Moments into his cruiserweight bout, which headlined a heavily-hyped pay-per-view card in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, Jake Paul connected on Tommy Fury with the kind of right hand that usually makes highlight reels.
In October, a similar shot dropped the retired mixed martial arts star Anderson Silva in the final round of his showdown with Paul, who gained fame through YouTube videos before turning to pro boxing. And in December 2021, Paul landed an overhand right against Tyron Woodley, another aging M.M.A. standout, knocking him unconscious.
But Fury, a 23-year-old pro boxer from Manchester, England, barely flinched. Instead, he closed out the first round with a series of sharp jabs, followed by a straight right and a left hook just before the bell.
The bout was sold on the premise that it would settle the question of whether Paul, 26, a social media influencer with high-profile wins against a retired basketball player and M.M.A. fighters, could defeat a legitimate boxer. Those opening sequences provided an early clue.
Paul entered Sunday’s contest with a lopsided social media advantage — 22.7 million Instagram followers to Fury’s 4.7 million. But Fury, the half brother of Tyson Fury, the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, had better boxing skills. He deployed a longer, sharper jab, landed the more authoritative power punches and used superior timing to achieve a split-decision win. Two judges scored the bout 76-73 for Tommy Fury, while a third favored Paul by 75-74.
“Tonight, I made my own legacy,” Fury said in the ring immediately after the fight. “I had the world on me. I had pressure on my shoulders, and I came through.”
Fury improved his record to 9-0, while Paul absorbed his first professional loss.
“This is definitely a humbling experience,” said Paul, now 6-1 with four knockouts. “I’ll take it on the chin.”
That an eight-round fight between fighters who entered with a combined 14 professional fights headlined a pay-per-view event that retailed for $49.99 highlights the power of Paul’s self-promotion and the development of his boxing franchise.
Since the late 2010s, Paul has trained full time as a boxer, with each win over a widely known part-timer generating buzz, along with the perception, stoked intentionally by Paul himself, that he could compete with world-class practitioners. He has called out the retired welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather, who pummeled Paul’s brother, Logan, in a 2021 exhibition; Paul has also suggested that he could defeat the super-middleweight champion Saúl Álvarez by 2024.
Three years after his first pro bout, Paul had headlined four pay-per-view events, but he still had not faced a full-time boxer.
Enter Fury, the youngest, most chiseled and most social media-savvy member of a boxing family. But whereas Tyson, 34, has been a heavyweight champion since 2015, Tommy is best known for his role on the reality television show “Love Island.”
His two previous scheduled meetings with Paul had fallen through, most recently because Fury was denied a visa to travel to the United States because of his family association with Daniel Kinahan, the reputed head of an Irish drug cartel who is wanted by U.S. authorities.
But Fury was free to travel to Saudi Arabia, where the country’s sport ministry, backed by its sovereign wealth fund, has bankrolled a long list of pro sports events and has lured significant boxing matches with extravagant purse guarantees. Saudi backers put up $77 million to bring an August rematch between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk to the Jeddah Superdome.
Sunday’s bout took place in a temporary outdoor arena, with boxing figures like Mike Tyson, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder ringside. The soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined a Saudi club team after last year’s World Cup, also attended. The W.B.C. created a ceremonial title for the occasion: the Diriyah Champion Belt. And Devin Haney, the world lightweight champion in four sanctioning bodies, told the bout’s broadcast crew that he hoped his next fight would be held in Saudi Arabia.
Paul and Fury entered the ring with a level of hype and pageantry befitting the Super Bowl, but the skill level on display was akin to an XFL game — professional but not elite.
“This was high-level boxing — for this level,” Shawn Porter, the former world welterweight champion who worked the fight as a broadcast analyst, said after the final bell.
Paul landed occasional counter left hooks and lead right hands but never adjusted to Fury’s long, steady left jab. Fury landed straight rights and uppercuts but couldn’t prevent Paul from wrapping him up in clinches. Whereas top-tier boxers might have adjusted to those tactics, Fury and Paul kept repeating them, clinching so much that the referee deducted a point from each fighter for excessive holding.
Paul scored the bout’s only knockdown — a jab in the eighth round made an off-balance Fury touch the canvas with his gloves — but Fury racked up a lopsided statistical advantage: He landed 88 of his 302 punches, compared with 49 of 157 by Paul.
“This, to me, was a world title fight,” Fury said.
Paul’s first professional loss came in the first bout that strayed from the formula that had brought him boxing fame. After defeating several nonboxers in their late 30s and mid-40s, Paul finally faced a younger opponent whose main sport was boxing.
Those circumstances could complicate Paul’s countermoves. His appeal, after all, has rested on the curiosity about what would happen when he faced a real boxer. Sunday provided some answers.
Paul’s most recent highly-viewed social media clip involved him on HBO’s “Game Theory,” snapping at the show’s host, Bomani Jones, who had asked Paul how he would react if he lost to Fury.
But Paul already knew. His contract with Fury contained a rematch clause, and after the bout Paul said he intended to exercise it.
“We did big business.” Paul said at the post-fight news conference. “For that reason, the rematch is gonna be even bigger.”