Ryan McDonald

Hermosa Beach’s Heidi Androl reports ringside from boxing’s biggest bouts

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Hermosa resident Heidi Androl covers boxing for Fox Sports, including this month’s rematch between Jermell Charlo and Tony Harrison. Photo by Brad Jacobson (Civiccouch.com)

by Ryan McDonald

It’s not easy to catch Floyd Mayweather with his hands down. Mayweather, whom ESPN called “perhaps the greatest defensive fighter in history,” went 50–0 over a professional boxing career lasting more than two decades. The longevity and unblemished record are doubtless owed to Mayweather’s ability to avoid getting hit, a skill that drew respect from analysts but sometimes moved casual fans to boredom. In his Golden Gloves days, Mayweather’s lack of scars prompted his gym mates to call him “Pretty Boy” Floyd, after the Depression era-bank robber. Since shedding his amateur status, Mayweather has gone by “Money,” a moniker that captures both the enormous paydays he has accumulated, and his tendency to approach boxing with tactical dispassion, like an investment banker weighing a trade.

Count Hermosa Beach resident Heidi Androl among the few to have thrown Money off his game. In August 2017, Androl, a reporter for Fox Sports Premier Boxing Champions, was handling post-fight interviews for Mayweather’s last fight, in which he dispatched Conor McGregor, the brash Irish mixed martial artist who had crossed over from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Despite McGregor’s promise that he would “break this old man,” Mayweather won the much-hyped bout on a technical knockout partway through the 10th round, when McGregor displayed difficulty staying on his feet. Speaking with Androl — and looking more like he had just finished a light jog than go 28 minutes with a two-division cage-fighting champion — Mayweather began with bromides about training. Just as he did in the ring, he appeared to be tracing familiar steps, reciting a script he had memorized. Then, like a stylus hitting a deep scratch on a record, Mayweather lost his rhythm.

“How do you know Do-it-all Bob?” he asked, staring at Androl.

The “Bob” in question was what is sometimes known as a tape man, the person responsible for wrapping a fighter’s hands before a match, to prevent digits from breaking, or at least make that less likely. Amid the circus-like entourages that follow boxing champions, a tape man is easy to miss. But Androl, familiar with the Mayweather menagerie, had filled in the name as the boxer thanked his crew.

Androl, amid the heavy bags at Combinations Boxing Academy in Lawndale. Photo by Brad Jacobson (Civiccouch.com)

With just a few words, Androl changed the entire tone of the interview. Mayweather’s voice deepened, and he no longer spoke as quickly or with quite the same certainty. Androl, suddenly, was getting the good stuff. There’s a three-minute clip circulating on YouTube, but the post-fight one-on-one ultimately stretched on for nine minutes, which is about as rare in pro boxing as a lossless career. Off camera, Mayweather’s PR people were waving their arms, Androl said, trying desperately to wrap things up.

Fighters have a complicated relationship with the media. On the one hand, they rely on the press more than any other kind of athlete. Ever since Muhammad Ali rapped with Howard Cosell, reporters have been a vehicle for pugilists to create the character that they want their opponent to believe is stepping into the ring.

“That’s part of the reason why I tried to get in her head so much before the fight,” MMA fighter Ronda Rousey told Androl during an interview in 2012. Rousey was speaking of Miesha Tate, the one-time Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion, whose elbow Rousey had just dislocated. “If you challenge someone’s manhood or womanhood, they tend to be a lot less tactical with their matches. They fight more with their ego than strategy.”

But fighters can also be inscrutable and distant, unable to see why they should submit to difficult questions when they can simply let their fists and feet do the talking. When GQ profiled McGregor in 2017, writer Zach Baron conducted one of his interviews inside the Irish fighter’s new Lamborghini; at one point, McGregor said to the journalist, “I’ll throw you out onto the motorway right now and run this car over you.”

Androl has never been threatened with a sports car. But she has nonetheless ascended to the top of combat sports journalism, with assignments for the sweet science’s biggest fights, including the upcoming WBC Super Welterweight Title rematch between Tony Harrison and Jermell Charlo, and last month’s rematch between Luis Ortiz and Deontay Wilder, the defending WBC Heavyweight Champion. (Wilder knocked out Ortiz in the seventh round.)

Michael Altieri, senior vice president of communications and content for AEG and the L.A. Kings, gave Androl her first job in sports broadcasting. At a time when MySpace was the dominant social network, professional sports teams were still figuring out how to use the internet to showcase their athletes and their brand. The effort, which became known as L.A. Kings Insider, coincided with a nadir in the King’s performance, their Stanley Cup wins still years in the future. Their TV and newspaper coverage was sagging. Androl, as the host of Kings Insider videos, helped “tell the story of the organization that the media wasn’t really interested in at the time.” 

Asked if there was a throughline from Androl’s time in-house with the Kings to Fox, Altieri, who has worked with hundreds of reporters in his career, said that she has a level of commitment that sets good sports reporters apart.

“There first and foremost has to be a level of respect — I’ve seen it the other way, if that respect just isn’t there. I think Heidi put in the time. She built relationships, she traveled a lot. Everyone saw how hard she worked. She wasn’t just there with her makeup perfect. I remember her there, lugging lighting to and from the locker room. She embraced it, and everyone saw it,” Altieri said.

Androl — tall, with deep-set eyes, hair that cascades over her shoulders, and a goofy, ease-inducing laugh — is going to stand out wherever she is holding a microphone. Being taken seriously in locker rooms and arena hallways has taken work, perhaps more than would be required of someone else who didn’t look like she does. But the contrast between her appearance and her one-of-the-boys persona is only part of Androl’s own story. Beyond it is a keen eye for the human spirit, and a passion for the way competition can so vividly render it.

Her favorite part of the job comes when she is able to uncover the person behind the punch, and she can be decidedly cagey about doing it. Asked to name the best time to talk with a fighter, Androl answered immediately.

LAS VEGAS – NOVEMBER 23: Deontay Wilder and Heidi Androl on the FOX Sports PBC Pay-Per-View Fight Night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 23, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Fox Sports/PictureGroup)

“Inside the ring or the cage, the adrenaline is still there. Often times, I’ll see them 15 minutes later, after they see the doctor, go to the commission. That’s when you really get the best interviews,” Androl said. “They’ve got the adrenaline dump, and the tears come. The most heartfelt interviews are often 15 minutes after a victory or a loss. Because it’s kind of real in that moment.”

Getting her hands dirty

Androl grew up on a farm in Michigan. Her family grew produce and raised chickens, pigs and horses. A childhood full of early-morning chores and well-soiled clothes gave her what she calls “thick skin,” and prepared her to work hard.

If there was a hint about what lay in her future, it was her grandfather, who lived just on the other side of one of her family’s fields. He boxed during the Great Depression, when, Androl said, he ran seven miles to a gym, trained, then ran seven miles home. He eventually became a Golden Gloves boxer, and retained a love for the sport long after he stopped competing. Androl recalls that, when she was a kid, they often spent time together watching boxing matches broadcast from Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.

Her grandfather landed on the beaches at Normandy during World War II, she said, and received two Purple Heart awards in the conflict. But after he returned, he never set foot in the ring again. Androl did not realize until later that her grandfather suffered a severe case of what today would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

“When I was in high school, I was doing a report, and I asked him to come speak to my class about the war. He said, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that,’” Androl said. “I remember my grandma telling me that I had to wake him up by his feet, because he would wake up screaming. He was shell-shocked to the day he died.”

Androl was out of college, young and broke, when a friend from back home who was working at a trade show selling heavy machinery asked for her help. To the surprise of everyone, Androl sold a $150,000 filter. At her friend’s urging, she moved to Northern California to pursue a job in aerospace. 

Her first months in the field thrust her into sometimes hostile environments that, looking back, resemble the feeling of being a reporter in a losing locker room.

“The initial response from these crotchety, old engineer types was, Who in the hell is this girl, what is she doing here? But I would always say, ‘I’m here to learn,’” Androl said.

She found a partner in Kevin Mawhinney, the other half of what she described as “this unstoppable team” working for a helicopter company. Mawhinney found himself taken aback at how Androl was willing to push herself to learn. Confronted with a question, he recalled her as eager to head into a hangar and take apart a helicopter to learn how it worked.

“Deep down, she’s a tomboy… well, actually, she’s a tomboy pretty close to the surface,” Mawhinney said with a laugh.

The job put Androl in contact with powerful executives, including Donald Trump. Androl called on Trump hoping to sell him filters for his fleet of S-76 helicopters. Trump passed, but was evidently take with Androl’s moxie. A week later, Androl got a call from Mark Burnett Productions, the company behind what was then one of the most popular shows on TV: “The Apprentice,” the Trump-hosted reality show.

As part of a background investigation into Androl, Mawhinney was interviewed over the phone by someone from the production company. He remembers telling them that Androl was a person not afraid to get her hands dirty, and mentioning her comfort being outdoors. When the first episode premiered, and the contestants were assigned to pitch a tent outdoors, Mawhinney watched with a smile. 

“I remember thinking, They set this up. The rest of these MBAs are going to stand there with their fingers in their noses, and she’s going to tear into this thing,” he said.

Androl was often in close contact with Trump. He did not seem the future leader of the free world, she said, but was “never rude or crude.” He also told some of the contestants during a dinner at Spago that he would run for president in 2016. (This was 2006; “Be careful what you say out loud,” Androl mused.) The pressure-cooker atmosphere the show cultivated was enough to turn her off from reality television, but she did well in front of a camera. And when the opportunity to move into sports came up shortly after the show concluded, she met with the future president in his Trump Tower office, and he urged her to take the job with the Kings.

Androl’s time in hockey led to a career highlight working the 2010 Winter Olympics, when Canada bested the United States for the men’s gold medal in two thrilling matches. The next stage of her career was similarly well-timed: covering MMA just as the sport was about to take off. Androl became an interviewer for Strikeforce, the Showtime-carried MMA circuit.

Strikeforce was a breeding ground for the UFC, the dominant MMA organization, and Androl interviewed many fighters early on in their rise to the top. The Strikeforce Rousey-Tate matchup that Androl covered, for example, was a huge ratings success, and is widely credited with spurring UFC President Dana White to put women in the octagon.

White had feared that society was not ready to watch women subject themselves to the brutality that MMA fights often feature. In retrospect, this was a new version of an old dilemma: the intense passion that fighting sports produce has always had as its mirror image a kind of revulsion.

In a 1986 Life Magazine profile of Mike Tyson, novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “The brilliant boxer is an artist, albeit in an art not readily comprehensible, or palatable, to most observers.” Tyson, like so many prominent fighters, came from a scarred childhood, and Androl finds that the most compelling part of her job is when she is able to see flashes of a vulnerable person beneath the toughest of exteriors. She mentioned Julian Williams, the current light-middleweight champion of the world, talking with her about being homeless as a kid on the streets of Philadelphia.

The fervor surrounding MMA came amid a slide in popularity for boxing. Targeted marketing, Androl said, allowed MMA to tap into a younger fan base. But, since taking the job with Fox, Androl has now seen that begin to turn around: many people lured to combat sports by the UFC, she said, are now driving a renewed interest in boxing. The Mayweather-McGregor crossover is perhaps the most obvious example, but boxing appears once again to be tapping into the larger-than-life personalities that once gave it such a prominent place in the country’s social fabric.

Androl is a key part of this. Her job in this world is not to make boxing “palatable,” either in the marketing sense or the way Oates used the term. Her job is to make boxers themselves comprehensible.

“Some of my friends will say, How can you watch that? I tell them, I watch it through a different lense: a critical lens, technique-wise, but also a human lens, their story. If you know their story, it’s an art,” she said.

Jermell Charlo fights Tony Harrison Dec. 21 at the Toyota Arena in Ontario, Calif. The fight will be broadcast live on Fox at 5 p.m

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