Mikaela Mayer's vision to become a pioneer in fighting was clouded by some dubious judging in the Olympics. But by aligning with a powerful promoter, she has found her focus once more.
"I always knew I could be the exception, that I could make it work in boxing by myself. I lost sight of that in the Olympics. I lost sight of the goal I had to create a market for women's boxing," Mayer said.
Mayer, raised in Woodland Hills, left the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro slightly distraught by scoring that left her on the short end of a narrow majority decision loss to Russia's Anastasia Belyakova. Later in the competition, a handful of Olympic boxing judges were sent home after two other highly questionable victories by Russian males.
Mayer had hoped that she could succeed on the big stage like her teammate, gold medalist Claressa Shields, and draw some attention from companies who'd see her as a natural for an advertising campaign.
Instead, she returned home to see interest in the Olympics vanish, left with options that included a return to amateur boxing, an offer to box professionally for $2,000 a fight or to join Bellator MMA, whose president knew Mayer had a background in kick boxing and Muay Thai.
"That was a very interesting time. I was right back to where I started," Mayer said.
As Mayer headed to a mixed martial arts camp in Las Vegas, Mayer's manager, George Ruiz, reached out to Top Rank President Todd DuBoef and arranged a meeting.
DuBoef listened to Mayer's commitment to boxing and shortly after offered her a contract to fight five times a year just as the company was aligning with ESPN on a new deal to expand the sport's mainstream reach.
"This is what I dreamed of. I knew I didn't want to abandon my sport," said Mayer, a 3-0 junior-lightweight who returns to the ring Saturday at StubHub Center on the undercard of a featherweight-title main event between champion Oscar Valdez and England's Scott Quigg.
"[Top Rank] saw the vision. They were confident they could sell the vision and make it a thing."
Mayer, 27, found her way to fighting as a sport after rebelling against a parental custody change at age 13. She passed through four high schools before she walked into a local Muay Thai gym, signed up for classes and became so obsessed that she was quickly practicing six days a week.
"I stopped going out, got up early and ran … I was hungry to be good at something," Mayer said. "I knew I had to show up every day to get better and I loved it. Some got hit in the face and they'd cry. It fired me up."
Her father, Mark, was so impressed that he took time from his busy work schedule while raising Mayer and her sisters to effectively plead through letters and phone calls for Olympic boxing coach Al Mitchell to accept Mayer into a training program linked to Northern Michigan University.
Mitchell said he was skeptical of Mayer at first but was quickly won over to the point that he no longer minds her pausing before sparring to take her earrings out.
"I wasn't ever going to train girls. My father in his grave would be turning over if he heard I was training a woman," said Mitchell, who has trained world champions Vernon Forrest and Jermain Taylor among others.
"That first year, I said, 'This isn't going to work.' She was bending over, wasn't using height or reach, had come from kick boxing … and she was a woman — she wanted to do things her way, this and that."
But Mitchell couldn't deny Mayer's desire. No fighter he'd ever trained took a first-round loss in the U.S. Olympic tournament and emerged through the loser's bracket to reach the final.
Until Mayer. And although she lost the 2012 final fight by two points, she returned in 2016 to avenge that loss.
"People have this idea you have to look rough to fight at this level," Mayer said. "I had blond hair already so I didn't wear the pink sweater I like … I wanted people to respect me as competition.
"But I know I can be both. I'm where I am for more than just my looks. You don't make it to the Olympics based on looks."
Mayer plans to fight two six-round bouts followed by two eight-round bouts this year before possibly reaching a 10-round bout by the close of the year.
She aspires to fight Ireland's World Boxing Assn. lightweight champion Katie Taylor, who has sparked widespread interest in women's boxing in Europe.