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Editorial: Jake Paul & Tyron Woodley prove that the only punchline is prizefighting itself

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Jake Paul and Tyron Woodley didn’t do anything to impress fans of boxing or MMA. But sports themselves shouldn’t escape criticism.

Jake Paul stumbles through the ropes after a Tyron Woodley punch in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jake Paul stumbles through the ropes after a Tyron Woodley punch in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

After Jake Paul won a split decision over Tyron Woodley, I joked on Twitter that I couldn’t wait for the next MMA fighter with questionable boxing to avenge the previous MMA fighter with questionable boxing. Being online rewards the scattered mind. So scatter I did. I started checking out reviews, and reactions to the fight.

For reasons only Youtube’s algorithm knows, I started with Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless. The talking points were the usual checklist of things you’d say about something you only heard about rather than studied. Sharpe and Bayless mentioned the decline of boxing, how MMA gives its fans – “unlike boxing” – the fights they want, and whether or not Paul was a legit boxer.

It’s easy to scoff at analysis that doesn’t feel serious, but then this wasn’t a serious fight, so I didn’t feel the need to parse through the verbal rubble. Woodley and Paul exchanged the kind of moments you’d expect out of two fighters who don’t box professionally. Woodley did Woodley things, landing occasional strikes, and then turning into a Medusa victim soon after. Paul did Paul things, showing functional technique and acumen, but not the kind of assertiveness and pace you’d see out of a real boxer.

None of this is a sarcastic knock on their abilities as fighters. Woodley’s legacy was built on wrestling, and the way his punching power was built into the helix of MMA’s wide range of win solutions. Paul’s legacy was built on... social media stuff? It’s not their fault we never got to see something like Juan Manual Marquez’ counter combinations, Pernell Whitaker’s foot movement, or Larry Holmes’ calibrated jab. Of course, nobody expected any of that either. But the fact that there were expectations at all between two men with a total of five pro boxing matches is still its own expectation deadpool.

The talking heads are wrong, of course. Paul is not a legitimate boxer. It’s possible he could aspire to that, but fighting non-boxers is obviously not the path of any serious or self-respecting boxer. As for MMA, no, it has not given fans the fights they want to see. When the UFC fans wanted Francis Ngannou versus Jon Jones, Dana White complained about the money Ngannou was asking for—and presented Derrick Lewis vs. Ciryl Gane as the “true” heirs. That’s not hyperbole. How else are you supposed to read their UFC 265 promo?

As for the ‘decline of boxing.’ It depends on what’s being insinuated. If we’re strictly talking about the best matchups, the decline doesn’t read that dramatically. But if we’re talking about a sport in its final throes, that’s somewhat accurate. Culturally, we’re far removed from the days when free programs could be offered to kids as part of an outreach program, like the Police Athletic League. “Professional boxing has basically left New York,” noted the head of Gleason’s Boxing Gym in response to the rise of the boutique boxing gyms, and decline of the classic fight clubs.

Boxing’s decline is about more than just larger overhead costs for promoting fights and higher insurance rates. It’s also about the physical cost of its raw brutality—the same reason fewer kids are playing youth football. Boxing is filled with a lot of hard stories. There’s Aaron Pryor’s childhood and addictions. And there’s Emmanuel Augustus: everyone’s favorite journeyman who ended up homeless at one point. That was always the allure of boxing: how something as simple as a set of rules and a set of gloves inside a ring could be the path out of socio-economic hell.

Woodley and Paul exist on the other end of that spectrum. They found each other in the boxing ring, and it was just a big dumb coincidence when you think about it. Nothing connects the two (well, other than bad music & Ben Askren).

But, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the two sports continue to collide. Both forms of pugilism have their own problems, and those problems continue to mount. That’s typically how desperation is created. Except where before prizefighting could represent the necessity of running away from desperation, now prizefighting can represent the privilege of running towards it.