Not Just a Pretty Face: Meet the Model-Turned-Boxer Punching Her Way to Olympic Gold

PHOTO: Mikaela Joslin Mayer of the United States attends the award ceremony of the Womens 64kg Final during the AIBA Womens World Boxing Championships, May 19, 2012, in Qinhuangdao, China. PlayFeng Li/Getty Images
WATCH Boxer Mikaela Mayer's Long Fight for Olympic Glory

While top men’s fighters Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao just fought in a $400 million Las Vegas spectacle, Mikaela Mayer and the world's top amateur female boxers have been fighting non-stop for months in anticipation of the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

Originally from Los Angeles, Mayer, 24, is a top contender for the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team, but she actually started off her career as a model.

“I thought the idea of being a model sounded cool. People told me that’s what I should do,” Mayer, who lives in Marquette, Michigan, told ABC News’ “Nightline.” “When I found boxing, I switched gears. It focused me. I stopped going out. I stopped partying. I cracked down on school.”

To help fund and keep her dreams of an Olympic gold medal alive, Mayer has had to use both her brawn and beauty. The top ranking amateur fighter makes $12,000 a year from USA Boxing, which is less than minimum wage. But a Dr. Pepper commercial, along with her other ad campaigns, made Mayer one of the public faces for women’s boxing and netted her a small six-figure sum.

“That’s always been an issue with women and women in sports and women in the business world and being successful in general. Should looks matter? No, they shouldn’t matter,” Mayer said. “How you fight in the ring, your skill, your performance: that’s all that should matter. But the truth is it does matter. Companies, they want to put a pretty face behind their products, and it’s sad, but true.”

One of the best female boxers in the world, Claressa Shields, said she knows the issue all too well.

Shields, who lives in Flint, Michigan, won an Olympic gold medal when she was only 17 -- and is again favored to win another, but sponsors haven’t been beating down her door.

“I mean, of course I play commercials in my head with all of these companies, of course I have,” Shields, 20, told “Nightline.” “Whoever, I just want an endorsement. I don't know. I haven't had one yet.”

Shields said that she doesn’t like that female fighters have to show skin in order to get paid.

“I see women having to show their body to get attention for boxing, and I've never been like that. And I don't think I'm ever going to do that,” Shields said. “I would love to be on the covers of magazines but I'm not going to sell my body. I feel like I’m selling enough.”

Even Mayer, who in the last 2 years has become one of the top women’s boxers in the world, said she hasn’t had a sponsor since 2013. To make ends meet, she sometimes works as a bartender in Michigan.

“If you look at endorsement opportunities and sponsorship opportunities, they still are dominated by the men for sure,” Christy Halbert, the Director of Boxing Resource Center, told “Nightline.”

Female boxers on the national team now fight as amateurs well into their 30’s, finding it more stable of a living than turning professional.

“On the pro level, there’s just not as much available. The typical championship fight for a woman professional, she’d make about $5,000. A man, he’s going to make hundreds of thousands, potentially millions,” said Halbert.

With every fight, Mayer and Shields are one step closer to their Olympic dreams. They hope each win will pave the way for the next girl that can pack a punch.

Shields said she believes she will one day get a chance to headline a boxing match in Las Vegas.

“What I think is going to get me over is the fans are going to want to see me,” Shields said. “But it takes that superior one to do it, and hopefully I can get paid $180 million for a fight. But if it doesn't come, at least I'm helping out for the next generation coming up, because girls are starting to box at a very young age.”

“All these girls here are pioneers of this sport. We don’t realize it now, but this is the beginning. The Olympics is only going to help women’s boxing grow even more,” Mayer said.

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