Boxing has always had one foot in carnival culture, but Triller’s weekend offering of Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren had both feet in the circus tent, squared up with nearly every convention the sport has.
Triller, a video-sharing platform now-turned boxing promoter, presented its second event on Saturday night in Atlanta, GA, and decided to throw the formula for how a boxing event is conventionally presented and broadcast completely out the window. From the staging in Mercedes Benz Stadium to the cinematic camera work to the often-profane commentary, the show looked and sounded nothing like any other major boxing event.
The main event between Paul and Askren, which ended with Paul knocking Askren out in the first round, was born of an internet feud between a social media star and an MMA fighter. Those particularly invested in their beef were, by and large, likely not part of boxing’s week-to-week audience, and the broadcast was certainly presented as if that were the case. In fact, boxing was very much secondary to the occasion.
The broadcast included a multitude of big name musical performances, all of whom performed at least three songs each, and sometimes more. The Black Keys, Saweetie, Doja Cat, Justin Bieber, Diplo and a newly-formed supergroup called Mt. Westmore with Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Too $hort and E-40 all performed on the main show. In terms of overall screen time, there was undoubtedly more music than boxing (thanks in part to the brevity of the fights scheduled). In all likelihood, Doja Cat with her solo performance and feature in Saweetie’s set had more screen time than anyone other than Paul or Snoop Dogg, who doubled as a host and commentator.
Commentary duties were handled by a rotating cast that included Snoop, Ray Flores, Al Bernstein, Crimefaces, Mario Lopez, Pete Davidson, a very inebriated Oscar De La Hoya, Sean Wheelock, Mike Coppinger and cameos from Teofimo Lopez and George Kambosos. The broadcasters were given the green light, and were perhaps encouraged, to use expletives, drink and smoke weed on the air. As one would expect when barriers are lowered and folks are imbibing, the banter devolved into what it might sound like if you and your friends were on the couch watching a fight. Often times the broadcasters would react to landed punches simultaneously, rather than letting Flores narrate the shots, giving the feeling that you were listening in to a group of rowdy fans rather than a set of commentators.
The tonal shift wasn’t necessarily a bad thing when keeping the target audience in mind, one that has likely watched more Twitch streams than conventional boxing broadcasts, and for whom that brand of off-the-cuff analysis is more familiar and more enjoyable.
At times, the jarring nature of the chatter did further serve to place the actual boxing action in the background. Other than the main event, every fight came out of a skit, a backstage segment or a promo with the fighters already standing in the ring. This allowed for very little time to provide context for fights before they actually began, which doesn’t help grant the boxing hardcores’ wish that crossover events such as these will help develop a new fanbase for existing pro boxers.
It was a stark contrast from Triller’s first event headlined by Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. Much of the production staff that worked on the first event, which in large part was staffed by veterans of HBO’s now-defunct boxing series, were not working on the second show, which may account for the difference in visual approach. Paul-Askren was very much shot like a concert film, which in effect, it was, more so than a boxing card.
Tyson-Jones meanwhile, was handled like a traditional boxing broadcast visually and sonically, with commentators playing it straight but with Snoop providing a comedic twist, and with shorter musical performances to break up the action.
On this night, boxing was a part of the show. But other than Paul-Askren, it wasn’t the show.
There’s a reason for that. Tyson-Jones also included a Jake Paul fight, but it was mainly geared towards roping in a lost era of boxing fans and mainstream sports fans with the prize of seeing their old heroes go at it one more time. Outside of the inclusion of Bernstein and Michael Buffer, nostalgia and boxing tradition was not part of the appeal of the second show.
It will be interesting to see if Triller will change its tone once again come June 5, when their event will be headlined by Lopez-Kambosos, as well as a returning Evander Holyfield and Kevin McBride, a return to a more traditional boxing target demographic.
In any event, it was fascinating to watch an outfit completely blow up all the protocols of a boxing presentation. The boxing industry’s one and only idea when it comes to attracting new fans has been “put on good boxing matches.” That strategy works to a degree, as elite practitioners of anything will ultimately garner a fanbase and some mainstream appeal based on their excellence. But weekly ratings indicate that for many—or most--that’s not enough. What about people who don’t have an existing interest in who the best junior welterweight in the world is, but still enjoy a fight when it’s on? How do you get those people in the door, or click “buy”?
Triller’s approach on Saturday mirrored minor league baseball promotion. Any minor league executive will tell you that their attendance has very little to do with the performance of the team, but rather, everything to do with an enjoyable atmosphere and good gimmicks and promotion. People like baseball, but most are only going to be but so invested in sub-elite players who may not even be on the team the full season—people want an experience. Similarly, the raw goods Triller was working with on Saturday were a 2-0 novice pro and a debutant renowned in MMA circles for his poor boxing abilities, so there had to be bells and whistles attached.
Not every promoter or network could or even should do all of the things Triller did on Saturday, but there are concepts and ideas to be borrowed. Good or bad, boxing broadcasts have mostly looked and sounded the same since Thomas Edison figured out how to film two people punching, and perhaps a disruptor like Triller could finally change their course.
Just prior to his main event on Saturday, Ben Askren tweeted: “People love fist fights. People love circuses. Hope you enjoy tonight.”
Maybe the lesson to be taken from Triller is that boxing has the capacity make the tent a little bigger if and when it wants more people to come to the show.