Jake Paul is a clown.
I don’t think he’d mind me saying that, because it means I’m talking about him. He’s one of those internet celebrities who make their living being the sort of American people who don’t like Americans think Americans are like.
In another era, Paul wouldn’t be C-list or D-list. He’d be so far down the chain he’d have fallen off the alphabet. But his online provocations draw a large and measurable audience, which is the most respected currency of our connected world. Whether or not you are familiar with his oeuvre, he is a someone.
On Saturday night, Paul – a 24-year-old who put on gloves for the first time two years ago – will headline a pay-per-view boxing card. He’ll fight Ben Askren, a retired MMA pro with a background in wrestling who recently had his hip replaced.
Neither Paul nor his MMA antagonist are professional boxers in the strictest (or loosest) sense of the word. The best that can be said is that they’re going to try to hurt each other with their fists for an hour. This circus act will still set you back US$40 to watch.
And we’re not talking about something beamed in from a ring built over a covered pool in an Orange County backyard. The bout will take place at the 70,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Justin Bieber is the musical act.
If you’ve spent the past year waiting for more signs of apocalypse, this is great news. Something this diabolical must be good for a few verses in Revelations.
On the one hand, the fight is a harmless trifle. Paul lifted himself above the niche world of celebrity boxing in November during a fight with former NBA player Nate Robinson. Paul won that bout with a gruesome knockout. Honestly, in the moment, it looked as though he might have killed Robinson. That won Paul some attention outside his internet bubble.
Paul’s next move was recording himself wrapped in an Irish flag, smoking a cigar, sitting astride a Lamborghini and holding a novelty cheque for US$50-million. This was his bid at calling out the guy who used to be the fight game’s premier provocateur, Conor McGregor.
This would have been amusing but for – God, I feel old saying this – the language. There are rhetorical lines you don’t cross. Such as, there is no world in which you take a pop at the other guy’s wife. Paul obliterated all those lines.
At the end of that video, I was ready to Venmo McGregor money if he’d make me a personal promise to wipe the smirk off this kid’s face. Which I guess is the whole point.
In any case, McGregor – a man more used to creating outrages than suffering them – declined to respond.
When you think of Saturday’s fight in those terms, you see it for what it is. This isn’t an athletic competition. It’s Thunderdome.
It’s a super-sized combo meal of America’s favourite things – glitzy environs, boorish behaviour and the promise of blood. Some cultures love a fight. America loves a beating. One assumes most of the people tuning in hope Paul is the one receiving it.
But there is another world in which this … whatever you want to call this, this travesty is the future of boxing.
This is Paul’s fault, sure. It’s also McGregor’s and Floyd Mayweather’s, for agreeing to fight each other back in 2017. That highly profitable gongshow featuring the best pugilist of his generation cleared the tracks. Now every chancer and ex-something-or-other feels perfectly justified in rebranding himself a boxer and charging rubes for the pleasure of watching him practise his, ahem, craft.
But where’s boxing in this? What did boxing do while the sport’s traditions and etiquette were tilting into the gutter?
It let Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin fight each other over and over again because they both happen to have huge deals with the same sports streaming service.
It watched meekly as the sport’s best hope in a generation for a crossover star, England’s Anthony Joshua, tanked his chance with poor prep and much poorer choice of opponents.
It refused to give people the high-profile fights they wanted to see because way back when he was 17, one of the guys picked this promoter instead of the other.
It sat on its thumbs while an entire generation of kids who want to pay for bloodsport got detoured into the far more responsive marketing arms of UFC.
It’s hard to say why boxing is so bad at the business of boxing. Maybe it’s too cloistered. Maybe it’s just that arrogant. I suppose that once your business has become a byword for “corruption” and continued to survive, you begin to convince yourself that nothing can kill you.
But Jake Paul can.
Only two things carry weight in the entertainment business right now – intellectual property and celebrity. You need one of those two things to make real money.
Boxing thinks it has the IP. It can reach back to Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and all the history in between. But that is not the IP that matters any more. Nobody cares about tradition any more.
What boxing wants is a twist on an old idea. Boxing no longer owns the idea. Unlike, say, the NBA, boxing has no monopoly on the sport. It doesn’t franchise. It doesn’t have a cohesive executive. It’s every man for himself, and at every level.
Boxing does have belts, but nobody understands what they mean any more. Plus, there are far too many of them. Now anyone can put up an official-sized ring in a stadium somewhere and call it a title fight. Through inattention and greed, boxing let someone else move into its shop and begin its product. Another problem: Who runs boxing? No one knows?
That leaves us with celebrity. Name five current boxers in five weight divisions. Even if you really like the fights, you probably can’t.
That’s where a twerp such as Jake Paul comes in. If he tried to call himself a professional hockey player or pro football player, there is an enormous infrastructure designed to immediately disabuse him of that notion.
But a fighter? People know who Paul is, there’s no one to stop him from styling himself a pro and he can take a beating as well as the next guy.
In a few years, that may be all that defines a boxer. Which leaves boxing where exactly?