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Editorial: Askren doesn’t represent MMA, just like Paul doesn’t represent boxing

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Ben Askren was never MMA’s champion, just like Jake Paul isn’t boxing’s champion. So what explains the fan reaction?

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Triller Fight Club: Jake Paul v Ben Askren Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images for Triller

It’s hard to unpack an event like Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren. To casual observers, Askren looked like a sacrificial lamb: built like vacuum-packed baked beans, and ready to be eaten like one. For some MMA fans like myself? Askren had to be favored. He was a mixed martial artist for ten years. Surely his striking was enough to keep from getting dumpstered by a YouTuber. And the YouTubers who love Paul? Of course he was favored. Just look at him. When narratives collide like this, the outcome can feel like validation for one group at the expense of the rest.

Needless to say, I was shocked when Paul put Askren away in under two minutes. I picked Askren to win. Not because I thought Askren was a good striker, but because, admittedly, I bought the narrative: Askren was a fighter, regardless of his weaknesses, whereas Paul was not, regardless of his strengths.

When this happens, rather than reflect, the narratives metastasize. Many MMA fans immediately started screaming about a potential “dive.” Daniel Cormier then publicly lamented what ‘we’ as an MMA community should do now. Others pretended like Askren was never one of MMA’s elite prospects. So now Paul’s legitimacy gets to grow, even if his boxing success isn’t tied to beating actual boxers.

Chris Leben and Dillon Danis have campaigned to fight Paul next. Names in the sport you assume would know better are popping off with their own harebrained ideas. In what is surely a winner for the Worst Ideas Imaginable awards, B.J. Penn has offered up his services for a bout with Paul. In case you need a quick refresher course, Leben retired from MMA in 2013. Danis has only two professional fights, and like Askren, has succeeded purely because he’s a grappler by trade. Penn is 42-years old and getting knocked out by half-naked barflies. He needs rehab or treatment. Not another concussion.

MMA fighters and fans, feeling like Askren let them down, want a better champion to ‘represent’ MMA. But what does representation mean to MMA fans? Judging by the reactions to the Drakkar Klose injury, MMA loyalty is quite selective.

If MMA fighters are campaigning to fight Paul for money, what does that say about the money that represents the sport? How many boxers are campaigning to fight Israel Adesanya, Robert Whittaker, or Francis Ngannou? I know. ‘Well that’s un unfair comparison,’ some might say. It’s a comparison not about the strict mechanics of logic, but about the broad mechanics of inequality. It seems tragically fitting that the same week Jimmy Flick retired early with strong words about fighter pay and unionization, was also the same week Dana White bet $1M on a superfluous boxing match featuring one of his former fighters.

Then there’s Paul, the $11.5M dollar teacher disser. In what way does Paul represent boxing? Are any promoters racing to figure out how he can fight Lawrence Okolie, Mairis Briedis, Llunga Makabu, or challenge for any of the cruiserweight titles? Of course not. Paul’s not in this for the long haul. It was only three years ago that the company that owned his previous house sued him. His mansion has been raided by the FBI. He’s been accused of sexual assault. He’s called COVID a hoax. And that whole teacher diss? Turns out, it wasn’t really a joke. Paul really believes modern education is a joke — not because of our outdated approaches to learning — but because viral fame is more important than focused understanding.

That’s what so funny about the sanctimony surrounding the fight. I’m sorry. But if you couldn’t handle Snoop’s brackish commentary, then what are you even doing here? Prizefighting’s roots are in deprivation itself. American boxing had Don King. The British Boxing Board of Control had Mickey Duff. As for MMA, well, you know the story. It’s a story we hear time and time again, but don’t have the stomach for.

It’s like the entire MMA community doesn’t get it. Paul could accept all of these dumb ideas, turn them into bouts, and would end up making more in that small collection of fights than all three would have made in their entire careers combined. And still MMA fighters will insist that the real fight is between an adult who lights pools on fire for a living rather than ensuring themselves proper medical benefits, and a retirement fund.

So sure, we could naval-gaze, and talk about influencer culture’s hypernormalisation of life inside the amaro filter. But the truth is, Dana tells us each and every day who represents who, and it’s a lesson that fits MMA as much as it fits boxing. ‘This is the fight business,’ he’ll inevitably huff. He always leaves the last part out. ‘In the fight business, you’re on your own.’