game changers

‘We have to hustle harder than the men’: Mikaela Mayer and Natasha Jonas on the risks that are changing a sport

Ahead of their title bout in Liverpool, the fighters spoke to Alex Pattle about the past, present and future of women’s boxing

Wednesday 17 January 2024 09:39 GMT
Liverpool’s Natasha Jonas (left) will defend her world title in her hometown, against American Mikaela Mayer
Liverpool’s Natasha Jonas (left) will defend her world title in her hometown, against American Mikaela Mayer (Getty, iStock)

Natasha Jonas vs Mikaela Mayer feels like a Rubik’s Cube of a fight. Perhaps it will feel like that kind of frustrating, disorientating undertaking to the boxers on Saturday night; either way, it feels like that from the other side of the ropes, while attempting to break down the contest.

In one corner will be Liverpool’s own Jonas, greeted by a hometown crowd. In the other will be Mayer, having crossed the pond for the fourth time in as many fights. Every roar from the stands and the floor may prove crucial to Jonas if the bout reaches the final bell and the judges are needed. Her American opponent, meanwhile, will look to wrest away the IBF welterweight title in enemy territory.

Then there is the matter of experience, age, or both: At 39, Jonas has less in front of her than 33-year-old Mayer but also more behind her to draw upon. An Olympic veteran, Jonas stuck through the sport through “horrible times”, as she admitted to The Independent, to finally achieve her world-title dream at the third time of asking. On a fateful February night in 2022, the Briton battered Chris Namus to become a world champion at super-welterweight. Before the end of the year, she had collected two more belts in the division, before dropping down in weight to become a two-division champion. All of this, eight years after she retired from boxing.

If she could, the Jonas of 2024 would ask the “stupid” 2014 version of herself: “‘What are you doing?!’” She added: “People don’t realise that it’s not the physical side of boxing sometimes, it’s the mental side. To keep putting yourself in that horrible, dark place and be the selfish, horrible person that you need to be as a successful boxer... it’s not easy. I needed that mental break, I wouldn’t change it. The hunger, the belief in myself [kept me going]. The bad times were horrible, and no athlete likes to have them – and no one really talks about them enough – but they also make you. It’s sort of like a butterfly-cocoon thing, where you’ve broken out to become something new. I know the sport now, and I know me.”

That is not to say that Mayer does not know the sport. She, too, has Olympic pedigree and has held world titles – first at super-featherweight, where she was unified champion until a narrow loss to Alycia Baumgardner in 2022, then interim gold at lightweight. Mayer has since fought once more, at super-lightweight, continuing her gradual ascent through the divisions. She will therefore be the naturally smaller fighter against Jonas, in another intriguing twist of the Rubik’s Cube.

Jonas and Mayer during the first face-off for their world-title fight (Getty Images)

Talking to The Independent, Mayer said of Jonas: “On paper, she’s the best opponent I’ve fought; she’s got the best resume of anyone I’ve fought. I don’t think I’ve ever gone up against another Olympian as a pro. I’ve been in championship fights, but so has she – a handful of them – and she has the amateur pedigree as well.”

Still, the tourist is confident and insists she will not be fazed by the partisan crowd in Liverpool. “I’m just gonna kill them with kindness, blow them kisses as they boo me,” she said, smiling. “[I won’t antagonise them], because by the end of the day, they’re gonna be my fans. My team has sent me over here for the past few fights, and from a business perspective it’s really smart, because it’s where we’re getting a lot of respect and recognition. And honestly it’s where a lot of my big, future opponents are.”

Live on Sky Sports, Jonas vs Mayer is the first big women’s fight of the year, and it follows recent high-profile match-ups like Baumgardner vs Mayer, Claressa Shields vs Savannah Marshall, and Katie Taylor’s clashes with Amanda Serrano and Chantelle Cameron. Taking risky fights against big names has long been a move lacking in men’s boxing, but the women are showing no such trepidation.

Mayer during her sole pro loss, in an undisputed fight with Alycia Baumgarder (Getty Images)

“We have to [take these risks],” Mayer said. “We don’t have the privilege of sitting back and collecting one big cheque. We haven’t had the opportunity or platform. We still have to prove to a lot of people that we belong in this sport, and that starts with making fights that fans want to see and winning them over. We’ve got to hustle a little harder.

“These fights are vital. This generation is changing women’s boxing, and us being willing to not just challenge the champions in our division but also hop around and put our belts on the line. I think we’re not just changing the game for women’s boxing, we’re changing the game for boxing as a whole. These are the types of fights that I want to be a part of. I have to go and win, so I can continue to make big fights like this and have that leverage.”

Jonas echoes Mayer’s sentiment. “If you asked Jane Couch about her experiences, it’s a whole lot different to ours,” the Liverpudlian said, referencing her compatriot who fought as a pro from 1994 until 2007. “In 10 years’ time, I would expect those girls’ experiences to be a whole lot different, too. You’ve got Jane, Christy Martin, Laila Ali – all them people who had big moments and performed. There are certain fights where you remember where you were, what you were eating while you were watching! In 10 years’ time, I’d love people to look back and say: ‘I was there.’”

Jonas celebrates a win over Marie-Eve Dicaire in November 2022 (Getty Images)

Boxxer’s Ben Shalom understands the significance of events such as Saturday’s, too, as shown by his part in forging not only this bout but also Shields vs Marshall and Baumgardner vs Mayer.

“These events are pivotal, the stars coming through are pivotal, and the entertainment always delivers,” the promoter told Indy Sport. “And it’s not just, ‘Let’s push it for equality purposes,’ which is a reason in itself. I think it’s an iconic fight, two stars that we didn’t expect to see in the ring together, and we think a healthy and growing women’s side of the sport is so unbelievably powerful for boxing itself. When we first came in and headlined with Marshall, a few eyebrows were raised. The fact that we announced this as our first show of the year and no one batted an eyelid, the growth has been incredible.”

Don’t bat an eyelid, don’t even blink. This weekend, women’s boxing enters 2024 with a bang.

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