YouTubers and influencers fighting packed out Wembley Arena last weekend – should traditional fans of ‘the noble art’ be concerned?
he willingness of YouTube celebrities to step into the boxing ring has opened the floodgates, rightly or wrongly, to a new entertainment and revenue stream. This is not real boxing, it is celebrity white-collar boxing, and yet it has boxing fans, and some of those in the boxing world rattled and enraged.
Should professional boxing be concerned by the trend? Should novice boxers from Love Island or the influencer world be mining wealth and riches, fame and acclaim, from boxing matches and taking the headlines from those who have honed their skills in the ring from an early age? Is boxing being copied and diluted by a new wave?
At the heart of this phenomenon are ‘KSI’ – AKA JJ Olatunji Olajide Olayinka Williams – the most influential YouTuber in the UK, a rapper and celebrity who has 24 million subscribers and 41 million social media followers, and the Paul brothers, Jake and Logan from the USA, who have 45 million YouTube subscribers between them.
So influential is KSI that last week the 29-year-old from Watford signed a five-year deal with sports broadcasters DAZN for the aptly-named ‘Misfits’ boxing series that will see them collaborate on six fight cards a year including two pay-per-views. Last weekend, a fourth event in the Misfits series, the KSI vs Faze Temperrr boxing event – where KSI knocked out his foe Temperrr (yes, three Rs) in the first round – garnered 300,000 pay-per-view buys on DAZN in the UK and USA, and sold out Wembley Arena. I was there too.
Witnessing the event first hand, it was certainly a very different and much younger audience than there would be for a professional boxing event, with 10,000 fans in the venue from the first to the last fight.
Ringside were the likes of Louis Theroux, Holly Willoughby and Krishnan Guru-Murthy – with their teenage children. While KSI came out to rapturous acclaim to stop Temperrr, the undercard also featured a number of famous faces including OnlyFans star Elle Brooke, DJ Tom Zanetti, BMX rider Ryan Taylor and TikToker Salt Papi. It was a huge success. The boxing was as expected, far short of amateur or professional levels, and often like a playground scrap. But the audience loved it. Perhaps professional boxing can learn from this. The key, though, is that the celebrities involved have huge subscriber bases and their fans wanted to see them tested. Celebrity boxing cards are giving their fans and subscribers what they want.
That said, it’s not boxing; let’s be real about this. And it is important to have clear lines about what this is, and what ‘real’ boxing is.
Interestingly, Jake Paul has crossed into a different space, blurring the lines between celebrity boxing and pugilism. It is understood that Paul will fight Tommy Fury, brother of Tyson Fury, the world heavyweight champion, on Feb 25. KSI, whose brother Deji fought Floyd Mayweather in an exhibition bout last November, explained to me: “I’m obsessed with boxing. It’s not about money, for me it’s about doing stuff that I enjoy. Boxing, training for boxing has changed my life.” He is in ambitious talks to fight Jake Paul at Wembley in the summer.
Theroux, incidentally, who is making a documentary about KSI, told me that he has witnessed “relentless passion and drive” from the influencer in the “most primeval of sports”. Theroux once made a documentary about Chris Eubank Sr. “It’s almost frightening how much commitment he has, I enjoy seeing him in the ring and at the same time it’s almost slightly terrifying,” explained Theroux, whose children had introduced him to the KSI phenomenon.
‘What we don’t want to see is someone getting seriously hurt’
Joe Markowski, the North America CEO of DAZN, admits that the broadcasters are “going after projects that can grow our business, that make sense economically for us” and therefore, the Misfits brand was created for 15 to 25 year olds – “the first generation who grew up with the internet from day one”. Markowski argues that “the traditional sport business has got a pretty existential challenge, so whilst we are going to continue investing in what we call traditional sport, it’s really important that we also in parallel embrace formats and competitions and athletes. KSI is a marketing wizard.”
Therein lies the rub. If influencers and celebrities are willing to put themselves on the line, and there is an audience, DAZN – or others, such as Showtime in the US – will broadcast it. Simple market forces. “What we don’t want to see is someone getting seriously hurt, and that is a worry,” adds Warren.
Ringside at Wembley is Ms Willoughby. She told me: “It’s unusual for me to be here, that’s for sure. I’ve watched lots of boxing on the TV, my husband likes watching boxing, and my 13-year-old son has brought me here. My adrenaline went through the roof, the atmosphere is electric, everybody is having the best time, I think I might be the oldest person in here.
“I’ve got to say I am sort of watching it with one eye open, it’s quite hard to watch but everybody else seems to be absolutely loving it and I keep looking at my husband going, right what just happened? And why is that guy good? So I feel like I’m learning something here.”
What is the chance of Ms Willoughby getting in the ring at some point ? “Depends who with,” the This Morning host replies.
Unlikely, of course. But imagine the size of the audience that would watch it. Ricky Gervais once fought Grant Bovey – for charity. Remember that?
Of course the influencers are training hard and giving their all. But if you shout ‘fight, fight, fight’ in the playground, everyone will come running to watch, regardless of the quality. It looks like celebrity YouTube boxing is here to stay, whether the boxing purists like it or not.