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Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley isn’t elite boxing, but it might help the sport anyway

Let’s not confuse Paul vs. Woodley with elite competition, because it’s spectacle. But is it harmless enough to be fine, and maybe help the actual sport along the way?

Jake Paul is interviewed during a media workout at the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa pool prior to his December 18th fight against Tyron Woodley on December 15, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

When the circus comes to town, do you use free tickets to go see the elephants?

On Wednesday I went to the Tampa Bay’s only casino to watch Jake Paul and Tyron Woodley in a “public workout.” While we didn’t see anything beyond a few minutes of jump rope and hitting pads amongst eight different fighters in a ring set poolside, the event did what it was supposed to do — draw eyeballs and media attention, as well as provide B-roll, for the pay-per-view event on Saturday night at Amalie Arena.

The fight card will be a short bike ride up Bayshore Boulevard from my South Tampa home. Would I drive to Orlando for this? Probably not. But if I can walk there, what’s wrong with a little spectacle? Plus I can confirm the cookies and ice cream in the media room of the reigning Stanley Cup champions are delicious.

As the catch-all guy at DK Nation (the Oscars, the Triple Crown, politics and elections, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, Succession episodes ... “give it to Collin, he loves the weird stuff!”), I have written about three of Jake Paul’s four career boxing outings. I’m not sure I can call them professional fights, because while he got paid for them (quite handsomely in some cases), he has yet to enter the squared circle against someone that earns their income via the sweet science.

Logan Paul has fought another YouTube star, an NBA Slam Dunk Champion, and two MMA champions. So for me defining him as a professional boxer extends Webster’s to the point of grammatical peril. Pro pugilists fight other pugilists, and to Paul’s credit he was scheduled to do just that before Tommy Fury pulled out of this contest due to medical issues.

The same applies to another notable fight on the card, with former NFL Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore fighting NBA All-Star Deron Williams. Maybe one of them makes something out of boxing someday, but the 1-0 record the victor will leave Cigar City with counts only because they had to get a state-issued license to compete. Not due to their talent or commitment to the sport.

However, professional absolutely applies to Amanda Serrano, the 41-1-1 unified women’s featherweight champion that has given her life to the sport and has won belts in seven different weight classes. She moves up to lightweight to face Miriam Gutierrez, with an eye on Ireland’s Katie Taylor (20-0, 2012 Olympic gold medalist) if she wins, setting up one of the biggest women’s boxing matches in history.

But Paul did jump off the ring apron right in front of me wearing a pair of goggles, and into the newly-remodeled Hard Rock pool. If I had known this was coming I’d have kept the camera rolling, but instead I had to catch up from behind.

And that’s why Jake Paul, spectacle boxer, YouTube personality, influencer, celebratainer, whatever might not be the worst thing for the sport?

Serrano was effusive in her praise of Paul at her workout on Wednesday, who signed the champion to a multi-fight deal via his Most Valuable Promotions. “What he’s done in a short amount of time is amazing. He’s not just bringing entertainment, but he trains like the real fighters do. He’s got a championship mindset and I’m proud to be a part of that,” said Serrano.

But in the compliment also lies the truth. “He trains like the real fighters do” distinguishes between what Paul is doing and what Serrano does. One is a master of marketing and viral entertainment in the 21st century, and love him or hate him he’s able to draw eyeballs and clicks. And it works because I only know who he is due to his forays into fighting.

However, Serrano is a champion at the pinnacle of her sport, and while she’s now a part of the circus as well, this brings more attention to what she does too. In a way, Paul and Serrano are both technical geniuses at what they do. They can grow together, and are good for each other’s brands. He brings worldwide attention, she brings credibility.

I am no expert on boxing, and while I understand the difference between a left hook and an upper cut and I know what an Enswell is, I’m not Al Bernstein or Max Kellerman. But I know it’s a sport with a long history of corruption problems, and one that keeps losing market share to mixed martial arts. The death of boxing and Saturday Night Live has been a go-to for columnists on both ends of a newsroom since the Carter administration.

To wit I didn’t know much of anything about Amanda Serrano before Wednesday. But I watched her hit pads for 10 minutes, and even to my untrained eye she was clearly the most skilled person in that outdoor ring. I didn’t know a fight with Katie Taylor was potentially in the offing, but now I do. And sport is never more compelling than when the best take on the best.

I googled her upbringing, her Nuyorican heritage, and how she found fighting. I’m in for a Serrano-Taylor fight. Something I wouldn’t have know about if a modern-day carnival barker hadn’t signed her to his troupe, and brought the big tent to town.

While jumping into the pool on a gorgeous Florida day is fine, some of the other stunts Paul does are just silly. He wore a ski mask at his press conference on Thursday, saying “I’m getting a big bag to beat the guy I already beat. It’s going to be a bank robbery.” He brought a “championship belt” he valued at $500,000 which said Most Valuable Boxer, with Rolex and Cartier watches plus a Birkin bag attached.

And truth be told, I feel kind of stupid writing about this because I’m falling into the trap Jake Paul exploits perfectly. Say or do something outlandish merely for the sake of being provocative, and have guys with keyboards repeat it. Paul grows his brand, this article gets clicks, we both win.

And I don’t love that or what it says about the current cultural discourse. Social media, mainstream media, online media — we all need to curate a bit better and not just shovel delicious-but-sugary Circus Peanuts as a staple of our media diet.

But I’m not throwing the baby out with the bathwater either. If two grown men want to beat each other up in the middle of a ring for a lot of money, even if they’re not the athletes at the peak of their sport, that’s fine. And if people want to pay to watch that instead of “real boxing” — look, I will always prefer college football over the NFL despite the NCAA being the inferior product on the field.

I wouldn’t buy this fight for myself, but I won’t cast dispersions either.

But I would buy a fight to see Amanda Serrano, and maybe that’s some good that can come from this. A talented, dedicated athlete gets a bit more attention in the reflected spotlight, and get a bit closer to her dreams and goals both in and out of the ring.

The ringmaster and the clowns will close the show on Saturday night, and that’s what most people will pay to see. But like the talented trapeze artists or daredevils on tour, there’s often real talent worth seeing when the circus is in town, too.