Three weeks before his bout against Tommy Fury, Jake Paul appeared on HBO’s Game Theory, and was asked by host Bomani Jones "what happens if you lose one of these fights?"

The query immediately bristled Paul, and the tense interaction it prompted created the latest in a long line of viral videos featuring Paul. The question itself was a simple one, the question that has been central to Paul’s boxing career.

On Sunday, we stepped closer to receiving that answer. In his first fight against a fighter whose main athletic focus was professional boxing, Paul dropped a split decision to Fury in a pay-per-view event staged in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia.

To put the bout into perspective, as Fury himself said in as many words after the fight in praising his opponent, Paul has been boxing in earnest for roughly three years, while Fury has been boxing since the age of six. Whereas Paul used his social media fame to launch his boxing career, Fury parlayed the novelty of his athletic profession and brotherhood with the heavyweight champion of the world Tyson into reality show fame on Love Island, which he then used to try to bolster his fighting career. It worked out for both of them, the biggest night of one another’s careers each coming on this night. 

While Paul comported himself well in the fight, scoring a flash knockdown on a jab in the final round and even winning the bout on one judge’s scorecards, the match played out as one would expect when a man with lifelong experience faces a relative newcomer. The winning fighter, Fury, simply was able to think faster offensively, and solve problems better defensively. In his bestselling book Range, author David Epstein discusses the phenomenon of “chunking” as it pertains to athletic pursuits. Chunking is, put plainly, the ability to immediately recognize patterns based on past experience and expertise, and the ability to use that information in a split second to make the right decision.

"Chunking helps explain instances of apparently miraculous, domain-specific memory, from musicians playing long pieces by heart to quarterbacks recognizing patterns of players in a split second and making a decision to throw. The reason that elite athletes seem to have superhuman reflexes is that they recognize patterns of ball or body movements that tell them what’s coming before it happens,” wrote Epstein. He cited studies of chess grandmasters, which concluded that “the chances of a competitive chess player reaching international master status dropped from one in four to one in fifty five if rigorous training had not begun by age twelve.”

Fury may not be the boxing equivalent of a grandmaster, but he is a lifelong participant, has had 12 amateur fights, has been boxing professionally since 2018, and has sparred Tyson and cousin Hughie for most of his life. Even with that level of experience, he was able to recognize things and react in the boxing ring faster than Paul. Paul’s main focus offensively was on jabbing to the body and using it as a disguise for an overhand right. That maneuver, that particular right hand, had knocked down or knocked out every single one of Paul’s previous opponents. Fury was hit with some of them, but he was used to getting hit by them, unlike Paul’s prior foes, and absorbed them well. More often than he was hit by them, they bounced off his lead shoulder or missed completely, and once in a while, they were countered by uppercuts to the outstretched head of Paul as he dipped down to jab. 

The CompuBox totals summarized the situation well: Fury outthrew and outlanded Paul in every single round. 

A key component of Paul’s marketing throughout his career in boxing and otherwise has frankly been trolling, purposely inciting animosity with wink-and-a-nod tactics. As a result, there are many celebrating his loss, which comes with the opulent territory he’s created and comfortably resides within. However, just because Paul himself said that he would be capable of beating Fury, or a fighter of a similar level, doesn’t mean that he should reasonably been expected to. In fact, even being competitive and not looking out of place against an undefeated, area title-caliber fighter like Fury with the amount of experience Paul has, is an impressive feat.

But there isn’t room for nuance in the meme culture Paul thrives upon, nor does he really need there to be. Today the memes are aimed at him, but at least for now, he profits from them all the same. 


The question of whether Paul is a "real boxer" or not has also been central to the discussion about him in boxing circles. The definition of "real" seems to differ greatly, hinging upon the level of vitriol one has towards Paul. Of course, the letter of the law would state that any licensed combatant who has taken part in a sanctioned professional bout is a real boxer. However, Paul's opponents up until now, which had consisted solely of athletes whose primary sport was not boxing, gave fuel to the fire burning inside his detractors telling them that he was simply gaming the system, taking advantage of boxing's utter lack of barriers to entry and falsely advertising his own talents. 

Both things can be true. Paul realized quickly that he had progressed in the sport fast enough to beat non-boxers, first-time boxers and MMA converts in professional boxing matches, something that was impressive to some in context but felt like a scam to many others. Surely, none of it was unintentional. Paul's notoriety is based on that dynamic in every facet of his life, every one of his ventures. To some he is an ingenious disruptor, to others a huckster who's deserving of comeuppance. Both parties, as they have in his fighting life, have been profitable for him, those who follow him for an inspirational athletic tale and those who want to see him get pummeled. 

But if Jake Paul isn't a real boxer, then neither are a large swath of the people who participate in the sport professionally across the globe. If Paul's current skill level, or even his level of opposition to this point prevent him from being categorized as a real boxer, then a large percentage of boxers would be disqualified as well. Even amongst fighters who competed globally this past weekend, Paul would likely not be in the bottom 50% in terms of overall skill. 

For his part, Fury was fairly open about his own true caliber as a fighter. In his post-fight interview, he celebrated being in the main event for the first time, after fighting on undercards of both major shows and BT Sport domestic cards. His father and trainer, Peter Fury, noted that both fighters were “just novices.” 

Paul has sought legitimacy in a way fellow influencers-turned-boxers have not or have explicitly opted out of. KSI, for example, perhaps Paul’s closest rival in terms of popularity amongst those with that definition, has started Misfits Boxing. The fights are between influencers exclusively, the fights are governed by a secondary sanctioning body, the bouts are presented like pro bouts but steps are taken to distinguish them from being “true pro bouts.” The presentation of their cards is campier, more outrageous, and decidedly outside of the general boxing realm. These fights do not appear on BoxRec. In fact, someone has seemingly taken the step of creating a separate website, “YTBoxRec” to chronicle the results in the YouTube boxing world. 

In criticisms and heckling of Paul, "real" has often been a stand-in for "very good," or more specifically, “of the caliber usually seen in the main bouts on boxing’s main broadcast outlets.” Nobody would dispute that Paul’s popularity outpaces his skill and resume in boxing—as do his earnings from it. As Morgan Campbell wrote in his fight report for the New York Times, “the skill level on display was akin to an XFL game: professional but not elite.” 

Boxers who are less capable than Paul, but less famous or not famous at all, make up a good chunk of global boxing. These fighters are not debated on a daily basis. The obvious reason for this is that they are not Jake Paul, not part of the mainstream discussion across popular culture, so what reason would there be for them to be discussed? Moreover, most of those fighters haven’t spent a lifetime purposely inciting controversy. However, the point remains that those fighters might be categorized as "not very good" or perhaps something more derogatory, but their status as a professional boxer is never questioned, much less rescinded. One wouldn't watch a club boxing show and think "there were a lot of fake boxers and then some real boxers fought in the main event." It's agreed upon amongst all but the surliest of fans that the fighters taking their lumps despite their limitations are deserving of respect for doing that at the very least. 

The level of attention and number of commas on the paychecks Paul receives in comparison to the club fighters he’s most comparable to at this point is irksome to many within the sport, an example of boxing pushing capitalism to its most absurd limits. Paul didn’t have to work his way up through the shows in pubs and bingo halls streaming on a cell phone on Facebook. Rather, he went straight to major network-produced pay-per-views. These are valid things to dislike, and not a phenomenon unique to boxing. But is there a commensurate amount of suffering for one’s craft required for status as a real practitioner, or is ability and participation enough? There is a lot of space between complete phony and “might beat Canelo one day,” as Paul suggested he could. 

In his post-fight broadcast interview with reporter Radio Rahim, Paul asked the audience to "judge (him) by his losses, not by his wins." Ultimately, how he moves forward following his first loss will determine what his legacy as a fighter will be. Paul has now realized and suffered the consequences of his current limitations in the ring. If he were to return to the faded MMA fighter circuit, he would validate the thoughts of everyone who felt he was simply orchestrating a full-blown mirage without intending to truly challenge himself. If he fights Fury again, and particularly if he continues to test himself in earnest thereafter, then perhaps he could meet some of his detractors’ threshold of commitment and ambition. The willingness to sacrifice in exchange for what the sport has given him.

Assuming he does that, Paul can of course be viewed as an irritant as a person and cultural figure, but ultimately a boxer fighting reasonable levels of opposition on broadcasts that can be voluntarily ordered on an a-la-carte basis, not one snatching opportunity from more deserving boxers or one feigning a level of talent beyond his reality.

While the loss to Fury certainly positioned Paul under the basket for plenty of dunking, there were irrefutably “real fighters” who were ready to share their label with him after the bout despite the loss. "I’ll say this. Jake stayed in there when the punches came back at him. He didn’t cower or turn away. He even scored a legit knockdown. Fought someone not in his 40s.  I’ll say he’s a real boxer,” tweeted welterweight contender Mykal Fox. Paul’s first signee as a promoter, Amanda Serrano, shared that she felt tonight Paul had “graduated to a Real Boxer”

As long as Paul chooses to fight, there will no doubt be an audience. The question now is what percentage of that audience has he now lost as a result of losing? Have those new fans who were tuning in under the impression that Paul was a future world champion been let down? Have those who tuned in to see him lose—be it those who hated him from the social media world or boxing mainstays hoping he received a reality check—been fully satiated? Moreover, will boxing and sports media as a whole continue to pay the same level of attention now that some of the veneer has been rubbed off, the pie in the sky questions about Paul’s ceiling in the sport closer to being answered? 

As Jones posed in his follow-up question on Game Theory, "this has worked because we're all surprised that you keep winning these fights. But if someone does beat you, how much interest stays in this?"

Whether Jake Paul is or was a real boxer is a semantic argument at this point. He has faced the harshest reality one can encounter in the ring, baring himself and not being good enough on a given night. How he grapples with this reality will be, for those who still care, good content, one way or another. 

Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman