Jake Paul Has Brought the Sport of Boxing to Its ‘Lowest Point’
Former boxer Gordon Marino writes about the bizarre spectacle of YouTuber Jake Paul pummeling out-of-shape ex-athletes in the ring, and why it’s so damn embarrassing for purists.
Boxing seems to be the only sport that has to defend itself against the accusation that it is more like a carnival act than a sport. To be sure, the gloved game has always had one foot in carnival going back to John L. Sullivan and the hundreds of times the Boston Strong Boy set up a ring and offered cash prizes to anyone who could last three rounds with him. The iconic Jack Dempsey had exhibition fights with wrestlers. In 1976, Muhammad Ali traveled to Japan to compete in a ridiculous contest with special rules against professional wrestler Antonio Inoki. That same year, heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner was tossed out of the ring in a farcical bout with Andre the Giant.
Yes, boxing has always had its sideshows. Nevertheless, since the rise of 24-year-old YouTube star Jake Paul to main-event status last Saturday in his Triller-promoted fight with Ben Askren, there has been an unprecedented flurry of swipes at the legitimacy of the noble art.
The insult to boxing comes in the form of the fact that Jake and his brother Logan Paul (who is preparing for an exhibition with none other than Floyd Mayweather) present the pretense of being authentic professional boxers even though they are unschooled and untested in this school of hard and dangerous knocks.
The business of professional boxing is replete with young men, usually under strained financial circumstances, acquiring pro licenses and climbing into the squared circle to get knocked out in order to beef up the record of their more serious and promising opponent. But the rise of boxing novices, the Paul brothers, is different.
Larry Merchant, a Hall of Fame Commentator who has covered fights for more than half a century, reflected on both the Paul phenomenon and what he called “the nostalgia circuit” that is the exhibition bouts between old timers such as the recent pay-per-view sparring session between Mike Tyson and Roy Jones. Merchant said, “Optimistically this is a way for boxing to fill the void during the pandemic.” With a chuckle, he added, “But I’m not going to watch it. And it goes to show it’s no longer that a sucker is born every minute, with social media a sucker is born every second.”
In his semblance of a tussle with former MMA star Ben Askren, Jake Paul was the main event, despite the fact that Paul boasted a measly record of 2-0 based on beating washed-up athletes with nil boxing experience. The extravaganza, which included a performance by Justin Bieber and commentary from Snoop Dogg and Pete Davidson, allegedly attracted as many as 1.5 million viewers (though you can treat that number with a big grain of salt).
Former junior middleweight world champion Yuri Foreman assessed Jake Paul as at the level of a “novice Golden Gloves fighter. Said Foreman, “Believe me, I understand boxing is a business but putting Jake Paul on as the main event is like having Bob Dylan play warmup for a local band.”
Claressa Shields is a 25-year-old three-weight-class-division world champion. As an elite female in what used to be termed “the manly art,” Shields had to claw her way into the attention span of boxing enthusiasts.
The native of Flint, Michigan, is angry about the gender inequity enabling a YouTube pretty boy to earn millions for two minutes of work against an opponent who is basically an over-the-hill wrestler. Nevertheless, Shields would like to take the boxing sideshow further with a cross-gender match-up with Paul. Shields promises, “I, Claressa Shields, will whoop Jake Paul’s ass… He can come in the ring weighing 180 pounds and I will come weighing 168 and I will beat the shit out of him.”
A Boxing Hall of Fame inductee in 2015, Ray Mancini, spoke with more ire than Foreman. “It is a freak show. Paul has not fought anybody with boxing experience. I hope they put him in with some washed-up pro who is sure to knock him out.”
A boxing purist, Boom Boom Mancini, elaborated, “The senior circuit in boxing is ridiculous.” At 60, Mancini has received lucrative offers to join the geezer tour but said he has too much respect for his craft. “Boxing,” he said, “is a young man and woman’s sport.” As for Jake Paul and the Social Security fight scene, Mancini observes that these type of WWE-type contests “say a more about the state of boxing today than anything else.”
But what do they say? That professional boxing has been floored by the pandemic, the closing of gyms, and the shutdown of local boxing shows?
Some of Paul’s 15.1 million Instagram followers believe Mancini and company should cool it. For all the Paul bluster, it’s not as if they imagine their curly blonde hero, who has recently been accused of sexual assault, is in a league—or could be in a league—with the legends or even top echelon of the fight game. They just relish watching the heavyweight king of YouTube content.
Kelsey McCarson, a commentator on combat sports, agrees Paul “is a celebrity entertainer who has tons of fans because he creates content people want to see. And so, boxing’s version of a Kardashian attracts admirers as well as viewers, like college student Sivuse Mbingo, who says, “I have seen his [Paul’s] videos since the days of Vine and there’s something deeply satisfying about the possibility of seeing his face punched in. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened... yet.”
But apart from Paul’s unquestionable ka-ching-raising capability, is the former Disney actor a liver shot to boxing?
Over the years, many Richie Riches and celebs have tried their hand at being tough guys. I can’t help but speculate that people like the Paul brothers and 38-year-old “Billionaire Boxer” Joe Fournier (9-0) fear their riches—or in the Paul brothers’ case, Disney and influencer background—have made people perceive them as soft. For them, boxing is a form of psychotherapy, a chance to acquire that universally desired red badge of courage. However, if these Bentley-driving wannabe boxers really wanted to see whether or not they have a fighter’s heart and a modicum of skill, they would be upping their level of opponents. They would be taking the risk of trading punches with opponents who have at least earned the ring version of their high school diploma.
For folks who don’t feel any reverence for the sweet science, I can understand the joy of watching their YouTube hero under the klieg lights with Snoop Dogg brattling round-by-round analysis.
On the other hand, those of us who bow before the pantheon of warriors such as Ali, Frazier, Holmes, and the late Marvin Hagler, find it appalling to see pugilistic poseurs snatching their immense payouts and attention. For the boxing faithful, the lionization of Jake Paul is akin to watching a mediocre pickup basketball team outstrip the appeal of NBA champs.
Charles Farrell, a veteran boxing manager and the award-winning boxing writer of the forthcoming (Low)life: A Memoir of Jazz, Fight-Fixing, and the Mob, has defended fixing fights on the grounds that boxing is basically entertainment and as a manager your primary responsibility is the physical and financial well-being of your fighters. Nevertheless, this same quintessentially pragmatic boxing manager confesses:
I’ve never been more embarrassed to be associated with boxing than when watching the pantomime starring Jake Paul. Every aspect of the card was built around devaluing any hard-won knowledge or expertise that goes into being a good fighter… To date, this is the lowest point boxing has ever fallen to: boxing pitched to self-absorbed children.