LAS VEGAS — Mikaela Mayer went to the 2016 Olympic Games with lofty dreams. She not only dreamt of becoming just the second woman to win a gold medal in boxing for the U.S., but she hoped she could be a transformative figure for her sport.
No matter the great talent over the years in the women’s game — Lucia Rijker, Laila Ali and Ann Wolfe immediately come to mind — women’s boxing was on life support in 2016 in the pro ranks at a time when their counterparts in MMA were among the few women athletes treated equally with men in terms of compensation, exposure and respect.
Mayer’s dreams could have turned into a nightmare, had she let that happen. She lost a chance at a medal, which she referred to as “my medal,” when she dropped a controversial decision in the quarterfinals in Rio de Janeiro.
Worse, when she arrived home, there were no offers of pro contracts. There were no endorsement deals. If she planned to continue to box, she’d have to do it for personal reasons and not because she could get rich and famous doing it.
“After the Olympics, I went through some tough times a little bit, not knowing what was my next step,” she said. “I wasn’t happy with what I gained from the Olympics. I didn’t get my medal, and the attention that boxing got, I didn’t leave with any endorsements or sponsorships. I got home and I was right back training for nationals. And I thought, ‘Where am I going to go to make the most of my athletic career?’ I knew it wasn’t going to last forever, so I had some thinking to do.”
A one-time model, Mayer quickly came to the decision that she had invested too much into boxing and wasn’t ready to give up on it. So she reached out to Top Rank, which didn’t have much of a history in women’s boxing.
Top Rank’s most notable investment in the sport came in 2005 when it attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the 2004 Academy Award winning movie, “Million Dollar Baby.”
Top Rank matched Lucia Rijker, who was regarded as the sport’s greatest fighter at the time, with Christy Martin, and set the bout for July 30, 2005. It dubbed the bout, “Million Dollar Lady,” because each fighter was guaranteed $250,000 with a $750,000 bonus going to the winner. But only a couple hundred tickets were sold and when Rijker ruptured an Achilles tendon a few days before the bout, it was canceled and never rescheduled.
Still, Top Rank president Todd duBoef agreed to meet with Mayer in Las Vegas at the request of her manager, George Ruiz.
“She kind of forced herself on us,” duBoef said, chuckling.
Mayer (10-0, 4 KOs) will be the main event of the preliminary card Saturday on ESPN2 when she meets Lisbeth Crespo (13-4, 3 KOs) at the MGM Grand Garden on the Tyson Fury undercard.
DuBoef said “it looks promising” in terms of the company’s investment in Mayer, even though he admittedly was reluctant to get involved at the start. Top Rank had signed a slew of 2012 and 2016 Olympians, but none were women.
“George asked me to meet with her because she was in Las Vegas with her boyfriend,” duBoef said. “She had some pretty significant offers to go to MMA and I didn’t want to stand in her way. We’d never found a wheelhouse for women’s boxing. We used to put Mia St. John on shows, and it was a really good digression, but we were never able to build a business model for women’s boxing. No one was. Even [UFC president] Dana [White] said he’d never have women in the UFC and then Ronda Rousey came along and she changed all of our opinions.
“So we met and she really sold herself well and had a good vision for how she wanted things to develop. Our matchmakers talked to [trainer] Al Mitchell and they were convinced she had the skills and she had all these other elements, so we decided to give it a shot.”
Several of Mayer’s peers from the Olympic Class of 2016 are already stars. Claressa Shields is a multiple-division world champion and has taken to calling herself the GWOAT — the Greatest Woman of All-Time.
Taylor is the unified lightweight champion and was just in a Fight of the Year contender.
DuBoef is content to slowly build Mayer, and she feels no pressure despite the success of Shields, Taylor and others.
“Top Rank is moving me amazingly and I’ve been able to do things and I’m so excited about where we are and where we’re headed,” Mayer said. “Claressa has done some incredible things and made a huge impact already, and I’m happy for her. But I don’t feel any pressure to do what she’s doing. I have my own journey and my own career and I know everyone is different.
“My story is developing the way I hoped. I’m taking things one fight at a time and I’m totally happy with where I am.”
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