The lead-up to Sunday’s fight in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, between Tommy Fury and Jake Paul looks as if it were ripped out of boxing’s oldest playbook.
Fury has said Paul has no class or skill, and his father, John Fury, has boasted that his son sent recent sparring partners to the hospital. Paul has called Fury “delusional” and said Fury did not know what he was getting into.
They have traded verbal jabs over past failures to meet in the ring. Each boxer is confident that he will wipe the mat with his opponent, and each man swears that his disdain for the other is real. It is routine stuff for boxing — the hype and manufactured insults that come out before any big fight to juice interest and pay-per-view sales.
But the boxing-as-usual routine disguises the bigger stakes of the fight: its role as a window into the growing Saudi influence on professional sports and a possible referendum on the YouTube boxing phenomenon.
In an interview last week, Paul offered two reasons for fighting in Saudi Arabia.
“When I came here for the W.W.E., the fan base was electric, man, and they showed out. And for me, I’m an entertainer,” he said, referring to the professional wrestling promotion. There was also a practical reason: The fight was already postponed twice, most recently because the British-born Fury could not obtain a visa to enter the United States.
“So, we had to do this fight overseas, and it was really like a decision between Manchester or Saudi. And it just made way more sense to do it in Saudi.”
The fight is the latest in a wave of high-profile sports and entertainment events staged in Saudi Arabia. The W.W.E. hosts two events in the country every year. Formula 1 now has an annual Saudi stop. Two of the former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua’s past four fights were in the country. Saudi Arabia will host the FIFA Club World Cup in December.
The country’s sovereign wealth fund has also made large investments in sports abroad, bankrolling the purchase of the soccer team Newcastle United, in the English Premier League, and helping create LIV Golf, a challenger to the PGA Tour.
Ostensibly, these investments are part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan, which aims to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy beyond oil by developing sectors such as recreation and tourism.
How Saudi Arabia has been able to do this is obvious: money. The kingdom has committed to spending $2 billion on LIV and has initiated a transfer spending spree at Newcastle that has seen the team rocket toward the top of the Premier League. Saudi Arabia pays $60 million to host Formula 1, paid $60 million to host one of Joshua’s fights and, according to ESPN, was willing to pay $150 million for a fight that never materialized between Joshua and Tyson Fury, who is Tommy Fury’s older half brother.
To critics, Saudi Arabia’s sports spending spree is not a genuine attempt to diversify its economy, but a means to paper over the country’s human rights abuses, a phenomenon known as sportswashing.
The fight also intersects with what has been boxing’s third rail for the past year: the involvement of Daniel Kinahan, who is wanted by the U.S. government and is accused of being the head of an Irish organized-crime group.
Kinahan has extensive ties to Tyson Fury, who was represented by a company Kinahan founded, and the two were photographed together last year in Dubai. Kinahan helped broker the Fury-Joshua fight that likely would have been held in Saudi Arabia.
Paul and Tommy Fury were supposed to fight last year in New York, but Fury was unable to get on a plane to fly to the United States. Tyson Fury has also been refused entry into the United States because of his links to Kinahan, according to the Sunday World, an Irish outlet.
When the fight actually gets underway, the biggest questions will be whether Paul is a real boxer and whether Tommy Fury is a good-enough challenge to determine that.
Paul, alongside his brother, Logan, became famous in the mid-2010s because of their videos on social media, but in 2018 Paul made an unexpected pivot to boxing.
“YouTube is like this weird, dark place, and I was just someone who cared so much about views and attention and, like, trying to make a good video every single day,” Paul said about the shift. “It ruined my creativity.”
Paul’s foray into boxing has been viewed as a stunt by many, but he has now won six fights as a sanctioned professional. Granted, they came against a motley crew of retired mixed martial artists, a former N.B.A. point guard and a fellow YouTuber.
Fury is a somewhat more legitimate professional boxer, though his career is similar to Paul’s — but in reverse. He first fought as a professional in 2018, before taking time off to film the reality television program “Love Island” and then returning to the ring. Fury has an 8-0 record, and while a number of those fights were just to pad his record — his first five opponents had combined to win 12 fights and lose 174 — they were at least all against boxers.
The promoter Bob Arum called Fury a “novice” professional, while Fury’s promoter, Frank Warren, said, “It’s not a lot of fights as a pro, but he’s had eight fights, and he’s obviously got amateur experience.”
Paul’s appeal as a boxer to his legion of young fans is that the fights are real and that his calls to fight the best boxers in the world, like Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, are not the ramblings of a social-media star but the aspirations of a real athlete. A loss to Fury — the 350th best cruiserweight in the world, according to BoxRec — could dent that image and that of other YouTubers-turned-boxers, like Logan Paul and KSI.
What could be as damaging, or helpful, to the YouTube boxing phenomenon are the conclusions of Top Rank, a promotion company, and ESPN.
A number of high-profile boxing exhibitions have been presented in recent years by Triller, a TikTok competitor, and Paul’s previous fights were done through his own promotion company and Showtime Sports. But Top Rank, which promotes leading fighters like Tyson Fury and Shakur Stevenson, is promoting the fight in the United States, and ESPN is streaming it.
“Jake Paul and Tommy Fury have fan bases that extend far beyond the world of boxing,” said Todd duBoef, the president of Top Rank, in announcing his company’s participation, signaling the reason for its interest in promoting the fight.
Top Rank and ESPN will both get a chance to look at data to see whether YouTube boxers can coexist alongside world champions, and whether Paul and Fury can convince a substantial number of their followers to pay $50 to watch the two men fight.
Kris Rhim contributed reporting.