Unlike many purists in the boxing community, Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza wasn’t quick to discount Jake Paul when he decided to make a career out of combat sports.
While Espinoza certainly didn’t rate Paul as an elite boxer, he saw the work the 24-year-old social influencer was putting into his training and preparation, which said a lot about his commitment.
So when Paul became a free agent following a second fight with upstart promoter Triller, Espinoza was contacted about possibly sitting down and discussing a working relationship with Showtime, which is considered one of the top networks across all of boxing.
“It happened this past spring and his advisor Nakisa Bidarian, who formerly worked for the Fertittas and the CFO of the UFC, reached out to me,” Espinoza explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I’d met Nakisa in a completely different setting, completely unrelated to Jake previously. So he reached out to me and we just started a conversation.
“At that point three fights in, there had already been a proof of concept. Not just a proof of concept in terms of what do these events look like in the ring, how good is the caliber of the competition but what kind of business? Is there really a demand? Is there really interest out there in it? At that point, it was almost a no brainer.”
As much as Espinoza was interested in Paul for all the fanfare he received whenever he stepped inside the ring, there was still the chance that this was all some kind of gimmick.
It was a fair inquiry considering Paul came to fame through viral videos on YouTube as well as his status as a social influencer without any real background in combat sports outside of briefly competing in wrestling in high school.
If anything, Paul proudly considered himself a troll, who loved to get under the skin of whoever he was targeting including past beefs with Conor McGregor, his grappling partner Dillon Danis and retired UFC fighter Ben Askren but none of that spoke to his long term plans where boxing was concerned.
“He was definitely generating a lot of interest, a lot of discussion, commercially, the events were successful. So the only question at that point was sort of the boxing part of it,” Espinoza said. “What does he want to do? What is his commitment to the sport? Is this a long term thing? Is this something he’s serious about? It didn’t take long for us to get the answer to those questions.
“It was clear in talking to him, what seemed obvious from the outside, he’s very serious about it. He respects the sport. He respects all combat sports. Even his criticism of the UFC and their pay structure comes from a place of respect for the sport, wanting the fighters to succeed, to flourish. That’s what he wants. This isn’t all about Jake Paul. This is about Jake doing his events but also he has a desire to convert Jake Paul fans into boxing fans. He takes [boxing] very seriously. That was the last piece of the puzzle for us. At that point, it was a no brainer.”
While Paul’s upcoming fight against Tyron Woodley on Aug. 29 will be his first with Showtime, Espinoza makes it clear that this isn’t some sort of one-off event meant to grab a few headlines.
Part of the reason Espinoza was determined to vet Paul’s intentions for the future was because the network he represents isn’t in the business of creating a sideshow in order to make a quick buck.
“Whether it’s Ryan Bader or [Patricio] Pitbull, a [Cris] Cyborg, [AJ] McKee or Floyd [Mayweather] or just about any other high-level combat sports athlete. We’re in the repeat business,” Espinoza explained. “If you like something you see on Showtime, it’s very valuable to say well we have more of that. If you like A.J. McKee, we’re going to have more of A.J. McKee in the future. Our business model is based on repeatability and long term relationships.
“We look at everything that we do through that prism. So yes, at the end of the day, there are a lot of grand plans for what Jake wants to do. He’s got a lot of great ideas for his events and for the sport of boxing but again his talent and his hard work is really going to be the determinant of how far he goes. If he keeps winning and growing his fan base bigger and bigger, then there’s no limit to what he can do.”
Perhaps the biggest argument against the attention Paul has been receiving through his first three professional fights is that he’s yet to actually face anybody with past boxing experience.
Thus far, Paul has knocked out a fellow YouTube celebrity, an ex-NBA player in Nate Robinson and a retired UFC fighter in Askren. He’ll take a step up in competition this weekend when he faces Tyron Woodley but even that has been met with resistance because the now 39-year-old former UFC champion has never boxed before and he’s riding a four-fight losing streak in mixed martial arts.
Espinoza is quick to defend the matchmaking that Paul has had early in his career because his level of opposition isn’t that much different from any other boxer three fights into their career. The biggest difference for Paul is that he’s doing under a spotlight with millions of people willing to watch him do it.
“The reality is people can certainly have their opinions and some of them are critical about Jake getting this level of attention at this stage of his career but this is sort of the early part of his boxing career,” Espinoza said. “This is his amateur career so to speak. It just happens to be on a stage that’s much bigger and brighter than virtually any 3-0 fighter ever has.
“Yes, he’s learning. Yes, he’s still fighting non-boxers but that will change soon and he is committed to, most importantly to the level of competition with each fight. We will find out. Ultimately, whether it’s boxing or MMA, the ring is a truth teller. We will find out how good Jake is and he’s going to go as far as his skills take him.”
Espinoza promises that Paul will be facing opponents with boxing credentials sooner rather than later but that also speaks to the long-term commitment that Showtime is making in him.
He’s also quick to disregard criticism aimed at Woodley, especially when looking at his entire body of work compared to the 3-0 boxer he’s about to face.
“The fact that [Tyron Woodley] has been an elite, combat sports veteran for over a decade, that is a tremendous advantage,” Espinoza said. “Whether it’s in boxing in MMA. Are you going to throw Tyron in against experienced boxers? No, not yet but against a younger inexperienced boxer like Jake — Jake has some physical advantages, Tyron definitely has the advantage of being in gyms, being a combat sports athlete at the highest level for over a decade. That’s a huge advantage.
“This is not a short term ‘let’s grab the money in a couple events and move on.’ Jake is talking about a career of 10 or 15 or more fights. So they’ll be plenty of time to have all kinds of boxers as opponents.”