Boxing is no stranger to the cynical cash grab.
A rapidly deteriorating Muhammad Ali lost to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas in 1981, after which The New York Times wrote that Ali “no longer deserves to be licensed to box.” Mike Tyson fought a series of pay-per-view exhibitions against a journeyman named Corey Sanders after falling into financial trouble. Floyd Mayweather Jr., one of the greatest boxers ever, defeated Conor McGregor, an Ultimate Fighting Championship star who had never boxed professionally, two years ago in one of the most lucrative bouts ever.
(Manute Bol also fought William Perry in 2002, and we don’t mean in cartoon form on cable.)
Enter Logan Paul and Olajide William Olatunji, who is better known as KSI. Paul and KSI represent a distinctly modern twist on prizefights with an emphasis on the prize. Rather than over-the-hill boxers searching for one last payday, they are young YouTube stars who the boxing world is treating simultaneously with disdain and embrace, hoping they can introduce a stagnant sport to a new, young, diverse audience.
Paul and KSI will make their professional boxing debut Saturday night in a six-round bout at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, taking top billing on a card that includes two title fights. The fight will be shown on DAZN, the relatively new streaming service headed by John Skipper, the former ESPN president.
Joe Markowski, who runs DAZN’s North American business, insists this is a legitimate match. “They have taken this about as seriously as any boxing camp I have been a part of watching,” he said in an interview. He was also giddily hyperbolic about the commercial implications: “This has the potential to be the biggest internet broadcasting moment in the history of the internet.”
Naturally, you’ve got many, many questions. Here are at least some answers.
Who are these guys?
Logan Paul, 24, is from Ohio and became famous by posting humorous, bro-tastic videos on Vine, the now-defunct video-sharing app. He is the archetype of a social media influencer, mostly unknown to those over 30 yet compelling in inscrutable ways to his rabid following of young people. His YouTube channel has 19.9 million subscribers and he gained mainstream attention at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016 for dabbing on television at some of the biggest events.
KSI, 26, grew up outside London. In 2009, he began posting videos of himself playing the FIFA soccer video games to YouTube, though he has since transitioned to more humorous videos and promoting a budding rap career. His YouTube channel has 20.5 million subscribers.
KSI is a shortened version of his original YouTube handle, KSIOlajideBT. KSI stands for “Knowledge, Strength, Integrity.”
Both Paul and KSI have had — and profited from — self-inflicted controversies and offenses, par for the course when trading in shock and outrage and most of your waking hours are filmed.
Last year, Paul caused worldwide outrage when he posted video of a trek through Aokigahara forest in Japan, known as a destination for people to kill themselves. Paul’s video showed a body hanging from a tree, its face blurred, and had plenty of jokes.
He was roundly criticized and eventually apologized, calling his actions “misguided.” YouTube pulled Paul from its premium advertising program and delayed a movie it was working on with Paul.
Why are they fighting?
This is where the professional wrestling term “kayfabe” — the unspoken agreement between wrestlers and the audience to treat obvious fiction as real — comes in handy.
KSI originally boxed against YouTuber Joe Weller in 2018 to settle a beef. He then called out Paul, and the two fought before a sold-out crowd at the Manchester Arena in England last fall. The undercard featured a fight between their influencer brothers, Deji Olatunji and Jake Paul. Over one million people paid about $10 to watch on YouTube.
Paul and KSI insist they dislike each other, and lob insults back and forth. At a news conference last month, Paul brought up past accusations that KSI hit his own mother (KSI denies this) while KSI talked about Paul’s dead dog. This was all gleefully documented on DAZN’s website.
Where does legitimate displeasure end and drama contrived to create more drama — all of it filmed, stuffed with advertisements and made available to view, of course — begin? That’s impossible to answer.
Can they actually fight?
Their bout in Manchester “wasn’t that wild of a fight, in my opinion,” said Dan Canobbio, a boxing analyst for Fox Sports and CompuBox. “They showed a lot of good technique.” Paul, the taller and longer of the two fighters, kept KSI at bay with a good jab. KSI “ate a lot of punches” to try and get inside and nullify Paul’s length.
This time around both have trained extensively, with Paul being trained by former heavyweight champion Shannon Briggs and KSI by Jeff Mayweather, an uncle of Floyd Mayweather Jr.
They’re not legitimate professionals, but he’s seen worse fighters, Canobbio said. “It is not like it is celebrities, two washed celebrities who are clearly not in their prime anymore,” he said.
What does being professional even mean?
Most importantly, compared with amateur boxing, going pro allows boxers to be fully compensated. But there are many rule differences that make things more dangerous. Headgear isn’t worn, fights can be longer, gloves can be lighter and injuries don’t cause fights to be stopped as quickly.
Professional fights are regulated by state-based organizations, in this case the California State Athletic Commission.
As a sport, boxing has struggled with deaths because of issues like weight management, dehydration and head trauma.
So Paul and KSI are licensed to fight professionally?
How do two YouTubers with no boxing experience get licensed?
As long as one is in good health, it’s not actually that difficult. An application for a license in California includes examinations by a general physician and specialists, including brain and heart exams. As long as the medical professionals have no reservations, the license is more or less rubber-stamped.
More difficult is getting an actual fight sanctioned.
A license allows one to fight, but each individual bout still needs approval. The boxing commission learns what it can about the fighters, and requires licensed trainers to vouch for their training. There is often little or no information about boxers seeking their debut. For Paul and KSI, there was a professionally-filmed video of a previous fight.
Should this fight have been sanctioned?
“If they weren’t YouTube stars, this fight is still approvable in every commission in this country as debut athletes,” Andy Foster, the executive director of the California State Athletic Commission, said in an interview. “I have some ability to know that these two are competitive with each other.”
The Association of Boxing Commissions guidelines say bouts should be approved if boxers are of similar ability in four areas: record, experience, skill and physical condition. In this case, Paul and KSI both have little boxing record, experience or skill to speak of, and are both in good shape.
Boxing promoters contacted for this story concurred, saying that YouTube stardom aside, this is often what pro debuts looks like: Two guys who trained hard flailing at each other.
In fact, the oft-cited example of a fight that many believe should not have been approved was Mayweather versus McGregor, which generated hundreds of millions of dollars.
So what were their applications like?
California’s pro debut information sheet asks fighters to describe their training in preparation for the bout. This is how Paul described his bag work: “Working on technique through hitting the bag.”
That … that is one description of bag work, we suppose.
What is the funniest thing Paul said to promote this fight?
It could be his (accurate) critique of the inspirational quote “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”
“I mean astronomically, that one doesn’t even make sense,” he told The Ringer. “Because if you shoot for the moon, you’re not going to land on the stars. The moon is closer than all of the stars.”
Do people actually want to watch this fight?
There have been reports the fight isn’t selling well and that sections of the Staples Center have been closed because of a lack of demand. The arena has a capacity of 20,000 but in an email, the promoter said it will be configured for about 12,000 to 13,000 spectators. They expect it to be full.
How many will pay to stream the fight is anybody’s guess.
Is anybody else fighting Saturday night?
Paul and KSI might be the headliners, but there are six other fights on the card, including a lightweight title fight between Devin Haney and Alfredo Santiago and a super middleweight title fight between Billy Joe Saunders and Marcelo Esteban Coceres.
Wait, YouTubers are headlining over two title fights?
Yes. Promoters can market and sell cards any way they like.
Is this insulting to boxing?
It depends on whom you ask.
Though boxing’s popularity in America was already waning, it has dropped precipitously since mostly disappearing behind the pay-per-view wall decades ago.
Boxing fans often complain about the lack of mainstream coverage, and then complain about the trade-offs that come from mainstream coverage, including media outlets (like this one) devoting more ink to the circus than to compelling matchups.
“The most hard core boxing fans hate it because they are very proud people, and they look at it as two guys that are using the sport for one night,” said Canobbio.
DAZN’s Markowski agreed. “This is good for the sport of boxing,” he said. Boxing needs to embrace things like this. Boxing hasn’t done enough of it over the last 20 or 30 years.”