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The UFC on ESPN 22 headliner was far from an unappetizing offering on Saturday in Las Vegas. Former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker seeking a rematch with Israel Adesanya by taking on the quick and powerful Kelvin Gastelum was arguably the best television main event of 2021. While the run of unspectacular decisions likely did not help build interest in the main event, by the time Whittaker-Adesanya arrived, it was clear that much of the MMA world was fixated on a different event entirely. That was of course Triller’s bonkers pay-per-view boxing card headlined by Ben Askren and YouTuber Jake Paul.
Triller’s event was polarizing. Some found it insufferable and unprofessional while others enjoyed the bizarre spectacle of it all. Either way, it was easy to understand why the event would be difficult to look away from. Unlike many boxing events built around 12-round title fights and more like an MMA card, nothing lasted that long. All sorts of celebrities from different fields rotated in and out, from an extended vignette with Snoop Dogg and the Steve Urkel character to start the show through repeated appearances by comedian Pete Davidson where he mercilessly buried the participants in the fights.
The fights were no less strange. There was the reggaeton musician getting beat up in an utter mismatch, with the referee so indifferent to his plight that his opponent had to lobby for the fight to be called off. The only prime high-level boxer on the card, Regis Prograis, finished his opponent with a body shot that was inexplicably called a low blow. Meanwhile, Frank Mir made his professional boxing debut 70 pounds heavier than his 44-year-old opponent, and the only thing anyone will remember about that fight was Oscar De La Hoya having a public meltdown on commentary that would make Courtney Love blush.
The main event was a fitting conclusion to the card, with an out-of-shape Askren trading a little bit of dignity for a big paycheck and getting knocked out in prompt fashion. Paul and his handlers have picked his opponents well, following up a 36-year-old former NBA player who had no boxing experience with a 36-year-old former MMA champion who was a grappling specialist and coming off hip replacement surgery. It went exactly as hoped and planned for Paul.
It’s not surprising that the card would appeal to MMA fans. To begin with, the Triller shows are designed to provide a little something for everybody with the eclectic mix of characters and performers. Beyond that, Mir and Askren were much bigger stars in the MMA world than Prograis is in the boxing world. Paul’s fans aren’t in either camp. The other nice thing for MMA fans about this sort of card is that it’s boxing being turned into a sideshow rather than MMA. The biggest MMA events of the year remain serious fights with real stakes. That makes it much easier to digest the spectacle without a feeling of sadness of what MMA has become.
MMA has gone down this route before. Pride Fighting Championships and K-1 drew massive TV audiences in Japan for freakshow MMA fights mixed with more serious bouts. It was a tremendous success in the short term, but over time, fights between top fighters stopped drawing and interest in the sport never recovered in that country. That’s why it’s more palatable to watch these boxing freakshows at a distance without the same lingering worries about what the effects will be. Even for MMA fans that also like boxing, it’s not like the boxing matches fans want to see are getting made anyway.
It’s not of course impossible to imagine MMA having more fights like this in North America. If the Paul brothers decided to train in MMA rather than boxing, we might be there right now. Phil “CM Punk” Brooks fighting in the UFC without any previous experience was the closest equivalent. Luckily, MMA is built on a much sturdier foundation in the sense that all the top promotions are focused on making sure their best fighters fight the best opponents possible. Thus, even if celebrity MMA fights took off on pay-per-view, it’s much harder to imagine them overwhelming the relevance of the biggest world title fights.
That led to what was ultimately my lasting impression of the Triller event. There was an enjoyment of the ridiculousness of it all, camp spectacle for fans of fighting. At the same time, there was the safe recognition that not only was this taking place outside the realm of MMA but that MMA is pretty well insulated from turning into this at the major league level. It’s somebody else’s problem. We can peak in, leer at what’s going on and happily go back to the world of MMA, where the next pay-per-view is built around three world-class title fights.
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