Saturday, July 20, 2024

Jake Paul looks to bounce back from first loss against Nate Diaz as celebrity boxing starts to lose steam

Ever since he burst onto the scene three years ago to become the face of the current crossover bubble of non-traditional fights (including YouTube stars and athletes from other sports), the narrative surrounding Jake Paul was that he is one professional loss from finding a new hobby.

Paul (6-1, 4 KOs), the 26-year-old social media influencer and former Disney Channel actor, ultimately did suffer said defeat in March yet the self-proclaimed disrupter, who owns his own boxing promotion and has threatened an even bolder move to MMA in 2024, has no plans of packing up his gear and galloping away to the next great viral stunt on the internet. 

If it wasn’t for boxing, which Paul bluntly stated this week during a sitdown with DAZN’s “Off the Cuff,” he expects he would be dead or in jail, which is a reality commonly shared by many fighters. But Paul isn’t most boxers or even most influencers — he’s a daring maverick who marches to the ambitious beat of his own drum, even if his first pro defeat came by split-decision to the half-brother of heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who entered more well known for his reality TV stardom in his native U.K. than his level of talent inside the ring. 

“I gave [retiring from boxing] one thought for about 25 seconds, and that was like that night and the next morning,” Paul said. “But I was just like, ‘Bro, stop. Just stop it.’ I was in a low, low, low, low place. I think it’s good to have that thought because once I expel it, I know that this is what I want. 

“Even though it’s sour right now, all the good moments and everything this sport has done for me and helped me through as a human, this is exactly what I am destined for and I am going to show others how to deal with this loss. I have been in the gym every single day since then.”

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To Paul’s credit, he did knock down the 24-year-old Tommy Fury (9-0, 4 KOs) in the final round and saw one of the three judges that night in Saudi Arabia score the fight in his favor. But even though a rematch against Fury is likely for the future, especially after Fury returns in October to face one of Paul’s (and his older brother Logan’s) chief rivals in the YouTuber boxing space, British rapper/entertainer KSI, Paul has pivoted from the defeat to an even bigger clash this weekend. 

On Saturday, Paul will face off in a 10-round boxing match against MMA legend Nate Diaz in the 38-year-old former UFC anti-hero’s professional debut in the main event of a pay-per-view card (DAZN, 9 p.m. ET) from the American Airlines Center in Dallas. The fight is scheduled to be contested at a catchweight of 185 pounds. 

The fight is important not only as a crossover spectacle, but it also represents Paul’s biggest matchup to date against a retired MMA star, a cottage industry he has cornered in recent years with wins over Ben Askren, Tyron Woodley (twice) and Anderson Silva, all the while publicly challenging UFC president Dana White on fighter pay as a de facto Robin Hood of combat sports. And it’s a fight that only became possible when Diaz fought out his UFC contract last year.

Paul hasn’t just been a friend of combat sports by making big events and bringing attention to topics like fighter treatment, he has also gone out of his way to help others, particularly in the underexposed world of elite women’s boxing, where Paul signed seven-division champion Amanda Serrano to his Most Valuable Promotions and continues to give her (and others) a huge platform on his fight cards to ply her craft. 

And Paul has never been one to shy away, especially in the face of backlash from combat sports purists, to remind just how much he continues to give back as he does benefit from commandeering a good chunk of the boxing spotlight over the past few years. 

“I’m great for boxing, for so many reasons,” Paul said. “First and foremost, it’s bringing 70 million of my fans to this sport. A study has been done that boxing is a top three most talked about sport for the next generation, up from years prior by 10 spots. So, what is that? Who did that? It’s pretty obvious. This sport saved my life so I want to get the sport out there more so that it can save other lives. That, to me, is how I pay back this sport.”

Some of Paul’s good-natured efforts have amounted to nothing more than lip service, like his attempt to join forces with Silva and create an MMA fighter’s union. But he has continued to give access for others to shine, including the crown jewel of his promotion, 19-year-old prospect Ashton “H20” Sylve (9-0, 8 KOs), who returns on the Paul-Diaz PPV main card. 

If Paul has proven one thing in his transition into a real fighter, it’s that he isn’t in this just for the money and fame, even if a matchup against Diaz amounts to not much more than both when it comes to the fight’s actual stakes. Even with a loss last time out in his first fight against a “real” boxer, and not an entertainer or retired athlete from another sport, Paul hasn’t moved away from his true goal — whether it’s realistic or not — that he won’t rest until he proves he’s legitimate.

And in boxing, where the barriers to entry on the professional level remain low, the only thing that would truly silence Paul’s doubters when it comes to establishing said legitimacy would be him winning a world title.  

“I’m back and better than I have ever been,” Paul said. “Everything in life happens for a reason and I needed that loss for many reasons. I’m actually more confident in myself and my team, right now. I’m actually more certain that I can become world champion now, more so than before.

“I think that will take probably three more years from now. It’s maybe not realistic but I think nothing in my life is realistic. I have never lived inside the boundaries of anything possible so why stop now?”

Paul first gained viral attention (and the truckloads of money that comes with that as a social media superstar) when he was still in high school. Poor decisions and substance abuse followed as neither Paul, nor his brother, could avoid the kind of public missteps that can come with receiving so much spoil so early. 

So, when Paul says boxing literally saved his life, he means it. And it’s all the more reason, Paul said, to work so hard and try to give back with the platform he has. 

“Youtube is a mental illness,” Paul said. “It’s a terrible tunnel that you keep digging yourself. I wanted to be successful and to prove everyone wrong. I wanted to be the first person in my family with money and to make my parents proud. I wanted to prove the people wrong who laughed at my dreams. But you are in this sort of trap where I don’t want to be this character anymore and be this YouTuber but I also do want what comes along with it. 

“You are digging yourself into the hole and you almost have to eject yourself out of it to save yourself. That’s kind of where boxing really came into play and helped me out of that hole. I created this monster and I had to, over the years, defeat this monster and awaken to my own self through [the boxing lifestyle]. It gave me that space to really figure out who I was.”

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Paul was just seven when Diaz made his professional MMA debut in 2004. Even though Diaz is no stranger to boxing and has sparred for years with top pros, including Andre Ward, the combination of size and youth advantages can’t be overlooked ahead of this matchup, which is why oddsmakers have installed Paul, who has boxed roughly 25 pounds heavier than Diaz competed in MMA, as high as a 4-1 favorite. 

Should Paul defeat Diaz, it won’t have the same meaningful effect it might have two years ago, when Paul was more deeper embroiled in a constant war with White, the UFC, and by proxy, the sport of MMA. Instead, most combat sports fans have looked at this matchup as somewhat of a charming roadside attraction that they simply can’t look away from. 

All of Paul’s ambitions to stay in boxing and eventually become a champion are noble, but whether or not they are actually realistic could come down to more than just Paul’s ability and how fast he can evolve. 

Paul is expected to defeat Diaz and the only real spin-off story of any escalating hype that could come out of the fight would be if Paul should lose, sparking the need for a second fight that would entrap even more eyeballs to see Paul try and gain his redemption. 

Three years after his pro debut, Paul continues to benefit from the crossover bubble of “circus fights” that he has played a big part in hyping up. But it’s clear that the appetite for such has waned significantly, with Paul’s own defeat against Fury leading to many feeling like the air is almost all the way out of the balloon. 

Creating a champion from scratch in this sport takes time. While few who get to know Paul ever question his work ethic in his pursuit to get there, time continues to be the one thing he might be running out of, at least as it pertains to the public’s patience and care level for fights that may have already outlived their viral shelf life.

Matchups like Paul-Diaz took advantage in recent years of a sport like boxing that doesn’t always put its best foot forward and very often has trouble making the events that truly matter. This year has been anything but that, however, with boxing enjoying arguably its best year in two decades.  

And with Paul-Diaz lacking something tangibly at stake or really any palpable bad blood between the two (even of the manufactured and pro wrestling variety), it’s hard to ignore that the buzz for fights like this, even between two combat household names, is starting to feel like an old fad. 

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