From Mayweather v McGregor all the way back to Cravan v Johnson, odd match-ups have long been a part of our sport
Jake Paul, an American YouTube personality, boxes Ben Askren, a retired MMA star, on Saturday night, in a bout broadcast online on a platform called Triller. The event might well get more views than Eddie Hearn’s world title fight between Liam Williams and Demetrius Andrade.
Does the fight between Paul and Askren deserve more attention than Williams v Andrade? No.
So is this a worry for boxing? Not really.
The ‘Freak Show’ has aways existed in this sport, and the trimmings aroud Paul v Askren are merely a reflection of the age we’re in.
On Saturday night, live from Atlanta, Justin Bieber will perform and rapper Snoop Dogg will join the commentary team. Whether or not we should call this a boxing event is a moot point. It is a hybrid of sport, entertainment, music, and digital media — with more than a dash of rubber-necking thrown in.
The central fact in all of this is that fights sell. Scream ‘fight, fight, fight’ in a school playground and it doesn’t take long for a crowd to form. Combat sports have always been able to capitalise on this.
We saw it when when Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor fought in 2017, generating $600 million in the process.
We saw it in 1971, when the 7ft 2in basketball player Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain signed a contract to fight Muhammad Ali at the Houston Astrodome. Chamberlain was serious, too. But so was his father, a boxing fan, who warned his son off the fight.
Go even farther back to 1916 and re-read reports of the bout between Arthur Cravan, the poet and Dadaist, and Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, at a bullring in Barcelona. Cravan had entered a competition for rookie boxers and, when nobody else showed, was declared the light-heavyweight champion of France, without even throwing a punch. Facing Johnson, however, Cravan froze, and every time he was touched, fell to the ground like an embryo. A bemused Johnson ‘carried’ Cravan for six rounds, before cuffing the poet and knocking him out. The police had a riot on their hands afterwards from angry punters who had paid to see a fight.
More than 100 years later, Triller are taking this latest freak show seriously. The platform have already dipped their toes in the water with Mike Tyson v Roy Jones Jr — an event which drew 1.6 million pay-per-view sales. The Triller business model works when fights sell, which is exactly what they expect when Paul takes on Askren.
Like it or not, combat sports are principally a business. So when big money is involved, and there is interest, fights will be made.
Does this devalue the work of the career professional boxer? Perhaps it does take something away — but it also brings more eyes to the sport. And the forgotten truth is that this kind of thing started a long time ago.