Driving for perfection: Inside Alycia Baumgardner's boxing world champion journey

Rapid ascent: Alycia Baumgardner has the opportunity to become undisputed champion less than 15 months since winning her first world title. Ali Lapetina for ESPN

THERE WERE EIGHT people crammed into a small house on South Street in Fremont, Ohio in 1998. The four sisters lived in one room, the parents and one brother in another and the maternal grandma in a third room that doubled as a living room. The space where Mario and Sherry Guzman started building their growing family was crowded, yet organized.

Two of the sisters were twins, and one, in particular, had a glowing smile and goofy demeanor that switched the second she had a chance to fight.

Alycia Baumgardner was only 4 when she started to wrestle and 8 when she started to box. She came from a family of fighters -- men and women. Her grandfather, grandmother, uncles, cousins, an aunt and father all fought or trained in boxing.

Mario said he started teaching his daughter little things about boxing as early as age 2, and at 6 he asked Alycia if she wanted to be the next in her family to take the sport more seriously.

Alycia Baumgardner went to Fremont Wreckers gym and began what would eventually become her life's work, learning a Mexican style of fighting from her paternal grandmother, Maria Guzman. Her power was there early. The speed came later. Her combat life developed through discipline and structure instilled by her parents.

"That's where it all began, and I just went every day," Baumgardner said. "Like this was part of my routine, never thinking that I was going to be a world champion."

It took nearly 20 years, but Baumgardner did become the WBC and then the IBF and WBO junior lightweight champion. On Saturday, the 28-year-old could unify all four major world titles and become undisputed when she faces Elhem Mekhaled at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York, in front of most of the family members who lived with her as a kid. She's come a long way from her crowded, room-sharing upbringing.

At home, work ethic was paramount. Every child -- Gabriella Reever, Dennyela Beeler, Isaiah Guzman and Baumgardner's fraternal twin, Amilia -- had specific chores. Laundry, cooking, cleaning, yard work -- Baumgardner loathed doing laundry -- were divided up because, while it was a busy house, her parents wanted it to be the cleanest. Mario and Baumgardner worked on cars together in their spare time, with her father teaching her everything he could.

Baumgardner says she was a feisty child and school grades had to be high. Otherwise, activities were taken away. That instilled in Baumgardner something that has become a through line for her life, despite struggles, living on a couch and being broke. Of not knowing where her career would go yet continuing to believe and push no matter what. Baumgardner often said she never wanted to live "an average life." She yearned for more, driven by the work ethic and discipline Mario instilled in his children.

Mario's father had dreamt that someone in their family would become a boxing champion. When Mario saw his daughter winning tournaments as a kid and the reaction people had watching her fight -- they gravitated to her personality and style -- the thought he had then never dissipated.

"I'm like," Mario said. "I think we got one here."

BEFORE ANY OF the attention or the belts or even a professional career, Baumgardner thought about giving up the sport. As a young child, she briefly did gymnastics. In middle school, she was the only girl on the wrestling team and often the only one at Fremont Wreckers after her sisters chose not to fight following brief flirtations with it. At Fremont Ross High School, she was known as the girl who boxed.

In elementary school and middle school, kids made fun of her muscles by saying her parents made her lift weights in the backyard -- which Sherry said wasn't true. Her mom often consoled her daughter, telling her, "You're beautiful. You're a gift."

Baumgardner jokes now -- maybe it's not a joke -- she was nice to everyone, but they were still scared of her.

In middle school, she was a cheerleader for a year, and in high school, she ditched wrestling and started running track. She did all of this while balancing boxing and school, and whenever Baumgardner would complain about another sport, Mario reminded her about boxing -- that she was good at boxing.

As a teenager, she got her first car, a 1994 Dodge Intrepid, and briefly went to Owens Community College in northwest Ohio. She contemplated going to a four-year university for track, but school was never really her thing. She received a license to become a state-tested nursing assistant (STNA) at age 19 in 2013, and then she quit her job at Little Caesars to start life as a STNA working at nursing homes -- her favorite was Bethany Place.

"That job was awesome and it just feels good to help other people," Baumgardner said. "But I knew that's not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."

JUGGLING LIFE BECAME intense between boxing and her other jobs. Olympic dreams dissipated after she missed out on the United States boxing team for the world championships because of a loss at the trials, and then an injured knee limited her chances for the 2016 Olympics.

This led to more difficult decisions. Baumgardner and her initial coach at Fremont split. She didn't want to wait out another Olympic cycle. Instead, she turned pro -- still working as a nursing aide -- but dedicated herself to the sport.

It turned into lean years. She spent more hours than she remembered driving in the 2002 Pontiac Bonneville that she got at age 19 around northwestern Ohio on Interstate 90. Her parents and siblings supported her journey in boxing. Mom and Dad helped with meals, health insurance, rent and car payments. She sometimes stayed with Isaiah and his wife when she trained in Toledo, Ohio. When they went to dinner, her brother Isaiah picked up the bill. She lived with her sister Dennyela in Miami for a summer, too.

"Our family is knitted pretty tight, you know what I mean," Isaiah said. "No matter, it didn't matter what was going on or what kind of argument or what it was, when something was needed, we were there for each other."

It wasn't just family. Baumgardner lived on a friend's brown leather couch in Toledo for nearly a year. Friends let her borrow their cars when hers wasn't working so she could get to work or training. She occasionally went back to Fremont. Home was nice, but she craved independence.

Baumgardner described her life at that moment as "on the edge." She screenshotted her bank account every month. At least one month, she doesn't remember which, her account had $0 in it. She told herself, "Oh, one day it'll change."

Baumgardner kept believing something would break for her, even when it was difficult to do so, journaling often since she was a kid to keep track of her life and as therapy. Sherry sometimes told her daughter to "don't give up" when she sensed Alycia was particularly down. There was tangible progress. Baumgardner won her first four pro fights by knockout.

"Like, I literally just kept good faith," she said. "Like this is part of the grind. Like this is not gonna last forever. I wasn't going to stop until I got where I wanted to."

In May 2019, Baumgardner shifted her training to the legendary Kronk Gym in Detroit. A month later she moved to Superbad Boxing Gym in Detroit under the tutelage of iconic trainer Ali Salaam and Salaam's son, then junior middleweight champ Tony Harrison. Salaam was regarded as one of the best, and with his guidance Baumgardner finally felt like she had arrived.

Now owning a 2018 Chevy Malibu, she would be in the car between Detroit and either Toledo or Fremont -- depending on where she was going to stay. At age 25, her career had been good, but not great. There had been injuries and setbacks, including a split decision loss to Christina Linardatou, but there was confidence. She quit her job as a STNA and committed fully to training and fighting.

Leading up to her 2019 fight against Cristina Del Valle Pacheco, Baumgardner, Salaam and Harrison went to Florida for part of camp. She bonded with them, sleeping again on a living room couch. Over long talks, Baumgardner said Salaam repeatedly told her the same thing: "You know, you're going to be a world champion one day ... You're doing all the things the guys are doing. You're working so hard.'"

This camp showed her what being a real pro boxer meant. She won in a first-round TKO.

PART OF THE commitment to her career was moving full time to Michigan to eliminate a daily drive down Interstate 75. She was training for another fight in March 2020 when COVID-19 altered everything.

She'd been in an Airbnb, but after her fight got canceled, she moved into a hotel because her aunt had a discounted rate. She didn't want to move back home.

She considered moving to Florida, where her longtime cutman and one of her managers lived. Then she connected with an old friend from Fremont. Greg Brown played football at Ross and collegiately at Michigan before transferring to the University of Findlay. One of his friends, Justin Browning, trained with Harrison and worked in Detroit. Brown linked them.

Baumgardner told Browning her story. During a FaceTime conversation, Browning realized she was in a hotel. He asked if she wanted to stay in Michigan to keep training. She did and a friendship -- and eventual business partnership -- between Baumgardner and Browning began.

Browning's boss, former Michigan quarterback John Wangler, had a vacant house. Had those talks and empty home not happened, the trajectory of Baumgardner's career could have been much different. She might have left for Florida.

"I see it now -- it's so crazy," said Browning, who now works as part of Baumgardner's business team. "But when you meet Alycia, you see a good person. A star. She just needed the right pieces."

Baumgardner felt this way, too. But as things were coming together, they were about to fall apart.

Even though the pandemic shut almost everything down, Baumgardner still found ways to keep training and pushing her progress. Then, in April 2020, Salaam got sick, one of the millions of people worldwide who got COVID-19 during the first wave. He was hospitalized and put on a ventilator. Baumgardner kept hoping for good news even though her nursing experience told her otherwise.

"I just remember getting a call, like, 'He's not going to make it and this is probably going to be his last night,'" Baumgardner said. "And I'm just sitting there on my bed. It's just me, and I'm crying."

So much of her life had started to come into focus, and now, her trainer was gone. She felt she was lost once again.

Harrison eventually took over her training, and Baumgardner elected to have knee surgery to repair a lingering issue while the sport slowly recovered after the initial outbreak of COVID-19. Baumgardner got back in the ring in August 2021 -- 18 months to the day from her most recent fight -- and beat Vanessa Bradford by unanimous decision in Orlando, Florida.

She and Harrison took Salaam's plan and expanded on it. The partnership with Harrison made her a better, more confident fighter. Throughout his own experience, he understood innately what she wanted to do.

"I'm like, 'OK, this is perfect.' He knows me. I know him. We know what his dad wanted," Baumgardner said. "It was kind of like, 'Long live, Ali.' Let's keep the legacy alive. Let's do this for his dad, for me. His dad said plenty of times I was going to be a world champion.

"So that was the goal. We had all seen that vision."

Baumgardner was offered a title shot against WBC junior lightweight champion Terri Harper on five weeks' notice. She had to take it. She was already in shape as she was training for another fight, and her family understood this was the opportunity she had been fighting for. "It's showtime now," her father told her.

Before the vision reached an apex, Baumgardner felt more grief. Her grandmother Moricha Baumgardner, whose house they lived in growing up, died of COVID-19 on Nov. 2, 2021. Moricha's death emotionally gutted her. She was an inspiration to Baumgardner and one of her biggest supporters.

Baumgardner's maternal grandmother saw her fight only once in person, but every fight Alycia thought of her.

"My grandma," Baumgardner said, "was my person."

Dealing with the pain gave her more reason to fight. After years of being an unknown fighter in the United States, going to the United Kingdom for the first time, on an uncomfortable flight in economy class, changed her life.

Baumgardner stepped into the ring on Nov. 11, 2021, and beat Harper with one of the most vicious knockouts that year. Baumgardner calls that right hand to the chin of Harper the best punch she's ever thrown. The champion her paternal grandfather had once hypothesized about had come to life in his granddaughter.

The punch still shocks her. It eliminated so much doubt. The concept of an average life she loathed no longer existed.

At the beginning of that November, Baumgardner had $300 in her bank account and the monthly stipend had ended. She made more fighting Harper -- she said it was $25,000 -- than in any other fight to that point. After years of fighting for under $5,000 per fight, of living on couches and needing help from her family and friends, of needing a stipend from her promoter -- she felt noticed. When they raised her hand in victory, she realized her life was going to change.

"Every time I watch it, every time I hear, 'And the new ...'" Baumgardner said. "Honestly, I probably cry every time I hear it."

THE REALITIES CAME quickly -- getting the WBC belt in the mail, signing with Matchroom Boxing, including first-class flights in the contract -- and adding potential future broadcasting opportunities. For the first time, Baumgardner felt in control of her career.

That also meant figuring out her opponents. After a mandatory defense, she initially wanted to fight then-WBA champion Hyun-Mi Choi, but that fight never materialized. So she changed her plan and agreed to fight the woman she'd been trash-talking with for about a year on social media -- IBF and WBO champion Mikaela Mayer.

Fighting Mayer meant getting closer to an undisputed title and the biggest payday of her career. She had been in talks to fight Mayer twice before -- once in 2020, right after Salaam died, and again in 2021, but multiple sources told ESPN the Nevada State Athletic Commission wouldn't sanction the fight.

The third time, when it happened, ended up being a dream scenario. Mayer and Baumgardner were both champions. They were supposed to fight in September as the co-feature of the Claressa Shields-Savannah Marshall undisputed middleweight title fight at the O2 Arena in London, but then Queen Elizabeth II died. It postponed the fight a month and meant that some of her family who had traveled to England for the first fight couldn't be there for the rescheduled bout, including Mario. In doing so, it let Baumgardner -- who had left Detroit to train in Colorado for the fight -- return to work with Harrison in that monthlong delay. Baumgardner doesn't know what would have happened had she fought Mayer in September, other than the work in the camp in Colorado wasn't what she had hoped.

She returned to what worked, what had gotten her to the precipice of the biggest win of her career. They battled for 10 rounds. Before the cards were read, she looked to her left, smiled and took a picture flexing. Then she put her head down -- she always puts her head down as cards are being read -- and after she heard her name as the winner, she jumped up and down, the emotional release of years of struggle and work being let go in one moment.

"When they put all the belts around me, I'm like, 'I did it,'" Baumgardner said. "Even now, watching the fight or even seeing the interviews or even seeing tweets and stuff like that, I'm still reminded of it.

"I walk in my gym, I got this big-ass poster of me that says, 'Unified world champion,' with all the belts. It's just a reminder every day that, 'Ahhh, I did that.'"

BAUMGARDNER IS IN a place of stability now. With the money she made from the Harper fight, a title defense and then the Mayer unification bout, she paid off all her debt.

She created a savings account and invested in two properties -- including the South Street home she grew up in. Baumgardner is in the midst of renovating it, a piece of sentimentality important to her. She still lives in the home she rents from Wangler because it's easier. She said she does have the option, when she's ready, to buy the home.

Mario made her a promise, too. Should she win Saturday night, she'll get a different piece of /family history: the 1936 Plymouth once owned by Mario's father and now Mario.

It won't replace the Malibu. It'll be wheels for special occasions -- for instance, she might use it during the popular Woodward Dream Cruise in Michigan, the largest celebration of automotive culture in North America and a massive celebration in the state every August.

"It's just reminders," Baumgardner said, "where you come from."

Baumgardner said she doesn't need material things -- although she'll buy clothes as a splurge -- and she values pictures and memories over stuff. She instead is trying to help those who sacrificed for her when she had nothing, when checking her bank account gave her a gut-twisting feeling.

"The people that helped me put me in position. It wasn't always about money," Baumgardner said. "It was like, 'OK, well, hey, you can live with me,' to get me where I need to. Or, 'Hey, you can use my car,' because yours is broken.

"Things like that made me appreciate that."

So, too, does the monthly photo she still takes. It's of her bank account balance, more for accountability's sake than concern, because for the first time, the number is "what it should be." What number is that? "I don't [need] to look at it too often," she said, her laugh coming through the phone.

It's a laugh that conveys so much from someone who understands what it takes to struggle, survive, and ultimately succeed.