By Corey Erdman
A year and a half ago, Mikaela Mayer sat ringside at the MGM Grand Casino in Detroit, watching her Olympic teammate Claressa Shields making her SHOWTIME debut, never thinking she’d box professionally, let alone on television.
For far too long, if there could be any women’s boxing at all in the fight marketplace, there could only be one woman. Too many, it was thought, would be overkill. Shields was the generational talent, the breakout star from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and was given the shot to be the face of women’s boxing in the United States. Before her, there was a one-off tilt between Heather Hardy and Shelly Vincent on NBC, a stellar brawl which no major network followed up on despite Lou DiBella’s persistent efforts. Prior to that, there had been no momentum to speak of in the way of regularly televising women’s boxing for the better part of two decades.
Then the ratings came in for Shields’ bout with Szilvia Szabados—numbers north of many ShoBox telecasts. Be it a coincidence or marketplace analysis being done by industry executives, the tide started to turn pretty quickly for women’s boxing following that night in Detroit.
“I remember watching replays of that fight and they [the commentators] said I'd be turning pro too, and I was taken aback because I hadn't told anyone about my plans to leave USA Boxing. But I was thinking about it, I wanted a bigger stage, I wasn't prepared to go another four years with little limelight, so I was negotiating a contract with Bellator,” Mayer told BoxingScene. “I was very close to turning to MMA, because after the Olympics, I didn't have boxing promoters pushing contracts in my face to turn pro for big money. It was not like the men. And, I didn't have a gold medal like Claressa.”
It didn’t take long for the course to change. In March of 2017 Mayer was preparing to enter the cage, and by July of 2017 had signed a contract with promotional giant Top Rank, which was already deep in negotiations for a long-term output deal with ESPN.
On Saturday, the 2016 Olympian Mayer made her debut on ESPN proper, stopping Edina Kiss after three rounds of one-sided punishment. Kiss, a hardened veteran who had given tough fights to the aforementioned Vincent, Hardy and former world champion Cindy Serrano among others, could barely remain on her feet through six minutes with Mayer. Mayer showed an educated jab, an accurate right hand and a dedicated body attack, all while remaining fundamentally sound and never frenzied.
It was one of the rare moments in Mayer’s career that could have been considered easy. Nearly every step of the way, it seemed as though the universe didn’t want the 28-year old from Woodland Hills, CA to enter the world of boxing. At an early age, Mayer gravitated towards modelling and music. She toured in a metal band alongside her childhood friend Nita Strauss, who has gone on to become the guitarist for Alice Cooper and regarded as perhaps the best female guitarist on the planet.
Mayer excelled in both ventures, but felt a gravitational pull towards the squared circle. She began training in kickboxing and Muay Thai, but an injury forced her to take up western boxing, at first, as a means of staying in fighting shape. She might not have been a prodigy, but she was doggedly committed in the gym, and extremely enthusiastic. Her father, who was equally as supportive of his daughter when she said she wanted to model or be in a metal band, did everything in his parental power to help Mikaela chase her boxing dreams. Most notably, he petitioned USA Boxing coach Al Mitchell repeatedly to let her train with him in Marquette, MI.
Mitchell, who once told the Los Angeles Times his father would “turn over in his grave” if he found out he was training a woman, was skeptical to say the least—and Mayer’s first impression did her no favors.
“He's trained some bad ass dudes, and I walk into the gym, and here I am dressed in a little pink velour Juicy suit and Ugg boots saying hey, I wanna box,” recalls Mayer.
According to Mayer, Mitchell never truly felt she had “it” until the 2012 Olympic Trials, when she battled all the way through the losers bracket to reach the finals after a first round loss. In 2016, she took it a step further and qualified for the Rio Games. In Rio, she dropped a controversial split decision to Russia’s Anastasia Belyakova in the quarterfinals of the lightweight tournament. Belyakova was so roughed up from the Mayer bout that she couldn’t compete in the next bout, but received a bronze medal by default.
After the Olympic glow was gone, the phone calls stopped. The media had moved on to a new beat, Dr. Pepper on to a new spokesperson. A day earlier the eyes of the world were on her, but now she was like nearly every other boxer at the end of their amateur run—facing a possible career change.
“I thought the Olympics would be the highlight of my career, and then it didn't happen for me, so I was kinda right back from where I started. I felt like I didn't gain anything from the Olympics. I was like whoah, this is so weird, I thought this was gonna be the highlight of my career, and I realized it wasn't,” said Mayer. “I almost lost sight of my dream and my vision for women's boxing, because I didn't get my gold medal and I didn't get the recognition. I was like whoah, I made it to the Olympics and still I'm not breaking through those walls the way I thought I would.”
The walls would break just in time, just as she’d started MMA training in case the Bellator contract came through the fax machine.
As the North American boxing broadcast landscape enters its most competitive era ever, every major network is in an arms race when it comes to talent. Part of each network’s artillery is women’s boxing talent—Showtime has Shields, HBO recently inked Hardy and Vincent for their deserved rematch, DAZN has Katie Taylor, and ESPN has Mayer to fly its flag.
Pundits have already suggested a showdown between Mayer and Taylor, one Mayer thinks could be a “mega fight” within two years.
To this day, Mayer trains with Mitchell, who has remained by her side into her professional career. Everywhere she goes, she’s also flanked by fellow USA boxing product Ginny Fuchs, her best friend and training partner. Between the two, she’s kept humble, either through Mitchell’s “extremism when it comes to technique” and allergy to praise, or through finishing second in every road work session to Fuchs, who in addition to being a Tokyo 2020 hopeful was also a Division 1 cross country runner for LSU.
“I always say, if I'm behind Ginny, I'm winning. She's always in front of me, but if I'm like five, ten feet behind her, I'm winning,” joked Mayer.
In terms of television exposure however, Mayer is second to none. Some of the top rated boxing telecasts of 2018 have been on ESPN, as its reach is substantially larger than Showtime’s or HBO’s as a cable channel. Provided she continues to win and Top Rank continues to push her as they are, it’s possible that Mayer could become the most-watched female boxer in the United States—and, numbers-wise, perhaps ever in the history of the country.
“I'm so glad I stuck with boxing because what's happening now is what I always envisioned for women's boxing, and what I always wanted to do for women's boxing. It just worked out perfectly.”
Mayer was once just a face in the crowd, but eighteen months later, she may be on her way to becoming one of the faces of the sport.