The notion of this Sunday’s boxing spectacle between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Logan Paul didn’t begin because there was an obvious title at stake, or as the natural culmination of a long-simmering rivalry, but as an out-of-nowhere suggestion.
Paul and his manager, Jeff Levin, were hanging out in the garage of Paul’s suburban Los Angeles home late last year when Levin asked Paul, a YouTube star, whether he’d like to fight Mayweather, the retired welterweight champion. Paul, whose boxing experience includes two bouts against a fellow YouTuber (one as a pro), figured Levin wasn’t serious. Yet by early December, Levin presented a contract and Paul had a deal to meet Mayweather in a live-streamed sparring session at Mayweather’s gym in Las Vegas.
Of course, that agreement wasn’t quite fitting.
It involved Paul, a professional social media self-promoter, who has more than 42 million followers combined on YouTube and Instagram.
It also involved Mayweather, the protagonist in some of the largest-grossing bouts in boxing history. His last bout, against Conor McGregor, drew a reported 4.3 million pay-per-view buys in 2017. Two years earlier, his fight against Manny Pacquiao did 4.6 million buys.
And it is happening in 2021, in an era where high-profile novelty fights involving retired boxers, ball players and social media celebrities have thrust themselves into the sports schedule.
Sunday’s card will feature an undercard bout with the former N.F.L. player Chad Johnson, and the main event pits Mayweather, who has won titles in five weight classes, against Paul, who is 0-1 in sanctioned bouts.
Attracting attention is second nature for Mayweather and Paul. Their exhibition fight, in turn, figures to generate pay-per-view buys for Showtime, which is selling the bout for $49.99.
The event is further smudging the already blurry lines between sport, entertainment and spectacle. For his part, Mayweather is clear about where this bout lands on the spectrum between serious fight and freak show.
“It’s entertainment for people that want to be entertained, that’s been hurting for the last 18 months because of the pandemic,” Mayweather, 44, said in an interview. “We never told people in the boxing world they have to watch. We hope all you guys watch it Sunday, but you’re not forced to.”
The trend of novelty fights that Mayweather and Paul are capitalizing on gained momentum in November, when the retired former champions Mike Tyson and Roy Jones Jr. — combined age: 105 — fought to an eight-round draw. That fight headlined a hybrid event, half boxing card and half hip-hop concert, streamed via Triller, a social media start-up. The undercard included Jake Paul, Logan’s younger brother, a social media star whose knockout over the retired N.B.A. player Nate Robinson made highlight reels and birthed countless memes.
That bout led to Jake Paul obliterating Ben Askren, a retired mixed martial arts fighter, in the main event of an April Triller card. Jake Paul has since signed a multi-fight deal with Showtime, and he agreed to box the mixed martial arts fighter Tyron Woodley next.
Nonconventional matchups keep forming. The former middleweight champion Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. is signed to fight the retired mixed martial arts legend Anderson Silva on June 19, while Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, reportedly vetoed a similar fight between the 40-year-old U.F.C. fighter Georges St-Pierre and the 48-year-old retired boxer Oscar De La Hoya.
This past Thursday, the champion strongman and “Game of Thrones” star Hafthor Bjornsson boxed a four-round exhibition to help prepare for a September fight against fellow strongman Eddie Hall.
Logan Paul, for his part, says he’s bracing for a real fight — not a friendly sparring session.
“This is going to be a dogfight,” Paul, 26, said. “It’s going to be hell on earth for both of us.”
For boxing aficionados, concerned these nontraditional events will siphon resources from title fights, or boxing doomsayers who think the bouts signal the sport’s slide into oblivion, Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, the pay-per-view carrier for Sunday’s card, says history and context matter.
He points out that novelty events aren’t new. Muhammad Ali, while still the heavyweight champion in 1976, fought the pro wrestler Antonio Inoki, and Battle of the Network Stars drew huge viewership in the 1980s by putting nonathletes into athletic competition. None of those events derailed the mainstream pro sports industry. Similarly, Espinoza says, fights like Mayweather-Paul supplement world-class bouts, but they won’t replace them. He thinks drive-by viewers drawn to the spectacle might become bigger fans of the sport.
“We can do the two things side by side without polluting each other,” Espinoza said. “The danger is when you start mixing and matching events, and trying to present one as the other. They’re different products, and should be handled differently.”
Espinoza said that most of Showtime’s boxing content still appealed to aficionados. Sunday night, Showtime will also air the first installment of the documentary series “The Kings,” which examines the rivalry between Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Ray Leonard. The network’s June schedule also includes title fights involving Jermall Charlo and Gervonta “Tank” Davis.
Even Triller, which started this wave of celebrity boxing exhibitions, is investing in high-level boxing. The headline fight of its June 19 pay-per-view is Teofimo Lopez’s lightweight title defense against George Kambosos Jr. And where its first event featured the rapper Snoop Dogg on commentary, its next card will employ Jim Lampley, who was a longtime play-by-play announcer on HBO’s fights before the cable network moved away from boxing.
Organizers of Sunday’s card hoped a light-heavyweight title rematch between Badou Jack and Jean Pascal would appeal to hard-core boxing fans, but Pascal failed a pre-fight doping test. Jack will now face a local contender named Dervin Colina, and promoters will lean even more heavily on the main event to generate attention and revenue.
The capacity at Hard Rock Stadium is capped at 25,000 fans and, according to Leonard Ellerbe, chief executive of Mayweather Promotions, the live event is trending toward a sellout.
“This is no more than a highly-entertaining exhibition,” Ellerbe said.
Drawing viewers to the spectacle won’t be a problem. By Friday, a documentary previewing the fight had already logged more than 4.5 million views on YouTube in six days, and a shoving match between Mayweather and Jake Paul at a news conference last month rippled through social media before landing on sports highlight shows.
The fight itself remains difficult to evaluate.
Paul, who will earn a reported $250,000 with a chance for several million more in incentives, faces much lower stakes.
Because the bout is an exhibition, neither man can win, technically. There are no official judges so, therefore, there will be no official decision.
But to create the impression that he is winning, Mayweather, who said he could earn as much as $100 million once he collected his cut of pay-per-view revenue, will need to pepper the bigger, younger Paul with punches. Paul, meanwhile, navigates an online world where memorable, shareable moments matter, and he only needs to land one clean punch to turn Mayweather into a meme.
“Floyd is banking on the idea that I suck,” Paul said in an interview. “For his sake, let’s hope I suck. But I don’t think I suck. I think I’m pretty good.”
Mayweather is undefeated but retired from official competition. His Instagram feed is littered with pictures of him covered in the blood of his sparring partners, and hitting focus mitts with the speed of a man several decades younger. But he insists Sunday’s bout isn’t a serious competition.
“It’s an exhibition match,” he said. “This is us having fun.”
Paul looked competent, if a little robotic, during his public workout on Wednesday. He trained for this fight in Dorado, P.R., where he sometimes sparred with Pascal.
“For a guy who only has two fights, he’s very good,” Pascal said last week before he failed the drug test. “He’s very athletic and has good cardio. People might be surprised.”
And then there’s size. Mayweather stands at 5-foot-8 and has never weighed above 152 pounds for an official bout. Paul is 6-foot-2 and is contracted to weigh in at 190 pounds. In photos, the size disparity looks cartoonish. In the ring, Paul says, it will have consequences.
“It’s not a fair fight, bro,” Paul said. “There’s weight classes in boxing for a reason.”