In April 2022, two warring TikTok clans gathered around a peculiarly shaped office desk to live broadcast a press conference. Up for debate: the origins of their rapidly expanding beef.
On the right, non-league football coach Simon Colbran (@simple.simon.8, 398.3k followers) and his 19-year-old daughter Keeley (@keeley.dancex, 360.6k followers). On the left, fitness fanatic and livestreaming lothario Ed Matthews (@edmatthewslive, 181.2k followers) and his Lambo-flaunting gym buddy, who goes by the initials HS (@hstikkytokky, a whopping 879.4k followers). With no actual members of the press in attendance, and one viewer comparing the venue to a Tesco staffroom, hopes of a detailed, illuminating presser departed long before any of the group opened their mouths.
A slanging match ensued, with each side trading insults (mostly regarding what each would or would not do to their respective mums). With the atmosphere increasingly febrile, Matthews upped the ante by dropping his trousers to reveal a pair of boxer shorts with Keeley’s face printed on the front. Cue pandemonium in the room, a mass brawl and a deluge of comments from delirious fans watching the livestream.
This dramatic moment is one instalment of a British TikTok soap opera that’s swept the digital nation. It has all the ingredients of a classic drama, played out online and stretched into a long-running saga that has the capacity to take minutes, hours and days out of your life.
A core group of main characters, bound by unshakeable loyalty or at each other’s throats? Tick. A second layer of supporting characters, all eccentric but kind of loveable at the same time? Tick. An ever-evolving, hugely complicated plot, with no particular start point and no definite end? Tick. And a big fanbase invested in this weirdly engrossing drama, with just one subsection of the plot gaining 5.4 million views? Big ticks all round.
This soap’s storyline has its own season finale scrawled into the calendar. On 16th July, the biggest beefers will head to London’s Indigo at the O2 for Scores Settled, an actual, IRL boxing event that will continue the online-personality-to-competitive-fighter pipeline popularised by KSI and Jake Paul, but with a TikTok twist. Floor tickets are sold out, remaining seats start at £40, and pay-per-views on YouTube are expected to make the participants a hefty profit.
And yet, if you don’t have TikTok, this whole thing has probably passed you by entirely. Even if you do, there’s a chance you’ve missed out simply because of what you click on and the recommendations the app offers you next.
Where, how and why all of this started is like asking how EastEnders began – it’s probably the wrong question. But everyone has their own theory, and most point to an unlikely source: everyone’s favourite TikTok goalie, Cal the Dragon, who was profiled in THE FACE last summer.
Nottinghamshire-based footballer and long-time TikToker (with 1.6 million followers), his content mostly consists of picking fantasy five-a-side teams, ranking footballers and playing out imaginary football matches by himself in his gran’s back garden.
Cal is a key figure in the origin myth of this BritTok beef – he’s also the most established creator in the drama – yet for the most part, he’s managed to stay out of the later battles by focusing on his niche football content and collaborations. All of this could quite easily have stayed with Cal, content with saving free kicks from Walsall midfielders legends and merrily leathering the ball into the back of his garden net. But it didn’t, so strap in.
One day in January last year, Keeley Colbran, AKA @keeley.dancex, a regular collaborator of Cal’s, invited her dad to appear in one of her videos. Trying his best to keep up in a TikTok dance, it jumped to a million views, at a time when Keeley’s videos maxed out at 20,000. She encouraged him to make his own account, and Simple Simon was born.
Later, Simon jumped on a TikTok Live with Keeley and Cal. Then Cal and Simon bonded over their mutual love of football.
“Then I saw all the hate he was getting,” says Simon, referring to the fact that Cal’s autism means he’s frequently picked on for his “eccentric” content by members of the online football community under a cloak of “banter”. “And I was thinking: ‘This is terrible.” A football coach and a father of five, Colbran jumped in to defend Cal from the relentless trolls.
This is a version of events that the aforementioned Matthews would dispute. At that stage, Simon notes he was at “about 30k, 40k followers”, and looked set on growing his following to the level of other content creators. Matthews criticised Simon for clout-chasing, accusing him of jumping on Cal’s content to further his own career – although Simon insists that Cal “didn’t even realise half the time what I was doing for him behind the scenes” [we approached Matthews’ management for comment to no response].
Then, after unsuccessfully challenging US TikToker, former Sway House member and occasional boxer Bryce Hall (who is very much on a higher level of fandom at 21.7 million followers) on a Live to a boxing match (“I don’t know who you are,” Hall retorted, in a very Mariah move), Matthews challenged Colbran to a fight.
“I tried to talk to him and say: ‘Look, let’s try to get away without having to fight each other.’ He was having none of it,” Colbran claims. “Then he put up a photo of Keeley in a bikini in front of thousands of people. And I just said: ‘Let’s do it. Let’s have it.’”
The Indigo bout had lift-off. And, in classic TikTok style, its followers rapidly proliferated. Appearing on the night alongside the Ed Matthews and Simple Simon fight will be a frequently-changing undercard of seemingly random combinations of less-than-amateur TikTokers-turned-boxers. Like the characters you encounter in a video game side quest, each fighter comes with their own catchphrase or bizarre USP, and with an increasingly tenuous link to the original story.
Chef Dave (“Fookin yes guys”, “drinkypoos”) fights Aaron Hunt (“Oooofs”). Dave The Other Guy (the other guy in Aaron Hunt’s videos) fights Paddy Murphy (Irish Koppite). Ginty (“you silly boy”) and Luke Bennett (a TikToker known for “finding Kanté in his fridge”) are both due to make an appearance too. OnlyFans models Elle Brooke and Astrid Wett – who’s involvement in the saga goes way back, after being accused by Matthews of the same crime as Colbran: clout chasing, again with Cal the Dragon – recently pulled out. Few, if any, of these TikTokers, have ever previously entered a boxing ring.
Confused? No wonder. But it gets even more complicated when you add in the possibility that it’s all a fabrication.
“One day, Simon rang me and said: ‘We’re thinking about doing a bit of a TikTok boxing match, do you fancy it?’” recalls undercard Chef Dave. He described all the main characters – including the person he’s fighting at Indigo, Aaron Hunt – as his good mates and admits that most of the beef is exaggerated for effect, that some of it is artificial. Colbran takes a similar stance.
“We’re doing it for a bit of entertainment. Sometimes it’s not, but the majority of time, it’s just a bit of banter. We’re having a laugh.”
Colbran, 52, and Chef Dave, 30, represent the two most intriguing characters on the card. Scrolling through their content – collaborating with porn models, getting hammered with students, appearances in high street clubs up and down the land – there’s more than a hint of tragicomedy. Yet, both men gave up successful careers to pursue TikTok full-time. And for both conversations seem like a chance to finally get a few things off their chest.
Chef Dave’s content on the platform is certainly distinctive. Hard-man grimace, spiky hair, permanently polo-shirted, beer in hand, #badgein. It’s an image so well constructed that it seems almost too good to be true.
“My current thing is wearing Stoneys and getting the badge in,” he tells me over the phone. “I should be getting sponsorship because I’m always wearing them.” But, much like Colbran, Chef Dave is a man of multitudes.
Until lockdown, Dave Marshall was the head Chef of Porterhouse by Barlows, a steakhouse in the market town of Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire. And his Facebook feed details a rather different side to the TikTok party animal persona. Alongside the awards he’s won for his cooking, it shows Marshall as a pillar of community, raising thousands of pounds to buy toys for kids around Ashfield at Christmastime, then delivering them with help from the local emergency services. During the pandemic, he became extremely involved at his local food bank.
“Long story short, just before lockdown, my missus of 10 years cheated on me. I was dead fucking depressed, to the point where I was suicidal. Then lockdown happened and I went from doing 60 hours a week to spending all day locked in the house. And that was when I decided, I’m just gonna try and help out. So I started helping out at food banks, and it pretty much saved my life, to be honest.”
The Facebook livestreams of his cooking lessons on a budget even caught the attention of Marshall’s local MP Lee Anderson, who praised Dave’s work in Parliament as part of his controversial contribution to the food poverty debate back in May.
Colbran, who currently lives in Tunbridge Wells, also had a successful career before making the pivot to full-time TikTok – the hotel and spa complex he ran for eight years even made it into a 2013 episode of Channel 4 B&B show Four in a Bed. But before moving into the hospitality business, his passion was for football. In his youth, Colbran tells me he had trials for Brighton and Crystal Palace, and even spent a season with TuS Celle FC, a club currently in the sixth tier of German football.
The day before he was due to accept a two-year apprenticeship with Brighton, he contracted glandular fever. “The doctor said I was literally two or three days away from dying,” he says. After his playing career was cut short, he became a journeyman manager, touring the likes of Chipstead, Redhill, Worthing and Horsham, Eastbourne Borough and Eastbourne United in his time.
It’s fascinating how different platforms can offer a portal into a life pre-fame. On TikTok, he’s Simple Simon, dancing outside of Poundland, the Eastbourne Allardyce, hanging out with OnlyFans models and training for a boxing match with a man 30 years his junior. But on Twitter, he’s Simon Colbran, director of Tunbridge Wells Retreat Hotel, Royale Retreat Spa (both now closed) and Chairman of Crowborough Athletic, posing with his kids in his profile picture. That account was last active in 2018, however, and he’s since sold the business.
“My work was 24/7, it was quite crazy, quite stressful. So after eight years, after I’d built it up, I managed to sell it and tried to retire, enjoy my life and relax.” It’s clear that didn’t quite go to plan.
He was with Southern Combination’s Langney Wanderers when lockdown happened.
“I was really bored. And, well, I was managing a football team, so football was my life. But in the lockdown that [team] went bust, so I didn’t have a manager’s job. And I was bored, really bored, so I thought, let’s start doing TikTok. I didn’t realise how big it was gonna get.”
His mercurial rise hasn’t been without its struggles. Colbran is 52 and single, and puts his recent lack of success in the dating market down to his newfound TikTok stardom.
“It’s a difficult one. People either want to be with you because they’re after clout, or they don’t want to be with you because they can’t deal with what’s happening. You go to a restaurant, and are having something to eat, and people just come up to your table. It’s difficult to find somebody for the right reasons.”
Right on cue, Colbran interrupts our phone call for a photo with a fan; he’s out on his daily coffee run in Tunbridge Wells, where he now lives. It sounds like a pleasant interaction, but others have been less friendly.
“One lad walked past me, about 18 or 19, and went: ‘You paedo!’ I stopped and went: ‘Excuse me mate? Why did you just call me that?’ ‘Well, I don’t know, that’s what you get called, innit?’ he replied.” Colbran then spends a not insubstantial amount of time convincing me that he’s nothing like the numerous hateful comments he gets online.
What do his family, aside from Keeley, make of it all?
“I always talk to them before I do anything, or if anything happens, I’ll ask their opinion on things. I keep them involved, but I don’t want them to get fully involved.”
There’s more than a hint of sadness to the way Colbran describes his life. “People laugh when I say I ain’t got much of my life left. But at 52, you’d expect to be settled with somebody, enjoying your life, going on holidays and stuff like that. It’s one of the hardest parts of it all, to be truthful.”
“People think, ‘Oh my God, your life must be lively and happy’, and all that. But it’s a lonely place. Sometimes it’s a really really lonely place. I have my little girl round three nights a week [Colbran has five children ranging from seven to thirty-two, and three grandchildren] which is fantastic, but it’s not that adult companionship. All you’re doing is collabs, you’re doing promos, you’re doing videos and stuff like that. And that’s quite a lonely place, believe it or not.”
“Chef” Dave Marshall is slightly younger, more energetic, and has used his TikTok presence to make his life “constantly surreal”. We speak a few days after he was invited to create content for the annual Soccer Aid match, at which he interviewed Petr Cech and Robbie Keane, and rubbed shoulders with Robbie Williams and David Beckham. Like so many characters in the BritTok story, it all relates back to football. A Notts County fan, he calls his fans the “Chef Dave firm”.
Marshall has never really been properly in with a firm himself (though he once got his jaw broken by a Mansfield fan). But there is a bit of rose-tinted nostalgia in how he describes his upcoming fight with Hunt.
“It’s gonna be [like] a pub car park fight. We’re gonna get in the ring, kick the fuck out of each other, then have a few beers. Ours is the people’s fight,” he says, with all apparent sincerity.
The world of BritTok feuds – where middle-aged men ask each other out to defend a daughter’s honour – is an utterly bizarre place. And that’s regardless of whether you’re an outsider peering in for the first time, or a totally immersed fan keeping up with every gossipy twist.
The word that crops up time and again in conversations is “surreal” – an apt descriptor for the creators’ crazy pivots, the gigs they end up doing and the content they end up posting. A casual Monday afternoon flick through recent updates sees Chef Dave “Cheering Up a Fit Milf” (where he interrupts a crypto seller’s Live to send over some money with a message saying “Get yourself a bottle of champagne on me”), Paddy Murphy reacting to the latest Liverpool transfer news over a hyped-up remix of Stereo Love and Aaron Hunt showing off a 10/10 Tesco meal deal (a Chicken Tikka Wrap, Squares and a Monster, in case you were wondering).
But UK audiences are doggedly lapping up this content – Simple Simon and Ed Matthews have together racked up a whopping 36 million views in the last month alone. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a crowd that went wild for Cal the Dragon’s lo fi-football videos, Francis Bourgeois’ enthusiastic trainspotting and even Binley Mega Chippy’s everyday charm are enthralled by this cast of peculiar characters.
It’s that embrace of the wacky that FACE contributor Chris Stokel-Walker, author of TikTok Boom, a behind-the-scenes book on the Chinese-owned app that interviews hundreds of creators, identifies as the feature that sets this scene apart from its American counterparts.
“British TikTok is a lot more eccentric in that it embraces the absurd a lot,” he says. “TikTok often presents itself as a less polished, more authentic platform, which it is. But I think there’s a rough and readiness in British TikTok that you don’t always get in American TikTok, and it’s often done with an arched eyebrow.” And, as American influencer Mallory Bartow experienced when she “discovered Wetherspoons”, there’s still a sanctification of the ordinary that makes British-based digital humour unexplainable when stumbled upon by outsiders.
Still, introducing a boxing element – complete with cash-grabbing pay-per-view dynamic – does bring the cross-Atlantic digital communities closer together, despite the phenomenon of YouTube boxing actually being British in origin. The activity began with boxing fan and aggregator of strange internet behaviour Joe Weller and his mate Malfoy sparring in 2017, continued with KSI and his grandiose pivot from Fifa to boxing to music and peaked (so far) with Jake Paul placing second on the 2022 Forbes Rich List list of online entertainers.
Scores Settled seems like a natural, cross-platform continuation of all these trends. And, as Stokel-Walker says, boxing has established itself as the perfect vehicle for this community. To BritTok’s more ardent – or, even, deluded – exponents, pivoting from a three-minute video to a three-minute round in the ring is the most natural thing in the world.
“Boxing echoes a lot of the lifestyle that creators represent: there are elements of bling and showing off, as well as the argumentative nature involved. It’s also useful in that the build-up has lots of made-for-video moments, like a press conference that inevitably devolves into a slanging match and plenty of prep work and training that can be turned into content, too.”
For TikTok fighters who have never boxed before, and who are unlikely to produce a quality spectacle, the build-up is where the real value really lies. That’s where the brand partnerships are earned and where the advertising revenue is secured.
“It’s not just about going into the ring for 10 minutes, it’s the three months of training you’ve got to put into it,” says Colbran. “It’s three months of work really, isn’t it?”
So, in fact, rather than a soap opera, the ongoing drama could perhaps more accurately be likened to pro-wrestling, with its scripted fights, long-running drama and fanatical fanbase – plus the need to buy into artifice to really get the good stuff out of it.
All that said: unlike the wide appeal of both WWE and the massively popular YouTube boxing matches, TikTok’s uncanny ability to home in on a singular demographic – time-rich, middle-aged dads, say, or students – might prove this particular feud’s commercial undoing.
“Because of the way TikTok prioritises content over individuals, you often struggle to get buy-in from audiences slavishly following an individual creator,” says Stokel-Walker. “Which is perhaps one reason why the [Scores Settled] event hasn’t had the same kind of cut-through that YouTuber boxing matches had, besides the gap in follower numbers. It’s just more difficult to pick up, know where you are and why this is happening, when content is served piecemeal through the FYP,” he says, referring to the “For You” page, the individual landing page for users that TikTok thinks you’ll enjoy [TikTok UK declined to comment for this feature].
Nonetheless, there is an upside to this, insists Marshall. “Older people don’t know who I am, which is mint. And young kids don’t know who I am, which is quality – you don’t get mobbed. So it’s literally just 16 to 24; students, essentially. And they’re dead nice, they just want to party with you.”
Indeed, TikTok has become the most direct route to that 16-to-24 age group, something the nose-to-the-ground promoters of club chains have already picked up on.
“For the club appearances I’ve been doing, they want TikTok people more than Love Island people. They’re more relatable,” says Marshall. And sure enough, Chef Dave’s summer involves club appearances from Exeter to Edinburgh, Brighton to Basildon, long before the cast of Love Island ’22 departs the villa. Davide works hard, but Dave works harder.
It’s TikTokers’ capacity to be constantly, rather than seasonally, relevant that suggests there may be a community-driven future past this month’s fight night in London. As we spoke, Marshall floated the idea of the group forming a TikTok house, a format popularised by Beverley Hills’ Clubhouse and LA’s Hype House, where creators live with one another to maximise their reach.
With all the cast in one place, who knows how this TikTok battle might unfold. Whatever happens though, this digital drama will continue to enthral an ever-increasing section of the population – long after the knockout blow has landed.
Simple Simon and Ed Matthews fight at London’s Indigo at the O2, this Saturday 16th July.