Backstage at London’s Troxy, KSI has just punched a YouTuber so hard that they’ve flown through the door. In KSI’s defence, they were wearing a headguard and insisted that he do it – it’s content for their channel, after all. It’s not what you typically find in a fighter’s dressing room pre-press conference, but KSI isn’t your typical fighter.
Nothing about this fight is typical. KSI is facing fellow YouTuber Logan Paul in Los Angeles on 9th November. Despite being fighting novices, both are set for a multimillion-dollar payday, topping a pay-per-view event which includes seasoned boxers and undefeated world champion Billy Joe Saunders on its undercard. From bite night to fan man, boxing has witnessed a lot in its rich (and often controversial) history. But it’s never seen two celebrities turn pro and duke it out on a major boxing bill before.
Although it’s a six-round bout – a max 18 minutes of action – its impact between and beyond the ropes may last for much longer. “This fight is definitely changing boxing,” KSI tells The Face, gloves off. “And for the better – it’s attracting a completely new audience. People who previously didn’t care about boxing, or didn’t even know about it, are now interested and inspired.”
Many of them are outside, queuing around the block. Hours before KSI and Paul are set to take the stage, they’re in their thousands. One glance reveals that this isn’t your typical boxing crowd – many of them are in school uniform. The only ones who look over 21? A few stony-faced parents.
In other words, it’s a YouTube crowd here today. KSI (real name Olajide Olatunji, though everyone calls him ‘JJ’) and Paul boast a combined subscribership of 55 million on their various channels – almost equal to the population of England. They’ve clocked billions of views between them and are two of the biggest influencers on the planet. They’ve long conquered teens. Now, they’re going after the mums and dads of the sporting mainstream.
“I’m always pushing the boundaries and seeing how far I can go,” says 26-year-old KSI, who started off uploading FIFA videos from his Watford bedroom and has gone on to be an actor, rapper, published author and, now, professional boxer. “This has never been done before. I’m the first YouTuber alongside Logan Paul to headline a pro boxing show. That’s nuts.”
Once the fans are let in, the din can be heard deep inside the Troxy; the echoes tumble down its narrow corridors. There is also security everywhere. One guard says their numbers today are more than treble that of the crowd for Anthony Joshua’s last UK fight. It follows knife and acid threats made against Paul on Snapchat.
Paul, 24, is sitting with his entourage in his dressing room. Wearing figure-hugging all black and sporting a tiny moustache, he looks like a muscle-bound cat burglar. Like KSI, he’s a far calmer, more measured presence when not in front of a camera. However, when I show him a picture of the queue outside, he excitedly sends one of his team to film fans still making their way in: “Get people screaming. Ask them, ‘Who do you think is going to win? Who are you rooting for?’”
It turns out that for a content creator, boxing makes for, well, great content. “This is so much fun for me,” Paul says. “It’s everything I love doing in my life: sport, hard work, athleticism, competition – and I love creating content. Everything I love to do is wrapped up in this idea of two YouTubers boxing. I’m obsessed with it.”
When the two fighters finally face-off, to the strains of lad anthem Seven Nation Army, the energy is more cathartic than electric. There’s a lot of love for KSI – and a whole lot of hate for Paul. Hosted by YouTuber True Geordie, the press conference descends into a slanging match; each side see-saws between put-downs as chants of “suck your mum” and “fuck Logan Paul” rain down from the 3,000-plus who are crammed inside.
The most memorable moment over the half-hour is when KSI brings a white Pomeranian on stage – Paul’s died earlier in the year. There’s more posing and posturing. Missiles – some look like textbooks and pens – are thrown at Paul. Back in the dressing room he’d explained how he didn’t want to “be the bully this time…Last year, I was a confident kid who was pretending to be a boxer. Now, I think my skill set is going to speak for itself. I’m here to have fun today bro.” And yet, he seems to thrive in the heel role. The stage pit is teeming with YouTube glitterati, including KSI’s Sidemen crew. AnEsonGib is ushered on stage and challenges the younger Paul brother, Jake, to a fight. Trash talk aside, this is far from standard boxing fare.
For brothers Daniel and Srabon, the three-hour queue was all worth it. They tell me how they rushed to East London from Kent, straight after school, like it was their duty. But that’s nothing: they met one girl who travelled from Manchester. “I managed to get a ticket during school,” explains 16-year-old Daniel, who first discovered KSI through FIFA. “Nothing can stop JJ. He’s at his peak.”
YouTubers aren’t mere teen celebrities. They boast cults of personality. When you’re trying to attract new fans to a sport like boxing, that’s a huge plus. “The most successful YouTubers are high-energy and charismatic,” explains Sara McCorquodale, author of Influence and founder of influencer intelligence platform Corq. “They encourage direct contact, replicate their favourite videos, and deliver what their audience wants. There’s no barrier between influencer and subscriber.”
There’s also the conflict between KSI and Paul itself. McCorquodale says they represent two very different YouTube eras – it’s at the heart of this fight. “KSI was in the first wave of content creators, which was experimental and built the community. Paul arrived during a new era of YouTube: high-adrenaline, shock-value content. So, when they tear strips off another, they’re actually criticising each other’s era of YouTube.”
Hollywood-based Paul, a former Vine star, made the headlines at the turn of 2018 for uploading a video of a suicide victim in Japan. He was widely condemned and, judging from his reception at the press conference, the spite remains. “Whereas KSI is seen as a grafter and real in his content, Paul is more Donald Trump America,” McCorquodale reasons. “He sometimes says and does things with a sense of arrogance and ignorance.”
Although it’s their first professional fight, KSI and Paul have shared a ring before. Last August, they donned head guards and 16-ounce gloves and sold out the Manchester Arena. Live-streamed on YouTube for £7.50-a-pop, it became the biggest white collar fight in history, generating upwards of £2.5m in gate receipts and 773,000 pay-per-view buys. Months later, Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder – for the heavyweight championship of the world, no less – drew less buys.
The fight was scored a draw. It’s been viewed nearly 20 million times. Each fighter took home a seven-figure sum – at least – for 18 minutes of action. It was largely dismissed by hardened boxing fans as a novelty fight. But the seismic numbers drew the attention of Matchroom and Joshua promoter Eddie Hearn, who previously claimed the fight “made his skin crawl”.
One year on, Hearn is promoting the rematch. “Twenty-thousand tickets sold and 1.3 million pay-per-view buys later, I was interested,” he told Sky Sports. “Over a million people will be watching this press conference live – people who’ve never experienced boxing before. Those are the ones we’ve got to steal and try to make fall in love with the sport.”
Both fighters turned pro at Hearn’s request. They had to pass medicals and scans to gain a boxing licence; head guards and “pillow” gloves have been ditched. In the ring, KSI and Paul will wear ten-ounce gloves – encouraging harder blows. They’ll go in as cruiserweights – one rung below heavy. Hearn says they’re entering the “danger zone” of professional boxing.
It’s a dark, unforgiving place that the undercard fighters – world champions Devin Haney and Britain’s own Billy Joe Saunders – have entered dozens of times before. It’s arguably those names which makes it a genuine boxing event. But it’s still not without detractors. “It shows how far boxing has fallen,” argues noted fight writer Thomas Hauser. “No one would make a one-on-one basketball game between these two guys the centrepiece for the telecast of an NBA game.”
Celebrities lacing up the gloves is nothing new. Freddie Flintoff and Rio Ferdinand have both had a go, with mixed results; while Justin Trudeau has beaten a political opponent in the ring. And it was only two years ago that boxing had a novelty mega-fight: Conor McGregor’s knockout defeat to Floyd Mayweather.
It shows no sign of abating. In fact, Robbie Williams, inspired by KSI v Paul, has recently challenged Liam Gallagher to a scrap. McCorquodale is confident of copycat events. “It’s a watershed moment for sport and boxing. The proposition of two YouTubers fighting on pay-per-view would’ve been ridiculous not long ago. Alongside gaming, sport is where we could see more massive influencer events.”
If boxing is the sweet science, Mayweather is a fighting Einstein. Yet, many of his greatest wins have been decried as “boring”. With two YouTubers now a crossover event in 2019, where does that leave the sport? “It’s obviously not going to be as skillful from a purist’s perspective,” says two-time world champion James DeGale. “But it’s still two, young fit men – who have beef – going at it.” DeGale, Saunders’ 2008 Olympic teammate, adds that he’d have also fought on the undercard. “It’s a big crowd, that means new fans.”
Those new fans are what Hearn, one of boxing’s biggest powerbrokers, is craving. And he might be onto a winner. Due to the time difference, the fight won’t be on until the early hours of Sunday morning. But Daniel and Srabon, along with millions of others, will be setting their alarms to watch it. “This is bigger for boxing than for YouTube,” says Daniel. “Go on anyone’s phone and they have YouTube. Ask someone who Andy Ruiz is, they won’t know. Ask them who KSI and Logan Paul are, they go mental.”
Boxing is about to enter a new age. And the rest of the sporting world may well follow in its footsteps.