Why is Jake Paul going about his boxing career completely backward?

Why is Jake Paul going about his boxing career completely backward?

Jake Paul punches Andre August on Dec. 15, 2023, in Orlando, Florida. Paul won by first-round KO. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images for CELSIUS)

You could be forgiven for not knowing this, but Jake Paul is fighting this weekend. The YouTuber and former Disney actor has a boxing match in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Saturday against — checks notes — Ryan Bourland.

That’s right, the Ryan Bourland (17-2). The very same one you no doubt remember from his last fight, a TKO win over a 4-6 fighter at 4 Bears Casino in New Town, North Dakota, back in 2022.

If you haven’t yet picked up on the sarcasm, what I’m trying to say here is that this is a weird way for Paul (8-1) to go about his boxing career. After starting out among the ranks of the influencer/social media/YouTube stars who seemed intent on using boxing as their next attention-getting stunt, Paul proved his commitment to the bit by boxing a former NBA player, two former UFC champs, the brother of a heavyweight boxing great and the younger member of MMA’s legendary Diaz clan.

Then he fought a middling pro boxer most people had never heard of. And now he’s fighting another middling pro boxer most people have never heard of.

This is not usually how it’s done. At least, this is not usually the order in which it’s done. Paul started his career looking like just another famous-on-the-internet person trying for a quick cash and clout grab by fighting other famous-on-the-internet people. But early on, he insisted he was more than that. Boxing was a serious focus for him, Paul kept telling us. And he was absolutely committed to making a career of it.

Naturally, few people believed him at first. This is a dude whose Wikipedia page includes a whole section titled “scam allegations,” plus a detailed account of a fake marriage that his fake wife later admitted was just “for fun and content.” When that guy claims he’s going to dedicate his life to the brutal and unforgiving world of professional fighting, the savvy viewer understandably assumes it’s all just another content-creation gimmick.

Paul actually got a lot of early mileage out of challenging and subverting those assumptions. He did it in a crafted, intelligent fashion, first picking fights with a retired former wrestler and MMA fighter in Ben Askren, then graduating to former UFC champs like Tyron Woodley and Anderson Silva.

It worked in part because he was trolling MMA fans specifically (and Paul is nothing if not a gifted troll, especially of demographics that are easily trolled, as MMA fans are) by picking on aging versions of great fighters who he seemed to have no business fighting, much less beating the way he did. It also worked because he was playing with one of the central promises of fight sports, which is that frauds will eventually be publicly and violently exposed on a live broadcast.

That’s part of what we love about combat sports. It’s a truth machine. Outside the ring or the cage there’s plenty of pomp and politics, with many different thumbs on many different scales. But when you get in there with someone who’s paid to hurt you? It doesn’t matter who you know or how much money you have in the bank. If you’re not really about that life, eventually we’re going to find out.

But somewhere between the second Woodley fight and the Tommy Fury fight, Paul began to hit a point of diminishing returns with this strategy. Maybe it’s because his trolling act doesn’t work as well on boxing fans, or because MMA fans had seen enough of him to decide he was actually a pretty good fighter and so the longed for comeuppance wasn’t quite so imminent.

Instead of continually trying to ratchet up that same tension, Paul seems to have changed his whole approach. Now he’s doing something far more familiar to boxing fans — beating up a series of hand-picked nobodies in regularly scheduled record-padding outings.

There are two ways to read this. One is that Paul is just clocking in and going to work while he waits for the right climate and personality to emerge for a fight that’s potentially profitable enough to justify more risk. The man has never met a headline-grabbing beef he didn’t like, but most of them aren’t good for much more than a brief stay in the news cycle. But if the right fighter becomes available at the right time, with the right narrative behind him? Then the juice could be worth the squeeze.

The second possibility is that Paul really, truly means it when he says he wants to be a serious pro boxer. And, after surrounding himself with real boxing people who know this sport and how it operates, he’s come around to the belief that this is the way it’s done. You don’t just reach for world titles right away. You crush a few cans, build up a highlight reel of quick KOs against mostly meaningless opposition, until one day your record looks impressive enough on paper to earn you something more.

In other words, we must consider the possibility that Paul has changed approaches because he’s trying to have a normal boxing career. That would be somehow disappointing, but also understandable and maybe even weirdly endearing. What if fights like these are Paul’s way of proving that he’s just another boxer willing to put in the work and pay his dues? What if he’s genuinely trying to get better and log more ring time on his way up the ladder?

That would be bizarre, especially after the way his career started. It would also be an almost quaint way of showing us that he really is serious about being a fighter, all by doing the same dumb stuff that most other fighters do on the way up.

Then again, he is still the same guy who faked a marriage for the sake of content. If that guy were faking a hard-scrabble rise through the softer part of boxing’s underbelly, maybe we’d only have ourselves to blame for falling for it.


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