Mikaela Mayer: Waiting be damned
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Ring, which is available NOW at The Ring Shop.
WITH NEITHER ABLE TO LAND A STEPPING-STONE FIGHT AGAINST A RECLUSIVE TITLEHOLDER, AMERICAN STANDOUTS MIKAELA MAYER AND ALYCIA BAUMGARDNER ARE JUMPING STRAIGHT TO THE MAIN COURSE
When it was announced in May that a junior lightweight unification superfight was agreed to by Ring/IBF/WBO champion Mikaela Mayer and WBC titleholder Alycia Baumgardner, boxing fans rejoiced. But the skeptical among us wondered what the catch was.
In the modern era of boxing, we are conditioned to wait. Let a fight marinate, they say. How did the best 130-pound fighters in the world decide to fight each other, then actually follow through with it mere months after they began jawing at each other on social media?
Thank the third member of the division’s championship trio, Hyun Mi Choi.
Yes, a fighter who has held a world title since 2014 may be the reason why Mayer and Baumgardner will be throwing hands in the co-main event of the Claressa Shields-Savannah Marshall middleweight unification card at The O2 Arena in London on September 10.
“They (Team Baumgardner) couldn’t get the fight with Choi either,” said Mayer. “Her team’s impossible to work with. She needs to be stripped or she needs to vacate her belt and move on. It’s ridiculous. She’s the longest-reigning champion in boxing and she doesn’t fight anyone.”
Case in point, at press time: Choi was scheduled to face 3-0 Aka Ringo in South Korea on August 15. Meanwhile, after Mayer couldn’t get a unification bout with Choi and neither could Baumgardner, the two took the biggest fight possible. Against each other. And given the high stakes and the place both hold in the sport, that was a shocker. But not to the fighters.
“I’m not [surprised], because I knew eventually something was gonna come up,” said Baumgardner. “Either they were gonna offer it or we were gonna eventually get it, and we have definitely put pressure on Top Rank (Mayer’s promoter) to make the fight as well. Because I was in a position where I didn’t have to take that fight. But because it was offered and I knew that it was the time to take it, I was like, ‘Why not? OK, we got the offer, let’s take it.’”
That offer came on the heels of Mayer’s third successful title defense, against Jennifer Han in April in her California backyard. A week later, Mayer was in the U.K. to do commentary while Baumgardner defended her crown against Edith Matthysse, and she was pulled to the side by Top Rank’s Carl Moretti.
“Don’t eat too much,” said Moretti. “I’ll be in touch with you soon.”
“That gave me a little hope that something might be going on,” said Mayer, who soon got the news she was hoping for. Again, it wasn’t a surprise to the 2016 Olympian.
“Top Rank came with an offer she couldn’t refuse, and props to them for stepping up and making it happen for me,” said Mayer, who has gone from a raw talent to a seasoned pro and champion since entering the punch-for-pay ranks in 2017. Not surprisingly, her confidence is sky-high, especially after beating the likes of Helen Joseph, Ewa Brodnicka, Erica Farias and Maiva Hamadouche. And from here on out, she only wants champions and big fights.
“I’d rather walk away from the sport knowing that I fought the best and did everything I could than have what-ifs.”
– Mikaela Mayer
“I’ve been put in front of some great girls, world champions, former world champions, world title challengers – they’ve all had a lot of experience, and I’ve gotten through them,” Mayer said. “I can credit Top Rank for that – they built me perfectly and gave me the right fights at the right time, and now I’m ready to go. I have all the experience I need, and this is the time that you let me off my leash, as Coach Al [Mitchell] would say. Now it’s time for me to leave my legacy and give back to the fans and make the big fights happen. I have nothing to lose. I’d rather walk away from the sport knowing that I fought the best and did everything I could than have what-ifs.”
The 32-year-old Mayer’s mindset mix of hungry challenger and confident champion is an intriguing one, and when you add in her backstory, Olympic pedigree and marketability, she frankly didn’t need this kind of dangerous fight. But she took it anyway. The same goes for the 28-year-old Baumgardner, whose road to the top was quite different from her opponent’s.
Initially a hot prospect knocking everyone and their sister out, Michigan’s Baumgardner soon ran into promotional issues when Evander Holyfield’s company went out of business. Then came a split decision loss to Christina Linardatou that marred her perfect record in 2018 and a knee injury that kept her sidelined for more than a year and a half.
When she did return in August 2021, she had one decision victory over Vanessa Bradford before getting the opportunity to face Terri Harper in England for the WBC crown. It wasn’t close, and in the fourth round, she scored a frightening standing knockout of Harper that would have gotten scarier had referee Mark Lyson not stepped in. Just like that, Baumgardner was a world champion, and that world embraced her. For a while, it seemed like every DAZN card had a Baumgardner sighting or the new champ on commentary duty, and she welcomed it all.
“I was under the radar just because of certain circumstances, but I knew that as long as I stayed consistent and I worked hard that my time was gonna come,” Baumgardner said. “And when it did come, I was already prepared for it because of what I’ve already seen. I was able to see Mikaela become a world champion, Terri become a world champion, and I’m like, ‘My time’s gonna come.’ And when it came, I was well-prepared, and I took it by the horns with two hands. And with everything that was happening with commentating and being here and being there, I was ready for this. This moment was going to happen for me.”
But would she maintain that level of intensity against a lesser opponent like Matthysse in her first defense? That was the big question leading into the bout. The one person not questioning any of it was the one in the ring with gloves on.
“I understood the assignment; I understood what I had to do,” Baumgardner said. “No matter who it was in front of me, I had to defend my title, and that’s exactly what I did. It might not have been the best person, but it was someone who was a veteran. She’s never been stopped before and that fight showed me that I can go the distance and win every round, so I definitely got experience from that. And this is boxing. I had some pressure because of the knockout against Terri Harper, but I said, ‘You know what? Go in there like you did in the Harper fight and win. If the knockout comes, it comes.’ I never looked for the knockout when I fought Terri. It just came. I learned a lot.”
“When I wake up every morning, I’m looking forward to that fight and fighting someone who thinks they’re better than me and that I’m going to beat.”
– Alycia Baumgardner
Spring title defenses secured, Mayer and Baumgardner now prepare for a late summer of anything but love in the ring, as this one not only has high stakes but a little bit – OK, a lot – of bad blood. For a taste, just look at Twitter. So where did all this animosity come from?
“For me, it’s fun,” said Baumgardner. “It’s competition. I’m a competitor. To see someone who thinks they’re better than me, to talk that they’re better than me, that amps me up. When I wake up every morning, I’m looking forward to that fight and fighting someone who thinks they’re better than me and that I’m going to beat. This is exciting; this is what gets me out of bed; this is what makes me train even harder. This is it. This is what tells what a world champion is. You can get the title, you can defend your title, but now you’re fighting another world champion for her belt, and you’re going to beat her.”
“She seems to be taking this all really personally,” counters Mayer. “When she first beat Terri Harper, I came for her right away, and that’s because I wanted to unify. I wanted to become undisputed. The fight with Terri Harper got away because it took too long to make happen, so I came for Baumgardner immediately, and she just didn’t like that. It really isn’t personal to me, but it became personal with the back and forth. I’ll be cool, calm and collected when I go in that ring. I don’t know about her, though.”
There are a lot of questions surrounding the bout, which always means this is one fight fans can’t miss. Can Mayer take Baumgardner’s punch? Is Baumgardner experienced enough to get past not just Mayer, but the wizardry of Al Mitchell? Will emotion cause a brawl, or can the fighters stay disciplined for 10 rounds?
On September 10, all questions will be answered, and in the most important year in women’s boxing history, Mayer and Baumgardner get to write their chapter and look to steal the show from not only Shields and Marshall, but Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano.
“I was there at [Taylor-Serrano],” said Baumgardner. “The atmosphere was amazing, and I also did commentary, so as I’m sitting there and seeing how this fight turned out, ‘I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m next. The fight with Mayer and I is next.’ I believe it’s the next superfight, and I pictured myself that day fighting Mayer.”