Jake Paul's pay-per-view appeal against the ropes after loss to Tommy Fury

Tommy Fury punches Jake Paul during their boxing match on Feb. 26 at the Diriyah Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Francois Nel/Getty Images - image credit)
Tommy Fury punches Jake Paul during their boxing match on Feb. 26 at the Diriyah Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Francois Nel/Getty Images - 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.

First, let's squash any lingering confusion:

Jake Paul is a real boxer.


This isn't a title boxing writers and other sweet science lifers bestowed upon Paul because he showed heart in dropping an eight-round decision to Tommy Fury, in the main event of a pay-per-view card in Saudi Arabia last Sunday. That bout, objectively, was not close. Fury, a reality TV star from a boxing family, outclassed Paul, a social media celebrity who now boxes. He landed more often, with more authority, while Paul struggled to adjust to Fury's length, and the tempo he set.

If anything, Sunday night's loss highlighted the limitations in Paul's skill set and business model.

In the immediate term, he's fine. Paul grossed a reported $30 million US to receive that boxing lesson from Fury, the younger half-brother of WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.

The question was never whether the 26-year-old Paul was a legitimate boxer. He has coaches, training partners and a full-time training schedule. Several times a year he signs up to trade punches in public, wearing 10-ounce gloves and no headgear. Anybody who does that stuff is a real boxer, and doesn't need to win a world title to prove it to the rest of us.

But what does Sunday's humbling loss say about Paul, the public, and the media who helped turn his otherwise run-of-the-mill fights into major events? What happens now that the question at the crux of Paul's appeal — whether he can actually beat a full-time boxer — has been answered? How does a 6-1 cruiserweight who lost the first time he, as boxing people say, stepped up in class, rebuild the expectations that have attracted so many eyeballs and dollars so far? Stoking interest in a rematch might be the toughest test Jake Paul the salesman has ever faced.

As for the expectations — they'll undergo a reset, which is a tribute to the power of Paul's self-promotion.

Major fight treatment

If you ignore the action in the ring, a Jake Paul main event looks just like the super fights we're used to.

Like a sold-out venue with stars down front, where cameras can find them. Celebrities in the crowd on Sunday included comedian Kevin Hart, boxing Hall of Famer Mike Tyson, and soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

Or a fairly meaningful co-feature. Before Paul and Fury faced off, Badou Jack knocked out Junior Makabu to win a world title in a 12-round cruiserweight slugfest.

And broadcast partners. Services like DAZN and ESPN, streaming the bouts to your preferred device. Traditional cable operators beaming it to your TV for a $49.99 pay-per-view fee.

Before the fight, ESPN splashed Paul-Fury stories across the main page of its main site — the most popular sports destination on the internet. The company even published a story about the tailor who designed Paul's ring trunks.

Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao received that kind of treatment as active fighters, and top-tier superstars. But Mayweather went undefeated across 21 years and 50 bouts, and Pacquiao won world titles in eight weight classes. Paul's first six pro opponents had a median age of 37.5, and a median win total of zero — only 47-year-old Anderson Silva had ever actually won a boxing match.

Numbers game

Why does Paul get major fight treatment for bouts that, judged on skill level, are suited to the non-televised undercard of a pay-per-view event?

Because of his numbers — 22.2 million followers on Instagram and 20.3 million more on YouTube. Boxing promoters, cable operators and newspaper publishers are all playing the same game. Establish an audience for yourself, or borrow one from a star like Paul, and try to convert some of those folks into paying customers.

Numbers also explain why mainstream sports outlets entertained Paul's assertion that he was on a world title trajectory, and capable of eventually beating Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, the undisputed champ at 168 pounds. Some public figures have big audiences because they're experts; others are treated as experts because they have a large audience. That second part describes the entire influencer economy, and helps explain why Paul's fights all have the trappings of world title showdowns.

The strategy seems to have worked on Sunday. According to published reports, Paul-Fury did 500,000 pay-per-view buys, a figure only a handful of other "real" boxers could hit consistently.

Yes, Paul's a real boxer, even if he's light years away from beating a top-10 cruiserweight.

For perspective, imagine that your friend moves to some high-altitude running hub, like Eldoret, Kenya or Flagstaff, Ariz., then finds a coach and some training partners and goes all-in on marathon prep. If your friend makes that move, your friend is a real runner. We can measure authenticity by commitment, not by background or our outcomes.

Suppose that after four years of serious training, your friend runs the London Marathon in two hours, 58 minutes. That result would make your friend — male, female or anywhere else on the gender spectrum — a blazing fast marathoner. It's impressive. Three hours is a broken barrier serious runners never forget.

But if that same friend says they're three training camps away from outrunning Eliud Kipchoge, you'll have to accept that your friend is delusional. Even the world's most arrogant 2:58 marathoner knows that seed time won't land them in a major race's elite field.

Selling ideas

The marathon analogy also helps explain why Paul and other influencers have flocked to boxing.

Runners race each other, but they're all up against the clock, which reliably reveals the gap in talent and preparation between world class runners and everybody else. Your friend's 2:58 is still a superb time, but next to Kipchoge's 2:02 it would just look slow.

But in boxing, if you have the cash and promotional backing, you can choose opponents that flatter you — like retired MMA fighters in their 40s. String together some impressive looking wins, create perception that you're on the cusp of world class, then use it to sell the next fight.

It's the perfect sport for the Instagram/YouTube era, where influencers can get rich selling ideas.

The Liver King told us "Ancestral Tenets" and a diet heavy in organ meat built his rippling physique. If you didn't have the time or the palate to live like that, you could get the same effect from the expensive supplements for sale on his website.

In reality, the Liver King took a lot of steroids.

And Paul peddled the perception that he was trending toward a pound-for-pound elite level boxing skill. In truth, in the ring, he's just a boxer — a legitimate one — with a 6-1 record built against middle-aged part-timers, regrouping after finally facing another full-time sweet scientist.

And getting thumped.