Boxing industry's issues will remain long after the novelty of Jake Paul wears off

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Jake Paul, left, fought Ben Askren in a novelty cruiserweight bout during Triller Fight Club in Atlanta on Saturday. Paul won via first-round TKO. (Al Bello/Getty Images for Triller - image credit)
Jake Paul, left, fought Ben Askren in a novelty cruiserweight bout during Triller Fight Club in Atlanta on Saturday. Paul won via first-round TKO. (Al Bello/Getty Images for Triller - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last Saturday night in Atlanta, YouTube star turned pro boxer Jake Paul squashed retired MMA fighter Ben Askren in a pay-per-view boxing match so lopsided people wondered if it was scripted.

Paul, who trains full time with former middleweight contender J'Leon Love, landed a right hand to Askren's temple. Askren, who, judging by his pudgy upper body, doesn't train much anymore, went down like a felled tree. Paul collected victory, and a $690,000 guarantee.

But at Paul's level of the business — distinct from the sport in ways we'll discuss later — paydays are backloaded, with headliners getting a cut of pay-per-view revenue. Organizers are still calculating data, but early reports peg pay-per-views between 1.2 and 1.6 million. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao did numbers like that a decade ago, and few boxers have even approached them since. If those projections bear out, Paul could gross seven or eight figures for winning a mismatch. That a guy who made his name as a YouTube troll, who has never fought a boxer in official competition, could pocket that much money in his third pro bout must surely herald boxing's long-awaited death.

Right?

In what other industry could a high-profile beginner, famous for being famous, make life-changing money, while dedicated craftspeople in the same field scuffle for recognition, and modest compensation?

Surely not music, where the best singers always make the most money.

And not publishing, where only the most skilled storytellers pull in seven-figure advances.

And ABC definitely didn't build a whole franchise around pairing celebrities with professional dancers in a weekly contest.

Impossible. That only happens in boxing, and that's why boxing's dying, again.

Boxing's habit of self sabotage

Except boxing's problems existed before Jake Paul, and they'll persist after Paul either gets bored or gets beat. Right now, most fight fans want to see a world title showdown between undefeated welterweights Errol Spence and Terence Crawford, but will have to settle for something else because the two fighters' promoters won't make a deal. Nobody like Jake Paul existed in the 1990s, when Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe never met in a megafight. They just didn't fight. Popular novelty bouts don't affect boxing's entrenched self-sabotage habit.

Boxing is boxing, and it's not the only place where a novice can monetize a big following (15 million on Instagram, 20.4 million on YouTube).

The reality is Paul and Triller, the social media startup that promoted and broadcast the fight, are cashing in by taking standard boxing industry tactics to new platforms.

Early estimates suggest pay-per-view sales of Paul vs. Askren could be between 1.2 to 1.6 million. If correct, Paul, the YouTube star turned pro boxer, could earn seven or eight figures for winning the mismatch.
Early estimates suggest pay-per-view sales of Paul vs. Askren could be between 1.2 to 1.6 million. If correct, Paul, the YouTube star turned pro boxer, could earn seven or eight figures for winning the mismatch.(Al Bello/Getty Images for Triller)

Boxing still exists because boxing fans do. Last September, 1.4 million people tuned in to watch Yordenis Ugas win a decision over Abel Ramos to claim a welterweight title. The viewership number was the biggest for a televised card since the sport returned after a COVID-19-induced moratorium, and right in line with the number of people boxing industry experts expect for fairly big fights. If you've never heard of Ugas or Ramos, that's the point. A good-sized group of viewers care enough about boxing to watch them fight.

And over the past few days Showtime, the U.S. cable network, and DAZN, the streaming service, have sent out news releases, and plastered their social media feeds with schedules for their upcoming bouts. All serious fights, with high-level competitors, aimed at the kind of boxing fans who don't necessarily plan their Saturday nights around Jake Paul main events.

A sport that enables

But Paul has a following that will watch him do just about anything. And boxing has fewer barriers to entry than any other major North American sport, which makes it the perfect place for Paul to find a windfall.

He couldn't do it in football. Too hard to find three dozen other players and a way to make himself look skilled. He could try tennis, but who is somebody good enough to get the ball over the net and keep it between the lines, yet bad enough to lose to Jake Paul?

But to stage a boxing match, you only need an opponent of the same gender and somewhat similar size, and who can get licensed, which is way easier than it sounds.

Can you read this sentence? Then your eyes work. Congratulations. You're halfway to a boxing licence.

And I didn't mean to sound ableist. If you're reading this via braille, or listening to a dictation, and you comprehend it, your brain works. Congratulations. You, too, are halfway to entering the Jake Paul opponent lottery.

From there, Paul and Triller just follow the boxing business playbook. Hometown fighters on local cards are usually tasked with selling tickets. The more you sell, the more likely promoters are to book you on future shows. Paul fought in the co-feature of Triller's first fight card, headlined by an eight-round exhibition between Roy Jones Jr. and Mike Tyson.

But Paul's destruction of retired NBA player Nate Robinson went viral, making him Triller's equivalent of the local hopeful who sold his whole ticket allotment. When they planned their second card, Paul graduated to the main event.

And the one-sided pummelling of an overmatched part-time fighter? Also standard in the boxing business.

Most would-be contenders build their records on similar mismatches, beating up on barbers, day labourers, cab drivers. So that aspect of Paul's boxing career is standard. In three fights, he has beaten a social media star, a basketball player, and Askren — best known for getting knocked unconscious by Jorge Masvidal in a UFC bout.

Ben Askren, left, is knocked out by Jorge Masvidal during their UFC 239 welterweight bout in 2019.
Ben Askren, left, is knocked out by Jorge Masvidal during their UFC 239 welterweight bout in 2019.(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

But here's where Paul's diverges from boxing's business as usual.

Most people in Paul's position know they'll have to, as the boxing cliché says, "step up in class." Their handlers will match them with better opponents, and making real money will mean accepting a fight they might lose. It's a gamble for the fighter and their management, but it's also the only way to win titles and big cheques.

But for Paul, because he already has a following, and because Triller is willing to backstop these ventures, challenging fights never have to enter the business plan. If Paul can pocket seven figures for fighting Ben Askren, he has no financial incentive to fight anybody world class.

His business partners know it, which is why Triller's fight cards are also variety shows. Snoop Dogg does commentary. Rappers perform. Pete Davidson gets paid to highlight how absurd it is. And all those features are necessary to engage an audience that doesn't care about boxing, and dress up a main event that never figured to be competitive.

It's also why Triller spent big to secure the rights to lightweight champ Teofimo Lopez' next fight. People might not always pay to watch the spectacle, but boxing fans, like the boxing industry's issues, will still be here when the novelty of a Jake Paul fight wears off.

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