LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jake Paul’s crowd doesn’t look like any other fighter’s crowd.
When the world’s most unlikely pay-per-view boxing star promotes a bout, as Paul did in Hollywood several weeks ago, the usual autograph-hungry fight fans are outnumbered by unfamiliar faces, mostly under 30. They include excitable teenagers trying to interrupt Paul’s news conference, hypebeasts in distressed white jeans, and even a few ecstatic preteens and their mothers.
Showtime Sports President Stephen Espinoza knows these are fans of Paul, not boxing — but that appears to be changing.
“What we’ve seen very clearly after just a couple of events is that these Jake Paul fans are sticking around and becoming boxing fans,” Espinoza said. “Our usual boxing audience is a small fraction of the audience that tunes into Jake. We’re getting in front of people who don’t follow boxing, haven’t shown an interest in boxing whatsoever. That’s great for this sport.”
The new fans are here because the blond, bearded YouTube megastar is a big part of their lives, and if Jake is into boxing now, then they’re into boxing. But Espinoza sees this unusual first taste creating an appetite for the sport’s more traditional flavors. In a sport that’s been supposedly dying for nearly half a century, Paul is a welcome breath of life.
“These are fans who we have not reached any other way,” Espinoza said. “If we look at all the different measures of consumer sentiment over the last two or three years, it’s very clear in all of our surveys that boxing is seeing a resurgence, particularly in a very young demographic. I’m not going to attribute that solely to Jake Paul, but it certainly is the phenomenon of influencer boxing. It’s definitely created an awareness and an interest among a very different fan base than boxing before.”
About five years into the phenomenon of social media influencers becoming boxers, the subculture is still thriving. Former foes KSI and Logan Paul — Jake’s older brother — are preparing to fight on the same card early next year along with several other content creators and MMA figures largely unknown outside their social media bubbles.
But Paul is fighting in a different arena: While other YouTubers continue to throw haymakers for content creation and a small profit, Paul has become a professional prizefighter in every traditional sense of the word except in the level of his opposition, which is also getting higher.
“Everybody needs to respect this guy,” said Anderson Silva, Paul’s next opponent. “Why? Because he opened the door to think about something new.”
When Paul faces the former mixed martial arts superstar Saturday night, promoters say the Desert Diamond Arena outside Phoenix will set its revenue record from a boxing event, with gate money on par with a top UFC pay-per-view show.
While reliable pay-per-view numbers are largely kept secret, the most concrete sign of Paul’s success is that his fights have been lucrative enough to keep staging more of them. Forbes estimated Paul, who gets a percentage of his PPV revenue, made $40 million from his three fights in 2021, but Paul claims that number is low.
His fight against the well-known Silva could be the biggest yet, with Paul predicting more than 300,000 buys and optimistically hoping for 700,000.
“I grew up idolizing this guy,” Paul said of Silva. “I watched him on my couch, and to be in the ring with him is something I never imagined. … This is surreal. I think none of it makes any sense sometimes.”
It’s starting to make sense to Espinoza, who kept tabs on the influencer boxing phenomenon with a raised eyebrow until Paul fought on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s exhibition with Roy Jones Jr. in late 2020. When Paul left former NBA player Nate Robinson unconscious on the canvas, Espinoza decided it was time to take Paul seriously.
“To knock someone out cold, that’s an achievement,” Espinoza said. “That’s just not something you do by accident.”
He booked a meeting with Paul, who came off as knowledgeable, intelligent and focused on building something concrete atop his ephemeral social media fame. Showtime reached a deal to put the former Disney Channel star on its pay-per-view platform, starting with his two victories over former UFC champion Tyron Woodley late last year.
“He was not at all what I expected,” Espinoza said. “I’m not sure what I did expect, but I probably expected the guy who is somewhat controversial and made some blunders on social media.”
Jake Paul only took up boxing in earnest in December 2019, but he has the financial resources and the determination to do it big. He claims to have a 30-person team supporting his training, which is largely done at the Cleveland native’s base in Puerto Rico.
“The key is nonstop work every day, and I’m addicted,” Paul said.
Paul has given a boost to boxing, but it’s also clear that boxing helps Paul, who has repeatedly been in significant legal trouble amid his social media fame.
“He and (brother) Logan had been very clear that they took this up at a point where they were starting to spiral,” Espinoza said. “There’s been plenty written about the negative effects of social media and celebrity, and I think they were both struggling with that. And like so many other people from all walks of life, boxing gave them a direction and a discipline, a structure.”
Paul and Silva are meeting in an eight-round catchweight bout on a card that also includes former NFL running back Le’Veon Bell fighting recently retired UFC veteran Uriah Hall, along with a YouTube-famous primary care physician named Doctor Mike taking on another former MMA fighter.
“I understand there’s certainly some purists who aren’t into it, but we’re not going to stay stagnant,” Espinoza said. “We’re not going to just say, ‘Hey, this is what the sport of boxing has been for the last 150 years, and we’re not going to deviate from it.’ We are going to undertake things that are novel and innovative, while still respecting the sport and respecting the audience.
“I look at it a little bit like ‘The Masked Singer’ or ‘American Idol’ or something like that. Just because you’d like that form of entertainment doesn’t mean you’re not going to appreciate Celine Dion or Alicia Keys. You can enjoy both, you know. ”