Some things have changed beyond recognition in the sport of boxing. Yet despite these changes, there are hallmarks of the sport that doggedly remain.
Boxing’s starkest mutations and mainstays will be on full display Sunday when Floyd Mayweather squares off against Logan Paul in Miami. Yes, you read that correctly, Floyd Mayweather – the greatest boxer of his generation and arguably one of the greatest fighters of all time – will share the ring with Paul, a self-proclaimed “YouTuber” who made his fame online.
Mayweather will bring a perfect 50-0 record to the ring in Miami. Paul is yet to earn a victory in a career that only spans two exhibition fights, one in which he earned a draw, and the other a loss, both against social media rival KSI.
The event has been rightly called a “mismatch,” a “farce” and appropriately dubbed a “circus show” by welterweight champion Keith Thurman, who further described the event as “not boxing.” Closer scrutiny of the fight, and its two participants, reveals otherwise.
Mayweather vs. Paul is a collision of everything spectacle and circus, mismatch and mayhem. All at once. But it is colored most distinctly by a thread in the sport’s DNA that makes the event, against the avalanche of criticism that has come its way, unmistakably boxing.
While Paul brings nothing to the ring in terms of pugilistic bona fides against a living legend, among his most bankable attributes is one that he was born with: his whiteness. This, overlapping with Paul’s internet megastardom and cross-generational reach, is what helped him earn a fight against Mayweather: boxing’s “cash cow” who earned $800 million over a career besting deserving contenders and Hall of Fame contemporaries.
“The fight game is built on identity and race,” said Luke Thomas, senior MMA analyst for CBS Sports and co-host of the podcast Morning Kombat. “A fighter sharing the same skin tone as you is a powerful part of the boxing experience [for the fan]. Floyd picking Logan checks a number of boxes. The blond hair, blue eyes put him on the radar and will help bring new audiences to the fight.”
Racial affinity with the fighter is how boxing has built loyal fan bases, capitalizing on the potency of identity and established racial rivalry to peddle tickets and push pay-per-view sales. For far too long, the sport has lacked an American-born white fighter with crossover appeal and box-office impact.
The boxing ascent of Paul and his trolling younger brother Jake invokes a memory of the meteoric rise of white contenders who captured the public’s imagination before them. Yet, unlike Jim Jeffries or Jerry Quarry or Arturo Gatti, the Pauls’ rise has been more than meteoric. Matching the “instant celebrity” allure of social media, which they have masterfully navigated toward a megastardom that springboarded them into boxing’s biggest fights.
Race meets tech has opened doors for the blond-haired and blue-eyed Paul brothers, who not only fit the racial archetype the sport has long coveted, but present boxing with an advanced, modern template of the “Great White Hope,” souped up by modern technology, social media stardom and boundless marketing possibilities.
While these are unprecedented times, racial order and disorder remain a standing lynchpin within the ring and beyond it.
To truly understand boxing, one must understand race. The two are so closely entwined that, within the ring of American history, they could very well be synonymous. More intimately, the story of whiteness, and its visible retrenchment and dreams of restoration, sits at the very core of boxing’s grand narrative. Boxing’s biggest fights typically pit whiteness against its most ardent foe, Blackness, and its string of unapologetic champions, starting with heavyweight icon Jack Johnson and rounded out by the brash Mayweather.
After becoming the first Black heavyweight champion in 1908, Johnson stripped white America of the title and the sporting claim of racial supremacy that came along with it. While preparing to defend the title against Jeffries, Johnson faced off against a far more formidable foe: the restoration of whiteness and the rage that accompanied it. American novelist Jack London famously wrote in 1910, leading up to the bout that:
“Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”
Jeffries failed to rescue the white man inside the ring in Reno, Nevada, that night. Johnson roundly battered him over 15 rounds and knocked him out before the final bell. London sat ringside, reporting for the “Fight of the Century” that would give rise to race riots and mob violence against Black communities straddling that dangerous line between Jim Crow and racial pride extended by their unapologetic champion.
But the famous phrase London coined outlived Jeffries, Johnson and Jim Crow. And since 1908, that incessant search for the mythical “Great White Hope” who can “emerge” and “rescue” the race has loomed heavy over the sport. That search has never stopped and continues today.
This search played a role in catapulting a YouTuber who can barely claim the title of “boxer” into the ring to square off against Mayweather, whose Blackness provides the other half of the racial formula. Paul’s whiteness, bolstered by his almost 20 million followers on Instagram and 23 million on YouTube, is today’s Great White Hope fueled by social media hype. He is a reimagined version of the mold London gave name to a century ago, retooled for a generation confined to cellphone screens and virtual timelines. New terrain, but one where old hierarchies are being replicated and racism is rewired with each click and swipe.
Mayweather is no colorblind bystander. A showman and capitalist of the highest order, Mayweather is fully invested in the racial dimension of the event. His team picked Paul (over KSI, the Black fighter who beat Paul) for the audience that his racial identity will help bring, combined with the low risk and astronomical financial reward the fighting YouTuber brings to the table. Mayweather did this before, on Aug. 26, 2017, when he stepped out of the boxing sphere to fight another larger-than-life white celebrity, MMA star Conor McGregor. The bout’s racial alchemy and the ugliness displayed during its promotion made it the highest-grossing live event in WWE boxing history.
For Mayweather, capitalizing on racial rivalry has been central to his leaning into the role of villain. A large segment of his “fan base” buys his pay-per-views to see him lose. The role of Black villain has, unfortunately, been tainted by a string of domestic abuse charges made against him by Melissa Brim and Josie Harris, the two mothers of his children. During the news conference in Miami leading up to the fight, Paul himself brought this up, jabbing, “I know what you did to your wife. Floyd ain’t 50-0, he’s 51-1, he beat his wife, too.”
Money. Mayweather’s moniker and the millions Paul’s skin and celebrity promise to bring to the sport are why the undefeated boxer was able to continue to fight and make millions of dollars after attacking women while men in other sports were denied the opportunity to continue in their careers over lesser charges.
Money drives the yearning for a white contender who can capture the imagination of new audiences and the maximum dollars only whiteness can bring, and is pivotal to why Paul will find himself in the ring against one of the sport’s all-time greats.
Money, the reason Mayweather remade himself from wide-eyed “Pretty Boy” wunderkind during the first half of his career to the invincible Black foil who millions gladly handed over their hard-earned dollars to see defeated, like Johnson a century earlier, finds in Paul the perfect dance partner for this new generation of boxing. This is a generation where one Instagram post by Paul can reach 20 million people, which today is a form of promotion that no other contender can offer.
This is boxing’s original formula and original sin, squaring off whiteness against Blackness within a ring, which strikes the chord of racial identity and allegiances beyond it. The Mayweather vs. Paul bout not only occurs in a country polarized deeply along racial lines, but one shifting toward new frontiers of racism that unfold virulently and violently online. This is where Paul comes in and why he’s the perfect fit for boxing’s formative alchemy of racial rivalry.
You can’t blame Paul. The millennial made his name feeding off the vine of social media’s circus and feeding the insatiable public appetite for viral spectacle. He and his younger boxing brother Jake are capitalizing brilliantly off of uncharted trails they have paved online. And, in a brave new world where one’s number of followers matters more than a fighting record, they maneuvered it toward a sport that desperately covets their retooled, viral whiteness.
The Pauls have seized their platform to plot a deftly timed entry into the sport. “If you would’ve told me that Logan Paul would be fighting Floyd Mayweather and his brother Jake Paul would be fighting [former UFC champion] Tyron Woodley before the pandemic, I would’ve said to you that you’re crazy,” Thomas revealed.
Make no mistake, Paul was hand-picked by Mayweather and thrust into a deeply racialized business space that clashes with his colorblind brand. There is little malice in Paul, who deflected Mayweather’s claim that “it’s always about race” by responding, “Why are you making this about race? I’m with your race.” That moment was the most awkward phase of the news conference, and perhaps its most revealing. It was a turn toward a truth that Mayweather, a veteran of the boxing business, is well acquainted with. Paul, a newcomer, was taken aback. Paul may not be an invested participant in the racial dimension that fuels this event, but he is certainly benefiting from it to the tune of millions.
In the sport of boxing, Mayweather is correct: It’s always about race. Even when the bouts are not explicitly built around racial rivalry and great white hype trains, race is so intricately imbued into the sport that it is always there, always prominent.
The Paul brothers are beneficiaries of both social media pioneering and hard work, reflecting their working-class, Ohio roots. However, the “respect for the sport” they demonstrate through training, countless rounds of sparring and luring new legions of eyes to a sport pushed far into the fringes, would be irrelevant if not for their whiteness. Boxing’s sordid history reveals this to us while its desperate present echoes it to the tune of a hype train that, if assessed on merit alone, should never step into the same ring with Mayweather.
But boxing, a metaphor for life and its cruelest divisions, seldom awards merit. It elevates characters and caricatures, often built around race and the spectacle it brings.
The Paul boxing project, continuing with Paul on Sunday, brings that fleeting white hope into a sport roundly unforgiven for its dominant Blackness and brownness. A sport whose two most marketable stars are a Mexican redhead who seldom speaks English, and a British-born Nigerian heavyweight whose attempted crossover into the American market was derailed by a Mexican boxer with an iron chin and fast hands.
Boxing, the sport, may be better suited without Logan and Jake Paul. But the business of boxing, mired in racial rivalry and the bankable color it brings, benefits immensely from them.
Like Mayweather, the business of boxing has stepped outside of its circle in search of what it has always coveted: that white contender who summons the interest of exiled white audiences. These audiences include older spectators, and even more urgently for a sport fighting for its place in the mainstream, generations of young fans only Paul and his brother Jake can usher back into the sport.
This storyline, and the shadows of restored white pride and the fantasy of unseating Black dominance, looms over and around Mayweather vs. Paul. It is an ingredient that makes the event more intriguing to the public. Even if nobody in the world believes that Paul can beat the undefeated Mayweather, including Paul himself, the very facade of white hope built into the bout will drive its bottom line.
All the hope and hype that comes with the bout, despite critiques from experts and dismissal from fighters who would kill to be in Paul’s boots, are what makes this fight quintessential boxing.