Women’s boxing enjoyed an explosive Olympic debut at the 2012 London games. But one fighter who didn’t even get the chance to compete for Team USA may be destined to become the new face of women’s boxing. Meet Mikaela Mayer, a highly skilled and fiercely motivated national champion, the number 1 ranked fighter in her weight class in the world, and a charismatic former model with crossover star appeal. She’s headed towards the 2016 Rio Olympics, so who wants to go with her?
Mayer missed out a chance to compete in London after losing a close decision to Queen Underwood, who went on to represent Team USA in the women’s Lightweight (132 lb.) division.
Since that setback, the 22-year-old Mayer has been on a tear. Competing at Junior Welterweight (141 lb.), Mayer won the 2012 National Championship, captured a bronze medal at the 2012 World Championships, and earned the number 1 ranking in the world according to the AIBA, amateur boxing’s governing body.
With so much success at Junior Welterweight, many believed that Mayer would stay in that weight class. The problem is that women’s Olympic boxing has only three weight divisions, and Junior Welterweight isn’t one of them.
As representing Team USA in the Olympics has always been Mayer’s top priority, she knew she needed to drop back down to Lightweight in order to continue pursuing her Olympic dream. Back at 132 pounds, Mayer’s hot streak has continued, as she won the 2013 Women’s National Golden Gloves tournament at Lightweight in July.
Mayer’s most impressive and personally satisfying performance to date came next, at the 2013 Police Athletic League National Championships in October. It was in the semifinals that she finally got her long-awaited rematch with Underwood. This time, Mayer wouldn’t be denied. She defeated her rival in an intense and hotly-contested match, going on to win gold in the competition and take home Fighter of the Tournament honors.
“It was a really great feeling, I actually felt really confident going into that fight, because our last fight was a year and a half ago, and I’ve been training really hard since,” Mayer said in a recent interview. “I feel like I jumped not just one level, I jumped several levels, since the last Olympic trials. I feel like it was the perfect time to face her.”
Mayer is well-honed technically, with a crisp jab and a solid right hand, and good footwork. She possesses the often elusive and immeasurable traits that any successful boxer needs — toughness and grit, ring IQ, and the ability to adapt on the fly.
She also believes that everything happened just the way it was supposed to, including the defeat to Underwood which excluded her from the 2012 London Olympics.
“I felt like I was nowhere near my peak,” Mayer said, reflecting on her form competing in the last Olympic qualifiers.
“I had so much more to learn… I’m so much better now. I feel like I have a chance of making the [Olympic] team, but I also feel like I have enough skills to actually win a gold medal… Would I have been able to win a gold medal at the last Olympics? No, I don’t think I would have. So I don’t regret anything, and I think that everything is working out for the better.”
Despite not making the 2012 Olympic squad, Mayer has already been featured on a national television commercial, as part of Dr. Pepper’s “/1” One of a Kind campaign .
It was a rare opportunity, but it didn’t happen by accident. Mayer has a keen sense of the business and marketing side of sports, and she’s well positioned to capitalize on her unique story. A statuesque 5’9″, model turned boxer? It certainly sparks interest.
“I know there’s two aspects to this sport. There’s the skill aspect, and the business aspect, and you have to have both,” Mayer said. “Especially as a female boxer. You have to market yourself right, and you have to brand yourself right. I’ve always known that.”
While some female athletes wrestle with the contrasting ideals of athletic accomplishment versus sex appeal, she acknowledges and embraces both.
“I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know there are some girls who don’t want to go in that direction. And I don’t try to go in that direction,” Mayer said. She’s not putting on a show, she’s simply being herself, and more than anybody else she knows that it’s the results in the ring which still must come first.
“I’m in an aggressive, male-dominated sport, and I have that aggressive side, but I’m also totally a feminine girl who wants to wear dresses and heels,” she said. “So I think that’s intriguing to people in general, that dynamic. I don’t try to be that, that’s just who I am.”
In that same spirit, she encouraged teammate and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Marlen Esparza to pose for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue.
Mayer was with Esparza when she received the call asking her to appear in the magazine. “I said, ‘yes!’ that’s exactly what you are supposed to be doing,” Mayer says, recalling her enthusiastic reaction. “I saw some boxers getting on Marlen, like why would she expose herself like that, but I think it was awesome. These athletes are all well respected… they weren’t doing anything distasteful.”
Appearing in the Body Issue is something Mayer candidly says is on her own “bucket list”, along with other athletic feats of fame, such as being the next US Olympian to star in a Subway commercial.
Her list of to-dos and goals doesn’t end with photo shoots or commercials though, or growing her own star power and personal brand. She also wants to help build the entire sport of women’s boxing.
“Hopefully [the commercial] opened the eyes of a lot of young people that there’s this other sport out there,” Mayer said.
If women’s boxing is ever going to really catch on, the sport needs stars. Indeed, when the sport peaked in popularity in the ’90s, it was behind the star appeal of several leading ladies.
“You had someone like Laila Ali or Christy Martin, these household names who were in the media and doing well and making the sport known,” Mayer said. “I think you need that. You need faces, you need characters.”
But is the multifaceted Mayer truly ready to become a torchbearer for the entire sport?
“I plan on embracing all of that,” Mayer said. “This is a business, and you have to know what the media and the market wants. You have to have a really good team around you, and you have to be able to market yourself well. So I’ve known that from the beginning, and those have always been my goals.”
Missing out on the 2012 Olympics could have been the end of the road for Mayer as an amateur boxer.
“It was obviously heartbreaking,” she said. Yet, Mayer channeled her heartbreak into motivation to forge ahead. “I immediately developed a new goal for 2016, so I still have that Olympic dream.”
Mayer knows how far she’s come in the time since her defeat in the Olympic qualifiers, and how much she has improved as a fighter. She also knows that there’s plenty more to do, and she’s only just begun what will be an arduous journey.
The 2014 Women’s National Championships will be held in January, and Mayer and Underwood could be on a collision course for yet another meeting. From there, it’s onto the World Championships, and if Mayer does go on to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, she’ll have to go up against a deep Lightweight division which includes the fighter whom many believe is the top female in the world, Ireland’s 2012 gold medalist and breakout star, Katie Taylor.
Taylor, a fighter whom Mayer admires, will likely be standing squarely in her path to gold and glory. “I definitely plan on fighting her,” Mayer said. “Maybe we’ll meet each other at the World Championships next year, and I’ll look forward to having that competition.”
Mayer relishes the challenge, and as she does with everything else, she would face it head on.
“It’s going to be tough, but I’ve always been in the toughest division in the world,” Mayer said.
If Mikaela Mayer has a mantra, it surely goes “Rio 2016. Rio 2016. Rio 2016.” That means that you better not ask her about what comes next, and the likelihood of a professional career.
“People always ask me, ‘when are you turning pro, when are you turning pro’ as if turning pro is the ultimate accomplishment,” she said. “I’m like, I don’t know, but right now I’m going for a gold medal! To me that’s more prestigious.
“In my opinion, the best female fighters in the world are amateur. I think people underestimate the word ‘amateur’ and think that because we’re amateur, we’re less than a ‘pro’. But the elite of us, the best of us… we fight amateur as a choice to represent our country and compete against other countries.”
Still, she acknowledges that after the next Olympics she very well may end up fighting as a pro, and she’s disappointed with the coverage, or lack thereof, that professional women’s boxing receives right now. But what happened first? Are there no women’s stars because they never receive exposure, or is there no exposure because there’s nobody worth showcasing?
“I feel like Friday Night Fights and other shows have been kind of a letdown,” Mayer said. “I know a lot of women’s fighters who have just as much skill, if not more. But they let the men have the television spots, and get that exposure. I really don’t see why they can’t put at least one female bout on those cards. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
That’s why, despite the fact that 100 percent of her focus, energy and attention is on her Olympic dream, she already recognizes the pull to take it another step further after that.
“I feel like I have a kind of duty as a female boxer and someone who has done pretty well, to see what I can do to grow the female boxing pro game,” Mayer said.
With her story and charisma, and just maybe an Olympic medal hanging around her neck, surely Mayer would be able to land herself a few television dates, right?
“I would demand it,” she says laughingly. Behind that laughter though is a sternness — a sternness which says you damn well better believe it.
For Mayer, it would be another goal to accomplish, another barrier to smash through. Good luck trying to stand in her way.
*This article was first published on Yahoo Sports on December 5, 2012