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Mikaela Mayer fights to widen the niche for women in boxing

Mikaela Mayer, who returns Dec. 14, is one of the emerging stars in a new world for women’s boxing.

Edina Kiss v Mikaela Mayer Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Building a fan ‘base in boxing is a different animal than in other sports. There is no central league office, with a cadre of press relations persons, helping propel the reputation of the “league” and the athletes who comprise said league into press and rooter prominence.

Boxing is a frontier sport, the barrier to entry is low, and that appeals to independent types. It’s every man and woman for themselves, at times, and so boxing often plays within a rules set that tracks alongside capitalism at its core. You get the deal you negotiate, not the one you “deserve.”

And so a fighter on the way up must be hustling to widen their appeal, because, you who is reading this knows, we are a niche sport. Heck, everything is a niche sport in this age, with the immediate gratification of YouTube and Netflix beckoning viewers 24-7. But the basics haven’t changed markedly; that’s why on a Saturday morning, at 8:30 am in Manhattan, Mikaela Mayer was teaching a class of ladies who’d purchased the opportunity to get an intro to boxing lesson at the Bloomingdale’s flagship 59th St store, for charity.

Everlast has signed Mayer, who fights under the Top Rank promotional umbrella, to a deal, and so Everlast personnel attended the workout, and helped to get word out about Mayer’s involvement in a charity drive to benefit breast cancer research. I talked to the 28-year-old boxer, a California native who holds an 8-0 (4 KO) mark about her Olympic experience, the transition to the pro game, and some of the hurdles she faces as a female fighter in an industry which has been slow to allow entry to the men’s club for female fighters.

Right away, I hit at an elephant in the room. Mayer is built with an aesthetic symmetry, and some on the outside looking in might not understand why someone constructed thusly chooses to enter the fray where ones’ facial features can get re-arranged.

“I think that I found the passion when I first walked into the gym. I knew within a week or two this is what I wanted to do, I wanted to be the best female fighter in the world. And I said that, out loud,” she told me, after the workouts for charity finished. (We set up a podcast recording studio in a human resources office.)

She was 17 years old at the time. A year after training she decided she’d aim for the 2012 Olympics. Mayer almost made that squad and then doubled down to make the 2016 team. In Rio, she made it to the quarterfinals.

The fighter told us that she got good grades, but didn’t have superb guidance, because her dad got custody of her and two sisters, and he worked all day. So, if she didn’t feel like going to school, she didn’t. She had been in four different high schools by her senior year, but boxing helped her right the course. She started training, and started hitting the books with regularity.

Some potential newbies might look at Mayer and contemplate going to a gym, and gloving up. But, they will ask themselves, can I handle getting hit in the face? Good question!

“Honestly, you can either handle it or you can’t,” Mayer told me. She recalls starting training with two other girls, and seeing them tearing up, because of the adrenaline rush. She got hit, and had the urge to counter-attack. Those girls hung up the gloves. The elite sorts are built for this, and the rest of us ... are not.

Mayer shared that she started out in Muay Thai, and when her back barked at her, went to boxing, when she needed a break from using her back muscles as much.

Listeners will be able to identify with her as she shares that she got demoralized a bit after losing at the Olympics. The narrative in her mind didn’t play out that way, and there were no offers to turn pro and pose for cereal boxes. She didn’t have a legion of rooters who latched on to her.

“But ultimately, it led me to turning pro,” she said, noting that maybe professional success will prove to be her apex as a fighter.

Mayer also delves into how much she considered ditching boxing for MMA, and the topmost thing she’s learned in transitioning from amateurs to pros,

My three cents: Mayer is the focal point in the “female space” for Top Rank, while Claressa Shields stakes out the Showtime turf. Katie Taylor leads the DAZN charge, and so we’re seeing various pockets of space being carved out. It will be interesting to see who keeps elevating, and why. Taylor is super soft spoken and more comfortable in talking about her spiritual base than talking trash. Shields is a social media stalwart and loves to speak her mind and build a fight through tough talk, something the male fighters don’t have to think twice about doing. Mayer’s ceiling as an athlete, as a technician, seems to be flourishing, and I see her looking to widen the niche that is women’s boxing, but not in strident or too overt fashion. You can see for yourself on ESPN, Dec. 14 when she gloves up next, on the Zurdo Ramirez-Jesse Hart 2 card.

Listen to Woods’ podcast here

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