led to his main stream success — the cover of Time magazine, featured on ‘60 Minutes’ … It’s been a great ride.”

Sternburg and Swanson have rode separately to the top of their professions — and now are joined together, representing years of D.C. boxing on their way to the most-hyped fight in decades.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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