Stephen Espinoza, president of Showtime Sports, did not know what to expect from Jake Paul when contractual talks between the cable network and the YouTube celebrity-turned-boxer started this year.
Espinoza knew of Jake Paul the Internet troll, who snatched a cap off the head of legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather and triggered a melee.
He knew of Jake Paul the agitator, who took potshots at opponents during the first three fights of his professional boxing career.
Then, Espinoza said, he actually met Paul and interacted with him before the two sides agreed to a multi-fight pact. The deal will commence Sunday when Showtime broadcasts a pay-per-view bout between Paul and former UFC champion Tyron Woodley.
“People assume what they’ve heard or seen on social media is who he is 24 hours a day,’’ Espinoza said of the 24-year-old Paul. “But when dealing with him in person or via Zoom, he’s a thoughtful, intelligent young man."
On Thursday, Paul arrived shirtless to the final press conference promoting his fight against Woodley. He wore thick, gaudy chains around his neck and a baseball cap backwards. Then came the insults.
“Tyron Woodley, he really is the chosen one. We chose him to get his ass beat.”
“He’s a speed bump in the road of the Jake Paul career. He is a body that I am using …for content to my highlight reel.’’
Although he is 3-0 with three knockouts, Paul remains an unproven fighter less than two years into his pro career. It was many more years ago that Paul turned pro as a promoter – mostly of himself – and his skills are undeniable.
The one-time Disney Channel actor has more than 20 million followers on YouTube. On Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, he has almost 27 million followers combined.
He is a multimillionaire.
'CHANGE BOXING FOREVER:' Jake Paul ready to embark on historic TV deal with Sunday fight
“This kid has built something with his own hands and his own labor and a huge audience,’’ Espinoza said. “So all of us respect that tremendously. You can try and diminish it and say it’s a social media thing, but he has built an audience piece by piece, year by year, for over a decade, and he has earned every bit of the attention he is now getting.’’
Now he is trying to convert that attention into cash – mountains of it – through boxing.
Before signing a contract with Showtime, Paul and his team partnered with other companies on pay-per-view deals. Triller Fight Club was the main partner for Paul’s second fight, against retired MMA fighter Ben Askren .
Two days after he knocked out Askren in the first round, Paul claimed the fight grossed $75 million on 1.5 million pay-per-view buys.
Paul declined to talk about his finances with USA TODAY Sports, but it’s clear he sees boxing as more than a chance to prove himself in the ring.
In an interview with Showtime this week, he was asked what he learned from the June 6 exhibition match between his old brother, Logan, and Mayweather. During his reply, Paul said, “maybe people don’t want to admit that this is more of a business than it is a sport.’’
His first order of business is to beat Woodley. A close second: drive those pay-per-view sales at $59.99 a pop.
Love him. Hate him. Just buy the pay-per-view.
“I’m polarizing. I get it,’’ Paul said at the press conference. “I’m loud. I do stupid (expletive). I go to press conferences with my shirt off. Because I don’t give a (expletive) what people think, and most people aren’t like that. They hold what’s inside their mouths. They are scared to rub people the wrong way. I don’t give a (expletive). The haters don’t sign my paycheck. I do.
“That’s why people don’t like me. That’s why some people want to see me lose. They think this is a circus. They don’t think this is good for boxing. Well, guess what? It is, I’m here to stay, and I’m going to knock out this (expletive) guy and move onto the next one."
While Paul has taken countless verbal shots at Woodley, last week he also noted Woodley’s ability to generate pay-per-view sales. That took place during a Showtime interview when he was asked about the possibility of fighting Tommy Fury, who is the brother of heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and on the other card Sunday.
“It makes sense. That’s a huge fight,’’ Paul said of a matchup with Fury. “It seems to be right in the palm of both of our hands. We do have to go out and preform on Sunday. And you know, I want to see how the crowd receives him. I want to see that star power this whole entire week.
“You know, he doesn’t have the big pay-per-view numbers like Tyron Woodley has or even the Ben Askren. Those guys sold tons of pay-per-views. Tommy Fury, no one’s seen a Tommy Fury fight."
Of course millions of people have seen Paul and his antics.
“Does he know how to get under an opponent’s skin and generate publicity? Absolutely," Espinoza said. “Is that the only aspect of his business personality? No, not at all.’’
Indeed, at the press conference Paul paid tribute to Women’s Equality Day. He also announced that his new venture capital fund – for a company that will allow people to make in-game wagers – is leading a $30 million of round fundraising.
And moments after the press conference ended, Paul watched as a ruckus broke out after a member of his team exchanged words with Woodley’s mother.
At the time Woodley shouted angrily and had to be moved away from the scrum of people. Within 20 minutes he had regained his cool.
Woodley declined to say whether he thought Paul had a role in the incident. But Woodley said he wasn’t going to let what happen disrupt his focus because he understood what was at work.
“It’s about selling a fight," he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jake Paul aims to advance boxing career vs. UFC champion Tyron Woodley