6:27 AM ET

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

Mark Krigelespen

Marquette, Michigan. — …several months after the death of Vernon Forrest, who was shot and killed in a gas station robbery at the age of 38. Al Mitchell’s already lost children. But it was still in Northern Philadelphia, where for a time it seemed as if the natural evolution of life – including his – led ruthlessly to prison or death. Vernon was different: He never had any problems, he became world champion in two divisions. And yes, mitchell thought he was a son. But what’s even more striking is the way he just got into her life.

Out of nowhere, he says.

That was in 2009. Al Mitchell was 66 years old. He was head coach boxing for 20 years at the American Olympic Education Center of the University of North Michigan. He was head coach of the Olympic team in 1996. He has also trained world champions, including Charlie Chew Brown and David Reed. But Vernon will be the last. He knew this because he swore never to work with another professional. Actually, he’s almost done boxing. It wasn’t the same as knowing Vernon was gone.

And this guy from California kept calling, talking about his daughter and how she could make the Olympic team despite the fact that she had lost a little.

I don’t want a headache. Mitchell told him. I don’t need my dad not telling me how to do my job.

But the man from California wasn’t a fighter. He created toys for a living.

Still, Mitchell didn’t know what was most absurd: Women fighting in the Olympics, or the idea of training alone. He doesn’t train girls, he swore long ago. They’re weak. My father would have rolled into his grave.

In the meantime, the director of the Olympic Education Centre has told him that we have to adapt, that we have to change. Mitchell knew what it meant. London 2012 will be the first Olympic boxing match for women.

For him it was just a sign that his time in the fighting game was coming to an end.

A young woman arrived in the first week of January 2010. On her first trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which was covered in a few feet of snow, she wore a pink Juicy Couture suit and UGG boots.

Mitchell looked at her sadly, as a relief, and thought: She can’t handle it.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Mikaela Mayer cuddles Al Mitchell after her victory over Jajira Gonzalez in the Olympic boxing match for women. Christopher Hanewinkel/USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, this girl, former Olympic champion Michaela Mayer (13:0, 5 KO), will fight with Polish athlete Ewa Brodnicki (19:0, 2 KO), WBO light weight junior champion (19:30, ESPN+). Meyer’s victory makes her Mitchell’s fourth world champion, her first since Forrest, and a great gift for her 77th birthday. However, other gifts have already been exchanged between them, a girl from the Valley and a former street prostitute from Philadelphia. It would be the most incredible union – not only in boxing, but perhaps in all sports.

Who am I to train? She asked.

They’ll train the boys, the coach said. I treat you like a boxer. If you can handle it, you’ll be there. If you can’t handle it, you go away.

Some trainers will tell you what to do to increase your self-confidence. Mitchell told you what you did wrong. Then he’ll tell you one more time to make sure you have it. In Mayer’s case, however, he would have told her a third time. Maybe even a quarter.

She was six feet tall, but she had a bad habit of crouching when she hit. It wasn’t just embarrassing. It was inappropriate of Mitchell.

Why are you bending over like that? He said.

You fight like you’re six feet tall.

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19:30 EN Saturday evening on ESPN+: Naoya Inoue against Jason Moloney, 12 laps for the IBF/WBA lightweight welterweight title.

Jeb.

Jeb. Damn it.

Like Vernon.

He was tall.

I’ll show you how Vernon did it.

Vernon this and Vernon that, recalls Mikaela, who, although she has already won the national Golden Glove title, inevitably returned to her dorm packed in doubt. Oh, my God, she’d wonder if I’m bad.

It’s a good thing she didn’t ask Mitchell. He said it was only a matter of time before Miss Juicy Couture came home. But at the end of that first winter his opinion in the gym is no longer unanimous.

Once Christopher Pearson, a middleweight who’s been to several national championships, volunteers, you know, she’ll be stronger.

Mitchell was less convinced. Maybe she just sucked less. On the other hand, he had to admit that she worked. First in the gym, last out. Every day. Just like Vernon.

She ran away at 5 a.m., just like the boys.

The gym, just like the boys.

Mitchell checked with his teachers in northern Michigan. His grades were as good as those of the others, including, of course, Vernon.

But two professors told her they saw her last night in an off-campus restaurant.

What do you do at night? Mitchell asked him.

She said I was a bartender.

When do you sleep? He asked.

I’ve got a couple of hours.

That’s when I knew Mitchell remembered none of the boys would do that.

I’m sorry, he didn’t think anyone could go on like this, not on this level.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Mikaela Mayer receives 31. October: first title match against Eva Brodnicki. Ethan Miller/Getty Pictures

On Valentine’s Day 2012, Meyer lost a double suspension tournament in Spokane, Washington, D.C., to a strong favorite, Queen Underwood, at the Olympics. The next day she arrested her next opponent. The next day she won by decision. The next day, another victory by decision. Meyer fought six times in as many days. In the finals she played a return game against Underwood for a spot in the historic Olympic team.

That morning, Mayer Mitchell woke up early.

What happened? He asked out of fear of nerves, which would be fully justified because Underwood was the reigning American national champion for five consecutive years. Meyer hasn’t even boxed in five years.

I need a haircut, she says. And my nails.

But today you fight the champion.

Coach, you gotta take me with you.

He took her.

Then she lost.

That was close, 22-19. But while Meyer waited for the inevitable, which I told you about Coach Al, he took off his permanent hat and started crying. I’ve never had a fighter before. He spoke of his request for the fight.

Speaking of quitting, he’s now made way for a speech on Rio 2016. If you stay another four years, he told her you’d be an Olympic team.

These are the lives you live and the lives you change.

They overlap from time to time.

For Mitchell this usually happens in Marquette, a city of 21,000 people on the shores of Lake Superior, which once hosted a boxing tournament at the Junior Olympics. He met Vernon Forrest at the small local airport. Mitchell was on his way back to Philadelphia with his team. Vernon just missed his flight to Atlanta and, as you can imagine, a teenager stayed away from home.

Mitchell recognized him from the tournament, took him to the hotel and called his mother. He promised him he’d stay with Vernon until he got on the plane home.

But that night, the tournament director had something in mind: We need a coach.

Over a period of about a year, Mitchell accepted a position as boxing coach at the Olympic Education Center in the United States. It was great to do what you love and live in a neighborhood where you don’t lock the doors and the few neighbors who were gone made sure everything was okay. As for the snow, he’s gotten used to it. Life was beautiful, even though it was a life he had never imagined.

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The Mitchell area north of Philadelphia was known as the Blood Bucket. His father, a staff sergeant in the army, never recovered from the emotional wounds he suffered during the Korean War and died when Mitchell was 16. At that time, Mitchell was already struggling to break the 43-1 welterweight record, a promising amateur career interrupted by a more criminal form of fighting.

Mitchell, who was released from Holmesburg prison a few years later, opened a shop on the corner of 26th Street and Ingersall Street, where he allegedly sold sweets, milk, soft drinks and diapers. But the real work was the numbers, it was a day before the state governments started to look into the lottery. He always kept a 38 cigar box with gambling notes and a 45 Magnum. Yeah, he knew how to use it, like the kids who wanted to sell drugs on his street corner say, or the guys who came around the corner with bad bones.

Almost half a century later, Mayer is fascinated by his stories. Coach Al was the oldest person in her life, but somehow she could imagine him as a child. It was like a film that came out before he was even born, a story told in the machine gun range.

I’ve never met anyone who’s grown up like this before, she says.

The feeling was mutual, of course. In 2014, while Meyer was preparing for the PAL, Coach Al stayed with his family in Woodland Hills, California, and found himself in awe of the man who so tirelessly asked to take care of his daughter, the second of three sisters.

Three teenage girls in two bedrooms? Mitchell asked. How did you survive?

Sleeping on the couch is the least we can do, Mark Mayer says.

My parents broke up when I was five, Mikaela says. I remember the day my dad left the house.

There was too much alcohol and drugs, remembers Mark, his ex-wife. She just couldn’t give up. There were many times I was really worried about what was going on out there.

We only knew that [my mother] was very angry, Mikaela says. Still angry.

In his time the Child Protection Services intervened and the Maier sisters lived with their father. Only now Mikaela was angry. Her fighting spirit saved her from high school, where she was able to study four times in three years.

But the anger hid the child he was looking for. There was a bad guy, lots of parties and a short modelling career as a teenager. It was not uncommon for Mikaela to stay outside for days or even weeks.

Maybe the best of their teens played bass guitar. She learned to play at a friend’s house and then placed an ad on Craigslist: The bass player is looking for a metal band. She lists her musical influences – Shabbat, Metallica, Slipcot – and her age – 14.

Actually, I was 13 years old, Mikaela remembers. But I didn’t want people to think I was too young.

The group stayed together for a few years. Performances at local concerts and even tours. Coach Al – whose personal taste has surpassed the sweetest spots in American pop music, from Frankie Lymon to The Intruders, from doo-wop to the Philadelphia sound produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff – has never heard the band. But Mikaela’s father showed her some pictures: black jeans, black boots, black eye shadow, black cut hair, lots of piercings. While Coach Al struggled to reconcile with his version of Mikaela’s headline, it was also enough for him to imagine the beautiful, naughty child she used to be.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Top Rank was signed by Mikaela Mayer in 2017, and she was the protagonist on her first card when she signed Helen Joseph on the 14th. July 2020. Bill Tompkins/Getty Pictures

I don’t know why she seems to be the strongest of the rebels, says Mark Mayer of his middle daughter. But I had the feeling that I had worked as hard as I could and that it was going to do itself.

It’s just gonna happen. Out of nowhere.

Mikaela was 17 years old: During the four weeks of training I went home and told my father that I wanted to be the best boxer in the world.

For years Mikaela drove over Ventura Boulevard along Muay Tai Gymnasium. One day, knowing that her mother had given it to her, she took her last 100 bucks from the bank and signed it. Muay Tai led to kickboxing, which led to boxing.

Mark took them to every fight, authorized or not, just as he took his daughters to camping, surfing, snowboarding or motorcycling. He was not a fan of the fight, but when he feared that Mikaela would be beaten or beaten by other girls, he kept it to himself. Whatever she was looking for, she found it.

Something she likes, he says.

A gift that must be protected, cultivated and fought.

Michaela’s dad didn’t care that Coach Al didn’t coach the girls.

This girl is going to the Olympics, he told her.

Fault! The file name is not specified. – set

0:49

Mikaela Mayer remains undefeated after Helen Joseph was dominated by a unanimous decision.

On the first day of his second Olympic event, Meyer suffered a nose injury. Despite the use of medical adhesives, it was reopened in each subsequent stroke – this time only five times in seven days – including a mini-triology against the child prodigy of the time, Jajira Gonzalez.

Soon Meyer will travel to Colorado Springs to work with his future Olympians. But in the meantime, she continued to train at Markett, according to Coach Al’s master plan, until he told her to get on the speedbag.

I can’t today, she says.

Why wouldn’t I?

At the time of the sheep concession, she raised her hand in the bandage. She said I had a tattoo.

What are you doing? Mitchell said, muttering to herself before she could answer.

That night his girlfriend Cindy told him that you don’t have to be so hard on Mikaela.

Why wouldn’t I? Mitchell said. We had a fight the next week, and she hurt her hand.

Have you seen the tattoo? Cindy asked.

But no, Mitchell said.

Well, that’s your name.

In fact, it was only his initials, but the gift between the almost 77-year-old coach and his first fighter still exists.

Meyer opened a Netflix account for him and helped him understand what YouTube meant, which only meant that they continued to study Vernon’s battles together.

Coach Al took out one of their thugs. I had to put my purple hoodie on him, he says. I grabbed it fast.

She rides on long journeys; he graciously masters the music.

And although Meyer can’t offer her another Olympic medal (she lost at the Rio Games, which were close to the bronze but controversial), she could be her fourth world champion, and the first after Vernon.

But he’s not the best. As Mitchell approaches his ninth decade, when he decided to quit boxing 11 years ago, it’s a life he couldn’t have imagined.

Al’s boxing hall, located in a former fertilizer warehouse in Marquette, is called every day after school and on Saturday mornings. It’s full of girls. They go from elementary school to high school, and they don’t come out of nowhere. They were weaned from parents who would otherwise be confused with the cute soccer moms or dads of Midwestern soccer players.

Some of them were angry, including a teenager who was worried about the bruises under his eyes and boots. Some of them got into trouble. The others just missed you. And some more, because it’s so much cooler than football. But they all know mikael mayer. And each of them wanted to be the next Mikaela Mayer at some point.

If they really want it, says Coach Al, two or three of them will become champions.

Fault! The file name is not specified. Al Mitchell is the head coach of Michaela Mayer, but is supported by veteran coaches Kay Koroma and Manny Robles, both veterans of American boxing. J.P. Im/ Getty Images

On Tuesday, before they moved to camp, Mikaela Coach already gave a birthday present. They were on both sides of their department bank in Colorado. In between, there was a woman named Heather, a former family therapist. Heather asked for a glass of water because she wanted to challenge the spirits, and many of them tried to get in touch with Alfred Mitchell through her.

There was a guy named Gene from a Harrowgate boxing club in Philadelphia. He wanted to thank Al.

And Auntie B., who took Mitchell to the gym for the first time. She was proud.

But no one was prouder than May.

Matty May, Mitchell said. His mother.

I want to hug you, Heather said. She still sees you as a child.

The psychological environment continued, she was worried about you.

Mitchell escaped at the time with guns and gangsters.

But you do, she says.

Matty May Mitchell wanted to be remembered when she sang in church. She was happy that Al and Mikaela found each other. At one point Heather turned to Mikaela and told her that you were an angel. She wants me to tell you.

Meanwhile, Vernon Forrest stood firm. He said he didn’t want to step on mommy’s toes.

Is he spiritual? Heather asks.

Yeah, Al said.

He’s happy, Heather said. He said God called him. Vernon told me to laugh, Heather explained. The important thing is he didn’t want Al to regret it.

Eventually Mikaela asked if Vernon was there when she fought.

He’s here, Heather said. He can see.

None of these gifts come from anywhere.

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