By Mark Baldwin
THERE are many untold stories in hotel bars and lobbies after a big fight night. The winners are usually in full celebration mode, a few drinks too many, their guard is lowered, and words are said that will hopefully stay out of the public domain. But the losers often retreat to their rooms and their own private thoughts. Those closest to them will be in consoling mode, trying to find the right words when, in reality, there are none. There will be tears and plenty of them and their suffering, the real suffering, will be in solitude; a future changed or perhaps decided by the stroke of a judge’s pen.
Mikaela Mayer never once thought she would lose to her rival Alycia Baumgardner. After 10 absorbing rounds in October 2022, she was convinced that she hadn’t. However, two judges saw it differently.
Mayer was someone who had her future seemingly mapped out, yet by a wafer-thin highly controversial points reversal she was now the fighter who retreated to her hotel room. She wasn’t alone that night, but she most certainly would have felt alone when trying to process what had gone wrong for her and how could it have gone so wrong. The crowd had booed the decision, and heavily, but in reality it changed nothing. Mayer had to face up to the fact that her world super-featherweight titles and unbeaten record were now things of the past. The future had suddenly changed. In her darkest moments, Mayer probably doubted if she still had one.
Following the fight Mayer could not be found in an eerie hotel foyer. In fact, I would only see Mayer, sombre and introspective, the next morning in what was a now deserted hotel. It was an awkward conversation, too. I was clumsy. She was polite. “I won the fight,” she said. “I didn’t lose that fight.”
This wasn’t the same fighter I had interviewed countless times previously. That Mayer always breathed fire and a million headline quotes. The fighter I saw that Sunday morning was a broken one. She called it her “grieving period”. In many ways, that’s exactly what it was. A long period of mourning had begun. Mayer had demons to extinguish that only seconds on the clock could resolve.
It took time, but the American eventually found herself and the old Mayer slowly returned. A few weeks after that painful night at the O2 Arena in London, we spoke again.
“It was really, really hard,” she admitted. “It’s like you are just sitting there thinking, Wake up! Wake up! This can’t have happened. You want to redo it but have to sit with the feeling that you can’t do it again. It’s over. Even if you disagree with it and thought you got robbed, you can’t change it. There is no going back. And that is a really hard thing to come to terms with.
“I have never really experienced it at this level before. I’ve lost in the amateurs, but even losing in the Olympics didn’t feel like this. I feel I am in my prime, and this was everything I worked for. Even as a world champion, you don’t always get the respect and the shine that you deserve, and this was the fight to get that, and I wanted to come out on top.”
The words of Mayer were beyond honest and her fight at that very moment was trying to hold back the tears. I knew for this reason I had to tread carefully. Yet even at her lowest you knew she was already plotting her return.
“I’m no stranger to perseverance,” she said. “That was the first tattoo I got” – Mayer showed me the words “Perseverance” tattooed on her left arm – “and it has always been my life and my career. It sucks that it has happened like this, but I still feel I am one of the best female boxers out there. I am still in my prime, and I still have so much more to prove.
The loss to Baumgardner naturally pushed Mayer down the pecking order. She had to be patient in her rebuild. The year that followed saw two stay-busy fights; Lucy Wildheart and Silvia Bortot served a purpose, nothing more.
“The last two fights didn’t inspire me,” she said. “It wasn’t my best year for me. It was a slow year for me.”
But still, it wasn’t a total washout. The former unified world super-featherweight champion needed that time; the fragile fighter needed the clock to tick long enough for the old Mikaela Mayer to return.
An extremely short stay at lightweight against Wildheart was followed then by a realisation that the doors would open a little quicker at welterweight. Natasha Jonas was soon locked in as the target.
“I need someone like Tasha to bring out the best in me,” Mayer said. “I don’t have a grudge against Natasha Jonas. She just has something that I want.”
Jonas, the IBF world welterweight champion, was ringside in Manchester when Mayer faced Bortot in September. You therefore didn’t need a crystal ball to know who would be next. Both fighters, in fact, only had eyes for each other.
The last world title fight Mayer had was full of mutual hate. This time, however, will be different. There is respect, and plenty of it, between both champion and challenger. Yet Jonas, Mayer hopes, is the final piece of her therapy jigsaw.
“I’ve hated the fights that I have been in during the last year,” she said. “I want to be in big fights like this. Tasha will bring the best out of me. You will see the best of us both.
“This is my chance to be a world champion again, which is where I believe I belong, and get the ball back in my court.”
The fight with Jonas in Liverpool on January 20 will give Mayer an opportunity for redemption. A win would also give her back much of what was lost just over a year ago and Mayer knows she needs that IBF bauble for leverage. Win it and the usual wish list of prospective opponents to close her career out with will remain in play. However, lose to Jonas and her career will likely take a different path, with Mayer, at 33, aware she can’t afford another year in the cold. She knows it might not quite be all or nothing for her in Liverpool. But it isn’t far off.
“I am confident of winning,” she said. “I have to win it. I believe I am the more skilled fighter and that I will come out on top. But I have to win it. It will be career-ending for me if I don’t. The career I want will be lost. The career I envisage for myself will be lost if I don’t beat Tasha.
“I don’t want to catch another loss; I don’t want that for my career. I’ve already had a setback and lost a year of my prime, and that sucks. For me to get back into position I can’t lose this fight.”
Mayer hopes the loneliness of that London hotel room back in October 2022 is not replicated in Liverpool and knows her happiness hinges on the result. Win and her year is already mapped out. Lose, though, and the phone will go quiet. High risk, low reward always brings a long period of silence and avoidance and on that score Natasha Jonas will no doubt have sympathy. They have both, after all, been residents of the “Who Needs Her Club”.