What Boxing Should Learn From Askren vs. Paul

This weekend, Youtube star, Jake Paul will step into the boxing ring for his third professional bout against former MMA fighter, Ben Askren, who retired from the octagon with a 19-2-1 record after a pair of losses in late-2019. Undefeated prior to his arrival in the UFC the same year, Askren became known to a main stream audience for all the wrong reasons when he was KO’ed in just five seconds with a flying knee from Jorge Masvidal, who used the highlight reel moment to propel himself to a level of stardom.

The boxing contest will air this Saturday under the Triller banner, the same social media and video app that was involved with the distribution of the Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones exhibition last year. Paul, a social media star, appeared on the under card of that broadcast and KO’ed former basketball player, Nate Robinson. The event, a spectacle that was built on the in-ring return of Tyson, featured music performances and commentary from Snoop Dogg, who was assigned a producer role as well. Nobody was sure what to expect from the 54-year-old “Iron” Mike, as he retired from competition 15 years previously.

The exhibition bout was declared a draw, and the show was considered very successful, generating an estimated 1.6 million pay-per-view buys to put it among one of the highest-grossing PPV events of the year. Sure, it was a novelty act, but ultimately the fight business is about the money, and Triller had a show that sold, even if based purely on entertainment rather than sports competition.

However, what does this “entertainment first” formula say about the state of boxing?

Now, I must say, while I wasn’t around to see Tyson win the heavyweight belt in 1986, I’ve been a boxing fan almost my entire life, watching the near weekly HBO cards with my dad in the late-90s when I was in elementary school. With the advancement of technology, I really enjoy finding classic bouts on Youtube that I had only seen on a random re-airing on ESPN 2 back in the day. While I’m technically in the demographic that Youtube stardom would market toward, I guess I’m just an old soul because I see absolutely no reason why more than 20 million subscribers find it worth their time to watch Jake Paul go shopping for a hat or buy an overpriced coffee. I only knew his name peripherally before his contest on the under card of the Tyson-Jones event. The most I knew about Jake Paul was that he was some goofy ball online that had been involved in some controversies that I didn’t care to read about.

When boxing is the topic of conversation, I will cite the thrilling bouts and drama from its history. The in-ring brutality of the Ali-Frazier trilogy, the aura of a prime Mike Tyson, Barrera-Morales, Gatti-Ward round 9, and the slick style of Evander Holyfield. More modern, I would tell you about the brilliance of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez or the remarkable comeback story of Tyson Fury. I would also rant about how the politics and greed in boxing, particularly in the past two decades almost destroyed the sport at one point. Truthfully, it wasn’t until more recent years that the sweet science was back on the radar of the general public with the Premier Boxing Championship series on Fox, and the fact that ESPN started to host cards to attempt to retain its audience when options for sports coverage continued to expand to a myriad of platforms.

But, does traditional boxing still hold its position among the sports public?

Make no mistake about it, a big time prize fight is still a massive draw, a look at even recent boxing PPV buyrates will prove that, but the previously mentioned political games that often prevent major bouts from getting in the ring makes the occasions those major prize fights occur very sparse. That said, as I said prior to this, the fight business is ultimately the entertainment business and if there’s a market for it, someone will take the money on the table to distribute it. Again, I’m not the right person to gauge any interest in a Jake Paul bout against an accomplished UFC fighter that still isn’t a main stream name. On the surface, I would say that there’s no way that this $50 broadcast will generate anything close to the Tyson/Jones number, but I could be wrong. I don’t think Jake Paul has the type of main stream draw that Mike Tyson brings to the table, but again, I’m not the target audience. When I’m looking for something on Youtube, it’s usually Neil Young songs, a classic wrestling promo, or a clip of Omar on The Wire.

The problem with these sideshow type fights that are based on the novelty is that by nature, it’s all sizzle and no substances so there’s no longevity with it. Tyson and Jones did enough in their exhibition to entertain the people, but if the bout was lackluster, there’s nothing to draw the audience for another Tyson exhibition. Essentially, skills and ability create the thrilling moments that boxing is based on and prompts the public to order Tyson Fury or Canelo events. When there’s just the sideshow aspect of “Youtuber vs. former UFC fighter” there’s much more of a risk that the contest falls flat. If fans pay $50 this weekend to watch visual benadryl during Paul’s fight, what are the chances of repeat business on pay-per-view?

As entertaining as Snoop Dogg was during the Tyson/Jones event, I think a spectacle like that should be a one-off that rarely ever happens so that the concept doesn’t become overused or stale. The concern for the sport of boxing is that if these sideshow broadcasts of Youtube stars begin to draw more interest from the current generation of sports fans, it could be a major problem for the sport to attempt to maintain its ability to draw the major numbers mentioned with Canelo or Fury. If traditional boxing events seem “too plain” for the current sports fan base, what does that say for the future of boxing?

The biggest takeaway kingpin promoters Bob Arum and Al Haymon should take from these celebrity boxing shows is that if they continue to play politics to protect these respectively golden geese then they could eventually leave more money on the table than they would’ve made otherwise. There’s big money to be made from the fight game and those from the outside of finally getting a pie of the pie, albeit in an unconventional way. How boxing as a sport response to these entertainment-based ventures remains to be seen, but it’s definitely not a scenario that should be disregarded.

As far as the fight, the Youtube star actually has the advantage because Askren’s entire career was based on his grappling ability, which isn’t a factor at all in a boxing match. I will pick Askren to win just for the prosperity of combat sports. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see if this fight draws numbers and if these type of events remain on the pay-per-view schedule in the next few months.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta
E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta