Jake Paul is caught between boxing’s next big draw and another sideshow

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Jake Paul is a great many things: YouTuber, influencer, Disney Channel star — now boxer. Well, kind of. Paul won his second fight on Saturday, knocking out retired NBA player Nate Robinson in a messy bout that achieved its goal of getting people to watch. Being the showman he is, Paul capped off his night by stepping beyond simply donning gloves against untrained fighters. He boasted he was “the next Floyd Mayweather,” in an attempt to do what he’s truly gifted at, gaining attention.

The intrigue following the fight wasn’t the knockout itself, unless you like the idea of roasting Nate Robinson. It was whether Paul’s fights are making a mockery of boxing history and turning the sport into a sideshow, or if his arrival on cards is introducing boxing to a new generation of fans, and saving it in the process. Mike Tyson, who was also on the card Saturday, made his feelings known, saying that he felt Paul’s arrival was integral to the future of the sport.

“Boxing was pretty much a dying sport. UFC was kicking our butts, and now we got these YouTube boxers boxing with 25 million views. Boxing’s going back. Thanks to the YouTube boxers.”

We’re left with a delicate balance. It’s unquestioned that boxing has moved to being a niche sport in the U.S, survived by its purist fans after mixed martial arts took younger viewers. Is it worth trying to recapture that former big fight glory in the hopes boxing will rise again, or is putting people like Jake Paul front and center damaging the integrity of the sport itself?

Scott Christ is the manager of Bad Left Hook, SB Nation’s boxing blog. He believes that while a larger conversation is taking place about whether Paul is boxing’s devil or savior, in reality he doesn’t think Paul will make a long-term impact.

While there is unquestionably interest in seeing people like Jake Paul fight, boxing hasn’t managed to convert these newfound viewers into full-time fans. “They bring with them an audience that doesn’t normally watch boxing, and also isn’t very interested in the more “legitimate” boxing on the rest of the card,” Christ says. There’s a novelty factor in tuning in to see whether Paul can fight, or whether he’ll fall on the canvas — but little of the attraction is about boxing itself. Even with an influencer involved the only influencing seems to come from building Paul’s own brand, not lifting up the sport itself.

Christ doesn’t see Paul hurting the sport with fights like this, because more eyes are better than less, even if they’re curiosity viewers. However, if he’s going to have an impact on the sport there is a potential path to making Paul into something beyond a sideshow: He’d need to learn to be an actual boxer. This doesn’t mean putting on gloves to fight other YouTubers and former NBA stars, but legitimately training in a way where he could hang with professionally trained fighters. This isn’t outside the realm of possibility, considering Paul is only 23 and has the time to learn, but his willingness in this regard might be another story.

“Would he really have the desire for that? The focus for that?” Christ says, “Is boxing truly going to become his life? He might think that it already is, which is where I wonder about sincere delusion compared to salesmanship, but there’s really no way he’s actually been at that level of dedication.”

There are a few things that hint at Paul having some skills, but Christ calls him a “white-collar boxer,” a hobbyist who exhibits more skill that someone with zero training, but who can’t be compared in any facet to a trained fighter. “You watch his footwork and compare it to a genuine pro, and it’s not the same world,” Christ says, “You watch the way he lets his punches go, the angles he comes from, and it’s the same thing. You’ll beat opponents who don’t know what they’re doing, which he has, but guys who have trained for years, since they were kids, probably another story.”

Everything comes back to one key question: How much does Jake Paul want this? Nobody can answer that question except Paul himself, because any public answer he gives will be obscured with layer, upon layer of carefully orchestrated spin and tantalizing answers to keep people on the hook.

Despite claims he’s the next Mayweather, or calling out Conor McGregor, Paul isn’t ready. Not by a long shot. Christ mentions journeyman lightweight Tommy Karpency, a 34-year-old fighter who has had success, but never really become a serious contender. In his eyes if Paul were to step in the ring with Karpency he’d get toyed with. “It would take Jake years more to be able to hang with that sort of professional, and that’s well before we’re getting into the actual elite fighters out there.”

Paul’s arrival in the boxing world is polarizing. There’s a general disdain towards any kind of celebrity boxing from actual fighters. This is a dangerous sport, where people put years of training, and also their lives on the line. A YouTuber setting up exhibition fights and calling out trained professionals is an affront to those who have gone through the rigors and sacrifice it takes to actually become professionals. However, despite this general dislike of any celebrity boxing, it does bring attention to lesser-known fighters who might otherwise not compete on a card with this many people watching. It also seems to be far more of a problem to be waxed poetically about, rather than for professionals taking a date on a Jake Paul card. “Devin Haney and Billy Joe Saunders are world class fighters who were on the KSI-Logan Paul undercard in November of 2019,” Christ says, “and boxing fans and fighters who weren’t those guys seemed to be far more insulted than either of them were.”

“You can’t help but wonder if those who currently loudly protest might change their tune if they were offered the slot and a good payday,” says Christ, and really that’s one part of the issue. How much is the backlash against Paul boxing because he’s competing, and how much is a perceived insult because someone is bringing attention, and money to the sport — and there aren’t enough slots on the card to go around?

The only certainty in this situation is that Paul will continue to ride this buzz until the wheels fall off. Whether that ends in a few months, a couple of years, or if, by some bizarre twist of fate, Paul decides to dedicate himself to boxing and becomes the kind of fighter who can make bold challenges without it seeming like a joke. At its core boxing has always been about two forces working in concert: fighting and promotion. In 2020 perhaps there’s nobody better than Jake Paul to bring attention to sport, but as one of the world’s kings of self-promotion his influence might only extend to how it enhances his personal brand, at which point he’ll be off to chase the next new thing, and boxing will be left to return to its equilibrium.

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