All eyes will be on Los Angeles on Saturday night for KSI v Logan Paul part deux. If you’ve not heard of them then, don’t worry, you’re not the only one out of touch. They are two YouTubers about to do what YouTubers do nowadays – get into a boxing ring and swing for each other.
It’s a relatively recent thing, this voxy boxing. KSI, real name Olajide William JJ Olatunji, was the driver, stepping into the ring and defeating fellow vlogger Joe Weller in February 2018. He was subsequently called out by a few others, but Paul, the controversial American with a huge fan base, caught his attention and they went at it in August of last year. An unsatisfying majority tie and some incessant dissing later, here we are again.
To dismiss this as a novelty, a glorified playground bust-up between two glorified school kids, would be to ignore the fact that the world-famous Staples Centre is expecting something close to a sell-out for this fight. Only the likes of the post-season LA Lakers, Mike Tyson and Jay-Z could match that. Something about this, a landmark boxing match featuring no professional boxers, feels entirely befitting of modern society.
That first bit isn’t entirely accurate. Both KSI and Paul have registered as professionals and thus will not be wearing head guards as they did during their first meeting. There will also don lighter 10-ounce gloves, which they hope adds credence to their contest. However there is a lot more ground to make up to earn the respect of the wider boxing fraternity. Purists are staggered by the industry resources going into this gimmick of a fight.
Deep down, they know this is not for them. For all the effort to make it a serious endeavour – and there can be no question that both fighters have put in the hard yards to ensure this is as true a boxing spectacle as possible – this bout does not need the support of the diehards. It is simply the next logical step of professional sport converging with online culture.
Brands have consistently looked to improve their reach by hitching their wagons to online celebrities and sport has tagged along for the ride. KSI himself has been used alongside high profile footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Raheem Sterling and Eden Hazard to push a combination of video games and personal brands. The sports themselves have followed suit.
Now showpiece events ranging from the FA Cup to the NFL London Games to the Hundred Draft feature “influencers” who post about their positive experiences online. The realisation across the board is more needs to be done to attract a new audience and for some reason the prescribed remedy always involves at least one former Love Island contestant.
Events like these, if sustainable, could be a way for sports that have stagnated to get out of their funk. For the longest time, the focus from those in key administrative roles has been to simply tick over and ensure the usual sponsors are kept happy, without looking to try and do things differently in order to engage the next generation of punters.
But the status quo is no longer comfortable, especially with the rise of eSports not just impinging on real-life contests but occupying the time and interests of that next generation. As it happens, this won’t be the first time the internet has inspired a sell-out of the Staples Center which hosted the League of Legends World Championships in 2013.
A telling development this time is that KSI and Paul headline a legitimate boxing card and will follow a world title fight. Unbeaten British fighter Billy Joe Saunders will be defending his WBO super-middleweight championship belt against Argentine Marcello Esteban Coceres. It’ll be his debut on American soil, one which he hopes leads to a showdown with WBO light heavyweight champion Canelo Alvarez. While Saunders has no qualms about fighting on the undercard of two YouTubers – “If I can nick maybe 5,000 new fans then financially it’s a pretty good bill to be on” – other boxers are wary of where this might put them on the food chain.
One of the biggest challenges for combat sports is making and maintaining global stars. Fighters can only compete so many times a year and it only takes a handful of defeats for them to lose their star appeal. Here though, the fan bases come readymade, a combined following of 40 million set in stone and with a reputation for backing up their unwavering support with cold hard cash. Eddie Hearn, a skeptical onlooker for part one at the MEN Arena in Manchester is along for the ride in Los Angeles and believes a third installment could sell out Wembley Stadium.
For boxers fighting for time on the biggest stage, this spectacle will dent their pride. But for those lower down, it’ll dent their prospects. Matchmaking in modern boxing has been about weighing up profile and pedigree, and while Floyd Mayweather versus Connor McGregor nudged it towards the former, KSI-Logan Paul has sizeably tilted it away from the latter.
That is not to say it is all doom and gloom. Sports need to evolve and younger fighters coming through will now be more aware of the power of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to build a robust brand and make themselves attractive to promoters.
Quite whether this fight will alter the fabric of boxing is another matter. But the fundamentals on Saturday will remain, especially the truism that when the blows from those 10-oz gloves dig that little deeper and the crowd grows more febrile, the one who wants it more will come out on top. Even between two who don’t need it at all.