Welcome to a new era of combat sports. It sucks.
On Sunday, infamous Pokémon card collector Logan Paul and professional piece of shit Floyd Mayweather participated in what could charitably be called a boxing match. Despite being 16 kg larger than Mayweather, Paul — who previously had only ever boxed another YouTuber — looked utterly lost against one of the greatest boxers of all time, as you’d expect. For his part, Mayweather coasted, doing just enough to make Paul look bad. Mayweather did not score a knockout or even come close. This wasn’t surprising; late-career Mayweather rode his defensive mastery into a style of full-on risk aversion, and post-career Mayweather is no different.
It was a lousy fight built on months of spectacle for spectacle’s sake. It was never going to be good, and basically everybody involved knew. But a quality slugfest was never the point. The point was to rake in millions and millions of dollars, and in that sense, the event was a stunning success; the week before the fight, Mayweather boasted that he’d already made $US30 ($38) million without even stepping into the ring. The lesson here is clear: There is big money in bad fights featuring worse people. This was not the first, and it will certainly not be the last.
Starting with the obvious, Jake Paul is running the same playbook as his older brother, but with more savvy. In April, he won the world’s most winnable boxing match, knocking the head of former Bellator champion and UFC contender Ben Askren askew in the first round. This sounds impressive on paper, but it wasn’t: Askren is among the worst strikers to have ever succeeded in high-level MMA, and he did so entirely off the back of a world-class wrestling game. He came into the Jake Paul fight old, washed up, and out of shape — a has-been whose striking never was. He, too, was there to collect a paycheck. By all accounts, it seems to have worked out for him.
But the real beneficiary of the match was, of course, Jake Paul. He can now say he’s knocked out a former MMA champion — just as Logan Paul can now say he’s gone eight rounds with the best boxer of all time. When the two are making these claims to their legions of young fans, the details don’t matter so much. Plus, Paul fans are only nominally there for the fights. What they actually show up for — what everybody who watches the modern iteration of celebrity boxing for — is a conclusion to months of drama and build up. Fights provide novel, escalating stakes, injecting new life into moldy YouTube beefs and providing YouTubers with something to work toward — and, more importantly, talk faux-inspirationally about on camera. They lend a palpable intensity to months of petty squawking. In this context, it does not matter if the resulting fights are bad. It just matters that they will happen eventually.
Jake has since parlayed his victory over Askren into an upcoming fight against former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, a (wait for it) washed-up wrestler who has never boxed professionally. Woodley, to his credit, can at least throw a punch, but his striking game has always been contingent on MMA range, MMA gloves, and the threat of the takedown. Against Jake Paul, he will have none of those things. He’ll just have his name.
But that’s all that really matters. Jake is functionally acting out the early stages of any pro boxer’s career — fighting cans to build up notoriety and experience — against famous fighters. He’s able to do this because, despite his reputation for low-brow clown antics, he’s rightly identified multiple flaws in the modern combat sports landscape: Boxing and MMA are awful at creating new mainstream stars who appeal to young people, and MMA (the UFC, especially) is dogshit at paying fighters.
The former matters because the people running these sports, no matter how much they turn up their noses, want a slice of the Paul brothers’ pie. The latter, meanwhile, suggests that Jake and Logan will never run out of big-name opponents or audiences to rile up. Because in truth, the fights themselves are a tertiary concern. Trolling also comes ahead of combat on the priority list. Logan’s match against Mayweather garnered so much interest because it was an affront to boxing’s natural order. Jake, not Logan, solidified this by stealing Mayweather’s hat at a press event prior to the fight, causing the 44 year-old multimillionaire to throw the baby tantrum of the century. The disrespect from some YouTube zoomer punk was just too much for him.
These antics work. In sports with formulaic structures like MMA and boxing, they provide needed jolts of excitement. The Paul brothers stand out from the faceless crowd of wannabe combatants churned out by organisations like the UFC, which at this point has built its entire business model around anonymised violence presented with all the passion of a factory assembly line. To wit: At multiple UFC events in the past couple months, crowds have randomly broken out into chants of “Fuck Jake Paul.” Jake Paul is not a UFC fighter, but he has somehow become the main villain of the whole organisation.
UFC fighters are happy to go along with it. After a career in an organisation that keeps 80% of profits while fighters ruin their bodies for peanuts, fighting somebody like a Paul brother is basically winning the lottery. Because he is a bad person, Jake Paul is exploiting this issue instead of trying to materially do something about it. But he does talk about it.
“It’s unfair,” Jake said last week at a face-off event for his upcoming fight against Woodley. “The UFC fighters don’t have fair pay. Out of all the sports, the percentage that the owners get versus the athlete, they’re the lowest. Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones, that fight should happen. Dana White, pay them the $US10 ($13) million. He’s taking their money. They’re the ones making the content. They’re the ones getting in the ring, risking their life.”
That, in part, is why the UFC is so slow to make new stars. UFC president Dana White doesn’t like it when fighters get too much leverage, so he and his partners have structured their business around the UFC brand (and ESPN paying comical amounts of money for events) rather than individual fighters. Boxing, meanwhile, is like Mayweather — too traditional and risk-averse to attract new audiences without a younger, more interesting dance partner.
The Paul brothers are far from the only new kids on this creaky old block. Arguably the YouTuber Logan narrowly lost to in his first boxing match, Olajide “KSI” Williams, kicked off the trend against fellow YouTuber Joe Weller in 2018, and now businesses have moved into the space. The most notable is Triller Fight Club, the celebrity boxing-focused spin-off of the celebrity-powered app Triller. The organisation put on Jake Paul’s fight against Ben Askren, and it also hosted Mike Tyson’s ill-advised yet weirdly impressive comeback. Triller’s events are all spectacle, with fights commentated on by household names like Snoop Dogg and preceded by musical performances. Soon Triller will host an event that includes a fight between former UFC champ Vitor Belfort and a zookeeper who has never fought before. Also Diplo is going to box at some point? Maybe?
But if [checks calendar] the weekend after next isn’t soon enough for you, there’s also the YouTube vs. TikTok boxing event coming up this weekend. Hosted by music streaming platform LiveXLive, “Social Gloves: Battle of the Platforms” will feature a series of fights between YouTubers and TikTokers, culminating in a showdown between ACE family founder Austin McBroom and vacant-eyed mop given life (and anger issues) Bryce Hall, who have been doing drama at each other for multiple entire months. Whereas the Paul brothers’ recent fights have grasped disingenuously in the direction of legitimacy, this event will almost certainly just be a bunch of untrained kids hitting each other. But! There will also be music.
In any case, the fights are just the cherry atop months of drama, speculation, and YouTube videos that pour tirelessly over scraps of training footage — all of which serve to feed the ever-ravenous content ecosystem. This is how it began in 2018, and it’s pretty much how it’s going. The fights are just bigger now, and there are more of them. Will people eventually tire of these fights? Absolutely. Based on the reaction to Logan Paul’s match against Mayweather, it seems like they already have. But audiences will never get bored of drama or watching young upstarts troll sleepy institutions run by self-serious old men. And so already-rich young men will continue to profit off them — and off us, as well. The institution in question won’t be combat sports forever, but it will be for a while. At least until the money dries up.