Editor's note: This story was published before Christina Linardatou failed her eye exam on Friday and was forced to withdraw form her fight against Mikaela Mayer on Saturday. Mayer will now face Lucy Wildheart.
Mikaela Mayer boarded the plane back to the United States in October with a feeling she'd never experienced as a pro. It's something she didn't prepare for. Mayer never thought it would happen.
She went to London as the WBO and IBF junior lightweight champion to fight WBC titleist Alycia Baumgardner for a chance to add a third title. Mayer believed she fought well with a strong strategy and won the fight. But, the decision went to Baumgardner.
Suddenly, Mayer had to cope with a loss, with two titles that were no longer hers.
She'd worked years for this and everything a win would have meant. Now -- it was in flux.
"When I came back [to the United States], I went through it emotionally, for sure," Mayer said. "I just felt, I felt like a lack of purpose for a while."
Mayer's skills were intact. Her fanbase still existed, as did her contract with Top Rank. What bothered her lingered in her psyche, the question of what would happen with the career she'd built and the opportunities she'd set up. Would they still be there? Where would she be as a fighter? Would she be starting from the beginning again after years of working to reach a certain point?
The rebound of Mikaela Mayer starts in London on Saturday when she fights Christina Linardatou in her first fight since October. In the months since, she's dealt with the pain and frustration of losing her titles, and finding a way to move past the frustration to fight again.
"So many people were watching. Women's boxing was on the map. It was huge," Mayer said. "And so it wasn't just like anyone else. Everyone was just like, 'Take your loss and move on.'
"Well, they don't understand what went into that, what went into getting to that point. So, it was hard. Definitely hard to deal with."
The journey back started hours after the loss. Between the "gallows humor" and obvious sadness in the limo heading from O2 Arena, where the fight happened, to the hotel, Mayer's manager, George Ruiz, began the positive reinforcement -- breaking in the reality of the loss and insisting that they, as a team, could move forward from it. Ruiz told Mayer the loss was an obstacle, not a career-destroyer. She would emerge from this stronger than before.
Mayer heard the words. Didn't believe them.
That night, once Ruiz returned to his hotel room, he spent an hour on the phone with Mayer's partner, Marquette King. If anyone could understand Mayer's pain, it was King -- the former NFL punter with the Las Vegas Raiders who didn't travel to the fight because he was busy with his attempt at a pro football comeback in the XFL.
King understood Mayer wouldn't want to talk that night. Together Ruiz and King brainstormed ideas. King learned of where Mayer's connecting flight in the United States landed: Dallas. He found the only flight he could from Arizona -- a morning flight keeping him in the Dallas airport for nearly 12 hours. He sipped wine at an airport bar waiting for Mayer's flight to arrive so he could be there for support and accompaniment back to Mayer's Colorado home.
When he saw her she was frustrated, upset, angry. All the emotions King expected. He told her then a message he'd deliver often over the next six months. One he hoped would help her through her emotions as she grappled with losing her belts and her status within boxing.
"Some of the best boxers, they've even taken an 'L,'" King said. "... I was like, if you ever want a story made about you, you don't want no perfect story because it'll be boring. Nobody wants to look at anything that's perfect."
Mayer struggled those first few weeks back in Colorado. The lack of purpose she felt heightened because she was no longer champion. She found herself having to figure out how to fill days.
She didn't feel like herself. She didn't want to.
"It just sucked," Mayer said. "And I didn't want to try. I didn't care. I was just going to let myself -- I need to feel sad and upset."
Mayer went on a planned vacation to the Napa Valley in California with King, where she lost her cell phone. That actually helped her mood, because it left her without access to social media - and negative comments - for almost a week.
When back, she helped her father with the continued renovation of her home. When she'd go hiking with her dogs, Luna and Moose, and not stare at her phone, everything felt like it had before.
The non-boxing portion of her life remained the same. Her friends were her friends. Her family was her family.
"I started to realize, 'What's really changed for me?'" Mayer said. "I'm like, 'Nothing.' But you go back and you're like, 'That could have been the fight to change me.'"
Her identity is tied up in her profession, but the first two world titles she won -- those belts remained in a carry-on bag in her home for months after she lost -- didn't alter her life as much as maybe she thought.
The belts were important. They were, in her eyes, "the reward for doing the biggest thing," putting on big fights, pursuing hard challenges and succeeding in them.
"Seeing the belts wasn't super painful to me," Mayer said. "I just think I wasn't in a mental space to face it all, so I left them in the bag for so long."
It was the balance of self-care Mayer implemented in the weeks after the loss. When she thought about what happened in London, it hurt deeply, left her sad and depressed. She returned to social media at the encouragement of her team and put on a positive face when she'd venture there, "acting like 'I'm fine' and I'm really not."
It was a dichotomy Mayer lived in for weeks, a realization in some ways she had to have -- a perspective she might not have gained as fully had she won the fight. She knew she had to go home first. There was a house to renovate, friends to see and dogs to care for. As she processed everything in her life, what the loss meant and didn't mean to her as a human, there was little question about one thing.
Mayer knew she wanted to fight. How she approached her career -- always wanting the biggest, most challenging fights her team they could make -- wouldn't change. She wanted to start training again and to push for a new fight -- fast.
To help return to routine, Mayer trained at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas for three weeks in November and lived in a spare room her nutritionist, Paulina, provided. Weeks at home and the Napa vacation made her understand something she didn't realize before: She couldn't pull herself out of this on her own.
She needed help -- starting with letting her body recover and prepare for what was next.
"I put myself in an environment where I at least had to do something every day," Mayer said. "It's almost like I couldn't pull myself out of that funk myself, and I've always been this type. If I can't do it on my own, I'll put myself in position to be successful."
After Las Vegas, she returned to Colorado to celebrate Thanksgiving with her family and King, whom she hadn't seen in weeks due to their conflicting schedules as professional athletes. She felt a little more like herself. She began to put herself out there more -- on social media and showing up to fight events, even if it was more for show than an expression of how she truly felt.
King suggested she return to social media in the same way she had before -- aggressively and sharing her life and personality. Keep her name out there, even if there might be trash talking from others coming with it.
"I'm like, 'Bro, you can't just stop being what you are and who you are," King said. "Like you gotta continue doing that."
The first time King made the suggestion, Mayer didn't buy it. Eventually, she did as part of the healing.
Mayer is a big Christmas person and the holiday she loves became another distraction as she waited for the thing which would help the most in her mental recovery: her next fight.
Mayer said Top Rank fully supported her fight plan. She didn't want a tune-up at lightweight, her new weight class. Initially, they approached former champion Delfine Persoon but couldn't finalize a deal. Then came another idea, giving Mayer the challenge she craved and stoking the Baumgardner rivalry.
Linardatou is the former WBO junior welterweight champion who vacated her title because of pregnancy. She's a difficult matchup and the only opponent to defeat Baumgardner.
"When you play chess, sometimes somebody makes an unexpected move," Ruiz said. "You gotta deal with it, move and you gotta deal with it, right? Yeah. And that's what this was. And so you don't, you don't give up the game. You don't, you know, fold at that point.
"You just play differently. You adapt. You adapt and overcome. And so we've looked at the landscape of what's next?"
What's next became Linardatou. It excited Mayer and gave her "inspiration" to get back to camp and fulfill her plan of staying relevant and in the conversation. Her focus returned.
The feelings she still had remained, but camp became a needed transition period to refocus her.
"You have to make a choice. Smile and keep going until things get better or cry yourself to sleep every night and just dwell on the emotions," Mayer said. "You have the power to change your mindset but you have to sometimes just do it. Even if you don't believe it, you have to do it.
"But I feel like it sort of stopped when I started training camp. I just had to get back into training camp."
As confident as she portrayed herself, frustrations lingered even as camp began in Marquette, Michigan. Her coach, Al Mitchell, always provides her with hard camps -- this was what she wanted. What she expected.
What she didn't expect? After intense sparring sessions where she felt sharper than ever, where her boxing and technical work continued to make strides, she'd leave the ring angry.
"Not when I'm doing bad, but when I'm doing really good, it pisses me off," Mayer said. "Because I'm like, 'I should be champion. I'm the better fighter. I'm the best. I should be champion. How did I let that slip through my fingers?'
"And it'll motivate me, but it'll piss me off for a second. I hate that."
It's the balance she worked through. She'd see herself jumping levels in her skill and ring intelligence. She believes she's better now than she was in October. Yet, there's something missing.
Something she no longer dwelled on but percolated in her head at certain moments.
"It's hard to be in your prime and not have the belts all of a sudden," Mayer said. "Like, I'm better now than I've ever been but I've taken a step back in some sense, not having the belts, losing the belts, not being champion."
The thoughts still creep in occasionally, the what-if existing with every big decision or big disappointment in a person's life. It's an unquestionably human reaction. The day-to-day feelings, though, are long gone.
Camp provided purpose. Time heals. Her team of Ruiz, Mitchell, Kay Koroma, King, her family and friends reminded her of everything else. Mayer said she didn't go to therapy during this time, but it "probably wouldn't have hurt."
She talked to King about things only they could understand as professional athletes with public disappointments. Mayer relied on King as a sounding board and a consistent level of support, even if they didn't talk about it all the time.
"We can relate in a bunch of ways when it comes to playing on a high level where you got people watching you, people talking s--- from social media and everything," King said. "But my way of just helping her, I feel like [I] was just reminding her of who she was and letting her know who she was and not letting nobody make her forget that."
Mayer understands now. The physical reminders of what she was and still can be are in view. The belts are out of the rolling suitcase. Her father finished a display case in her home gym and they've since been put in there. She is comfortable seeing them again. She would like to win belts back.
King sees a different layer to Mayer now -- one with more edge, one motivated by the loss and the opportunity for bigger chances in bigger fights.
How the message Ruiz gave her in the car in October about overcoming an obstacle manifested in Mayer's life. Mayer still has her lucrative Top Rank contract. She moved up a division to a weight class she's more comfortable in. That position she lost, she's focused on quickly getting it back.
"It takes so long to get to this level, so many years of discipline, dedication, fighting," Mayer said. "I'm ready, just let me off my leash, I'm ready to go. Belts or no belts."