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MMA’s Insecurity and Protectionism: It’s Every Day, Bro

06
Triller Fight Club: Jake Paul v Ben Askren
Jake Paul celebrates his KO of Ben Askren. | Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images for Triller

Jordan Breen unpacks the Jake Paul-effect and why the MMA world finds it so triggering.

It goes without saying that the biggest MMA story of the week is the Ultimate Fighting Championship finally going public on Thursday, an eventuality that was anticipated from the moment Zuffa sold the company to WME-IMG – now Endeavor – in July 2016. But, as is often the case now in the combat sports world, cultural enfants terrible Logan and Jake Paul managed to also worm their way into the headlines, with the elder Logan making his exhibition boxing match with boxing legend Floyd Mayweather official for June 6 in Miami. The news came less than two weeks after the younger Jake knocked out former Bellator MMA and One Championship titlist Ben Askren in the boxing ring in less than two minutes.

There are a lot of fans of prizefighting who less than two years ago had no idea who these odious “influencers” were. Now they are confused and upset by their constant presence. I imagine it’s even worse for those who were already aware of their existence. Yesterday, I saw a curious question posed to CBS Sports analyst Luke Thomas on Twitter that I thought raised a valuable point and sheds a lot of light on an uncomfortable, ever-present truth about this sport: “Why are MMA fans so triggered by [the Pauls] as opposed to boxing fans?”

The truth is that while there is certainly a crossover between boxing and MMA fans who adore them both alike, for the kind of MMA fanatics who are active on social media, read MMA news every day and consume multiple events a week, there is a longstanding inferiority complex. I’ve argued for years that the genesis of this mind-warp was born over 25 years ago, when the sudden rise of the UFC resulted in the company and the sport itself falling into the cross-hairs of a sensationalist media firestorm, culminating in John McCain’s infamous “human cockfighting” comment in his 1996 letter to all 50 United States governors, urging them to outlaw the sport.

While MMA – or No Holds Barred at the time – wasn’t killed by this, it crippled the sport’s pay-per-view ambitions, pushing it to the utmost fringes of sports and culture. In subsequent years, fans congregated, commiserated and fumed together, especially with the internet becoming accessible to more people, giving them a bonding place to share their interest in this outlaw pursuit. In the formative “Dark Ages”, it instilled an “us versus them” mentality in MMA fans.

Even many recent fans who never watched the sport until “The Ultimate Fighter” or the rise of Conor McGregor, who never lived through this period, they’ve unconsciously internalized this sentiment. It’s become an obvious component of the psychology of so many MMA fans, as if by osmosis. This is not something boxing fans have dealt with and typically don’t exhibit; even when MMA exploded in popularity and found much greater legitimacy in the post-TUF era, fans still sought to pit themselves against boxing lovers, decrying the promotional state of the sweet science and attempting to foolishly mock its alleged waning popularity.

For many MMA fans, it’s an inherited pathology of protectionism and paternalism. For them, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that a couple of social miscreants who became multimillionaires and Gen Z idols could infiltrate “their” sport, which is ironic, since neither Paul brother has actually had an MMA fight.

All of their exploits have been exhibition or pro boxing matches to this point. Nonetheless, it bristles many onlookers to see these conniving ne’er-do-wells try to expand their own wealth and clout by publicly feuding with MMA stars, or seeing Jake Paul dunk on a previously perennially top-10 welterweight, even though his bout with Askren was, again, a boxing match, which anyone would agree is not exactly the “Funky” one’s forte.

There are plenty of reasons to despise the Paul brothers. Logan infamously filmed and attempted to monetize a video featuring a dead body in the Aokigahara Forest in Japan – the nation’s infamous “Suicide Forest” – and is a flat Earth truther, who has also abused animals on camera. Jake is an unrepentant scam artist who preys on impressionable children who play Roblox, was caught using racial slurs on camera, and has been accused of sexual assault.

However, what makes them so Teflon – remaining such mainstream stars and still having massively successful Youtube channels despite repeated infractions of the site’s terms of service – is that they constantly have found ways to increase their celebrity and influence, no matter how awful the allegations against them. They make horrible music that appeals to 10-year-olds, they unbox Pokemon cards on their channels, they make insipid movies, they mass market brain-dead merchandise, now they’ve transitioned into carnival show sporting events. These two just get richer, in a way so many MMA fighters struggle to do in a sport that relies on a promotional architecture that grossly underpays them.

For folks who are so defensive about MMA, that it is one of the most concerning ideas: even if it’s an opinion that I think most fans agree with, what does it mean when someone like Jake Paul can point out how unjustly compensated UFC fighters are and how most of them would be better off doing an eight-round boxing match with him, instead of busting their ass in the cage like a legitimate professional prizefighter?

What does it say when one of the best fighters on the planet in Kamaru Usman understands that the best way for him to promote himself is to call Paul out on Twitter? Even if it results in Paul making the welterweight king look silly, pointing out that Usman said he wouldn’t fight him because he’s a “Disney kid” with the rejoinder “Usman visits Disney World.”

Boxing aficionados aren’t complacent and content with the sport they love and have long maligned its political machinations, but it doesn’t wound their pride or psyche to see the Pauls’ self-aggrandizing freak show. They like what they like and can typically just shake their heads and rationally see through the bullshit of boxing’s frivolities. For so many MMA diehards, seeing the sport’s biggest stars eagerly engage with the Paul brothers because it’s the such an easy, viable to way further their own careers, it leads to a disconcerting, uncomfortable self-examination: “What is wrong with this world that these two antisocial egomaniacs are so damn rich and famous? ... And actually, what the hell is wrong with MMA?”

It’s an ego blow, which time and time again, is the most powerful, hurtful strike in this sport.

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