Sport or not, gimmick or not, future or not—the kids don’t care. They just wanted to see internet celebrity Logan Paul (18 million YouTube subscribers) fight KSI (19 million), leaving the rest of us to wonder if this silliness will be our ultimate destiny.
Saturday, nearly a million online viewers paid $10 each to watch the two stars box to a draw surrounded by close to 20,000 fans in England’s Manchester Arena. Another million reportedly watched via illegal streams. For perspective, that type of viewership roughly compares to an NFL preseason game. But the relevant numbers in this case are many times larger.
During the month leading up to the fight, which was confirmed in March, Paul racked up over 50 million views on YouTube while trading sophomoric jabs with his opponent—we’re talking about allegations of underwear stuffing here. Those numbers will only continue to climb as the pair talk their way towards a likely rematch in the U.S. early next year.
When iconic boxing announcer Michael Buffer—the "Let's get ready to rumble!" guy, for teens just now getting into fight sports—heard earlier this year about the event, he knew it would be dismissed by the sport’s purists, but he actually reached out to be involved in the production. Buffer remembers participating in FOX’s short-lived Celebrity Boxing series in the early 2000s, and before that, appearing for years on World Championship Wrestling. This was just another blend of sports and entertainment in his eyes. And it was even bigger than he imagined.
For the first time in his 35-year-career, Buffer was told not to reveal the pre-fight weigh-in location as both fighters worried about thousands of fans swarming whatever building they were spotted in. Buffer compared the scene Saturday to a 1966 Beatles concert, revealing both his age and his awe. He’s also hopeful that maybe there were a few boxing converts in the building.
Elena Cresci is more pessimistic. An online culture reporter as well as an amateur fighter, she spoke to a few fans at the fight who said they’d check out boxing, but the bulk of the kids in attendance expressed no interest. “No one was there expecting to see good boxers,” she says. “They only were there to see good YouTubers.” Had the stars been playing soccer, or singing, or doing just about anything, the crowds would have been equally rabid, she figures. To bolster her point, Cresci brings up the day’s most viral moment—when one fighter broke into a Fortnite dance routine mid-round. “The crowd loved it.”
Still, the realms of athlete and celebrity seem destined to merge. Personality has sold in sports for a long time, of course, but it feels increasingly cleaved from skill. Ask Mike Trout. When it comes to marketability, is the number of touchdowns Odell Beckham Jr. or JuJu Smith-Schuster scores this year more important than the status of their friendships with Drake and Ninja? Even golf is getting in on the action with it’s upcoming pay-per-view showdown.
Maybe part of the appeal Saturday was exactly how sloppy the match became as it reached the later rounds. As Paul and KSI tired, they seemed more human than they had when they swaggered into the ring, more relatable—and that connection to their fans is part of what’s made them untouchable superstars. Sooner or later, sports will learn that lesson too. Athletes can still aim for excellence, but what their fans want is “authenticity.”
If Saturday’s show wasn’t enough of a omen, further proof of what’s to come came two days later. Logan’s brother Jake, a star in his own right who won the penultimate fight Saturday, tweeted a screenshot Monday of him direct messaging an insult to Dez Bryant. Bryant responded, “We can get in the boxing ring tho if he want smoke.” That tweet got 1/16th as many likes Paul’s original provocation. Online, athletics is still playing on the road.