Is Jake Paul’s young boxing career overly critiqued?

Boxing

YouTuber-turned-prizefighter Jake Paul continues his pursuit of one day becoming a boxing world champion when he faces Ryan Bourland (17-2) in the co-main event of Amanda Serrano’s homecoming fight against Nina Meinke on Saturday night in Puerto Rico. The fight will be Paul’s second consecutive non-pay-per-view bout after he had headlined several blockbuster events, primarily against former MMA fighters.

To some, going from high-profile names in major pay-per-view events — which outperformed some of the biggest PPVs in boxing in recent years — to facing little-known boxers in a co-feature would signal a step down for the former YouTube sensation.

“Another nobody,” one person commented on Jake Paul’s Instagram about the matchup with Bourland, a former Golden Gloves champion and National Junior Olympics boxer. “Whatta joke,” said another, while others trashed the fight against the 35-year-old who may not qualify as much more than a career journeyman.

What is being lost in the social media criticism — and let’s be honest that every fight is critiqued on social media — is that this is Paul’s 10th professional fight, without any previous amateur career.

“I’m fighting for experience, not for the money,” Paul, who’s donating his entire fight purse to his foundation Boxing Bullies, said in a statement when this weekend’s fight was announced. He has routinely stated that he aims to eventually compete for a world title and will be targeting boxers with professional experience to get ranked by a sanctioning body.

Nakisa Bidarian, Paul’s business partner and the co-founder of Most Valuable Promotions, told ESPN that the strategy shifted away from facing non-boxers to being matched up with opponents with pro boxing experience shortly after Paul’s split-decision loss to Tommy Fury last year.

“Paul said to me that when he stepped into the ring with Fury, that he didn’t perform at the level that he wanted to,” Bidarian said. “A big part of that was that he hadn’t been taking a traditional path [in boxing] and that path requires him to build from the ground up against boxers who may be more seasoned, but don’t have the experience of fighting under the big lights.

“He said, ‘I understand I’m going to make a lot less money in these fights, but it is worth it for me in terms of the ultimate goal — which is to become the greatest story in boxing history as the YouTuber who had one amateur fight against a fellow YouTuber and eventually became a world champion.'”

If that truly is the case, is it possible that people are being a little too hard on the 27-year-old, who didn’t step into a boxing gym until he was 21?

“The fight with Bourland is appropriate,” said longtime boxing promoter Lou DiBella, who has helped guide the careers of multiple former world champions, including George Kambosos Jr., Sergio “Maravilla” Martinez and Bernard Hopkins.

After more than 25 years in boxing, including more than a decade leading HBO’s boxing coverage, DiBella knows a thing or two about building a fighter. “Honestly, it’s not inappropriate that a 8-1 fighter would fight this kind of guy. It’s not on pay-per-view, so I don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing. If he wants to get better, this is the kind of guy you fight.

“If I had a 8-1 guy who was fiercely marketable,” DiBella said, “I wouldn’t hesitate to put him in there with someone like Ryan Bourland.”

There appears to be a misunderstanding of how someone with Paul’s limited experience should be handled at this stage of his boxing career. The nuances of how a boxer’s career progresses from the time they turn pro is lost on casual fans as the biggest stars in the sport don’t appear on their radar until they are well into their career. However, considering that Paul has spent most of his young career facing MMA fighters, it wouldn’t be a bridge too far to suggest that much of the misunderstanding stems from the comparisons of how careers are built in boxing and MMA.

“What people are talking about when they tell Jake Paul to get in the ring with a ‘real boxer’ is that they want to see him in the ring with an undefeated pro with a number of pro fights. They also want him in the ring now with somebody that matches the economic caliber that he’s at, and you’re not going to get both of those things right now.”

Former boxing champion Shawn Porter

For the most part, the progression of a boxer’s career is far different from that of an MMA fighter’s. In just 11 professional MMA fights, Alex Pereira has won UFC championships in two different weight classes while facing elite competition since his seventh pro fight. Pereira’s success of becoming a two-division champion in such a short amount of time may be a rarity, but it’s a prime example of the sink-or-swim mentality that exists in MMA, where a fighter can find themselves racing up the rankings after stringing together consecutive wins. Brock Lesnar, Holly Holm, Anderson Silva and Joanna Jedrzejczyk all became UFC champions in under a year, while plenty of other MMA fighters haven’t needed to win 25 consecutive fights before challenging for a world title.

Boxing, on the other hand, has a history of a slow and curated development for a pro fighter’s career. It’s rare to see a fighter face top-tier competition so early in their professional development.

“If you go look at my 10th fight, it was against somebody that you’ve never seen on television except when he fought me, and that’s just part of the game,” former two-time welterweight world champion Shawn Porter said. In that fight, Porter faced Lamar Harris, who was 6-2-1 at the time and ended his professional career with a record of 9-21-4. Porter didn’t end up challenging for a major world title until his 24th fight as a professional when he captured the IBF welterweight title by defeating Devon Alexander.

Most of boxing’s biggest and most accomplished stars have traversed a similar path.

In Canelo Alvarez‘s 10th professional fight, he faced Javier Martinez who was making his boxing debut. Gervonta “Tank” Davis beat up on the 4-4-2 Israel Suarez for this 10th pro fight, while Terence Crawford made mincemeat out of Corey Sommerville and his 1-3 record.

For a more apt comparison, look no further than Deontay Wilder. The acclaimed knockout artist didn’t step into a boxing gym until he was 20 years old. He turned pro three years later. “The Bronze Bomber” didn’t face an opponent with standout ability until his 23rd fight against former WBA heavyweight title challenger Owen Beck. Wilder wouldn’t challenge for a major world title until his 33rd fight against Bermane Stiverne, more than six years after his professional debut.

But for Wilder’s 10th pro bout? He beat up on Alvaro Morales, who had four wins, seven losses and five draws before getting flattened in the third round. Morales fought for three more years after the loss to Wilder and ended his career with a record of 6-14-7.

Granted, none of those boxers mentioned above made their pro debut with as much fanfare as Paul. And that’s part of the reason “The Problem Child” faces so much scrutiny for his career choices.

“When you go beyond the hardcore boxing fan to the ones who watch Jake Paul and say ‘I like boxing,’ do you think they are referring to a technically skilled professional like Richardson Hitchins? They don’t know who he is! They don’t know what DAZN is,” DiBella said of casual fans whose boxing viewership he believes doesn’t extend much further than viral videos and blockbuster PPVs.

Paul, who is seemingly on track to reach his goal, finds himself in a catch-22 of sorts with both casual and hardcore boxing fans.

When Paul said he eventually wanted to become a world champion, the boxing community scoffed and turned their nose up at his early bouts with fellow YouTubers and MMA fighters.

Now that he’s facing a boxer with professional experience, he’s on the receiving end of criticism for his choice of opponent from both boxing purists, who have never wanted him in the sport to begin with, and casual fight fans, who have been previously entertained by watching Paul against select fighters with large social media followings.

“It’s fair but it’s not fair,” Porter laughs. “Ten years ago he would never have been able to just get into boxing like he has. But with his presence on social media, he’s able to sell himself extremely well. But now there’s an unrealistic expectation of what he should accomplish. It is what it is.”

DiBella and Porter have their own take on where the criticism is coming from and why. DiBella believes that a majority of the criticism from the boxing community stems from Paul routinely calling for a fight with the likes of four-division world champion Alvarez rather than facing opponents closer to his skill level. Porter thinks that casual fans have misused the term “real boxer” and lack a general understanding of the business.

“What people are talking about when they tell Jake Paul to get in the ring with a ‘real boxer’ is that they want to see him in the ring with an undefeated pro with a number of pro fights,” Porter said. “They also want him in the ring now with somebody that matches the economic caliber that he’s at, and you’re not going to get both of those things right now.

“The critics from the boxing world want to see him in the ring with somebody that can pose a threat to him and knock him out so we can be done with Jake Paul’s YouTube era of fighting.”

Unfortunately for Paul’s staunchest critics, it appears that he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Paul managed to shrug off his loss to Fury last year without damaging his drawing power. He followed that loss with a unanimous decision win over MMA superstar Nate Diaz in a major PPV blockbuster event.

And now that he continues to demand that he be taken seriously as a boxer with world title aspirations, opponents like Bourland appear to be on the menu for the immediate future – unless, as Bidarian suggests, a rematch with Fury happens or a fight with the likes of Conor McGregor or KSI materializes which would surely be a commercial success. But if he stays on his current path, Porter believes that his dream to become a world champion may become a reality.

“At some point, I think he’s going to get an opportunity against a true world champion,” Porter said. “He is trying to position himself to compete for a major world title, and I would bet it happens in the next two years.”

DiBella agrees with Porter’s assessment.

“He’s a multimillionaire who is bringing money to this sport. If he beats this guy and then beats another guy, would some sanctioning body ranking him in their top 15 be ridiculous? It’s less ridiculous than Francis [Ngannou being ranked No. 10 by the WBC after losing to Tyson Fury].”

Bidarian said Most Valuable Promotions already has a plan for Paul to realize his dream in the next two years.

“Paul will fight at least two more times in 2024,” Bidarian said. “I think the goal is that he will be active enough to allow him to be in a position to campaign for a championship at the end of 2025 and to make it happen by 2026.”

There is also the looming possibility of Paul making his MMA debut in the next 24 months. In January 2023, Paul signed with the Professional Fighters League as the first fighter in the new “PFL Super Fight” pay-per-view division he co-created with the promotion. However, very little has been said about if and when Paul will compete as a mixed martial artist.

“The plan is to have the right opponent,” Bidarian said. “This is not about Jake Paul pursuing a five- to-10-year MMA journey at this point and time … he would like to compete in the PFL before his contract is over with them. It just has to be the right opportunity and the right opponent. Nate Diaz and Tommy Fury are both the right opponents.”

All in all, both the former fighter and longtime promoter see nothing wrong with Paul’s career choices, and neither believes that he’s done any damage to a sport that has had issues longer than Paul’s 27 years on Earth.

“The sport of boxing is filled with problems, and Jake Paul is not one of them,” DiBella said. “He doesn’t disrespect the sport, there’s nothing wrong with this opponent and he hasn’t made a mistake with his matchmaking. His brother [Logan Paul] is getting a bag in sports entertainment [WWE]. He’s getting a bag in sports entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with that. Good for him.”

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