The months after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro were a low point for boxer Mikaela Mayer. Despite blazing her way into the Olympic quarterfinals one win short of a medal, sponsors never materialized. Unlike the gymnasts and track stars that landed on Wheaties boxes, there were no big companies courting Mayer, no promoters rushing to get her into the ring.
“I thought it was going to happen for me, and it just didn’t happen,” Mayer says. “After the Olympics, I was right back training for nationals.”Mayer was so down on boxing’s prospects as a career, she even considered a move to mixed martial arts, which has a better track record of equality both in ring time and pay, with televised headline fights from combat stars such as Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm.
But before she threw in the towel on women’s boxing, her agent landed her a meeting with Todd DuBoef, president of Top Rank boxing, the sport’s largest promoter, which has represented top fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather. The 27-year-old signed a contract with Top Rank last August, a rarity in the U.S. where women’s boxing—both professional and amateur—has failed to gather the audience and support that it has in many other parts of the world.
Mayer’s promotion deal and that of her former Olympic teammate Claressa Shields are being heralded as a new era in women’s boxing, a sport with a long history but a shaky record of promoting and legitimizing women’s fighting. There has never been an all-women’s boxing card on a major network or premium channel, according to Sporting News’ Steven Muehlhausen. Now, Shields is getting men fighting under her on the event card. And Mayer is getting paid enough to train full time for the five fights she is guaranteed a year.
“It’s a great time for women’s boxing,” Mayer says. “One that hasn’t existed since the Laila Ali days. … All the big promoters are picking up their first female boxers [in years].”
Fighting to be in the ring
Featherweight fighter Ronica “Queen” Jeffrey, a Women’s Boxing Federation champion from famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York, with six belts to her name, went pro in 2008, with no promotion deal, and has had to sell tickets and pitch herself as an opponent to other women boxers just to get on boxing cards, despite being ranked third in the world in 2013. She is expected to fight later this month on a card in Queens, New York, a comeback tour of sorts after a year-and-a-half out of competition.
“Without the sponsorships or backing, you have to love it,” Jeffrey says. “You have to really want it.” Unlike men’s fights, there just aren’t the big paydays to look forward to.
With fight purses in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands for men on undercards, plus the high cost of medical expenses, boxing for many women is not a viable full-time career. Jeffrey’s day job is training other women fighters at Gleason’s, including three whom she is preparing for amateur matches.
For a lucky few such as Mayer, training is a full-time job. She spars at USA Boxing’s Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and plans to move to the city full time to reap the benefits of the high-altitude training in the ring. On March 10, Mayer is scheduled to square off in a World Boxing Championships match against a national champion from Greece at StubHub Center near Los Angeles.
The six rounder is the fourth professional fight for Mayer, a light welterweight with a 3-0 record and two knockouts, and Mayer says she is “ready to go.” Considered a great technical fighter with a strong jab, Mayer has been working on her defense and developing more explosive power behind her punch. Her goal is to work up to a 10-round championship fight in the next two years and has her sights set on reigning WBA champion Katie Taylor of Ireland.
Reintroducing Americans to women’s boxing
Women’s professional boxing had a spike in popularity in the 1990s, with televised fights from fighters such as Laila Ali, Mia St. John, Lucia Rijker and Christy Martin. But without much of a system in place for recruiting and developing viable opponents, the sport devolved into something of a sideshow with pink gloves, Playboy covers and tomato-can opponents.
“It lost some of the legitimacy,” says Malissa Smith, author of “A History of Women’s Boxing” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).
Without a consistent focus on quality matchups, and without much financial support for training amateurs, women’s boxing fell back into the background, pushing many women fighters into MMA organizations such as Strikeforce and EliteXC or to fights in Mexico and elsewhere.
The challenge today, Shields says, a world super middleweight champion with two gold medals to her name, is to recruit more women, support them financially and line up the right televised matchups.
“I feel when it comes to women’s boxing, when the best fight the best, that’s going to get the attention that we want and that’s what is going to make people want to see us on television,” she told the Sporting News earlier this year. “I think if it’s not 2018, maybe 2019 there will be a lot of women being in main events and having male undercards—and not just me but other women, as well.”
Backing a female star
Currently, there’s not really a scouting system in place for women boxers like there is for men. Mayer wasn’t really on DuBoef’s radar when he met with her in Las Vegas. But he says her confidence and determination were impressive, and she convinced him to get behind her and women’s boxing again.
“Boxing is an interesting sport,” DuBoef says. “It’s not only about how good you are in the ring but how you present yourself to the public. [Mayer] has a little bit of edge, a little bit of glam and she can fight.”
With her confident personality, commitment to training and more than 60,000 Instagram followers, the hope is that Mayer, a part-time model who started in kickboxing in high school, can do for boxing what Ronda Rousey did for the UFC, especially at a time when boxing viewership is waning.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for women’s boxing,” Smith says. “[The real question] is whether there’s enough vision among the promoters and television executives who put on boxing to recognize that there is a talent pool that needs to be supported and groomed.”
The Long, Difficult History of Women’s Boxing
Despite the fact that athlete like Ronica Jeffrey have been working hard to legitimize women’s boxing in the last 10 years, if you ask someone to name a women boxer here in the U.S. you might get a name or two from as many as 15 years ago; maybe Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammed Ali; Christy Martin who fought on the undercard of a Mike Tyson fight; or Mia St. John, the boxer as famous for posing for Playboy as her fights.
Women’s boxing in the U.S. had slipped off the radar in recent years, even as it continued to gain an audience and larger purses in Europe, Latin America and other parts of the globe, says Malissa Smith, author of “A History of Women’s Boxing.”
Only when women’s boxing became an official Olympic sport in 2012 did it begin capturing slightly more attention for women fighters in the U.S., resulting in professional boxing deals in 2016 for two-time gold medalist Claressa Shields and 2012 bronze medalist Marlen Esparza.
“There’s really been advancement since 2016, and women are showing up on television a little bit more,” Smith says. “There had been a dearth [of televised fights] for ten years.”
The continued struggle to legitimize women’s boxing should be surprising, given the long history of women entering the ring—some as early as the late 18th century, Smith says. At least one woman boxer, Hattie Stewart of Virginia, was featured on a cigarette trading card in 1880 and boxing was an exhibition at the St. Louis Olympic Games in 1904, more than a hundred years before its officially sanctioned debut.
Still, for much of the last century women’s boxing has been an outlaw sport, with commissioners refusing to sanction women’s fights or issue licenses to women fighters, forcing female pioneers such as “Battling” Barbara Buttrick, who fought from the 1940s through the 1950s, to stay one step ahead of the law.
Buttrick, who came from the carnival circuit in the United Kingdom to fight in the U.S., retired in 1960 with a record of 30-1-1, even fighting men in exhibitions. One of her Canadian matches was broadcast on the radio in 1954, setting the stage for women boxers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, such as Sue “Tiger Lily” Fox and Jackie “The Female Ali” Tonawanda, who fought in states willing to approve and issue licenses to women boxers.
Still, it wasn’t until 1993 that women’s amateur boxing was integrated into the U.S. amateur program, with the first World Championships for women in 2001.
The popularity of women’s boxing spiked in the 1990s with Ali, Martin, St. John and Lucia Rijker, fighting on the undercard of big male fights, and participation soared in boxing exercise. However, given the lack of real training, women with very little experience were being pushed into the ring, prompting promoters to say that the sport “wasn’t ready,” Smith says.
Since that time, women fighters have been quietly proving themselves in venues ranging from VFW halls to restaurants, selling thousands of tickets just to get their name on the cards, with very little support from promoters or television networks, at the same time MMA fighters such as Ronda Rousey were headlining big televised fights.
Boxers such as WBC featherweight champion Heather Hardy, for instance, will sell 20,000 seats in an arena for a fight, Smith says, but still can’t get gigs on television or make a living from her boxing proceeds.
Hardy recently turned to MMA’s Bellator fighting organization to raise her profile and make more money, taking down fellow WBO former women’s bantamweight champion Ana Julaton in a televised February fight, with a planned boxing match to follow later this year.
“In women’s boxing it’s like you are reinventing the wheel every 20 years,” Smith says. On her blog Girlboxing, she writes, “Women have persevered in a sport that loved to hate them.”
Photo credit: Mark Kuroda, kurodastudios.com; Top Rank; WavebreakmediaMicro, Adobe Stock
Hair and Make-up: Ava Roston