It’s a scorching mid-September day in downtown Los Angeles, and two outrageously dressed dudes are on a stage outside Staples Center, positioned centimeters from each other’s faces and soaking up the attention of a small crowd. One is dressed like a Miami Vice extra in a tropical silk shirt and tight white pants. The other is sporting the kind of baby pink sweatsuit that the paparazzi might’ve caught Paris Hilton in circa 2004. They’re both silly sweaty. Teen boys are shouting—“Beat his ass!”—and a scrum of vloggers wearing camera equipment like jewelry have their lenses fixed on the moment. When regular people have beef, they avoid contact with the other person and complain to their friends. When fighters want to work something out, they secure a major network to televise their showdown, schedule a press tour, dress to the nines, and pull up to their opponent so close that they can smell their breath.
But these guys are not fighters, per se—they’re YouTubers, or at least they’re YouTubers turned fighters, part of a three-month money grab further blurring the line between skill and fame. A little more than a year ago, Logan Paul, a prolific content creator perhaps best known for filming a corpse, stepped into a boxing ring with KSI, an English Nigerian gaming vlogger-slash-rapper who often goes by the nickname JJ. They and their slightly less famous younger brothers, Jake and Deji, boxed in an amateur match—head guards included, 12-ounce gloves, six three-minute rounds—at an event announced by iconic ring announcer Michael Buffer at the Manchester Arena in England. For many purists, the premise of the bout was reminiscent of the early aughts Celebrity Boxing show, which matched D-listers to attract as many rubberneckers as possible. “Shouldn’t be happening,” wrote one fight fan on Twitter. “Making a mockery of the ultimate sport.” “If I tell you Paul’s a decent fighter, I hope your first thought is Spadafora, Pender, Hodkinson, Smith even Malignaggi or Bernard,” Sky Sports boxing presenter Ed Robinson added. The retired English middleweight boxer Paul Smith dismissed the event completely. “It’s not boxing,” he tweeted, adding a bemused crying-while-laughing emoji. “When that was announced, any sort of ‘real’ fight fan—you’re going to laugh at that,” Brian Campbell, a CBS Sports boxing writer and analyst for Showtime, told me. But that was before people saw them fight. “This wasn’t a barroom brawl. This wasn’t Screech and Vanilla Ice throwing haymakers. This was sort of a real fight.”
It was also before the dealmakers who run the boxing world heard about the size of the crowds. More than 800,000 people reportedly paid $10 each to watch the event on YouTube, on top of the estimated 20,000 fans who paid between $39 and $192 per ticket to be there in person. Though (or possibly because) the fight’s streaming price was just a fraction of a typical $80 to $100 pay-per-view headliner, it drew more buys than most boxing events that year—almost as much as the highly anticipated Canelo Álvarez–Gennady Golovkin rematch that aired on pay-per-view a month later, in September 2018. After the bout, the brash U.K. boxing magnate Eddie Hearn told the Sun that the event made his “skin crawl,” and opined that neither Logan Paul nor KSI could ever be a professional boxer. “But as a business model and a commercial project I take my hat off to them,” he said. “And yeah of course I want to know the numbers.”
Apparently he saw them, because today Hearn is looming directly behind Paul and KSI as they posture for the press. He pushes them apart after a few minutes, and the headliners retreat to their respective camps on opposite sides of the stage. To the left, KSI’s entourage is muted in black-and-white basics. To the right, Logan’s younger brother, Jake, puffs on a giant cigar in skinny jeans painted with skulls. Logan’s trainer, two-time heavyweight champion Shannon “The Cannon” Briggs, is rubbing his hands, repeating his highly original catchphrase “Let’s go, champ” as often as he blinks. (This directive is also printed in a pattern on his T-shirt.) Hearn, a stout man with a perpetual five o’clock shadow, introduces himself, thanks the crowd for coming, and ticks off the details of the fight: November 9, at Staples Center, “a big, big moment for professional boxing.” He plugs DAZN, the $19.99-a-month sports streaming service that will air the event. (The service is hosting the press conference online, and has already plugged its entire season of boxing, which the company’s executive chairman, John Skipper, has proclaimed “the greatest of all time.” Highlights include a bout between Álvarez and Sergey Kovalev, and a rematch between heavyweights Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.)
After just one amateur fight, Paul and KSI have graduated into professional boxing, and are set to fight a six-round match at the cruiserweight level without any headgear. Though Hearn does not mention this, the YouTubers will be preceded by six other professional fights between men who could pummel them into a pulp. Despite all the teeth-grinding by boxing fans about the headliners, the utter press-generating abilities of two extremely popular internet villains has set this match up to be the most widely publicized boxing event since former UFC champion Conor McGregor crossed over into boxing to fight Floyd Mayweather in 2017. Boxers like Devin Haney and Billy Joe Saunders appear eager to profit from the exposure, even if that means being on the undercard for a match between content creators.
“First time around, I tried not to like this,” Hearn tells the assembled crowd—one part media, three parts kids at varying stages of puberty—with performative disapproval. The speech sounds memorized, an Ed McMahon–style appearance with about 30 percent of the dramatics. “I tried not to be involved, I gotta say, having seen two guys today, these boys are ready. I saw a sold-out arena, I saw 1.3 million pay-per-view buyers, and I saw a great fight. But this time, I said, a few changes: no head guards, 10-ounce gloves, a real fight.” More cheers. “And I promise you, this time, someone is getting knocked out.” The pit of teenage boys screams out in delight.
The subsequent 30 minutes of the press conference devolves into amateur trash-talking for the sake of spectacle, a lazy sample of the mesmerizing feel-bad Mayweather-McGregor press tour of 2017. There are sexual innuendos about Logan’s mother, jokes about the nonexistence of KSI’s manhood, reminders of estranged family members, and comparisons of online clout. At one point, KSI reenacts the death of Paul’s Pomeranian, Kong, who was eaten by a coyote this past spring. (“You just ruined my day,” Paul responds. “That was fucked up, bro. That was my dog, bro.”) This insult-fest is streamed live on the DAZN app and to its 427,000 subscribers on YouTube. More crucially, it plays on Paul’s and KSI’s individual YouTube channels, where the two of them have a combined 40.4 million subscribers. In October, they will do it all again—the livestreaming, the shit-talking, the unmitigated display of toxic masculinity—in the U.K.
Among the audience members I speak with is a high-schooler named Chaz Stein who’d driven up with his friends from Huntington Beach to “mess around.” They were rooting for Paul. “I don’t look up to Logan Paul as a person, but I look up to his work ethic,” he said. “His social media work ethic is insane.” Stein runs his own YouTube channel, Chazicus Wrestling, where he stages WWE-style fights on his backyard trampoline. He showed me a series of Snapchat stories of him and his friend duking it out sans headgear in a garage. It ended with Chaz being thrown into a bike rack. “We should be the opening match,” he said proudly.
The crowd is filled with versions of Stein, kids who couldn’t help but pay their respects to two guys who were living the dream of internet fame. YouTube’s industrial complex is now mature enough that young people regularly wait around in the sun for a chance to see someone who most people over 30 have never heard of. But the presence of a major boxing promoter and a streaming service signals that Paul’s and KSI’s ability to draw crowds is valuable to aging athletic pursuits. Organized sports have a long history of leaning on ridiculous stunts and celebrity appearances for one-off publicity boosters, but it’s rare they put their full promotional power and broadcasting abilities behind two amateurs for the sake of exposure. And it’s even rarer that those amateurs are advertised above actual pros. The boxing world has very shrewdly identified its overlapping commonalities with the YouTube community—the thirst for juicy feuds, the effectiveness of collaborative shit-talking, a basic appetite for extreme physical stunts—and gone all in.
“There’s opportunism going on here,” Gareth Davies, a U.K. boxing journalist, told me. “Boxing has always been about opportunism. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win any titles, but if you can put bums on seats, if you can put pay-per-views on the internet, then you are a star, it’s as simple as that.”
No matter how hard Logan Paul and KSI train or fight, boxing’s rather sudden embrace of two nonprofessional internet celebrities suggests the match is more marketing ploy than athletic event. You could call it duration influencing: In exchange for a portion of revenue generated by the ticket sales and pay-per-view purchases, Logan Paul and KSI have turned over their online platforms, schedules, and identities to promote this event for three months. (A representative for DAZN declined to share the financial details of its agreement with Hearn, Paul, and KSI.) It used to be that boxers were big enough celebrities themselves to drum up sufficient publicity for a match, but now that role is being outsourced to internet-famous amateurs. DAZN and Hearn have found willing cardboard cutouts to spread awareness for a sport that has long been ignored by the general public.
The relative health of boxing has been discussed ad nauseam, so much so that the earliest record of someone proclaiming it dead is from 1899. But the aughts were a particularly rough decade for the sport. In the battle between streaming services and cable, boxing fell on the losing side, locked up behind premium TV packages and expensive pay-per-view events, so that the best matches were often prohibitively expensive to watch. Because of this shift in business model, it has become harder to groom new boxing talent that can draw major audiences; meanwhile, professional wrestling and MMA have filled the void for combat sports fans, dodging many of boxing’s organizational headaches and taking a volume-first approach to personality-driven fighting. In an act of desperation that might also be genius, the boxing world has welcomed two social media stars who are disciplined enough to play the role of headliners. With this strategy, the sport is relying on outsiders to shepherd future generations to its matches. But will that work? And are lesser-known sports destined to prioritize the name recognition of internet stars over the physical ability of their athletes?
For much of its modern existence, boxing has depended on the whims of publicity and media. When the National Police Gazette ran a special edition on a championship fight in 1880, the sensationalist magazine sold a record 400,000 copies. “For a newspaper already focused on violence, lawlessness, and competitive spectacles, boxing was a natural extension,” notes Christopher Klein in Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero. Decades later, boxing coverage evolved from barbaric ogling to a platform through which to seriously discuss identity, politics, and race. Ahead of the infamous Sonny Liston–Floyd Patterson fight in 1962, a barrage of literary icons—including A.J. Liebling for The New Yorker, Norman Mailer for Esquire, and James Baldwin on assignment for a men’s magazine called Nugget—descended on Chicago searching for symbolism.
Muhammad Ali is unquestionably the apex of the sport’s pop cultural relevance and media coverage. The young boxer from Louisville, then known as Cassius Clay, would claim the heavyweight title from Liston in 1964. In addition to being a dynamic fighter and charismatic as hell, Ali’s individualism shot him through the barriers that kept his boxing predecessors down. Measured in today’s terms, he was, as Keith Olbermann wrote for The Ringer in 2016, “Michael Jordan multiplied by Lady Gaga, taken to the exponential degree of the last couple of dozen popes put together.” That sheer magnetism drew the world to the sport in a way that has never been replicated, and underlined how crucial compelling personalities are to its success.
Aside from being Muhammad Ali’s chosen athletic pursuit, boxing matches were ideal storytelling fodder for the second half of the 20th century because they were straightforward and widely distributed. In 1952, prize fights reached an average of 5 million televisions, and that number rose to 8.5 million just three years later. The relatively novel technology of broadcasting brought the rivalries of the ring to people’s living rooms. “Video broadcasts of boxing had, within a short time, created a vast audience for the sport,” writes Jeffrey T. Sammons in Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. Only eight boxing divisions existed in the ’50s, and anyone who had held a division title was a household name: Dado Marino, Jimmy Carter, Jersey Joe Walcott. Boxing still undoubtedly had issues with broadcasting rights, mob connections, and unfair, often racist treatment of its athletes. But it had no problem being understood by the public. A lifeline for the socioeconomically disadvantaged, boxing often expressed stories about triumph over pain in the form of raw, physical violence. It willingly cast villains, underdogs, and heroes who reflected the mainstream views of society. And more than anything, it was a chance to tell a story about the world in plain terms: black or white, win or lose, knock out or be knocked out.
Boxing was buoyant throughout the last century, aided by the lasting effects of Ali’s celebrity and a handful of resourceful matchmakers, like Don King. But around the early aughts, a so-called “Cold War” befell the sport. Bob Arum’s Top Rank and Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions began refusing to match their fighters in an effort to establish strong brands and keep the profits they earned from advertising deals and television network contracts to themselves. “The Cold War is defined differently by different people, but by and large, it means that mega promoters and platforms are islands unto themselves, and they police said islands, and keep riff-raff off of them,” Michael Woods, the publisher of NYFights.com, told me in an email. “It’s invite only … and by that, we basically mean that some fights won’t get made, because promoters and managers and platforms seek to protect their prized products.” These promoters, the often-slippery organizations that scout boxers and arrange matches, only occasionally acquiesced when the money of a potential matchup was so good that they couldn’t refuse. (The most famous example being the so-called “Fight of the Century” between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in 2015.) But mostly they frustrated diehard followers, who craved more flexibility among fighters and matchups. Listicles like Bleacher Report’s “10 Bouts Between Golden Boy and Top Rank Fighters Boxing Fans Would Love to See” were common among fighting blogs at the time.
While most mainstream sports have one or two organizations that determine the rules of each sport’s top-level championships, boxing has four: the World Boxing Council, the International Boxing Federation, the World Boxing Association, and the World Boxing Organization. In the ’80s, these so-called “alphabet bodies” began expanding the number of weight classes from eight to 17. Faced with fewer high-stakes matches at the start of the aughts, the bodies decided to create championships specific to their individual organizations for each weight class. In some cases, each of the 17 weight classes that exist can have up to four different champions. “The values of all those belts have dwindled,” former amateur boxer Jay Bulger explains somewhat diplomatically in CounterPunch, a 2017 Netflux documentary that explores why boxing is struggling to find new audiences.
CBS’s Campbell has a much more cynical characterization. “Essentially what this comes down to is a lot of crap, a lot of BS,” he said. “Every time a fight has a belt attached to it, even if it’s this crappy, secondary, obvious fake one, the fighters have to pay an extra sanctioning fee to the WBA to be able to wear that belt and TV execs who are essentially providing the bottom-line money to get the sport on TV, they are just more than happy to have a ‘title fight’ they can promote.”
Meanwhile, matches have become at least slightly more available to watch, either via online subscription services like DAZN or existing cable subscription bundles. Last year, HBO ended a 45-year run of airing fights on its network, in part because ESPN, Fox Sports, and DAZN had all recently entered the business. “Boxing has been part of our heritage for decades,” a statement from HBO said. “During that time, the sport has undergone a transformation. It is now widely available on a host of networks and streaming services. There is more boxing than ever being televised and distributed. In some cases, this programming is very good. But from an entertainment point of view, it’s not unique.”
Even if boxing matches—and other sports, and television programming in general—are now more abundantly available for the average viewer, the sport’s rivalries remain astoundingly hard to follow. The plethora of weight classes and titles are confusing, especially when none of the contenders is recognizable enough to be an actual celebrity in their own right. That, on top of the fact that boxing simply can’t put on as many fights as, say, the NBA can basketball games, it inherently garners less exposure. “It’s really hard to understand who’s the best,” Campbell said. “What happens if this guy wins this fight? Does he move up and face the best guy in the finals?” Around this time of year in 1974, the stakes of the famous “Rumble in the Jungle,” Muhammad Ali’s fight in Zaire against George Foreman for the world heavyweight title, were just as apparent as the stakes of the Battle of Winterfell. Today, understanding who the contenders are and why you should care is more like decoding a Westworld episode: It’s a TV event filled with unrecognizable characters and meaningless action.
Two days after Logan Paul made fun of KSI for not having a dick, I visited him at his $6.6 million estate. Walking through the gate of the spacious Encino property is something like stepping onto a lived-in movie set. Every corner and crevice has been the backdrop for one of Paul’s daily vlogs, and they play supercut-style in my head: the driveway where Paul threw $10,000 in cash in front of a fan for his friends and a homeless man to chase, the corner of the garden where his mother shot him with a paintball gun, the living room where he did handstands atop mouse traps and shattered dishware. A disturbing number of the animals that have lived here are now dead. I glance at the koi ponds—once a frequent fixture in his videos—and they’re mysteriously empty.
The stunt videos have been less frequent this year due in part to some major controversies. In early 2018, Paul posted footage of himself and his friends exploring a Japanese forest where they filmed and joked about an apparent suicide victim. (Other lowlights from the trip included Paul waving raw fish in Japanese people’s faces and throwing Poké Balls at passersby in the street.) The incident sparked outrage far beyond Paul’s fan base: YouTube removed him from a program that connects advertisers with top-tier content creators on the site and canceled a handful of upcoming original projects he had in the works. In the aftermath, Paul released an apology, and a video dedicated to suicide prevention. Eventually he gave up daily vlogging altogether.
I followed his publicist into the house; a pack of dogs that has more Instagram followers than I do trailed behind. Paul’s roommates, social media stars who play supporting roles in his vlogs, lazed about in the kitchen. A blue Kids’ Choice Award surfboard leaned against a wall in one of the two living rooms. There was the vague scent of beer. I was directed to a large, fuzzy bean bag in a garage that had been converted into a video and podcast editing studio. (Paul launched a podcast called Impaulsive after his break from daily vlogging.) A few minutes later, he plopped down on a bean bag next to me. He was in black shorts and a black T-shirt that read “The Champion,” sipping from a comically large water bottle that displayed a phoenix—the logo for his personal Maverick brand.
We ran through his training routine—four hours a day, six days a week. He wakes up at 9 a.m. and boxes until 11:30 a.m. “After that we eat, we ice-bath,” he said. “More sports rehab after these interviews. Then I’ll hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Then back here for 6:30 p.m. strength-and-conditioning workout for another hour and a half to two hours. Then we eat, rest, sleep, eight to nine hours a day. Back at it the next day.” He has sworn off sex in compliance with Briggs’s rules, though he might do some light partying on his day off. “We also do two two-hour stretch sessions a week with this dude named Ibok,” he said. “He stretches the shit out of us.”
Paul is far more polite than his public persona lets on. He’s media trained to compliment even basic questions and knows to make simple, grand statements. But he’s also prone to derail conversations with ditzy asides the same way he does in his videos. He has a hard time taking things seriously. I bring up money, since he’s employing a small staff to train and feed him, and he starts throwing around numbers. “If I’m being honest with you, if I wouldn’t have taken that six months to only do boxing, I would’ve made more money doing YouTube,” he said, referring to his first matchup with KSI. “I lost money by becoming a boxer.” Paul estimates that he took home around $800,000 on the first match, which he said would’ve been $5 million or $6 million if so many people hadn’t illegally streamed it on Twitch.
That loss of money likely explains why he and KSI have partnered with DAZN this time around, placing the fight behind a paid subscription service. Though fewer people might end up watching it, he’s hoping to make more money and earn exposure from a new audience. He says he’s also aiming to make $100 million—a 12,400 percent pay increase, but a number that’s theoretically possible considering UFC fighter Conor McGregor cleared “around” that amount when he crossed over to boxing to fight Mayweather. (Mayweather reportedly earned $275 million, the single biggest payday in the history of sports.) When I ask how he planned to get there, Paul shrugged. “I have no idea,” he said. “Shoot for the stars, and if you miss you’ll … land on the moon?” His staff jumps in to inform him the phrase is actually “shoot for the moon and if you miss you’ll land on the stars.” “I mean astronomically, that one doesn’t even make sense,” Paul replied. “Because if you shoot for the moon, you’re not going to land on the stars. The moon is closer than all of the stars.” Finally he settles on a different metaphor. “Set the bar high,” he said. “Am I going to make $100 million? No, I’m not going to make $100 million if I don’t try.”
So far, organized sporting events in the YouTube community have been a hit-or-miss financial pursuit. Before challenging Paul to their first match, KSI beat British YouTuber Joe Weller for something they called the YouTube Boxing Championship belt. (No word on whether the alphabet bodies have sanctioned that title.) Joe Weller later revealed he’d earned only £20,000 from the fight (a little less than $26,000), about £6,500 of which he spent on training. In July of this year, Paul organized a fundraiser called “The Challenger Games,” for which he corralled 100 popular YouTubers (and also the boxer Ryan Garcia) to compete in an Olympic-style track-and-field competition. Paul bet $100,000 that he could beat any contestant in the 100-yard dash, but ended up pulling his hamstring and finishing dead last. The competition reportedly raised only about $14,000 for charity, and was held up as an example for why live athletic events were a far less profitable pursuit than straight video content. “Most YouTubers could earn more from doing videos than they would from a tour or a show,” the CEO of the U.K.-based talent agency Upload Events said at the time.
When I brought that point up to Paul, he said he saw the two differently: “I think inherently track and field doesn’t lend itself to a mass audience,” Paul observed. Sifting through a pile of YouTubers’ names and matching them to the shot put or hurdles feels like work. It’s far easier to digest that two well-known personas—with their own origin stories, hardships, and beefs—are going to hit each other until one of them can’t get up. The draw of the event is wrapped up in personality first, and athletic ability second. “That’s the great thing about being a YouTuber,” KSI told me a month later, when I cornered him at a red carpet event and asked why he was doing this. “It’s like the core. It allows you to bounce off to other industries like music, or boxing, or acting. Whatever you put your mind to, essentially.”
Nevertheless, Paul is acutely aware of just how odd it is that he, a 24-year-old dude with one amateur boxing match under his belt, will now be headlining an event above actual professional boxers. “This is weird as fuck, I don’t understand it,” he said. “At first glance it almost seems like a blow to professional sports, specifically boxing, because it sort of undermines the value of what these professional fighters have created and worked so hard their whole lives to do. At the same token, KSI and I have worked just as hard in our own vertical, which happens to be content creation, and right now all that energy is directed into fighting. So they’re helping us by legitimizing us, and validating the event, and we’re helping them: (a) We’re going to put a shitload of more eyes on them as fighters—it’s going to help their careers immensely; (b) hopefully we can drive some fans to this sport of boxing, because boxing isn’t thriving right now like it used to be.”
On my way out, I encountered Briggs, who was relaxing in the sun on a lawn chair out front, waiting for Paul to finish with the press. The two-time heavyweight champion speaks at a frenetic, urgent clip, words spilling out of his mouth so quickly that he spits. No less than three minutes into our conversation he manages to tell a story about a wild night on a party bus, offers a comprehensive history of every computer he owned in the ’80s, and FaceTimes briefly with his wife. I ask whether, as a two-time heavyweight champion himself, he’s surprised to see amateurs headlining a fight above pros. “It’s the greatest thing to happen to boxing ever,” he says, jabbing the air between us. “Guess what’s going to happen? All these young kids that never watched boxing are going to become boxing fans. Let’s go, champ.”
In mid-October, a little more than two weeks before the match, I was invited to watch Paul work out in what DAZN called “A SNEAK PEEK INSIDE THE TRAINING CAMP OF YOUTUBE SENSATION LOGAN PAUL.” Sensing an opportunity ripe for symbolism, DAZN arranged for the event to take place at the Wild Card Boxing gym in Hollywood, owned by Freddie Roach. The 59-year-old Massachusetts native was born into a boxing family of seven children, and fought around 150 amateur fights before he turned pro in 1978. After fighting as a super bantamweight for years, he opened Wild Card, and went on to train Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, and, most famously, Manny Pacquiao. He charges patrons of his gym just $5 a visit. When I pulled up, I was surprised to discover Roach, who has lived with Parkinson’s since he was 42, directing traffic. “I don’t know who the fuck this guy is,” Roach said when I explained why I was there. “My assistant handles all of this stuff.”
A thicket of reporters and vloggers filtered into the cramped room outfitted with a ring, punching bags, and plenty of Paquiao paraphernalia. Wristbands were rationed out to differentiate who we were: red for media, yellow for Paul’s team. The latter filled the room: Paul’s publicists set up camp on the edge of the wall opposite the ring with their phones out, his manager and camera crew lingered at the ropes, and a lone makeup artist who they’d hired for the day hovered with a blotting paper and a foundation sponge.
Before the spectacle, I caught up with Paul, who unfolded two metal chairs for us away from the ruckus. He’d amplified his conditioning since we last talked and he’d been eating a variety of meats: chicken, fish, steak, elk, bison—you name it. He played me a taunting voice memo he DMed to KSI on Instagram. (Sample: “Yo what up, bro? Happy Sunday.”) I asked him whether he was on track to make $100 million. “I said I wanted to make 100 million?” he replied. I nodded. “That sounds like something I would say. And by the way, I stand by that.”
Soon enough he was whisked away to do on-camera interviews. He flexed his thick arms in front of the DAZN-branded poster of him and KSI. He recorded an on-camera interview for Matchroom Boxing, Hearn’s media outlet. He improvised a few Stories for a Snapchat employee wearing a rainbow-banded badge that said “Content staff.” After what felt like hours, he was finally ready for the workout. Paul dramatically took off his shirt, and hopped into the ring, setting off Briggs into a soliloquy of praise. He barked orders between declarations that Paul will be “the first billion-dollar boxer.” The vloggers leaned in close as he jumped rope, shuffled, and jabbed at Briggs’s gloves. Paul did sit-ups, stretched, and crossed the room to pummel a speed bag. For all his apparently meaningless declarations about money, I believed that the YouTuber had been training hard.
Paul may have achieved the hench physique of a boxer, but I left the event unclear as to whether he’d displayed any measurable technical abilities. The next day I called Jonathan Cepeda, a trainer and pro boxer who has had a total of 15 knockouts. Like Briggs, he hoped all this crossover from the YouTube world would establish a new young audience for the sport. After the first KSI–Logan Paul bout, BuzzFeed scouted Cepeda to film a video analyzing their technique, and he was blown away by the attention. I asked whether he had any big plans to watch the fight on November 9. “No, not necessarily,” he said, pausing. “I mean, unless BuzzFeed wants me to comment on it.”
Promoters, trainers, and boxers no doubt appreciate the overwhelming media attention that two YouTubers have finagled for the sport in such a short amount of time. But no matter how many press conferences the two hold, no matter how many items TMZ and the Daily Mail write about their rivalry, no matter how many Snapchat stories they generate, their fight still remains technically uninteresting to the boxing diehards. That lack of skill is key to the question of whether this match is a profitable but irreplicable stunt, or the future of individualized sporting events. As Galen Clavio, the director of Indiana University’s sports journalism program, put it to me: “It almost feels like the thing they’re doing is secondary to the content they’re creating.”
Pessimists have accepted this as a unique annoyance, possible only in an ecosystem like boxing, a sport that has been built to thrive off of a certain chaos. “This model is not replicable,” Woods of NYFights.com said. “Our low barrier to entry is what makes us an outlaw coterie, and also a potent and ever replenished source of study for people like me.” There’s also a question of how many people might be interested in a KSI-Paul matchup that was far less violent. “I don’t know if you’d have the same success if Logan Paul and KSI went on a decathlon,” Brian Campbell told me, “because they’re not punching each other in the face in the end.”
But the sheer attention this match has received is nevertheless instructive to understanding how a new generation of viewers relates to individual athletes. “The whole idea behind the way boxing was traditionally set up was, you would have fighters who were certainly avatars for the audience,” Clavio said. “They were also easy fodder for the audience to follow and identify with. And then they could be replaced as time goes by. But that’s not really how people are consuming media now. They coalesce around certain people. And because they’re able to access them on a more personal, more individualized level, through Twitch or through YouTube, and it’s getting delivered right to their feed, rather than a mass consumption experience.”
At the very least, this long-term brand ambassadorship is a marketing blueprint for fighting sports. But it may very well inform the way other individual sports understand their value to a new generation of sports fans.
Boxing’s powers that be appear mentally prepared to adapt as they always have, even if it means attaching unqualified but famous people to a sport that has struggled to cultivate its own star power. “To turn it into a regular thing—oh, let’s get two more people who are famous and don’t like each other and put them in the ring—we’ve done that before, we’ve called it celebrity boxing,” said boxing promoter Kathy Duva. “It’s been going on for years and years. This is just a new iteration of it, with a new platform, with a new way of marketing.”
To his credit, Paul appears ready for any scenario.
“I have a plan,” he told me when we spoke on the bean bags. “This isn’t the last flight. I want to do this over and over and over again and become a prizefighter. I want to be the no. 1 prizefighter in the world.” Skeptical of his declarations, I asked whether this was an actual career shift.
“Maybe,” he said, contradicting the determined tone he’d used seconds before. “If the bags prove to be big enough and it’s sustainable. … We’ll see how long we can ride this wave for.”