The Youtube star has turned his professional boxing ‘career’ into an eyeball-grabbing, money-spinning spectacle. It may be a total farce, but all promoters should be taking notes
On Saturday night, the odious LA-based vlogger Jake Paul won his third professional boxing match with a first-round knockout of Ben Askren, a retired UFC fighter with no previous boxing experience. Paul, who boasts more than 20m subscribers on YouTube, sent his opponent crashing to the deck in the opening minutes of their scheduled eight-round cruiserweight fight with a looping right hand before referee Brian Stutts waved it off, perhaps a bit prematurely, after the 2008 US Olympian beat the count.
“I deserved that shit,” the 24-year-old Paul said afterward. “This is the craziest moment of my life. I told y’all I was going to do it in the first round. I told y’all I’m a real fighter. I don’t know how many times I’ve got to prove myself this is for real.”
It’s easy to dismiss Paul v Askren as a joke, which it is: more highly polished cosplay than a genuine sporting experience between top-flight competitors. Paul’s three wins in as many outings have come against a fellow YouTuber, an ex-NBA player and the retired mixed martial artist on Saturday who looked like he’d trained for about 15 minutes, none of whom had ever boxed previously. He’s taking the least amount of risk possible and selling it for the highest price. This charade will be undressed the moment he steps into the ring with even a domestic-level opponent, though you get the sense that won’t be happening any time soon.
But there’s nothing funny about the attention generated by the event, which spent most of the night as the No 1 trending topic on Twitter and Instagram in the US and a number of other countries. Paul might be a hype job as credible as Santa Claus, but Saturday’s spectacle is newsworthy in the sports business space as the second pay-per-view card produced and distributed by Triller, the social networking app that has made a significant investment in boxing programming in the last year.
Triller’s initial foray into boxing came six months ago when it carried the exhibition between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr, a nostalgia act much-derided in the run-up that proved far more entertaining than it ever deserved to be. The only thing that exceeded expectations more than the promotion – which generated a reported 1.6m buys, a shocking figure that makes it the best-selling boxing event of the past several years – was the fast-moving, slickly produced telecast by a first-time broadcaster filled with unexpectedly entertaining fights and seamlessly integrated musical performances.
Saturday’s second pay-per-view card largely doubled down on the same formula as November’s debut, striking a tone between Wrestlemania and Verzuz. It was staged at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the 75,000-seat home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, but was effectively a made-for-TV event with only about 500 spectators (mostly VIPs and contest winners) in attendance. The undercard was peppered with short sets by Justin Bieber, Doja Cat, Saweetie, The Black Keys and Mt Westmore – the newly formed hip-hop supergroup consisting of Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Too $hort and E-40. At the end of each fight, Gen Z megastars Charlie and Dixie D’Amelio were on hand to present a Triller-branded championship belt to the winner. At one point, the coverage broke for a slap boxing fight that appeared to take place in the bowels of the stadium with commentary by Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson and former pro wrestler Ric Flair. Authentic might be too strong a word, but the free-flowing banter in the well-lubricated five-man (!) commentary booth never felt forced, even if the sexual assault allegations leveled against Paul this week didn’t get a mention. Oh, and Oscar De La Hoya appeared to be wasted.
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There was even time for a couple of fights. Most were novelties, like a six-rounder between former UFC heavyweight title-holder Frank Mir and retired cruiserweight boxing champion Steve Cunningham. But the co-main event was a legitimately meaningful junior welterweight scrap between ex-champ Regis Prograis and Ivan Redkach. Triller is sparing no expense in this department: In February, it dramatically expanded its profile in the industry by winning the purse bid for Teófimo López’s mandatory IBF lightweight title defense against George Kambosos at a cost of $6.02m, well ahead of Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn ($3.56m) and Top Rank’s Bob Arum ($2.32m). That fight will headline its third PPV in June.
Essentially, Triller is taking one of the most hidebound formats in all of sports – the boxing pay-per-view – and reimagining it for the TikTok generation. Unsurprisingly, the prevailing reaction in boxing circles has been one of pearl-clutching and consternation, as if sideshows like these are modern phenomena (they’re not) and the sport could possibly be further debased. What these folks ignore is that boxing is above all a business; if you don’t want to watch, you’re free to doomscroll right past it. Far more alarming is what it says about a sport’s ability to mint new stars and market itself to younger viewers if a glorified sparring session headlined by a vlogger with a couple pro bouts can become one of the most talked-about events of the year.
Boxing is healthier than it’s given credit for, with a loyal audience that turns up for and buys the big fights. But there is no question the perception of decline and an ageing fanbase is helped along by short-sighted promoters who never take big swings and are too comfortable sticking with the status quo. By positioning boxing in front of the eyeballs that every other sport is falling over themselves to court, Triller founder Ryan Kavanaugh is striking out at something new.
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