One of the biggest fight weekends is upon us. Is this on account of the UFC Vegas 35 card, headlined by a fantastic pairing of featherweight strikers in Edson Barboza and Giga Chikadze? No, of course not. Instead, it’s the return of former Disney Channel star turned internet shit-disturber turned prizefighter Jake Paul, as he takes on former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley in an eight-round cruiserweight boxing match in his hometown of Cleveland. What a time to be alive.
Snark aside, this will inevitably be, as Paul’s previous outings have proven, to be one of the biggest grossing and attention-earning combat sports events of 2021, for better or worse. But speaking of such betterment, it’s worth asking ourselves as we head into another exhibition of multi-million dollar bread and circuses: is there actually any substantial benefit to MMA on the whole from the ongoing fighting odysseys of the infamous Paul brothers?
First, I should point out when I say “for better or worse”, that “worse” is more rhetorical than anything; as I’ve written about here in the past, I don’t think the presence of the Paul brothers in the combat sports landscape actually does any tangible “damage” to prizefighting in any real way, unless you’re someone who likes to imagine a Utopian history in which fight-sports were never the domain of lucrative freakshows.
While fight purists may roll their eyes or bemoan the presence of the Pauls in the fighting atmosphere, and fans may rightly wince as Paul the Younger uses his platform to point out the woefully inadequate pay structure of the UFC, these highly profitable carnival escapades are neither cannibalizing an existing MMA audience nor driving fans away from the sport itself. After all, the Pauls are boxing, not fighting in a cage, even if the spark and the kindling to hype their fights, especially Jake’s, come largely from the antagonizing of the MMA world.
To this point, this Saturday’s event will be the eleventh UFC on ESPN main card this year. If we exclude the anomalous events that aired on ESPN2 instead of the flagship, as well as January’s wonky UFC Fight Island 8 card that aired at noon ET on a Wednesday to accommodate the fine folks in Abu Dhabi, the events are averaging just under 813,000 live viewers, excluding the precious but unreleased viewing numbers via the ESPN app.
While these numbers obviously fluctuate with the star power present on the given card, and the fact Barboza and Chikadze aren’t really bankable names despite their entertainment value, I would still anticipate this card to clock in between 800 and 825,000 live viewers for linear cable numbers. There shouldn’t be any disruption here, as Paul vs. Woodley is on a Sunday night.
If we look at the biggest periods of growth that the UFC — and by extension, MMA on the whole — experienced during Zuffa ownership, I think there are three clear phases. Note that in this context when I refer to “growth”, I’m not necessarily talking about moments of peak prosperity, though they often go hand-in-hand, but rather the introduction of new fans or orienting more fair-weather fans toward investing more heavily in the sport. The first period would obviously be the initial boom of The Ultimate Fighter in 2005-06, which saw a massive benefit from the program’s lead-in on Spike TV being WWE’s Monday Night Raw, serving as a natural bridge for pro-wrestling fans. The second would be in 2008-09 with the attention surrounding the arrival and eventual heavyweight championship ascent of Brock Lesnar. The third would come in 2013-15 with the sudden rise of both Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey to nearly immediate superstardom.
McGregor and Rousey are historical outliers that are nearly impossible to replicate; they’re simply organic phenomena that happen every so often and the UFC was fortunate to capture lightning in a bottle with both simultaneously. The other two examples, however, came on the back of professional wrestling. The first came as a result of WWE Chairman and CEO Vince McMahon’s hubris and lack of understanding, as he saw little viability in the UFC as because the promotion couldn’t predetermine its outcomes, it posed no threat to his audience.
Now, I think very few who became an MMA fan during the TUF boom with professional wrestling serving as the causeway has wholesale abandoned the latter — thus, viewing the UFC as a “threat” to pro wrestling would be a stretch — but the effect was obvious and almost immediate. As for Lesnar, he is a truly unique case in that while WWE made him a star, he grew tired of constantly being on the road with such a gruelling and demanding schedule and unlike most professional wrestling stars, he had both the freakish natural athleticism and legitimate amateur wrestling chops to make a legitimate foray into MMA, which appealed to him. This created a symbiotically seductive and profitable relationship for both him and the UFC.
Jake Paul fits none of these criteria. He established his own personal brand long before prizefighting and has an estimated net worth of $20 million. His April knockout of Ben Askren generated 1.3 to 1.5 million online pay-per-view buys depending on which estimate you believe, to go along with a claimed $75 million in revenue. Therefore, the UFC or any other promotion will never be able to directly capitalize on Paul by signing him, simply because he has absolutely zero incentive to ever do so. He has had all of three boxing matches and now his bout with Woodley is being distributed and broadcast by Showtime. You’d think he was part of the 1976 Olympic boxing team or something.
Furthermore, the architecture of Paul’s boxing career, like all of his endeavors, is acutely about his own cynical profiteering. Paul has quickly figured out a clever gimmick by which he can seduce MMA fighters in the twilight of their careers into an unfamiliar boxing realm where he can capitalize on their fame within the MMA world to attract a whole different sphere of attention that even superstar boxers can’t do. It’s a ploy that while clever, is inherently contemptuous of the sport’s current form as more than anything, it simply serves to highlight the aforementioned inequities in how MMA fighters are paid for their efforts. It’s also a dead-end game for MMA at large, because unlike a pro-wrestling audience that is routinely looking for something new or novel, similar but different, to engage them, Paul’s built-in audience that aren’t presently ardent fight fans don’t want to be fight fans. They want to be Jake Paul fans. They want to make TikToks. They want to be “influencers” when they grow up.
In the broadest strokes, Paul’s gambit is shrewd to his own ends: he makes a ton of money and risks little, because if he loses, he’s losing to an actual, legitimate fighter with years of training, shielding him from any serious mockery or derision. However, it’s not a device by which a “rising tide lifts all boats”, because Paul is operating in an entirely different ocean of his own that he has bought and paid for.
As is so often the case in the sport’s current landscape, the MMA gods help those who help themselves: those who can actually profit off of Paul’s celebrity are those who find ways to engage with the enfant terrible directly. Those fighters like Woodley and Askren who lace up the larger gloves for a major payday beyond that of their MMA tenure benefit, at bare minimum, financially. Those who rightly and unfortunately claim poverty online may find themselves the recipient of a generous Paul gift, a la UFC bantamweight Sarah Alpar, who was recently gifted $5000 by Paul after she started a GoFundMe to help cover training expenses. At the very least, a fighter like Jorge Masvidal, who has found himself in a recent war of words with “The Problem Child”, might get some extra attention from Paul’s teenage audience who have little interest in prizefighting outside of the Youtube star’s exploits. And of course, if any active MMA fighters can find a way to kick Paul’s apple cart over in the ring, well, that’s the jackpot. But all of these pursuits and potential benefits are individually determined by the actors themselves, and not indicative of Paul’s ability or willingness to help MMA flourish on the whole.
And around and around we will go, until either Paul’s boxing experiment implodes with a defeat or two, or he simply gets bored and figures out a new lucrative way to hustle his immature audience. The Jake Paul saga is no kind of boon for MMA but rather one man’s self-interested pursuit that holds an inconvenient mirror up to the sport, revealing the desperation of its competitors for both fame and fortune, and those who can benefit from his magnetism and celebrity are simply those willing to swallow their pride for a bite at the apple.
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