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Jake Paul's face is very red as he is being pushed into a closet. People surround the influencer
Jake Paul is pushed into a closet to get him away from boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. after a scuffle broke out during a news conference. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Professional boxing and influencer culture: Are fights like Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley bad for the sport?

On Aug. 29, YouTuber-turned-boxer Jake Paul will make his fourth trip to the prize ring to face former UFC champion Tyron Woodley. The pair are the main event of the evening, scheduled to box eight rounds or fewer in the cruiserweight (176-200 pounds) division.

Paul’s fight is the latest in a recent boom of celebrity boxing match-ups, including an exhibition in June between his brother, Logan Paul, and five-division world champion Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Prior to the Paul brothers entering the boxing ring, their fans didn’t click “subscribe” to see them do anything specific — they followed along to see them do anything at all, to see so-called “real life.” As Boxing Scene columnist Corey Erdman observed:

“Every person who traffics in the online economy is always sure to use the buzzword ‘authenticity’ in describing what they do. In every video, there’s at least a sliver of it — it’s a lens into that person’s dwelling, their fashion, their musical taste, something. The social media landscape is predicated on a perceived connection with the creator.”

Jake and Logan Paul entering boxing is just an extension of the “real life” scenarios their fans happily consumed on YouTube. The Paul brothers have a legion of fans who will watch them do anything, from the mundane to the outrageous, anywhere and anytime. The money follows.

Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, considers the Paul saga an opportunity. “This isn’t all about Jake Paul. This is about Jake doing his events but also he has a desire to convert Jake Paul fans into boxing fans.”

Others don’t understand Espinoza’s vision. In a sport plagued by controversy, surely a novice like Paul pulling in millions by boxing retired mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, YouTubers and basketball players detracts from the legitimacy of the sport. It’s a short-term business decision, plain and simple.

Jake Paul defeats Nate Robinson in a second-round knockout.

More business than sport

Boxing fans and experts are understandably divided over the Paul brothers and similar “attractions.” The professional prizefighter, more than any other athlete, can be the living embodiment of the American dream, that old — largely inaccurate — fable touting hard work and perseverance as a salve for poverty, catapulting the worthy from rags to riches.

But the Paul brothers are the opposite. White, straight, male and wealthy, they’re the epitome of privilege.

The Pauls made millions through YouTube, but stopped daily posts in 2018 to seek out “other opportunities.” In 2019, Logan made his professional boxing debut, losing to fellow newcomer JJ Olatunji, better known for his YouTube handle KSI, by split decision in a headlining fight, despite the presence of two world title bouts on the card.

If Paul-Olatunji headlining wasn’t enough to turn heads, the purses for that evening certainly were. As debutants, they each made at least US$900,000 for the four-round bout. Devin Haney and Billy Joe Saunders, both champions defending their belts, earned US$1 million and US$750,000 respectively.

If the rise of the Pauls has taught the sports world anything, it’s that professional boxing remains more business than sport. And marketability is everything.

For celebrities, boxing offers the possibility of another big payday, based entirely on non-boxing popularity. It’s not about talent, as the New York Times’ Morgan Campbell observed, it’s all about spectacle and entertainment.

Two men box in a boxing ring with a referee in the background, the man in the foreground throws a right hook towards his ducking opponent
Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Logan Paul fight during an exhibition boxing match at Hard Rock Stadium in June 2021. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Paul brothers are a symptom, not the cause of boxing’s woes

The millions of dollars earned by novice celebrity boxers like the Paul brothers are a symptom of boxing’s troubles, but certainly not the cause. Professional boxing is free-market capitalism run amok. Promoters and managers used to be to blame, now it’s the alphabet soup of “world title” sanctioning bodies tearing the sport apart.

It’s nearly impossible to explain the championship situation to a casual fan. There are four main championship bodies, including the World Boxing Association (WBA), plus an endlessly changing roster of minor “world” bodies, all issuing their own recognition.

The WBA is in a league of its own when it comes to watering down the sport’s upper echelon, creating three world-title belts for each division. Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports sums up the WBA situation well:

“This is hard to follow for the people in the sport, like those who manage or promote the fighters. Imagine what it must be like for fans who simply want to know the stakes of what they’re watching.… Imagine if an NFL team won a playoff game, but the next week the NFL ordered a new playoff game to be held.”

On Aug. 7, Mykal “The Professor” Fox lived up to his ring name, giving Venezuelan Olympian Gabriel Maestre a boxing lesson in a bout for the interim WBA welterweight title. Despite winning virtually every round, not a single judge scored the contest in Fox’s favour. The scorecard belonging to judge Gloria Martinez Rizzo, the WBA’s 2019 female judge of the year, scored the contest ten rounds to two for Maestre. With an inexplicable scorecard dominating the boxing news cycle, Boxing Scene reporter Corey Erdman dug deeper, adding some troubling context to the situation.

On Twitter, he shared several problematic tweets from Rizzo, including one in which the judge called Michelle Obama “monkey face.” That a judge with a public history of anti-Black racism could be approved to score any boxing match, let alone a championship featuring a Black boxer, illustrates the utter lack of care the WBA has for athletes competing for its titles.

Fox took it in stride, tweeting: “Guess I’ll have to settle with People’s Champ … for now.” Fox is getting a rematch, but that’s hardly sufficient. He won the title, the sport let him down.

Highlights from Mykal Fox vs. Gabriel Maestre.

There’s no shortage of scholars examining the intersection of race and boxing. Historians like Jeffrey T. Sammon, Kasia Boddy, Louis Moore and Jason Winders all detail the struggles and triumphs of Canada’s George Dixon, who broke the “colour line” in 1892 becoming the first black champion of the world. Yet, here we are, over 100 years later, watching an openly racist judge get the call to score a WBA title fight.

The bottom line

The Paul brothers get to make further millions by entering boxing and adding the sport to their reality-themed empire of content. But highly skilled athletes like Fox are treated to racist judges and denied the accolades and opportunities they deserve.

As boxing stands, why would anyone want more eyes on the sport? Or should I say business.

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