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Last weekend, controversial internet personalities Logan Paul, AKA “the guy who went to Tokyo’s suicide forest and vlogged a dead body,” and KSI, real name Olajide William "JJ" Olatunji, engaged in a six-round amateur boxing match for the “YouTube world boxing championship” in Manchester, England. Predictably, given the two had only one bout’s worth of experience between them (KSI fought Joe Weller, another YouTuber in February) the fight was less an elegant showcase of the pugilistic art and more a sloppy brawl between two dudebros in surprisingly good shape.
Paul used his height and reach to establish an effective jab in the first two rounds that he occasionally used as a vehicle to set up combinations, but gassed out around the midway point of the fight and struggled to recover his composure thereafter. As Paul faded, Olatunji was able to find his timing and distance, landing chaotic haymakers from unconventional angles that put Paul in trouble on more than one occasion. After 18 minutes of exertion -- an impressive feat, as anyone who has competed in boxing or MMA will attest -- the contest was declared a majority draw.
The action inside the ring, fixating as it was in a car-crash-you-can’t-look-away-from kind of way, was however less striking than the stage on which it unfolded. 800,000 people paid to watch the live stream of the event on YouTube -- the interest from mainstream media outlets was real; the punches that were thrown -- though poorly executed -- were authentic; and the crowd appeared to be genuinely entertained.
What does this tell us about combat sports? And, more pertinently given this site’s purpose, what implications -- if any -- does it have for MMA?
A Watertight Dimension of Sports Entertainment?
On the one hand, there is scope to argue that the “YouTube boxing” phenomenon is altogether immaterial to the broader combat sports ecosystem. After all, given the voracious demand from young Internet users for increasingly outrageous and innovative content from vloggers like Paul and Olatunji, the prize ring seems to be just one in a never-ending series of playgrounds they’ve projected outlandish storylines onto -- albeit, one uniquely appropriate for showcasing the pageantry and controversy they’ve built their personal brands on.
As one tech-commentator observed, it seems a natural stage in the evolution of online feuds between Internet celebrities, who can only release a finite number of ‘diss tracks’ and prank videos targeted at one another before a physical confrontation feels warranted. And let’s not forget its many predecessors playing on the same theme -- the short-lived “Celebrity Boxing” series on Fox being just one cringe-inducing example.
Let’s also consider that the overwhelming majority of the event’s patronage came from fans of the pair’s Internet exploits rather than boxing aficionados, which means that theoretically the market share of established fight-promoters shouldn’t be under any threat. And though many fans of the sweet science will resent the ostensible debasement of the sport, regular fights between (in)famous figures should conceivably be able to exist as a parallel and watertight dimension of sports entertainment, inhabiting that ambiguous space between the fight world and the contrived universe of professional wrestling.
And that’s of course making the very generous assumption that enterprising narcissists like Paul and Olatunji are willing to take time away from their predominant -- and lucrative -- vocation of producing clickbait to get into fight shape, and that fans are willing to continue paying to watch. These are far from givens. Perhaps equally as likely as YouTube boxing becoming a staple of trash-media alongside Keeping up with the Kardashians and the Jersey Shore reboot then, is that the concept will mercifully fade into the ether, as many of us hope and pray it does.
Race to the Bottom
If it weren’t for the fact that Phil Brooks, a former professional wrestler in his late thirties with zero credentials as a martial artist, competed not once but twice on the pay-per-view portion of an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in the past two years, the above arguments would almost be convincing.
But the “CM Punk” experiment, and the involvement of legitimating figures like Buffer and literal scores of high-profile boxers and MMA fighters who were in someway involved in promoting or preparing Paul and Olatunji for the event, belies an alternate and manifestly unsettling reality. Which is that this event was a co-production, made possible not just by the awesome power of social media and two lovable reprobates, but by a sporting culture that is open to just about anyone or anything so long as it “moves the needle.”
This is enabled in part by the absence of stabilising architectures that act as effective bulwarks to the influence of naked capitalism. Whereas stick-and-ball sports have institutions like the draft, a regular season and playoff games that indirectly guard against absurdities like the insertion of celebrity participants, combat sports are largely devoid of such barricades -- and there has been no shortage of promoters and athletes willing to defile the sport for financial returns.
That was on display when Muhammad Ali, then the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world, fought Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in a farcical mixed match in 1976; as it was when former champion George Foreman wrecked five no-name journeymen in Toronto a year earlier. And in MMA -- a sport that was built on controversy and sensationalism -- the industry is even more amenable to these kinds of undertakings.
Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships, for example, was launched in 1997 on the explicit premise of seeing how professional wrestlers would fare in a real fight, and for years Kimbo Slice, a bare-knuckle boxer whose backyard street fights went viral on -- you guessed it -- YouTube, was one of the sport’s biggest draws, competing under the EliteXC, UFC and Bellator MMA banners despite possessing a fraction of the talent normally needed to reach the apex of the sport.
Granted, after the UFC soaked up rival promotions and became the torch-bearer for the sport in the late 2000s, it looked like some version of (suspendable) meritocracy would become the new orthodoxy, at least insofar as erecting a minimum threshold for inclusion on the UFC’s roster, and especially when it came to championship bouts. But after the company was bought in 2016 by entertainment conglomerate WME-IMG, we’re back to doing whatever makes the most cash.
That includes shams like 0-1 “CM Punk” fighting 0-1 photojournalist Mike Jackson on the UFC 225 pay-per-view in June, and the more recent news that a 41-year old Brock Lesnar, winless in eight years and serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, will next compete for the heavyweight title. It encompasses former NFL player and notorious domestic abuser Greg Hardybeing fed subpar opposition on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series and the promotion’s contemptible treatment of wrestling-centric fighters like Ben Askren.
So while we laugh at the idea that KSI wants to turn professional as a boxer; and at the notion Logan Paul and his brother Jake -- who also competed on the event, earning a fourth round TKO against KSI’s younger brother Deji -- want to compete in the UFC’s Octagon at some point in the future, let’s not kid ourselves; these are all distinct possibilities.
That’s not something I relish in. It’s just a fact that in combat sports everything is negotiable and precious little is sacred.
As long as Paul, KSI and their ilk want to make money to act like fighters, there will be promoters looking to give their events the trimmings of validity for a percentage of that action.
And that’s not an aberration. That’s the fight game.