LOS ANGELES – On Saturday night, a pair of YouTube stars—Olajide William Olatunji, better known as KSI, and Logan Paul—will headline a professional boxing card at Staples Center.
The boxing purists seem to hate it.
I’m trying to figure out why.
Seriously—I don’t get it. Is it because a high profile boxing card on a credible network (or in the case of DAZN, a subscription-based streaming service) is being headlined by a couple of novices? Last week, DAZN streamed Canelo Alvarez’s knockout win over Sergey Kovalev. Alvarez is the biggest star in boxing—and arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. Is boxing diminished because DAZN is following up Canelo-Kovalev with KSI-Paul?
Is it because the fight could be sloppy? Let’s unpack that a little, shall we? KSI and Paul faced off for the first time in August 2018 in a six-round exhibition match that ended in a draw. The fight was competitive, with Paul winning the early rounds and KSI controlling the end, as the bigger Paul tired. On Saturday, the headgear will come off. Both fighters came in under the 200-pound cruiserweight limit. To prepare, KSI enlisted Jeff Mayweather, a veteran boxing trainer. Paul fleshed out his team with Shannon Briggs, the former heavyweight champion.
Briggs—no stranger to hyperbole—swears Paul will one day be heavyweight champion of the world.
Will it be high level boxing? Of course not. Will you have seen worse? Uh, yeah. Last week, Evan Holyfield, the son of Evander Holyfield, destroyed Nick Winstead inside a minute in his boxing debut—Winstead, an amateur MMA fighter with no amateur boxing experience. A few weeks before that, Ali Akhmedov, a rising super middleweight prospect, crushed an out of shape Andrew Hernandez.
Is it because of the placement of the fight? Let’s rewind to last August, when Erislandy Lara headlined a Fox card against Ramon Alvarez. Alvarez was two fights removed from a knockout loss to Brandon Rios and no sane boxing observer gave him any chance against Lara. And they were right: Alvarez scored an easy second-round knockout. And let’s not forget that one of the biggest fights in boxing history was between a still active boxing legend (Floyd Mayweather) and an MMA fighter (Conor McGregor).
Is it because the build up has been crass? There has been a lot of foul language since the fight was announced. Some of the attacks have been deeply personal. But this is boxing—is any of that unusual? Muhammad Ali once called Joe Frazier an Uncle Tom. Ricardo Mayorga savaged Oscar De La Hoya’s family. More recently, Adrien Broner openly discussed having a relationship with Paulie Malignaggi’s girlfriend.
Is it because KSI-Paul is above Devin Haney, a lightweight titleholder, and Billy Joe Saunders, a super middleweight champion, on the bill? Seriously—do you think they care? Do you think Haney, an incredibly talented fighter with a limited fan base, would rather headline his own show in front of a couple thousand people or be the co-main in front of a packed house full of young fans that have probably never heard of him? Or that Saunders, a legitimate candidate to face Canelo next spring, could have picked a more visible platform to make his U.S. debut?
Is it because fights like this could become a thing? Get ready—they could. DAZN is hoping for a record number of sign-ups for this fight. To retain those fans, DAZN will have to create more events like this. Eddie Hearn, the promoter of KSI-Paul, has hinted that he has been contacted by a number of people in the entertainment industry anxious to get in the ring. Hearn and DAZN will have to be careful; there is a line between credible boxing and, say, Barstool’s popular Rough ‘N Rowdy series. But there is a way to do it.
And, honestly: What does it matter? KSI-Paul isn’t taking another fight's slot. There isn’t another makeable matchup out there that isn’t being made because two YouTubers are going to punch it out. You don’t like it? Watch Saunders defend his title. Catch Haney in action for the second time in three months. Then flip over to ESPN-Plus and watch Jamel Herring defend his 130-pound belt.
In the meantime, consider that maybe, just maybe this could be good for boxing. The sport needs a jolt. It needs to attract a younger audience. Alvarez-Kovalev reportedly sold 10,000 tickets in Las Vegas; a week earlier, Shakur Stevenson, one of the best young fighters in boxing, sold less than 1,500 for his world title fight against Joet Gonzalez. KSI and Paul are bringing the reach of tens of millions of followers on social media. Hundreds of millions of page views on their YouTube channels. If even a small percentage become Saunders fans, become Haney fans, become boxing fans, this spectacle was worth it.
On Friday, I asked Hearn what his response is to the backlash from the hardcore boxing community.
“My response is that they are probably right,” Hearn said. “When fighters say, ‘Well I worked my ass off and I didn’t get an opportunity like this.’ Well, you weren’t good enough and you didn’t develop a following. They have. They can do anything they want. They chose boxing. I tried to ignore it the first time around. I couldn’t ignore it the second time around. And what we are seeing is probably the biggest single driver of subscriptions on DAZN. At the end of the day, we are all in a numbers game. Everything in the sports and entertainment industry is driven by numbers. As long as it’s credible and as long as people take it seriously, I’m OK with it. Because on Saturday night tens of millions of people around the world who have never watched boxing before will watch. And they will watch Devin Haney. And Billy Joe Saunders. And hopefully, they will stay.”
So as DAZN’s point person for boxing, will this type of event be part of DAZN moving forward?
“I think it’s on DAZN’s radar,” said Hearn. “Whatever amount of new subscribers, they have to convince them to stay. How do we do that? Do we turn them into hardcore boxing fans? In a month, that’s quite difficult. Do we bring more events like this to the platform? For me, it’s a one-off in terms of it headlining a main event. I do think you’ll see other ones on undercards. But if you can’t fight, or you are not taking it seriously, please don’t call me.
And maybe there is the compromise. Credible internet celebrities fighting on undercards with top shelf boxers headlining the show. A young fan base tuning in to see influencers they religiously follow on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, and perhaps becoming real boxing fans in the process. We’ll see. But for now, easy on the outrage. Unless you can fully explain it.
Chris Mannix is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and on-air personality for DAZN.