LOS ANGELES -- Le'Veon Bell sat on the ring apron inside Mayweather Boxing and Fitness in Hollywood, wiped the sweat from his forehead and narrowed his eyes.
Just a few weeks earlier, Bell connected on punches that dropped -- and ultimately knocked out -- fellow former NFL running back Adrian Peterson in an exhibition boxing match.
That moment, Bell said, was nothing like any experience he has ever had on the football field. The former All-Pro called it "one of the best feelings in the world."
"That takes the cake with anything," Bell told ESPN. "I've never felt anything before like that."
Bell has been bitten hard by the boxing bug. He used it as cardio training during his NFL offseasons and fell in love with it. In 2020, Bell started to give real thought to the sport being something he would do after football. With his NFL career winding down, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star decided he didn't want to play football anymore -- he wanted to box.
On Saturday, just seven weeks after he TKO'd Peterson, Bell will make his professional boxing debut on the Jake Paul vs. Anderson Silva undercard in Glendale, Arizona. The opponent will be a significant step up in competition: MMA fighter Uriah Hall, who is tied for the most knockouts in the history of the UFC middleweight division.
Hall is a heavy favorite in the sportsbooks. That's just fine with Bell, who is simply looking for the best chance to prove himself in a new sport.
"I gotta be all-in on boxing if I'm gonna do this, because it's not something you can play around with if you want to be the best at it," Bell said. "I'm not about to do something if I ain't trying to be the best at it, to be honest. I'm not doing this as a hobby. I'm not just doing it to try and get money or any type of fame. For me, it's more for myself. See how far I can go."
Bell, 30, played parts of eight seasons in the NFL and made more than $45 million in salary during that time, per Spotrac.com. He was an elite player at running back, one of the most physically demanding positions in the sport, for large stretches, making first-team All-Pro twice and getting selected to three Pro Bowls.
Now, his goal is to become a champion in boxing, and he knows in order to do that he has to fight elite boxers. At 0-0 as a pro, though, that's currently impossible. Bell understands he has to work his way up, and he considers himself "blessed" to be on a big card like Paul vs. Silva due to his name. He knows the vast majority of athletes at his experience level would not be able to pull that off.
"I don't want to disrespect those boxers," said Bell, who has been training at several facilities in Los Angeles, including Fortune Gym. "When I do have the opportunities, I'm gonna show people because this is where I belong."
The bout with Hall has been contracted for four rounds at 195 pounds. The two men will wear 10-ounce gloves. Hall is also making his pro boxing debut, though he is a 17-year pro in MMA with a high-level background in karate.
Bell said he respects Hall and explicitly wanted a tough matchup in his pro debut. Bell envisions potential future fights with Jake Paul, his brother Logan or YouTuber/rapper KSI, and then ultimately bouts with the best boxers in the cruiserweight division.
Bell said his family is supportive of his new sporting endeavor. Some friends, though, are on the fence. This weekend is a chance to demonstrate exactly what he has been doing in the ring over the past few months (and years).
"Everybody kind of thinks I'm just talking about it," Bell said. "They don't know all the hard work and sacrifices I've made to get to this point here. That's why Oct. 29 is a great opportunity to show people what I've been doing."
Bell is looking forward to experiencing more emotions like the ones he felt by beating Peterson.
"I'm not doing this to just cut the check and get a little Instagram followers," he said. "I'm trying to do this to show people I'm one of the best athletes that's walking around on this Earth."
Where does Jake Paul go after this weekend?
This is a big fight for Paul, one he told ESPN last month is the biggest he has been involved with so far. That's accurate. Silva was a bigger name -- and better fighter -- in the UFC than past Paul opponents, Tyron Woodley and Ben Askren. The matchup is intriguing. The oddsmakers have it essentially even. Boxing people think Paul should manhandle a 47-year-old who has only three pro boxing fights on his résumé. MMA people remember Silva and just how brilliant he can look. They believe Silva will piece Paul up and/or finish him.
If Paul wins this weekend, what does it really mean? It depends on how he does it. A knockout over Silva will stick in people's minds, and Paul will surely have more big fights on the horizon. A Tommy Fury fight in the U.K. is possible. Even if Paul loses, that will probably still be the case, but he'd have to build himself up a bit more. That matchup with KSI -- 1-0 as a pro boxer, a 2019 split decision over Logan Paul -- is always there.
A loss to Silva is what many are expecting, so it likely would not damage Paul's reputation to a huge degree. Silva does have a win over former world champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., who might be past his prime and going through the motions, but still has a far better résumé than Paul. Perhaps a Silva win here could also lead to a rematch with Paul. The question of what exactly is the market for future Paul fights might be answered in Arizona.
Where does Anderson Silva go after this weekend?
Wherever he wants, really. At 47 years old and with a lifetime of combat sports experience, Silva could continue on with more boxing matches and exhibitions or hang up the gloves. It seems like he's still having fun in the fight game, as his news conferences with Paul and playful banter with emcee (and former hated rival) Chael Sonnen would demonstrate. If Silva wins, he'll remain a pretty marketable name on this circuit of boxing events featuring MMA legends, YouTubers, athletes from other sports and pseudo-celebrities. Even with a loss, that would probably be the case, too. A victory, though, could get Silva one really big, final payday, even if it's a rematch against Paul.
What other storylines on Paul vs. Silva are worth watching?
Chris Avila, from Nate Diaz's team out of Stockton, California, is facing YouTuber Mikhail "Dr. Mike" Varshavski in a pro boxing match. Varshavski is wildly popular and People magazine named him the sexiest doctor alive in 2015. He seems to be a legit athlete and has an exhibition win over fellow YouTuber Ian "iDubbbz" Carter from back in May. It'll be interesting to see him interact during fight week with Avila and Team Diaz, who are never shy about throwing down at any hint of disrespect.
Diaz, meanwhile, is on his way to being a free agent after he fought out his UFC contract last month with a win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 279. Diaz is still under an exclusive negotiating period with the UFC and cannot talk to anyone right now, but there have long been rumors that Jake Paul and Diaz could box in the future, and that would surely be a fight that does exceedingly well at the box office and on pay-per-view. Avila was on the Paul vs. Woodley undercard last December, beating Paul's sparring partner, Anthony Taylor. It's certainly not a coincidence that Paul's team continues to do business with Team Diaz. Avila, a UFC and Bellator veteran, also represents potentially the debut of Diaz's new promotion, Real Fight Inc. What will that actually look like? It's something to keep an eye on.
For the boxing purists, keep an eye on Paul's 18-year-old uber prospect Ashton Sylve. He'll be in the co-main event against Braulio Rodriguez, representing a massive step up for Sylve, whom Paul's Most Valuable Promotions believes will be the next big thing in boxing. Sylve is just 7-0, while Rodriguez is 20-4 and fought stud lightweight Ryan Garcia two fights ago in a knockout loss.