Has professional boxing sold its soul forever?

Has professional boxing sold its soul forever?
Logan Paul works out for the media in Hollywood last month. Paul and Olajide Olatunji clashed before a sell-out crowd in August of last year and the pair will renew their rivalry before another capacity attendance in Los Angeles this weekend. Picture: Leon Bennett/Getty Images.

By early next Sunday morning, Logan Paul and Olajide Olatunji will be two exceptionally rich men.

Back in August 2018, Paul fought Olatunji (known as KSI) in a boxing match before a sellout crowd of 21,000 people in the Manchester Arena — the fight ended in a draw.

That first fight was viewed legally by about 800,000 who paid $10 each to watch on YouTube’s pay-per-view platform — so the men did well out of it, despite the fact that at least more than a million people illegally streamed the fight for free.

The rematch will take place at the Los Angeles Staples Centre this weekend. It, too, is a sellout.

But the second fight is a whole different order of things when it comes to making money — it is being promoted by Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Boxing and it is to be broadcast live on Sky Sports Box Office and DAZN (a sports streaming service).

To give an idea of how big this fight is, more than 18.5 million people tuned in to watch their first two pre-fight press conferences live on the internet.

Indeed, some 3,000 people attended the London press conference and cheered uproariously when KSI made his entrance.

And when Paul made his appearance, by contrast, he was booed and heckled.

The two men traded insults and attempted to make sure that everyone knew they hated each other.

On the surface, there is nothing unusual in any of this. Men getting rich from fighting each other has happened for centuries; men using the media to taunt each other and to drive up sales before fights is a newer phenomenon but it is still decades old.

But there is something entirely new about this fight. There’s no easy way to put this but neither man is able to box. At all.

If you doubt that, go onto YouTube and look up the footage of the first fight. The two men are game, but display no evidence of skill.

The thing is: Both men know that — they have freely admitted that they can’t box.

For example, as Logan Paul said in a recent interview: “I never boxed before last year.”

For his part, KSI tried to make a virtue out of his ignorance of boxing: “I’m always pushing the boundaries. That’s just how I am. But I never thought I would be a pro-boxer at all.”

It speakers volumes that much has been made of the fact the two men have had the last few months to train and to learn how to box. So, if they’re not boxers, what are they?

KSI is a British gamer, rapper, and YouTube celebrity. He is 26 and has 20.4 million subscribers who follow him on YouTube.

Paul is an American YouTube celebrity, who earned notoreity when he uploaded a video of a dead body from Japan’s so-called ‘suicide forest’.

He is 24 and has 19.9 million subscribers who follow him on YouTube.

The idea of YouTubers fighting each other gained a certain momentum in early 2018 when KSI fought against Joe Weller (another British YouTube celebrity) in London.

Some 1.5 million people watched the fight on the internet and it became clear in that moment that there was a way to make money through boxing in which celebrity trumped talent.

It would be easy enough to just shrug and get on with ignoring this and just wish the two of them safe passage and happy spending were it not for the epic scale of the rubbish that is being spoken about the fight.

The crux of the matter is the involvement of Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Boxing (promoters of Katie Taylor and Anthony Joshua). These are people who sit right at the heart of boxing and whose involvement suggests a serious sporting event.

More than that, the promoters have put together an undercard of actual boxers that includes the undefeated British WBO super-middleweight world champion, Billy Joe Saunders, and the American WBC lightweight champion Devin Haney. So two world champions are to be followed by two YouTubers.

Eddie Hearn presented his own involvement as a sort of evangelism. He said:

The YouTube world is a remarkable way of people digesting content and it fascinates me. There will be a huge, new audience worldwide and it’s our job to make sure they take an interest in boxing — then they buy tickets and watch other fighters.

He was supported in this by the BBC boxing pundit, Steve Bunce: “If 10% of their followers watch the fight, that’s four million new sets of eyes on the sport. Even if we took just 1%, that’s still an enormous number.”

The former WBO cruiserweight champion Johnny Nelson joined the choir of nonsense. He hosted a public event involving the boxers before their first fight and now says: “It’s a way of introducing our world to this new world.

And if it inspires 1% or 10% of the fans who have come from watching KSI or Logan, then our sport wins. And that’s why Hearn has now got involved because at the time of the first fight, I’m sure he scoffed at the idea but then he thought ‘Jesus, we’re missing a trick here.’ I think we all did. We’re being introduced to a new world and it’s intriguing.”

This is world-class silage.

Hearn and Matchroom and the pundits and the broadcasters are here because they see a chance to make a lot of money.

That’s fine — but pretending otherwise is insulting. To dress it up as something that is being done for the benefit of their sport is to attempt to play boxing fans for fools.

Might their escapade not just as easily further corrode respect for the world of professional boxing?

After all, the alphabet soup of current world sanctioning bodies extends across the IBF, WBA, WBO, WBC, IBO, and WBU organisations.

Does the involvement of figures central to boxing mean that they are also giving de facto recognition to the new YouTube Boxing Championship title? Either way, the organisation of professional boxing at global level is a singular mess and this latest foray does nothing for the sport’s credibility.

Allowing for all that, the online interest in the fight, the scale of the money being earned and the sanction of professional boxing is a logical step for YouTube stars. The internet has created platforms that hold the potential for anybody in anyplace who is online to become famous.

And it is fame that is the crucial step to using the internet to make you rich. But the competition for fame on the internet is relentlessly cutthroat — it demands finding ever-new ways to attract attention and to keep it.

It invariably involves public spectacle.

Two men fighting (second only, perhaps, to sex) is a sure-fire way to get people to pay attention.

And the lesson of the internet is that once you have someone’s attention, you can sell them something, including something of yourself. If you doubt that, have a look at the scale of the interest over the last few months in a fight between two men who are already millionaires.

The interest is gathering by day and it is driving up per-pay-view sales in a way that suggests the men will be able to count their wealth by the tens of millions of dollars.

Even after the cut is taken by the promoters, broadcasters and assorted hangers-on that both boxing and celebrity manage to attract in industrial numbers.

There is another bottom line, however. Logan Paul and KSI have got themselves fit and strong through training.

They do not know what they are doing but they are strong enough to do it. When you mix in the noxious words and gestures exchanged between them, there is a danger that this might end in tragedy.

Such a danger exists whenever anyone throws a punch in anger.

Draping this fight in the paraphernalia of professional boxing creates an illusion that can quickly shatter. You’d have to hope that the two fighters know enough to remember the point of what they are doing and take the money as easily as they can.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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