The sweet science of boxing is on a sugar high.
Dr Pepper’s latest “One of a Kind” commercial features the fast hands and fit physique of Mikaela Mayer, the new face of women’s boxing in the United States.
And yes, she’s a knockout.
Mayer’s timing is as good as her jab. In 10 days, the USA Boxing Championships are coming to Northern Quest Casino. It’s not an Olympic qualifier this year, but there’s plenty to fight for.
That includes the sport itself, which has taken a few body blows in recent years from the rise of mixed martial arts.
“Olympic-style boxing isn’t a household sport, so anything we can do to help educate people about it is great for the sport,” Mayer said.
Part of the attraction may be Mayer herself, a 22-year-old former musician and model who gave it all up for the chance to have her pretty face rearranged every time she steps in the ring.
Which begs the question: Why?
Because it’s her “passion,” a word she uses constantly, but always with conviction.
During an interview Monday in Spokane, Mayer couldn’t hide a shiner under her right eye, courtesy of a recent sparring session with a “150-pound dude.” But Mayer, a lean 135-pounder, has never taken the easy route to success.
“If I can hold my ground against someone with that weight, it makes fighting a female that much easier,” said Mayer, who will be competing in the nationals barely a year after falling just short of the London Games. The Olympic dream didn’t die; it was merely deferred to 2016 in Brazil.
Saved by the bell
The Road to Rio started with on the freeways of Los Angeles, which offered more than enough wrong turns for the middle child of a divorced family. After touring at the age of 14 with an all-girl rock metal band – “I was still a good girl when I was doing all that,” Mayer said – she dropped her electric bass guitar and fell into the party scene.
By her senior year, she was at a continuation school, having been expelled from one high school and withdrawing from another.
Mayer needed a swift kick in the pants, and found it through a gym that specialized in Muay Thai, a mixed martial arts discipline that combines stand-up striking, kicking and clinching. “It was a small step in the right direction,” Mayer said. “I started training, and the passion for that pulled me away from the partying.
“I saw a better path.”
Actually, there was another path – the catwalk – which Mayer says “wasn’t as big a part of my life as everybody has made it out to be.”
Mayer said she had aspirations to be a model. Photos were shot and an agent was hired even as she won her first 10 Muay Thai bouts. “I thought that’s what I wanted to do…” she said of modeling.
For awhile, life was a blur of face shots and shots to the face, two separate lives that still didn’t make her whole.
Then she suffered a lower-back injury that prevented her from kicking, a staple of Muay Thai.
Her trainer suggested she try boxing while she healed. Since then, the gloves have never come off. “I fell in love with boxing and never went back,” Mayer said. “I wish I could remember the feelings I had then. All I know is that I loved it. I knew that every day as I was going to get better.”
The early rounds
But even in Los Angeles, Mayer was limited. “As you start competing at a higher level, it changes. I wasn’t getting the training I needed,” she said.
As Mayer was coming off a frustrating loss, her father, Mark, a toy designer for Mattel, found a scholarship offer – the only one in the nation – from Northern Michigan Unversity, in the winter of 2010-11. Always a multitasker, Mayer saw the chance to combine school and sport while learning from one of the best in coach Al Mitchell.
Never one to look back, Mayer quit her job, broke up with her boyfriend and “said ‘peace’ to all my friends.” She also packed all her clothes, not nearly enough for the cold of Marquette, Mich.
“My clothes were pointless, unless I wore them all at the same time,” Mayer said. “But I was so passionate about boxing.”
Soon after Mayer arrived, the school shut down the boxing program. That wasn’t all bad, since Mayer now had to share Mitchell with only one other boxer.
“He’s a boxing genius,” Mayer said. “I decided I was going to help him go out with a bang.”
In the next year and a half, Mayer and Mitchell teamed up for a National Golden Gloves championship. Mayer went into the Olympic Trials at Northern Quest last year “knowing I was going to win” the lightweight division.
Until she didn’t. On the final day of the trials, Mayer lost a 22-19 decision to Seattle native and pretournament favorite Queen Underwood.
After the bout, Mayer remembers “breaking down and crying because I would have to wait another four years,” an emotion that lasted all of one hour.
For Mayer, the emotional rear-view mirror never stays up for long.
Going the distance
Mayer went to London anyway. She sparred with Underwood, who was eliminated in the first round. The experience was superficial, so she got back in the ring, winning the women’s continental and national championships and finishing third in the world championships at light welterweight.
She’s currently No. 1 in the world at light welterweight (141 pounds), but isn’t sure where she’ll compete at the nationals. At 135, she could shed 3 pounds and fight at lightweight. “The Olympic weights are changing soon, so it’s not a huge decision,” Mayer said.
No matter the weight, the burden is the same: eat, sleep, train, repeat. She spars three or four times a week, and she’s changed her diet: more meat, fewer simple carbs. The little things mean a lot.
“I’m only getting better,” Mayer said. “In a year and a half, I’ve come so far, thanks to my coach – he’s amazing.”
Mayer hopes she’ll peak in 2016, at the Olympic Trials also scheduled for Spokane. So does an American born on the Fourth of July spend time visualizing herself on the medals stand in Rio? “I think about it 24/7,” Mayer said.
And after that? She may return to school, open her own gym. The Dr Pepper commercial left a good taste, so perhaps something in media.
“I’ve always had something in me that I wanted to be successful,” Mayer said.