Is Jake Paul Really an Answer for Women’s Boxing?

Sports

Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano recently fought perhaps the biggest bout in women’s boxing, and those in the sport acknowledge that their fortunes have been intertwined with Paul’s.

Jake Paul had a premonition.

Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano were about to headline a boxing match at Madison Square Garden, the first women to do so in the arena’s history, and Paul’s mind was already on the next fight.

“I had a dream about a trilogy series that the first fight is so good and so brutal and so entertaining that they have to do a rematch,” Paul said in an interview from his greenroom in the Garden two days before the fight. “A different winner the second time and then the third one settles it all. I don’t know, we might be here for the next couple of years.”

Taylor beat Serrano in a split decision, and each fighter earned a guaranteed $1 million. The fight, on April 30, quickly drew calls for a rematch, both immediately in the ring and among observers who called the bout a front-runner for fight of the year among men or women. Since then, those involved have been angling for that rematch, and the prospect of a trilogy looks quite realistic.

Professional women’s boxing has never seen a trilogy fight, but it has also never seen the likes of Paul, whose presence as a disruption in professional boxing — or as a sideshow, depending on whom you ask — is upending the sport.

Paul, 25, is a former YouTube star known for dangerous pranks and stunts, offending collaborators, provoking his competition and calling the coronavirus a hoax in 2020. He was also charged with criminal trespassing for his participation in a looting at a mall and faced allegations of sexual misconduct from other social influencers.

He began boxing in 2018 when he knocked out a fellow YouTuber, Deji Olatunji, in an amateur contest. Fight by fight, Paul built up his antics and drawing power, much to the ire of some fans and others in the sport who claimed that his social media following bought him an unearned ticket to the ring and that his entry into boxing was but a dalliance.

That same line of criticism has raised questions about whether he is sincere about his latest stated endeavor: to build up women’s boxing.

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Serrano, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in boxing, is Paul’s first client under his promotional company, Most Valuable Promotions. Paul said he saw an opportunity in the way female boxers were “being mistreated.”

“I think it’s a bigger question of boxing needing a ton of change and women’s boxing being one of those verticals,” Paul said. “Bringing in a new, younger audience was one vertical I identified.”

Women’s boxing faces a multitude of problems, including issues of pay and a lack of oversight. Male and female boxers are considered contractors. They pay for their own health care, and pay their managers, trainers and other supporting staff members a sizable portion of their fight earnings.

But perhaps the biggest chicken and egg situation in women’s boxing is one that faces many women’s sports: Television networks will not broadcast women’s boxing without knowing it will attract fans, but women’s boxing cannot attract fans without being on television. Enter Jake Paul and his outsize followings on Instagram and YouTube.

“Love him or hate him, he still made it possible for Serrano to get paid for this fight,” said Christy Martin, who held the World Boxing Council female super-welterweight title in 2009. “Probably without Jake Paul, the fight wouldn’t have happened.”

She added, “It would have never happened with this magnitude.”

The Taylor-Serrano fight sold out, with more than 19,000 in attendance at the Garden. DAZN, the streaming service that showed the fight, said it drew 1.5 million global views, a record for women’s boxing.

Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The fight itself was more than anyone could have anticipated,” Martin said. “It checked all the boxes. It was a tremendous, tremendous fight. Those great champions needed each other. The problem with women’s boxing is who’s the next champion to face Amanda Serrano or Katie Taylor?”

Claressa Shields, the undisputed women’s middleweight champion, knows this problem with depth all too well. She is expected, sometime this summer, to fight Savannah Marshall of England, who was the only person to have beaten Shields as an amateur.

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Shields was also a member of the broadcast team for the Taylor-Serrano fight. On the telecast, after the bout, she said she would have difficulty getting a fight as big without a suitable foil.

“My fans are going to show up for me, for sure, when you put me against a very tough opponent,” Shields said in an interview, adding that the Taylor-Serrano fight “proved what I’ve always said — when you give women equal pay, equal promotion, equal TV time, women’s boxing can sell.”

Shields blamed all “these men who are in charge.”

“They always try to say women can’t do this and can’t do that,” she said. “You don’t know where women’s boxing has gotten to if you don’t give them an opportunity.”

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Stephen Espinoza, the president of Showtime Sports, said women’s boxing was widely accepted in international markets, but “the U.S. market is a bit of a mystery.”

“We’ve given a lot of thought to it and can’t quite figure it out,” he said. “There are those who will say, well, the more exposure it gets the more it will be accepted. We’re not fighting for the right for women to participate in boxing in the U.S. What we’re fighting for is popularity and share of mind and share of dollars.”

So what’s stopping Showtime, a longtime platform for boxing including a handful of Shields’s fights, from being a part of that equation?

“Nothing,” Espinoza said. “We’ve got a long history in the sport. Having said that, I don’t think we’ve done enough. We can always do more, and this was a great reminder of the business opportunity there is with the right fight. I’m very confident we’ll be reinvesting in women’s boxing significantly in the near future.”

He added, “If we can just get the ball rolling, it will snowball — I’m confident of that.”

Whether Paul deserves credit for a snowball effect remains to be seen. But at least for now, the fates of women’s boxing and Paul’s have become intertwined. Espinoza called his addition to the sport “a real asset.”

“It has to be acknowledged that it would not have been as big a fight without someone like Jake Paul,” Espinoza said. “That’s what he brings to the sport.”

Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Eddie Hearn, the chairman of Matchroom Sport, which promotes Taylor, said many people were worried Paul would “clown around,” but “he’s been a businessman.”

“He’s not as much as a clown as he makes out,” Hearn said. “He’s fallen in love with boxing, as everybody does.”

Hearn said the millions of additional eyes from Paul’s social platforms “can only be good” for boxing, especially its marketability.

“Some people get it confused: A female middleweight world champion shouldn’t make the same amount of money necessarily as a male middleweight world champion,” Hearn said. “But if they have the same commercial value, they should receive the same amount of money, and that hasn’t been the case.”

After Dmitry Bivol defeated Saúl Álvarez, known as Canelo, on Saturday night in Las Vegas, Serrano’s team suggested a doubleheader billed as “The Rematches.” Paul has said that his goal is to get Serrano, who once had paydays measured in three- and low-four-digit numbers, a $10 million payday before her career is over, and he recognized that changing the system was “a long-term play.”

One question baked into that goal is whether Paul can sustain his evolution from the internet’s tormentor in chief to a businessman and promoter in a sport that he calls “the ultimate form of barbaric expression.”

“I tell my friends this: I literally have enough money to retire for the rest of my life, ride off into the sunset and never work again,” he said. “To me, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the attention. It’s about the legacy and leaving this sport in a better place than where I found it because I owe my life to boxing.”

Paul said promoting Serrano was “just the start” of his career as a boxing matchmaker. And, of course, he has his own fights to promote.

On the morning after Serrano’s loss, Paul was back on social media, this time to announce the date of his next fight, in August, against an opponent to be determined.

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