Tommy Fury’s bout against KSI on Saturday night is called boxing, but it is not as the sport’s purists know it.
Fury, whether he likes it or not, carries the family name on his young shoulders whenever he steps between the ropes. Increasingly, he carries the sport’s reputation too.
So far, he is undefeated in nine contests, including a victory over YouTuber Jake Paul earlier this year. He puts that record on the line on Saturday, against Olajide Olayinka Williams “JJ” Olatunji, known as KSI, another influencer, with more than 24 million YouTube subscribers. The full card features a group of wannabe “boxers” who have hundreds of millions of followers online.
As well as being an online sensation, KSI has become a professional boxer and musician. Everything KSI touches turns to gold. He is the CEO of Misfits Boxing and the co-owner of Prime Hydration, XIX Vodka and a restaurant chain. Dazn, the sports broadcaster, has signed a five-year deal with KSI to stage 35 events. The first few of these have proven a huge commercial success with sold-out venues and large income from pay-per-view television.
This, the eighth event, sold out the Manchester Arena in less than an hour and is expected to bring in upwards of half a million pay-per-view buys.
The size of this event should frighten the hell out of everyone in boxing. It has a freak-show feel and is promoted more like WWE than prize-fighting. Yet research from one online bookmaker suggests that one in three boxing fans will watch the fight this weekend. Rubber-necking? Perhaps.
It all changed for Fury four years ago. With aspirations as a professional fighter, and trained by his father John Fury, the teenager took time off from his boxing career to enter the fifth series of Love Island. He and Molly-Mae Hague finished as runners-up. The TV show brought Fury instant fame. And made him a target for the world’s most popular YouTube influencers, who recognise that boxing offers a perfect platform for drama and theatre.
So when Fury, the brother of world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, fought Youtuber Jake Paul in Saudi Arabia in February (delayed three times, which made it even bigger) I suggested then that young Fury had to win for boxing’s sake.
He did win, it was entertaining – Fury was knocked down in the last round – and the relief was tangible in the Briton’s camp. It generated huge pay-per-view numbers, and millions of dollars (the American influencer with 45 million subscribers is a master promoter) even though all the jeopardy sat on Fury’s shoulders.
That eight-round contest in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia might have been labelled as a pantomime act, but there were many hardcore boxing fans watching through their fingers. The same will be true on Saturday night.
In truth, Fury – who is reportedly earning a truckload of money – should overwhelm KSI with ease and yet taking on another Youtuber is a dilemma. His fame and fortune get another gigantic boost, but it will gnaw at him that he is not fighting on undercards at the York Hall, Bethnal Green, making his way through the levels, aspiring to world titles. He is unlikely ever to go back there now, for less money and less attention. Already there is talk about a rematch with Paul and other influencers are lining up to fight him too. He sells. He’s a target.
And why shouldn’t Fury take the work now? He is a young father who has found himself in the right place at the right time. But there is also envy of Fury – resentment even – in the pro game, where Saturday night’s bout with KSI, over six three-minute rounds, is not viewed as “real” boxing.
Some will say that Fury represents the sport and must not lose against a YouTuber. Others will argue that he shouldn’t be taking the fight at all. He must win. And yet he can’t win.