‘Not just a pretty face’ — Mikaela Mayer eyes boxing title
“Millions of girls are told they’re pretty, but not many end up becoming a model. Even fewer decide to put their face in front of someone who wants to rearrange it. And now, instead of fighting for a cover shot, I’m fighting for gold. I’m Mikaela Mayer, and I’m one of a kind.”
Mikaela Mayer narrated her Olympic dream to television viewers on a Dr. Pepper commercial that first aired during the 2013 Rose Bowl. Today, the super featherweight boxer has another goal: A professional world title fight.
A victory over Alejandra Zamora on Saturday, Oct. 26, in Reno could put the 29-year-old in line for a world championship bout. During her amateur career, Mayer didn’t consider the notion of a pro boxing career. But after the 2016 Olympics, she became the first female to sign with the promotion company Top Rank Boxing.
Mayer has the looks to draw attention from marketers for companies such as Dr. Pepper. Not only is she undefeated as a pro, Mayer is 5-foot-9, 130 pounds with blonde hair and a toned body that doesn’t appear to have an ounce of body fat. She is sponsored by the boxing gear company Everlast and Beam CBD, She is in partnership with a gym in Shanghai, China.
Since winning her debut by a first-round knockout in August 2017, Mayer has built an 11-0 record with four knockouts. In her first 10-round match on June 19, she decisioned Argentina’s Lizbeth Crespo in the featured undercard bout for the Tyson Fury-Tom Schwarz WBO Inter-Continental heavyweight title fight. She will make her third NABF super featherweight title defense at the Reno Sparks Convention Center when she faces Zamora (7-3, 1 knockout win), also from Argentina.
At the age of 17, Mayer and her two sisters were being raised in Los Angeles by their father. She was a somewhat trouble youth who had attended four different high schools. Mayer said she had walked past a Muay Thai boxing gym “all of her life.” But one day, she decided to walk through the gym’s doors. Inside, she discovered a structure for her life.
“Immediately, I knew this is what I want to do. I want to be best female fighter in the world,” Mayer said.
When she was 19, she accepted a partial athletic scholarship to Northern Michigan University. The key was that the school’s boxing team was led by two-time U.S. Olympic coach Al Mitchell. In 2010 it was announced that women’s boxing would be an Olympic sport. In its first Games in 2012, there were three weight divisions, including lightweight, 132 pounds, close to Mayer’s ideal fighting weight.
“I had a dream to chase: Make the Olympic team,” Mayer said. “I quit my job, broke up with my boyfriend, packed my stuff and went on a plane to Michigan.”
‘I lived on the North Pole’
To a Californian, Michigan is known as a far-away state surrounded by the Great Lakes and shaped like a mitten. However, Northern Michigan’s campus is in Marquette, located on the Upper Peninsula above Wisconsin, a frozen digit outside the mitten. It’s so cold there it can makes a Lake Tahoe winter seem like a beach vacation in Cabo San Lucas.
“I lived in the North Pole for five years — nothing can bother me,” said Mayer, who still lives in Michigan part time. She also lives in Colorado Springs, where she can train at elevation 6,035 feet.
Mitchell had trepidation about coaching a woman. She was the only female on the team and had to spar with men. Quickly, the coach was impressed with her toughness and he wondered when she had time to sleep. Mayer worked until 2 a.m. as a bartender but was up by 5 a.m. to do roadwork training before school.
Mayer won her first five fights at the 2012 Olympic trials but lost the sixth and didn’t make the team.
The scholarship had expired but Mayer stayed in Michigan to train and box as an amateur with an eye on the 2016 Games. The money she made from the Dr. Pepper commercial supported her for three years. She didn’t have to work anymore as a bartender.
She said the 2016 trials in Memphis “was the most stressful week of my life. There was no next step. I had to get through this week. I had to beat everybody there if I was going to make my dream come true.”
It was a double-elimination format and she and a furious teenage slugger named Jajaira Gonzalez split two fights. Mayer said her “arms gassed out” during her split-decision loss and she couldn’t counter punch. “I don’t know if it was a combination of nerves or me just being off that day.”
The make-or-break battle
A spot on the Olympic team was on the line the next day in the rubber match.
“It was the best fight I’ve seen Makaela fight,” her manager, George Ruiz, said.
“Instead of brawling with a gifted, strong opponent, Mikaela figured her out. When Jajaira came in swinging, Makaela would shift 90 degrees and jab her on the side of the head. It was beautiful. She figured out her timing and she figured out her angles.”
Mayer was eliminated at the Games at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, when she lost to Anastasia Belyakova in a bout that would have brought her at least a bronze medal. It was one of many dubious decisions made in favor of Russian athletes. Multiple boxing judges and referees suspected of taking bribes were dismissed during the tournament by the international federation known as the AIBA.
Mayer’s teammate, middleweight Claressa Shields, won her second gold medal and turned pro. She’s now the undisputed middleweight champ in all the major organizations.
Men’s bantamweight Shakur Stevenson won the silver and signed with Top Rank. He is in the main event on Oct. 26, facing Joet Gonzalez for the WBO featherweight title.
Mayer mulled her options.
“I was in a funk,” she said. “I didn’t know what my next step would be. I didn’t get the sponsors’ endorsements I thought I was going to get. I thought it was going to be the thing to take my career to the next level and it didn’t. I was right back training with USA boxing for nationals.
“I wondered, ‘Is this what I want to do for another four years? Is this what I worked so hard for? What happens if I do make another Olympic team and don’t get the endorsements and I still don’t get the attention even if I get the gold medal because everything going toward gymnastics and these more Americanized sports?’ I needed more to challenge myself. I wanted to see what else was out there because I always envisioned doing something great for women’s boxing.”
She nearly signed a contract to become an MMA fighter. But Ruiz convinced her to wait for a couple of days while he met with Top Rank, which made an offer. Being well-spoken, attractive and a former Olympian helped seal the deal.
“I still think that I had to prove myself the first six or seven fights,” she said. “I had to be like, look, I am not just a pretty face. I am not just marketable. I can actually fight. I think I’ve exceeded their expectations.”
Being away from coach Mitchell for a while was a mistake. As a fighter, Mitchell only lost once in 44 amateur bantamweight bouts. He trained in the same Philadelphia gym as Joe Frazier, an all-time great. In addition to coaching amateurs, Mitchell was the head trainer for pro world champions such as Vernon Forrest and David Reid. When he reunited with Mayer, he had a message for the new pro: The days of scoring points with pity-pat punches were over.
“He had to switch up my style and he had to do it fast because I am on a fast track,” she said. “I’m a female. I just signed with the best promoter in the world. They are ready to put me on ESPN. He had to work hard to make tiny but really important adjustments to me. It was hard and frustrating because I had been doing this amateur style for so long. I don’t think any other coach could have done it as fast as he did. He was really on my ass about it.”
Mayer said she is better as a pro fighting longer fights. After just four scheduled four-round fights, she had three six-rounders, then three eight-rounders.
In her first 10-round match with Crespo, she started slowly and lost the first two rounds. “In the pros, you don’t need to rush,” she said. “After Round 4, I feel like I took over and dominated the fight.”
A victory in the Reno fight would bring 2020’s vision into focus. WBA champion Hyun Mi Choi of South Korea and WBC title holder Eva Whalstrom of Finland are potential opponents.
“Things are looking good for a title shot in early 2020,” manager Ruiz said.
“We’re not looking ahead. We’re focused on this fight, but her job is to win every single fight. My job is to look at the career and I think 2020 is when she steps up to a world championship.”
BoxingSaturday, Oct. 26, at the Reno-Sparks Convention CenterTickets: $110, $70 and $40 available at the Atlantis Casino Resort Spa gift shop or online:
Online stream: ESPN+ starts at 3:30 p.m., Greer-Nieves is at 7 p.m., followed by Stevenson-Gonzalez
Main event: Shakur Stevenson vs. Joet Gonzalez, 12 rounds, for vacant WBO featherweight title
Co-feature: Mikaela Mayer vs. Alejandra Soledad Zamora, 10 rounds, female junior lightweightsCo-feature: Josh Greer vs. Antonio Nieves, 10 rounds, bantamweights
Albert Bell vs. Frank De Alba, 10 rounds, junior lightweights
Jason Sanchez vs. Adeilson Dos Santos, 10 rounds, featherweights
Andy Vences vs. Mark Bernaldez, 10 rounds, junior lightweights
Tyler McCreary vs. Matt Conway, 8 rounds, junior lightweights
Xander Zayas vs. TBA, 4 rounds, welterweights
Diego Elizondo* vs. Jose Ceja, 4 rounds, lightweights
J.J. Mariano* vs. Trinity Lopez, 4 rounds, junior welterweights
Jared Anderson vs. Daniel Infante, 4 rounds, heavyweights
* indicates local boxers
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.
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