Boxer or spectacle? Inside the attraction of YouTuber turned fighter Jake Paul

DEWEY COOPER STEPPED into the Bones Adams Boxing gym in Las Vegas last fall. The former pro boxer, kickboxer and longtime striking coach was there to referee a sparring session for Jake Paul, the popular YouTuber turned boxing hopeful.

Cooper had seen Paul spar before and had come away fairly impressed. On this day, though, Paul would be boxing against a veteran Romanian kickboxer who Cooper figured would be "too aggressive and experienced" for the 23-year-old.

Paul dropped the kickboxer with a right hand and hurt him several more times with combinations. Cooper was sold: Paul was not the joke that pundits had painted him to be.

"I thought [the kickboxer] would give him a lot of trouble," said Cooper, who has trained boxers such as two-division titleholder Jessie Vargas and heavyweight title challenger Carlos Takam, as well as UFC heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou. "And, wow, it was easy work for Jake. ... He's formidable in there. And way better than an internet dude with two fights."

A few weeks later, Paul's boxing hype train took off. The social media influencer knocked out three-time NBA Slam Dunk Contest champion Nate Robinson on the undercard of a major pay-per-view headlined by an exhibition between boxing legends Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. In the postfight news conference, Tyson lauded Paul -- and others like him.

"My ego says so many things, but my reality is that they help boxing so much," Tyson said. "Boxing owes these guys. They owe these YouTube guys some respect. ... These guys make boxing alive."

Combat sports have always toed the line between meritocracy and advancement based on popularity. Boxing is built on pay-per-view buys and lucrative television contracts, where marketability can trump holding a world title. Paul can draw more views than almost every boxer on the planet right now, but he is just 2-0 without a single fight against a legitimate boxer. His first was against fellow YouTube personality AnEsonGib.

Next up for Paul is retired MMA fighter Ben Askren, who was a champion in Bellator and ONE Championship and in 2019 fought three times in the UFC. Askren is a two-time NCAA champion and an Olympian in wrestling. When he steps in the ring with Paul on April 17, it will be Askren's boxing debut.

To some, facing even a former combat sport athlete is a step up for Paul, both in terms of level of competition and in legitimizing himself as a boxer. But Paul isn't concerned about those perceptions. He is trying to transform boxing by attracting the same mass appeal he enjoys with millions of social media followers. If he succeeds, it could revolutionize the sport, at least from a marketing perspective. And, from a public perspective standpoint, there's no downside for Paul, who will reap massive financial gains and a new level of popularity either way.

"Anything that promotes boxing, anything that brings new eyeballs to the sport -- new interest, new enthusiasm -- has to be supported," said Mauricio Sulaiman, president of the World Boxing Council (WBC) sanctioning body.

But boxing is not a sport that evolves quickly, and Paul's plan to use Twitter beefs, Instagram skits and global headlines to become the next huge star of the sport presents challenges. How does Paul, given his previously established stardom and following, fit in?

He maintains it will be at the very top of the boxing mountaintop.

"I truly believe that I will become the biggest prizefighter in the world and the highest-paid prizefighter in the world," said Paul. "And that is my goal -- and I won't stop for anybody."

BJ FLORES MET Paul about a year and a half ago. Paul, a former high school wrestler, was training with boxing legend Shane Mosley in the mountains of Big Bear Lake, California. Flores, an 18-year boxing pro and television analyst, was brought in to be a sparring partner. Flores liked what he saw from Paul in terms of athleticism and ability to come right down the middle with his punches.

The two hit it off, and within a few weeks of Flores going back home to Arizona, Paul messaged him with a proposition: move to Los Angeles and coach him full time. Flores was resistant at first, but he knew how serious Paul was about boxing and the potential he had. Plus, Paul "sweetened the pot" financially. In December 2019, Flores moved to Calabasas, where Paul cleared out a room with a private entrance in his mansion. A few weeks after that, Paul won his pro boxing debut against AnEsonGib.

Paul and Flores continued to work together, spending time in Las Vegas during the summer of 2020 getting Paul sparring rounds against solid young boxers. Flores said Paul works out twice per day almost every day, and goes through film analysis and challenging runs in places like Nevada's Red Rock Canyon and Mount Charleston.

"We're on a strict schedule," Flores said. "There's zero time to mess around and for horseplay. ... Not only is he a phenomenal talent, he's been with his head down grinding the entire year. And he's getting some excellent results."

Horseplay, though, is part of the Paul brand. He has forged his fame with jokes and pranks reminiscent of the old MTV show "Jackass." And he has brought that act to combat sports. During a week in December, he cut a satirical promo on former UFC champion Conor McGregor, cigar in mouth, and engaged in a drive-by water balloon attack on McGregor's friend and training partner Dillon Danis. Paul has both McGregor and Danis on his list of potential future opponents.

WHILE THE HIJINKS have garnered headlines and a prodigious following -- including more than 20 million YouTube subscribers -- the impact they've had on his boxing clout has rubbed purists the wrong way.

"They're making a mockery of boxing, OK?" ESPN's No. 1 women's pound-for-pound boxer Claressa Shields told TMZ. "I just say that because there are so many fighters who deserve to be on that platform under Mike Tyson and Roy Jones that did not get that opportunity. ... Jake Paul is making his money, he's doing his thing. But stay away from us real fighters."

New York boxing promoter Lou DiBella believes Paul's entry into the sport won't dramatically change it, but it does create opportunity. As boxing is often challenged by promotional contracts preventing the best from fighting the best, a fight involving Paul could change the way the sport is viewed or even attract a wider audience.

"I don't think Jake Paul has much more to do with boxing than a celebrity playing celebrity softball or a celebrity playing in an all-star celebrity basketball game," DiBella said.

The thing is, DiBella acknowledges, people are willing to pay to see Paul fight. And boxing is a business. DiBella predicts that if Paul and McGregor ever do fight, it would be a pay-per-view event bigger than the next heavyweight title fight "by multiples."

"I think some of the appetite for all of this may relate to the fact that people will always find other people's fighting to be a great form of entertainment," DiBella said. "And when boxing is unable at the moment to deliver with regularity fights that cross over into event status, that's creating an opening for these exhibitions and internet influencers and seniors tours."

Zany exhibition matches have been part of boxing for a century, going back to the 1920s and 1930s, when there were arguments over whether the heavyweight boxing champion or the heavyweight professional wrestling champion -- or a fighter from traditional martial arts -- was the baddest man on the planet. The most famous of these events was Muhammad Ali vs. Japan's professional wrestling champion Antonio Inoki in 1976, although that wasn't a boxing match, but a mixed-rules encounter. Most of these exhibitions predate the advent of mixed martial arts in the 1990s.

"Combat sports is not a game. It's not a basketball game. It's not a hockey game. The fighters are trying to knock each other out. We're in the hurt business." NSAC executive director Bob Bennett

What separates Jake Paul from the typical showcase fighter is that he's serious -- or at least says he is -- about being a professional boxer. No exhibitions. His older brother Logan, by comparison, is scheduled for an exhibition boxing match with Floyd Mayweather later this year, which Jake has scoffed at, telling TMZ his brother has no chance and the bout is "bad for the sport."

"You can't connect Jake and Logan," Flores said. "They're two different animals. Logan is more of an ambassador and a showman and a TV guy. Jake is more of a fighter and ... he's much better than Logan. And he takes it a lot more seriously than Logan."

Jake Paul wants to increase boxing's popularity. But, he said, in order to do that, others in the space have to become more fluent in the digital realm.

"I understand TikTok, I understand Triller, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, YouTube stories, community posting on YouTube," Paul said. "That's s--- that if you asked a promoter, they wouldn't know what the f--- that is.

"I want boxing to be more famous. I want boxing to grow. I want people to succeed. I want to make content with other fighters. I want to go and hang out with Anthony Joshua and make a YouTube video about it. I want to go hang out with Tyson Fury. I want to bring more eyes. But Ryan Garcia is the only f---ing one who seems to get it and seems to put himself out there to grow. So it might take time."

Social media app Triller promoted Tyson vs. Jones Jr., will promote Paul vs. Askren, and it plans to put on similar bouts in partnership with Snoop Dogg called The Fight Club. "The reason Netflix came in and ate the studios' lunches is because the system was 100 years old and no one was challenging it, right?" Triller co-owner Ryan Kavanaugh said. "I used to say ... there's five gatekeepers [in the movie industry], and if they don't realize that the gates have been left open, the system is gonna rudely change around them. And it did. I think that's kind of what's happening here."

Kavanaugh said it was impossible to pinpoint how many people bought the Tyson vs. Jones Jr. card because of Paul, but the numbers appear significant. Kavanaugh said 27% of people who bought that event on pay-per-view had never bought a fight before, and close to 40% of people who bought it were not frequent purchasers of combat sports.

"People just want to be entertained at the end of the day," former boxing champion and current ESPN boxing analyst Timothy Bradley Jr. said. "It doesn't matter if it's real or not real, they don't really care about that. Is it real boxing? Absolutely not. I'm gonna tell you that right now. But it's a fight -- it's a fight."

COOPER, EVEN THOUGH he supports what Paul is doing, remains a believer in boxing's traditional system. A boxer slowly builds himself or herself up from the bottom, beating other boxers with a similar experience level until it's time for an increase in competition and potentially lucrative fights.

"All the real boxing enthusiasts want is to see Jake Paul make a real boxing career," Cooper said. "Fight real boxers and develop that way. Don't fight basketball players. Don't fight actors. ... If you keep winning [against real boxers], we have to salute you."

But that is not Paul's plan.

"I don't want to fight anymore unless it's massive," Paul said. "I want every time Jake Paul fights to have an electricity in the air that everyone can feel and people have to tune in. I'm gonna challenge myself, I'm gonna find the right opponent, and I'm gonna stay active."

And those opponents, he said, must be people fans have heard of and can do their part in promoting the fight.

"For the purists, he's gonna have to fight boxers," said Paul rep and former UFC executive Nakisa Bidarian of BAVAFA LLC. "And I'm not saying that's not going to happen. It's just not in the 12-month plan to fight boxing prospects."

After his knockout of Robinson, Paul floated a number of names on social media as future opponents, and most of them were not boxers but cage fighters. "I want to bring MMA fighters into the boxing ring and embarrass them," Paul said.

Askren was among Paul's targets immediately after Paul's victory over Robinson. As he watched the process play out over social media, Askren believed Paul and his team were simply putting forth an over-the-top sales pitch. He doesn't begrudge them for doing it, nor does he find any offense in what his future opponent is bringing to combat sports. "May some stupid people be fooled into believing he's really good or something? Sure," Askren said in December. "Just because some stupid people on the internet want to believe some fairy-tale fabrication, I don't know. I don't see why that should bother anybody."

Askren, despite having shown unorthodox boxing skills in his MMA fights, presents a new level of challenge for Paul. Unlike Robinson, who had zero experience in combat sports, Askren has been hit flush by the likes of former UFC champion Robbie Lawler, who was wearing 4-ounce gloves. And Askren has trained for years alongside elite strikers such as Anthony Pettis and Tyron Woodley in the Milwaukee gym of former kickboxing world champion Duke Roufus. Askren is coming off hip replacement surgery, but he will be prepared come April. He is confident of that.

"I'm gonna beat this guy up," Askren said prior to the fight announcement. "What leads you to the belief that Jake Paul could actually box? He beat up a YouTube star, and he beat up a basketball player."

THERE ARE BUILT-IN deterrents for a potential trend of atypical fights. Boxing, at least in North America, is regulated and sanctioned by state, tribal or provincial athletic commissions, which are the last line of defense against mismatches or bouts deemed unsafe.

"I am in absolute support of this phenomenon, as long as it's completely done with safety measures, because boxing is not a game," WBC president Sulaiman said. "It is a contact sport, which is dangerous."

Paul's fight with Robinson was regulated by the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC). It's unclear where Mayweather vs. Logan Paul will take place and how it will be sanctioned. Neither CSAC nor the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) is regulating that bout, sources said.

Paul is hard to match from a regulatory perspective, according to CSAC executive officer Andy Foster. Putting him in the ring again with someone with no experience like Robinson would be hazardous to that opponent, according to Foster, who would prefer Paul take a more boxing-oriented approach from here.

"I understand the marketing behind it," Foster said of Paul's desire to box against an MMA fighter. "But if you want to do boxing for real, you have to figure out how to get ranked eventually. The only way to do that is to fight a gatekeeper and beat him."

NSAC executive director Bob Bennett took heat when he allowed McGregor to make his boxing debut against Mayweather in 2017. He said he felt comfortable with it because he did his due diligence. McGregor, Bennett said, was the younger, bigger man. Mayweather is not known for his knockout power. Bennett said he watched video from McGregor's boxing sparring sessions before making the final decision to clear the bout.

Mayweather ended up winning by 10th-round TKO, but the early rounds were somewhat competitive. Bennett said a boxing match between McGregor and Jake Paul right now is "not an approvable fight for the Nevada State Athletic Commission." Paul fought last at 181 pounds, while McGregor has topped out at 170 and is the former UFC champion at 155 and 145 pounds. Plus, Bennett said, there is a wide gap in combat-sports experience.

"The Nevada State Athletic Commission is well aware of how well these young men are able to promote themselves and obtain lucrative fights," Bennett said of the Paul brothers. "But mismatches are something we're cognitive of. The UFC, for example, does a phenomenal job [of matchmaking]. They put the best against the best.

"[Combat sports] is not a game. It's not a basketball game. It's not a hockey game. The fighters are trying to knock each other out. We're in the hurt business."

Paul isn't sure if his fans will flock to other fighters in the sport the way they do to him, but the idea of using his platform to build other fights up isn't lost on him. All promoters and other boxers have to do, he said, is be a little more like him. And if they do just that, Paul will have most definitely changed the game.

"More people know about [boxing]," Paul said. "But my audience cares more about the s--- talk, the storyline, the excitement of fight night, the outfits. They're gonna watch these interviews. The fight is the side product. And obviously it's what people tune in to, and it's what keeps people on the edge of their seat."