Celebrity boxing culture: blood money?

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Boxing has long had a reputation of being one of the sporting world’s most dangerous outlets. Two people trading punch-for-punch until one hits the canvas, the very idea screams ‘do not try this at home’. Yet, over the last few years, we have seen a trend in untrained influencers dipping their toe into the ring. As Logan Paul gears up to fight Floyd Mayweather, an online influencer against an all-time great, the growth of celebrity boxing must come under greater scrutiny for what it really is about: money.

Despite seemingly becoming a world phenomenon only recently, the idea of celebrity boxing has existed for a while. In the early noughties, FOX broadcasted their own celebrity bout series with Vanilla Ice being a notable fighter. But it was the rise of Youtuber boxing this decade that has redefined the sport. With all its international reach now, YouTube boxing’s humble beginnings were in the UK.

If we favour these WWE-esque storylines over bouts of real skill, then the sport becomes an empty vessel.

Joe Weller, whose videos reach an audience of over 5 million followers, launched the trend with an exhibition against his friend Theo Baker. As soon as KSI, real name Olajide Olatunji, one of the UK’s largest creators, became involved, the shows amassed a much larger following. Olatunji’s success led him to call out American Youtuber Logan Paul, with whom he had two fights. While Olatunji this year has focused his attentions more on his music career, Paul is keen to prove himself in the ring again.

The first match between KSI and Logan Paul caused such a storm that big media companies had no choice but to take notice. Eddie Hearn jumped at the opportunity to get involved in the rematch, which was then broadcast as DAZN’s pay-per-view event. ‘Logan Paul vs. KSI II’ had more streams than Anthony Joshua’s defeat against Andy Ruiz Jr., despite this being both fighters’ professional debut.

More striking still, is that Billy Joe Saunders, WBO super-middleweight champion, was on the undercard for these two content creators. It is when a professional fighter, nay a leader in his field, is pushed to the side for money-making events like these that makes you ponder the place of celebrity boxing.

Part of what made the KSI-Logan Paul build-up so captivating was the sheer hatred each shared for their opponent. Eddie Hearn couldn’t keep himself away, reiterating that ‘someone’s getting knocked out’. But it makes a mockery of the sport when we prioritise a feud birthed online over a professional fighter’s title defence. If we favour these WWE-esque storylines over bouts of real skill, then the sport becomes an empty vessel.

Hearn effectively reassured fans that there would be blood in KSI and Paul’s fight, but this should not be the selling point.

Since Paul and Olatunji’s clash last November, the YouTube boxing scene had been rather quiet. That was until Jake Paul, Logan’s younger brother, announced his next fight with Nate Robinson, a former NBA basketball player, on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s charity event.

This being Paul Jr.’s second professional bout, he swept past Robinson with relative ease. As Robinson lay motionless after falling a third time, there were questions to be asked about the safety of the event. It is images like these that make you contemplate the morality of it all. Hearn effectively reassured fans that there would be blood in KSI and Paul’s fight, but this should not be the selling point.

The other more poignant issues, for the fighters at least, are the dollar signs. Paul made over $1 million from his bout with KSI and will likely make much more against Floyd Mayweather next February. His opponent, statistically one of the best boxers of all time (50-0), will still bring in huge viewing figures despite being 43 years old. His last exhibition against kickboxer Tenshin Nasukawa reportedly earned him $9 million. However, like after his fight with McGregor, the figures will likely be in the hundreds of millions this time around.

Mayweather, regarded as one of the greatest to grace a boxing ring, has nothing to gain from fighting a YouTube personality, apart from a fat cheque. It begs the question of whether the new audience that Internet stars bring to the table are worth it, when this is the legacy that is created.

Jake Paul fighting Conor McGregor, a match rumoured to be in the works as well, would be another symptom of the greed plaguing the sport. With his second exhibition since retiring a third time on the horizon, it seems Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather has never been a more fitting moniker.

Image: Erik Drost via Flickr

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