Seances, tattoos and the unbreakable bond between Mikaela Mayer and Al Mitchell

Boxing

MARQUETTE, Mich. — THOSE WERE DARK months after Vernon Forrest died, shot to death in a gas station robbery at 38. Al Mitchell had lost kids before. But that was back in North Philadelphia, where it seemed for a time that the natural progression of life — his own included — inexorably led to prison or death. Vernon was different, though: never any trouble, became a two-division world champion. And yes, Mitchell thought of him as a son. But more striking than all of that was the way he just came into his life.

“Out of nowhere,” he says.

This was 2009. Al Mitchell was 66. For 20 years, he had been the head boxing coach at the U.S. Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University. He was head coach of the 1996 Olympic team. He’d trained world champions, too, including Charlie “Choo Choo” Brown and David Reid. But Vernon would be the last. He knew that because he swore he’d never work with another pro. Actually, he was just about done with boxing. It wasn’t the same knowing Vernon was gone.

And this guy from California kept calling, talking about his daughter, and how, even though she’d been on a little bit of a losing streak, she could make the Olympic team.

“I don’t need no headaches,” Mitchell told him. “Don’t need no father telling me how to do my job.”

The guy from California wasn’t a boxing guy, though. He designed toys for a living.

Still, Mitchell didn’t know what was more absurd: women fighting in the Olympics or the idea of training one himself. “Ain’t training no girl,” he’d long sworn to himself. “They’re the weak ones. My father would turn over in his grave.”

Meanwhile, the director of the Olympic Education Center had been telling him: We’ve got to adjust, got to change. Mitchell knew what that meant. London 2012 would be the first Olympics with women’s boxing.

For him, it was just another sign his time in the fight game was coming to an end.

The young woman arrived the first week of January 2010. On her maiden voyage to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, covered in several feet of snow, she wore a pink Juicy Couture bodysuit and UGG boots.

Mitchell looked her over, in pity as much as relief, thinking: “She ain’t gonna last.”

On Saturday, that “girl,” former Olympian Mikaela Mayer (13-0, 5 KOs), will fight Poland’s Ewa Brodnicka (19-0, 2 KOs), the WBO junior lightweight titlist (7:30 p.m., ESPN+). A Mayer victory would make her Mitchell’s fourth world champion, his first since Forrest, and a great gift on the occasion of his 77th birthday. Even greater gifts, however, have already been exchanged between them, the erstwhile Valley girl and a former hustler from Philadelphia. That would be the most improbable alliance — not merely in boxing — but perhaps, in all of sports.


WHO AM I going to spar?” she asked.

“You’re going to spar the boys,” the trainer said. “I’m going to treat you like a boxer. If you can handle it, you’ll be here. If you can’t handle it, you’ll leave.”

Some coaches tell you what you’re doing right to build your confidence. Mitchell told you what you were doing wrong. Then he’d tell you again, to make sure you got it. In the case of Mayer, though, he’d tell her a third time. Maybe even a fourth.

She was 5-foot-9 but had a bad habit of crouching as she punched. It wasn’t merely awkward. To Mitchell, it was unseemly.

Why you bending down like that? he would say.

You fight like you’re 4 feet tall.

Jab.

Jab. Dammit.

Like Vernon.

He was tall.

Let me show you how Vernon did it.

“It was always ‘Vernon this’ and ‘Vernon that,'” recalls Mikaela, who, despite having already won a national Golden Gloves title would inevitably return to her dorm room wracked with self-doubt. “Oh, my God,” she’d ask herself, “do I suck?”

Good thing she didn’t ask Mitchell. In his mind, it remained just a matter of time before Miss Juicy Couture went back home. But by the end of that first winter, his opinion was no longer unanimous in the gym.

One day, Christopher Pearson, a middleweight with multiple national championships, volunteered, “you know, she’s getting stronger.”

Mitchell was less convinced. Maybe she was just sucking less. Then again, he had to admit, she did work. First one in the gym, last one to leave. Every damn day. Kind of like Vernon.

She ran at 5 a.m., like the guys.

Hit the weight room, like the guys.

Mitchell checked with her professors at Northern Michigan. Her grades were good, like some of the guys, Vernon included, of course.

But a couple of professors told him they’d seen her at night, in a restaurant off campus.

“What are you doing in the evenings?” Mitchell asked her.

“I got a bartending job,” she said.

“When do you sleep?” he asked.

“I get a couple hours.”

“That’s when I knew,” Mitchell recalls, “none of the guys would do that.”

Too bad, he thought: “There’s no way anyone can keep this up, not at this level.”


ON VALENTINE’S DAY 2012, in Spokane, Washington, Mayer lost by decision to a heavy favorite, Queen Underwood, at the Olympic trials, a double-elimination tournament. The following day, she stopped her next opponent. The day after that, she won by decision. The next day, another win by decision. Mayer would fight six times in as many days. The finale saw her in a rematch against Underwood for a berth on a historic Olympic team.

That morning, Mayer woke Mitchell early.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, fearing a case of the nerves, which would’ve been entirely justifiable as Underwood was the reigning U.S. national champion five years running. Mayer hadn’t even been boxing five years.

“I got to get my hair done,” she said. “And my nails.”

“But you fighting the championship today.”

“Coach, you got to take me.”

He took her.

Then she lost.

It was a close decision, 22-19. But while Mayer waited for the inevitable “I told you so” from Coach Al, he removed his ever-present cap and began to weep. “I never had a man boxer do that,” he said of her request before her fight.

Talk of him quitting had now given way to conversation of Rio in 2016. “If you stay another four years,” he told her, “you will make that Olympic team.”


THERE ARE THE lives you live, and the lives that you change.

Every once in a while, they intersect.

For Mitchell, it tends to happen in Marquette, a city of 21,000 on the shores of Lake Superior that used to host the Junior Olympics boxing tournament. It was there, at the tiny local airport, that he met Vernon Forrest. Mitchell was headed back to Philadelphia with his team. Vernon had just missed his flight to Atlanta and was looking like you might imagine, a teenager stranded a long way from home.

Mitchell recognized him from the tournament, brought him back to the hotel and called his mother. He promised her he’d stay with Vernon until he boarded a flight home.

That night, though, the tournament director put something in his head: “We’re going to be needing a coach around here.”

Within a year or so, Mitchell accepted a position as boxing coach for the U.S. Olympic Education Center. It was great to do what you loved and live in a neighborhood where you didn’t lock your doors, and the few neighbors you had made sure everything was OK when you were away. As for the snow, well, he got used to it. Life was beautiful, even if it wasn’t a life he had ever imagined.

Mitchell’s neighborhood in North Philadelphia was known as “The Bucket of Blood.” His father, an Army staff sergeant who never recovered from the emotional wounds of combat in Korea, died when Mitchell was 16. Mitchell was fighting by then, on his way to a 43-1 record as a bantamweight, a promising amateur career cut short by a more felonious form of fighting.

Upon his release after several years in Holmesburg Prison, Mitchell opened a store at the corner of 26th and Ingersoll streets, where he ostensibly sold candy, milk, soda and Pampers. The real business, however, was numbers, this being back in the day before state governments got into the lottery business. He kept a .38 in a cigar box with the betting slips, and a .45 Magnum on him at all times. Yes, he knew how to use it, as you might hear from the kids who tried selling drugs on his corner, or guys who came through the neighborhood with bad dice.

Almost half a century later, Mayer found herself mesmerized by his stories. Coach Al was the oldest person in her life, but for some reason she could imagine him as a child. It was like a movie that came out before she was born, a story told in a gunmetal palette.

“I never met anyone who grew up that way,” she says.

The feeling was mutual, of course. In 2014, while training Mayer for the PAL Championships, Coach Al stayed with her family in Woodland Hills, California, and found himself in awe of the man who’d petitioned him so relentlessly to mentor his daughter, the second of three sisters.

“Three teenage girls in a two-bedroom?” Mitchell asked. “How did you survive?”

Sleeping on the couch was the least of it, Mark Mayer said.

“My parents split when I was 5,” Mikaela says. “I remember the day my dad moved out of the house.”

“There was too much alcohol and drugs,” Mark recalls of his ex-wife. “She just never seemed to be able to give it up. There were a lot of times where I was really worried about what was going on over there.”

“All we knew is that [my mother] was very angry,” Mikaela says. “Always angry.”

In due course, child protective services intervened and the Mayer sisters were living with their father. Only now, Mikaela was the angry one. Her propensity for fighting kept getting her kicked out of high schools of which she managed to attend four in three years.

But the fury camouflaged a kid who was searching. There was a bad boyfriend, a lot of partying and a short-lived teenage modeling career. It wasn’t unusual for Mikaela to stay out for days, even weeks at a time.

Perhaps the best of her teenage selves, though, played the bass. She had learned how to play at a friend’s house, then took out an ad on Craigslist: “Female bass player looking for Metal band.” It listed her musical influences — Sabbath, Metallica, Slipknot — and her age as 14.

“I was actually 13,” Mikaela recalls. “But I didn’t want anyone to think I was too young.”

The band stayed together for a few years. Did some local gigs, even did some touring. Coach Al — whose own taste traversed perhaps the sweetest spots in American popular music, from Frankie Lymon to The Intruders, doo-wop to a Philadelphia sound produced by the team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff — never heard the band. But Mikaela’s dad showed him some photographs: black jeans, black boots, black eye shadow, black cropped hair, a lot of piercings. If it were difficult for Coach Al to reconcile his Mikaela with the headbanging version, it was also more than enough for him to imagine the beautiful pissed-off kid she used to be.


“I DON’T KNOW why she seemed to rebel the hardest,” says Mark Mayer, speaking of his middle daughter. “But I felt I had done as good a job as I could do, and that it would just sort itself out.”

It’d just happen. Out of nowhere.

Mikaela was 17: “Within maybe four weeks of training I went home and I said, ‘Dad, I want to be the best fighter in the world.'”

Mikaela had been driving by the Muay Thai gym on Ventura Boulevard for years. Then one day, with a confidence she attributes to her mother, she took her last $100 out of the bank and signed up. Muay Thai led to kickboxing, which led to boxing.

Mark took her to every fight, sanctioned or otherwise, just as he used to take his girls camping or surfing or snowboarding or motorbiking. He wasn’t a fight fan, but if he had any misgivings about Mikaela getting hit or beating up other girls, he kept them to himself. Whatever she had been looking for, she’d found it.

“Something that she loves,” he says.

A gift to be protected, cultivated, fought for.

Mikaela’s father didn’t care if Coach Al didn’t coach girls.

This girl is going to the Olympics,” he told him.


ON THE FIRST day of her second Olympic trials, Mayer suffered a gash on the bridge of her nose. Despite an application of medical glue, it reopened in each subsequent fight — a mere five in seven days this time — including a mini-trilogy against a then-teenage prodigy, Jajaira Gonzalez.

Soon, Mayer would be headed to Colorado Springs to work with her soon-to-be fellow Olympians. In the meantime, however, she continued training in Marquette, all according to Coach Al’s master plan until the day he told her to get on the speed bag.

“I can’t today,” she said.

“Why not?”

In a moment of sheepish concession, she held up her bandaged hand. “I got a tattoo,” she said.

“What the hell are you doing?” said Mitchell, who walked off muttering to himself before she could answer.

That night, his girlfriend, Cindy, told him: “You shouldn’t be so hard on Mikaela.”

“Why not?” Mitchell said. “We got a fight next week, and she messes up her hand.”

“Did you see the tattoo?” asked Cindy.

“Hell no,” Mitchell said.

“Well, it’s your name.”

In fact, it was merely his initials, but the gift-giving between the now almost 77-year-old trainer and his first female fighter continues.

Mayer got him a Netflix account, and helped him figure out YouTube, which only meant they’d be studying even more of Vernon’s fights together.

Coach Al straightened out one of her bad boyfriends. “Had to put my Philly ‘hood’ on him,” he says. “Got him right real quick.”

On long trips, she does the driving; mercifully, he controls the music.

And while Mayer couldn’t get him another Olympic medal (she lost at the Rio Games, in close but controversial fashion to the eventual bronze medalist), she does stand to become his fourth world champion, and his first since Vernon.

Still, that’s not the best of it. Rather, as Mitchell nears his ninth decade, as a guy who figured he was done with boxing 11 years ago, it’s yet another life he couldn’t have imagined.

Al’s Boxing Gym, located in a former fertilizer warehouse in Marquette, convenes each day after school and on Saturday mornings. It is overrun with girls. They range from grade school through high school, and they didn’t just come out of nowhere. They’re dropped off by parents who’d otherwise be mistaken for nice, Midwestern soccer moms or dads.

Some of them were angry, including the teenager partial to black eye shadow and boots. Some got in trouble. Others, merely bored. And still others because it’s way cooler than soccer. But all of them know about Mikaela Mayer. And at some point, each of them wanted to be the next Mikaela Mayer.

“If they really want it,” says Coach Al, “two or three of them are going to be champions.”


ON TUESDAY, JUST before they broke camp, Mikaela gave Coach Al his birthday present. They sat on either side of her sectional couch in Colorado. A woman named Heather, a former family therapist, sat between them. Heather asked for a glass of water, as she gets thirsty summoning the spirits, and there were quite a few of them trying to connect through her to Alfred Mitchell.

There was a kid named Gene, from the Harrowgate Boxing Club in Philly. He wanted to thank Al.

And Aunt Bea, who first brought Mitchell to the gym. She was proud.

But none were more proud than “Mae.”

“Mattie Mae,” Mitchell said. His mother.

“I feel like hugging you,” Heather said. “She still sees you as a child.”

The psychic medium continued, “She was worried about you.”

Mitchell flashed on his days with the guns and the gangsters.

“But you figured it out,” she said.

Mattie Mae Mitchell wanted to be remembered as she was singing in church. She was happy Al and Mikaela found each other. At one point, Heather turned to Mikaela and said, “You’re an angel. She wants me to tell you that.”

Vernon Forrest, meanwhile, was hanging back. Said he “didn’t want to step on mom’s toes.”

“Is he spiritual?” asked Heather.

“Yes,” Al said.

“He’s happy,” said Heather. “He said God called him up.” Vernon made it a point to laugh, Heather explained. The main thing was he didn’t want Al to have regrets.

Finally, Mikaela asked if Vernon was there when she fights.

“He’s there,” Heather said. “He sees.”

None of these gifts come out of nowhere.

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