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When YouTube stars KSI and Logan Paul squared off on Nov. 9 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, combat sports enthusiasts weren’t exactly expecting fireworks. It was a rematch between the two newly professional boxers after a lackluster first meeting at the Manchester Arena in England was scored a majority draw in August 2018 -- a fight that former Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight titleholder Michael Bisping called “an insulting mockery” to professional boxing and martial arts. The second contest didn’t produce much better, drawing the additional ire of several pundits for having Billy Joe Saunders and Devin Haney defend their WBO super middleweight and WBC lightweight titles on the undercard. However, this time around there was a decisive victor, with KSI taking a split decision over Paul and ending the rivalry between the two.
The real winner of the match, of course, was Dazn. According to Matchroom Boxing Managing Director Eddie Hearn, KSI-Paul 2 did “mind-blowing” numbers. In a post-fight interview on The Ak and Barak Show on SiriusXM, Hearn claimed that the card was the biggest pay-per-view of the year in the United Kingdom thus far, including the unified heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz in June. He also expected Dazn to announce that it was the most-watched live event on the streaming service, significantly driving subscriptions in several key territories.
“You don’t realize the audience these guys have,” Hearn said. “They brought our sport to reach new ground and reach new territories, new demographics and new markets.”
What’s commonly called a freakshow fight is nothing new to the world of boxing, and Hearn’s sentiments explain why. Whether it’s Jack Dempsey-Cowboy Luttrell or Muhammad Ali-Antonio Inoki, these types of bouts have always drawn a different type of audience than the average fan, more out of curiosity than anything else. While those who dedicate their lives to the sport may feel insulted by these fights, promoters see these matchups as opportunities to grow the sport and the size of their wallets due to their often having the highest number of casual viewers attached to them. As Dazn Executive Vice President of North America Joe Markowski said of the KSI-Paul rematch, “It has the potential to be the biggest Internet broadcasting moment in the history of the Internet.”
Boxing isn’t alone its use of sideshow attractions. In the world of MMA, Pride Fighting Championships was well-known for showcasing these types of fights, making them a regular occurrence within the organization. The UFC has held a number of questionable spectacles throughout the years, including Randy Couture-James Toney and two fights in which professional wrestler Phil “CM Punk” Brooks was soundly beaten on pay-per-view. On the same day as KSI-Paul 2, Polish promotion KSW headlined an event with five-time World’s Strongest Man Mariusz Pudzianowski taking on fitness model and social media star Erko Jun, hoping to cash in on its first event in Croatia.
In the age of constantly vying for consumer subscriptions and viewership, these types of fights get noticed by those who would normally never bat an eye at a service like Dazn. While the majority of diehard KSI-Paul fans probably don’t care for boxing, seeing their favorite YouTube star fight another person they recognize in the ring will get them to pay for Dazn and tune in, if only for that fight. From there, it would be expected that a large amount of those fans would unsubscribe. However, another subset may end up forgetting or not caring and delay their cancellation of the platform, giving the company a short burst of added revenue. Even still, another subset may become actual fans of the sport or realize Dazn’s other offerings are worth the price and end up staying on as long-term paying customers.
If Hearn’s prediction of KSI-Paul 2 pay-per-view buys is accurate, the event will have been well worth it for Dazn and all those involved. The over-the-top streaming service has spent massive amounts of money in order to secure some of boxing’s biggest names, and an event that is relatively low-cost while bringing in a large amount of revenue is exactly the type of thing the company can use to help its ever-growing expansion costs. Couple this with Dazn shifting gears to produce additional free “awareness content” off-platform -- the KSI-Logan Paul 2 Countdown series on YouTube, for instance -- to attract new customers, and the service will need all the revenue it can get.
In the end, freakshow fights are often a good boost for business. While constantly putting on these types of bouts without providing any other substantive content would be foolhardy, the occasional oddity is a welcome respite from the usual competition for most casual fans. Love them or hate them, these matches are here to stay. Combate Americas will host the next one on Dec. 7, when UFC hall of famer Tito Ortiz takes on former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Alberto Rodriguez. Hopefully, for Rodriguez’s sake, it goes better than other times he tried MMA.