Capitalizing on our joke of a society, Triller has found a home for itself as the premier boxing circus act for modern audiences
It is a sad day when a celebrity can make millions of dollars "boxing" a man that couldn't punch his way out of a wet paper bag on the same night that a legitimately elite fighter, a former undisputed world champion who has fought the best of the best in his division, can put on a masterful performance and yet take home only a fraction of the former's paycheck.
Yet that is what happened last Saturday night, as Youtube star Jake Paul flattened former Olympian wrestler Ben Askren in a joke of a boxing match promoted by Triller, while actual fight fans were treated to a great fight and a brilliant performance (on cable television no less) by former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker against former title challenger Kelvin Gastelum over in the UFC.
This may be an extreme example, but it's far from a new revelation - with combat sports, star power has always directly correlated to fighter pay and as boxing matches became more and more lucrative and its biggest stars brought more and more attention, a fighter's ability to draw in viewers has vastly overshadowed more traditional metrics of value such as title/ranking and actual fighting ability.
For most of boxing's history, a fighter's drawing power was very closely related to skill and size - the best boxers generally earned the highest paychecks, but with the pay usually increasing as you look at heavier weight classes simply because fans tended to pay more attention to and appreciate heavier fighters more (culminating in the heavyweight champion being unofficially considered "The Baddest Man on the Planet", even if lighter men were technically better boxers).
Even as prizefighters looked to sell their fights not just through their skill and performances, but through pre-fight trash talk and bravado, they still had to have the skill and ability to make it to the top to earn big paydays. One couldn't simply talk the talk and crush inferior competition for long and still earn good money - in order to be a star, they had to fight top competition and win.
As time went on however, that balance began to shift - in more recent times, hype alone can make a star in boxing, with promising prospects padding their records by dominating far lesser competition for years and building a name for themselves while taking virtually no risks, avoiding real competition at every turn until they've racked up an impressive number of wins and are already a name that draws in crowds.
Can crushing, as it's called by fans, has become a popular management tactic, with flashy fighters put in against far inferior opponents in order to score exciting knockouts and create the illusion of greatness.
Of course, a step up in competition is eventually unavoidable in order to capitalize on their name, but even then they take small steps forward and talk trash about legit opponents (sometimes for years) before finally signing on the dotted line to fight them, if they ever do, at which point they've already made ridiculous sums of money.
The strategy has proven lucrative for many boxers, but as a result the sport of boxing suffered greatly in the eyes of fans. The fights fans actually want to see became few and far between, the elites all avoiding one another in order to preserve their records and keep the money flowing in, even if they could be making more by fighting their true peers. Thanks to this style of promotion so heavily relying on a fighter's record regardless of who they were fighting, a single loss was seen as devastating to their bottom line and thus the risks were rarely worth the rewards, leading to propped up fighters avoiding one another for years.
The golden years of boxing, where the best fought the best and gave their all in their pursuit of greatness rather than simply chasing after dollar figures, appeared long gone.
With the rise of mixed martial arts in the mid-2000's, the UFC took an almost "anti-boxing" approach to promotion - their matchmaking was predicated on pitting the best fighters against each other and letting the chips fall where they may, opting to promote their particular brand of fighting moreso than the individual fighters and creating a much larger "bottom" of viewership in the process. With boxing in a poor state of affairs and the UFC taking off, many began to see the trend and saw the death of boxing as inevitable.
Fortunately that was not the case as there has proven to be plenty of room for both sports to thrive - boxing slowly began to make the match-ups fans were calling for and a new stable of stars emerged, while the UFC's popularity began to blend their original approach with boxing's star-focused style of promoting.
That said, many of boxing's promotional problems still exist, particularly when it comes to their biggest stars receiving "questionable" treatment when it comes to judges' scorecards, but for the most part the sport has found a better balance between sport and spectacle.
While the UFC's matchmaking focus remains primarily on having the best fighting the best and the lower- to mid-card fights are always filled with evenly matched fights, they've adopted a bit more of a boxing-style approach when it comes to their biggest stars such as Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, giving them plenty more leeway when it comes to picking their opponents and promoting them, but still had them fight top competition regularly as well (which hasn't always turned out well for the stars).
The Various Circus Acts of Combat Sports
Now to focus more on the kind of promotion this article is based on - the side shows.
Boxing, and combat sports in general, is no stranger to circus acts - as much as fight fans want to see a high-level fight, casual observers (and even those same fight fans) can't help but be drawn in by spectacle.
Indeed boxing has a rich history in literal circuses, with boxing booths being a popular attraction throughout the late 1800's to mid-1900's.
Often part of a traveling circus, boxing "booths" would feature a promoter with a stable of boxers challenging attendees to boxing matches; anyone willing to lace up a pair of gloves could choose a boxer to go up against and enter the ring, earning themselves a monetary reward should they last three rounds in the ring, while spectators paid to watch the spectacle. Quite a few professional boxers got their start in these travelling boxing acts back in the day, and promoters began experimenting with other fighting novelties as well.
There have been tons of circus acts involving boxing and most notably, famous boxers - in fact, many argue a "fight" between Muhammad Ali and Japanese pro wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976 was the first real mixed martial arts fight to be held, long before the UFC came around in 1993 (the match was supposed to essentially be a fixed match a la pro wrestling but with special rules, until Ali refused to play along when he learned he'd have to lose, resulting in an extremely awkward and bizarre "fight" taking place).
Plenty of similar "mixed matches" crossing boxers with pro wrestlers occurred throughout history, such as Chuck Wepner's (the boxer who served as inspiration for the Rocky movies) match with Andre the Giant. Wepner also famously got demolished by Victor the Bear, an actual black bear, on two separate occasions in charity matches. Yes, guys fighting actual bears was a thing, and no it wasn't just in Russia.
While that kind of craziness is largely gone from boxing today, as the new game in town mixed martial arts has seen its fair share of zaniness in its few decades of existence. From its own pro-wrestling crossovers in Japan to tag-team MMA matches in regional shows or full on team MMA fights in Europe, there's always some weird new form of MMA being tried out in small shows.
If that isn't crazy enough for you, there was a promotion that staged an event with their gloves being electrified, or the two very recent events literally called Fight Cirus that were promoted by a porn company and featured things like a 3-on-1 fight, a spinning attacks only bout, and multiple fat guy vs. little guy fights.
In more tame promotions, the circus acts tend to come in the form of exhibition matches between retired boxers, or occasionally a retired great facing a celebrity of some kind, typically to raise money for charity - the more insane concepts have thankfully been relegated to the fringes of the internet and regional shows.
While the batshit insanity of a fight between two dudes with taser-gloves is certainly good for a laugh, it turns out people aren't really willing to shell out good money for such silly concepts anymore. What they are willing to shell out money for however, are the more "normal" side shows - whether it be a dose of nostalgia with old timers duking it out, or having young celebrities with a modicum of boxing ability fight people that can't box.
The Return of Celebrity Boxing
Triller came out of nowhere last year to enter the boxing space with what everyone called a circus fight - Mike Tyson versus Roy Jones Jr.
Now you might be thinking "how is a fight between two bonafide legends a circus fight?", and if we were talking about this fight occurring a few decades ago, you'd be right - instead, it happened in 2020, when Tyson was 54 years old and Jones Jr. was 51. While a few fighters have managed to compete with high-level success into their 40's, a fight between two 50+ year olds is far from a top-tier match-up and was seen as something that would only tarnish fans' memories of the two legends.
The fact that it was an exhibition match, where there were to be no official judges (though they then declared a draw between them despite it being a one-sided affair, courtesy of "celebrity" judges) and going for a knockout was strictly discouraged, it was supposed to be a glorified sparring match - but given Tyson and his tendency to be a savage in the ring, fans still felt he would go for the knockout and they'd see a genuine fight.
Instead of just putting on the fights however, Triller, a social media subscription-based service, put together one of the most bizarre events you'll ever see.
Packed with various rappers, singers and bands, Triller essentially put on a lengthy concert with boxing matches in between acts, all held together by some incredibly cringey and poor commentary from the likes of Snoop Dog. To say that it was an odd thing to behold would be an understatement.
In the lead-up to headline attraction was one Jake Paul, making his second "pro" boxing appearance against a former NBA star in Nate Robinson.
If you didn't know, Jake Paul is a famous Youtube star and the younger brother of Logan Paul, another famous Youtuber. The two Youtubers made the crossover to boxing in 2018, both taking on fellow Youtubers in KSI (for Logan) and his younger brother Deji (who Jake fought).
Despite none of them having a real background in boxing and limited training, the trash talk between them and their legions of young fans who know about as much about boxing as I know of these guys' Youtube channels, was enough to sell the modestly priced internet pay-per-view to over 1.3 million paying viewers (it cost just $10 in the US).
The event was clearly popular with their audience and Jake Paul scored a TKO in the fifth round of what was apparently a very sloppy fight, while his brother Logan fought to a draw in another terribly sloppy and unskilled fight (I didn't watch either thankfully, and neither should you).
Nearly two years later, Jake would return to boxing to make his "professional" debut against another Youtuber, "AnEsonGib", who he knocked out with relative ease.
Now for his encore, Paul faced another non-boxer - this time 36-year-old Nate Robinson, a retired basketball player known as the first man to win the NBA slam dunk competition three times despite being just 5'7. Robinson may be a great athlete, but to say he can't fight would be an understatement.
After just a few months of training, Robinson entered the ring with Paul, who while not being a world class boxer himself, was an athletic and big 24 year old with a few years of proper boxing training under his belt. Even if Paul is hated by many and Robinson was an impressive athlete, it was an absolute layup for Paul.
What people didn't know was just how shockingly embarassing Robinson would be in his attempt at fighting - while his inexperience was forgivable and we've certainly seen some terrible attempts at fighting from celebs, the fact that after months of training he still had no idea how to even throw a punch whatsoever was just plain sad. Paul knocked down Robinson multiple times before mercifully putting him to sleep with a right cross. It was certainly a mismatch and while beating up a guy that can't even throw a punch should be absolutely expected of anyone with a few years of boxing training, it at least showed that Paul knows how to throw a punch and satiated his easily impressed fans.
Following the viral knockout, the real main event delivered a surprisingly fun fight between two aged legends, even if it was clear Tyson was pulling his punches when it came to head shots - both men looked good for their age, but Tyson looked absolutely terrifying for a 54-year-old man and put on a performance that puts many current heavyweights' skills to shame.
Despite the odd mix of concerts and boxing, bad commentary, and a weak supporting act, Triller's first foray into the combat sports world was a success.
For its encore, Triller decided to put all of their eggs in the Jake Paul basket. Without legends like Tyson and Jones Jr. to top the card and warrant the steep asking price, they staked their success solely on the young Youtuber.
Luckily, with a viral knockout of Nate Robinson under his belt and his non-stop shit-talking with legit fighters keeping him in the headlines, Paul had the name to carry the $50 pay-per-view on his own given the right opponent.
Of course, the Jake Paul boxing experiment wouldn't go very far if he got his ass kicked by a legit boxer - and that's where the MMA crossover comes in.
Having a celebrity compete in a combat sport quickly wears thin if they aren't fighting other stars - but as we've seen throughout history, the vast majority of those celebrities, even if they take competing seriously, can't fight for shit. They're not fighters after all, so they really shouldn't be expected to. That leaves promotions that have banked heavily on such fights extremely short-lived, such as the simply named Celebrity Boxing series on Fox back in the day.
With Jake Paul, we have a unique situation - given that he's very young and has an athletic background already, along with several years of serious boxing training now that show he clearly likes the sport, he is actually a competent (if entry-level) boxer with natural power and size. Therefore, he can take on other celebrities with little training and instead of putting on another embarassing slap fight like most celebrity fights of the past, he can score quick knockouts and further increase the hype surrounding him amongst millenials.
In order to do that however, he needs willing participants, and most notable young stars aren't willing to embarass themselves on a world stage (at least in this manner) or get their ass kicked. Names that would sell from the boxing world are also off the cards - any big name in boxing is a big name because they can actually box at a high level, which makes them far too big a risk for promoters to put them in with Paul.
MMA fighters however, present a unique opportunity. Outside of a few top fighters, the vast majority of athletes in MMA aren't making anywhere near half a million dollars for one fight, even if they have a recognizable name to casual fans. Thus, most will jump at the opportunity for a quick and easy payday.
As another plus, some of those fighters can't actually box - after all, boxing is just one aspect of that sport, so when looking at more grappling-focused fighters, their ability to box (especially if they're on the older side where being less well-rounded was more common) may be extremely rudimentary.
And so we come to Ben Askren, the perfect opponent for Jake Paul's headlining fight.
Recently retired and coming off of a hip replacement surgery, Ben Askren is far from his athletic prime and had a rather embarassing run in the UFC; after surviving a hellacious slam and bombs by Robbie Lawler in his UFC debut before earning a comeback "win" via an extremely controversial submission stoppage, Askren was posterized in just 5 seconds by Jorge Masvidal via an epic flying knee. While he took his first career loss like a champ, he followed up the brutal loss by getting handily outstruck by Demian Maia, himself also known for being a pure grappler with no striking ability, before getting submitted and retiring from the sport.
Unfortunately for Askren, he spent his prime years battering opposition in smaller organizations like Bellator and One FC, racking up an impressive 19-0 record against (some) quality opponents.
The former NCAA and Olympic wrestler's grappling-centric style didn't exactly excite fans, a major reason why it took him so long to get to the UFC - Askren was known for dominating his opponent's on the mat, but his lack of power and grinding style which didn't exactly endear him to viewers saw the UFC pass up on an offer to sign him back in 2013 and instead saw Ben compete overseas.
With a step down in competition allowing him to finish more fights, Ben nonetheless built up his name thanks to his outspoken personality and the dominance he displayed throughout his career before he was finally brought into the UFC fold. Whether he was simply not cut out for the upper echelon of the UFC or he had simply already passed his athletic window is up for debate, but his UFC run, while he was made even more famous thanks to his viral KO loss to Masvidal, was competitively a complete failure.
Though he rarely stayed on the feet long enough to show anything resembling striking skills throughout his career, his fight with Demian Maia, a more dangerous grappler than himself as the fight would prove, saw him forced to stand and strike for extended periods and it was, shall we say, not exactly impressive.
Askren seemed content in retirement, but when Triller came calling with a guaranteed pay day of $500,000 (with sponsorship money, he's stated his pay was roughly $1 million for the fight) just to step into the ring with Jake Paul, even a terrible striker like Ben Askren couldn't say no.
For Askren, nothing could be more embarassing than getting demolished in 5 seconds in a fight he actually cared about, so taking the lucrative payday was a no brainer.
For Jake Paul and his promoter, the fight was a massive win - Askren not only has a name that casuals have heard before, but he speaks extremely well and can sell a fight, he's notably smaller than Jake, and has the added bonus of not knowing how to box whatsoever.
Now, I'll admit I believed Askren could do a lot better than he did - given his toughness and the fact that he knows he's not a boxer, I, like many people, believed Askren would turn the boxing match into a clinch fest. Askren may not know how to punch, but he certainly knew how to close the distance on guys that were looking to hit him, and while he couldn't go for takedowns against Paul, clinching is a large part of boxing.
In fact, earlier on the same card, former UFC heavyweight champion and washed up MMA fighter Frank Mir made his own boxing debut against a retired former cruiserweight boxing champion Steve Cunningham. Though Frank clearly lost and was handily outboxed, he managed to go all six scheduled rounds without embarassing himself and did much better than expected, largely through getting into the clinch and smothering the better boxer.
With Paul not exactly looking like he's a cardio machine in his earlier matches and Askren known for his endurance, if he could simply get in tight and wear on Paul he could wear him down and start scoring as the rounds wore on. Or at least, that was the thought.
Instead, Askren showed up looking out of shape (to be fair, he's always looked out of shape despite being in great physical condition, but he never looked as flabby or soft as last Saturday night) and came out looking like he was actually trying to box with Paul instead of turning the boxing match into an ugly clinch fest, which was his only hope of victory. Any chances he had immediately went out the window, and it turns out, when someone really doesn't know how to box, any decent boxer will still smash them with ease, Olympian wrestler or not.
We'll gloss over the controversial refferee stoppage, as even if it was egregiously early, it wasn't getting any better for Askren, and from a competitive standpoint, he never should have stepped foot in a boxing ring in the first place.
A New Era of Boxing?
And so we get to the important question - is the ridiculous sideshow that was Triller's second event the beginning of a new era in combat sports, or is it a just another short-lived fad that will fade into the background just like the countless other circus acts combat sports has seen over the years?
The answer is inevitably the latter, though that isn't to say Jake Paul and Triller won't be around for a while.
With Paul, Triller has struck gold in the old promotional scheme of can crushing - unlike most fighters that work their way up in this fashion, Jake already has a massive following and is making money from day one, instead of requiring dozens of fights against low level competition just to get recognized.
The problem is his ceiling in the sport is going to be quite low - while he may have the fundamentals and good athleticism, a few years of training isn't going to take him very far against serious fighters who have dedicated their entire lives to the sport since they were children.
As a result, Triller will need to keep finding either celebrities willing to enter the modern equivalent of a boxing booth, or washed up MMA fighters that were never good at the striking part of that sport.
Even if they manage to do this for a while however, the novelty will soon wear off and they'll be forced to have him fight someone who can actually box in order to stave off diminishing returns - and in that case, the best plan for Paul is to have a realistic exit strategy.
While he's already called out plenty of MMA fighters that would legitimately demolish him even in a boxing ring, from Tyron Woodley to Daniel Cormier and Nate Diaz, the best bet to capitalize on his stardom is to keep doing what he's doing as long as he can, then set up a massive fight with a legitimate star fighter. Someone like a Conor McGregor for instance, who he's called out repeatedly; I'm no fan of McGregor, and he Paul likely has a good 30+ pounds on Conor, but even then McGregor would likely embarass Paul because he is the equivalent of an elite boxer.
Even if he gets crushed in embarassing fashion, a fight against someone like McGregor would result in an absolutely massive payday and be well worth the embarassment. Of course, with Jake Paul's ego he may get embarassed before a truly massive fight like that can take place, say if he makes the mistake of trying to fight Tyron Woodley or a Diaz brother.
For Triller, while the Paul business may make them money for some time to come, their brand is not destined to last long - their events have been absolute shitshows, from horrendous commentary to terrible earlier card bouts to the awkward concert-fight dynamic.
So for legitimate fans of combat sports, it's unfortunate we'll likely be hearing about this modern circus act for some time to come, but we can sleep soundly at night knowing that eventually it's destined to either fizzle out or end with a bang.