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YouTube personalities Olajide “KSI” Olatunji and Logan Paul on Saturday squared off in a boxing match at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in what can only be described as the theater of the absurd. With it came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: CLOCKING IN ON VACATION
Being a member of combat sports media mandates taking things seriously and examining what most see on the surface with a level of depth. Wrapped in all the talk about performance-enhancing drugs and concussion protocols, it’s easy to forget what we’re actually watching. Every weekend, we gather in front of our televisions, pack into arenas and sit at bars to watch two individuals who decided it was a good idea to assault one another. It’s a ridiculous premise, yet we gladly return for more. Event after event, the carnival moves along and we pick apart every detail, sometimes at the expense of fully understanding the broader picture.
Sometimes, it takes a blatant farce to remind us of all the absurdity. The rematch between YouTube personalities KSI and Paul was that blatant farce. With a scene so outrageous, it’s impossible to not be faced with the reality of what is the centerpiece of our weekly ritual. Despite being an actual boxing match, when the two Internet celebrities first met, it wasn’t quite aligned with the traditional world of combat sports. There was no major promoter involved. The contest was held at Manchester Arena and broadcast solely on YouTube. The time and platform to which most fight fans are accustomed was different. The bout itself was contested under amateur rules and held between two men who had a minimal level of experience and skill. In fact, the rest of the card featured other YouTubers and didn’t have any effect on the actual world of pugilism. Even with a successful pay-per-view that drew a reported 1.6 million buys, it seemed far off the radar. The diehard fisticuff aficionados were likely more focused on Justin Gaethje and James Vick squaring off at UFC Fight Night 135 or Top Rank’s lightweight title bout between Ray Beltran and Jose Pedraza that took place later the same day.
However, there was no escaping the madness this time. Instead of donning headgear, the two settled their differences within the confines of professional boxing. With the Ultimate Fighting Championship setting up shop in Moscow as American audiences were just waking up in the morning and Top Rank holding a much lower profile event, there was no major competitor to lure away fight fans. Instead of promoting their own YouTube pay-per-view, Paul and KSI partnered with Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn and streaming service Dazn. With Hearn and Dazn involved, there’s no layer of deniability. Matchroom is easily one of the biggest brands in boxing, and Dazn -- thanks to major alliances with Bellator MMA, Matchroom and Golden Boy Promotions -- has become a necessity for enthusiasts. Additionally, there was an actual undercard that featured legitimate championship-level boxers. Devin Haney and Billy Joe Sanders appeared on the card and successfully defended their belts.
When serious names like Hearn, Matchroom and Dazn enter a fight-friendly Staples Center with serious fighters and journalists in attendance, the lines are blurred between sport and spectacle. With thousands of children, confused parents and quasi celebrities needing to be seen, the veil of serious competition was lifted to reveal a circus. When Sanders and Haney found themselves in more closely contested fights than anticipated and the screaming masses cared more about a Twitch gamer or reality TV stars simply walking to their seats wearing some sort of over-the-top gaudy fashion statement, it was hard to take things seriously; and that’s OK. As the world did on a grander scale when Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor threw hands with one another, it’s fine to just sit back and laugh at all the silliness.
THE BAD: SWING, MISS, CLINCH, REPEAT
Looking through the lense of technique, fitness and strategy, the fight was terrible. As to be expected with two men making their professional debuts, this wasn’t an exhibition of high-level skill from either man. However, even accepting that this was a fight between 0-0 fighters, it was still awful. Without any real development on an amateur circuit and years of experience honing their craft, it was far below what one would expect from men seeking legitimate careers as professional boxers.
From hands hanging low and chins in the air to aimless plodding around the ring, nothing about what we witnessed was a testament to true boxing. With corners occupied by Jeff Mayweather and Shannon Briggs, there was no shortage of people who are capable of coaching and guiding promising talent. KSI manically swing huge looping punches with no semblance of setup, as he recklessly chased Paul around the ring. Paul, even though he eventually employed a decent jab, looked gunshy and helpless, as he evaded as much as he could. Whenever the two did manage to land significant punches on each other, they ended up in clinches that slowed down everything and afforded neither man the advantage.
Those clinches became the cornerstone of many of the fight’s memorable moments. With referee Jack Reiss trying to break up the grappling, both men decided to take their opportunities to dirty box, hammerfist and rabbit punch. One of the few moments of success for Paul was lost in this chaos: A punch to the back of the head after a pair of hard uppercuts largely negated a knockdown, as KSI was allowed to recover and points were deducted. What should have been scored as a knockdown for KSI was also invalidated, as Reiss thought it was the combination of a slip and a blow to the back of the head.
A minute into the first round, both men were noticeably gassed and breathing heavily. KSI spent nearly all of his energy on badly telegraphed clubbing punches and had no concept of pacing himself or being judicious with his shots. Possibly due to nerves, Paul looked spent fairly early, as well, although he managed to pace himself much better than his opponent. Yes, it had some entertaining moments, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was a terrible example of the Sweet Science.
THE UGLY: YES, THAT’S RAIN FALLING ON YOU FROM THE SKY
If Hearn’s stated ambition was that he intended to introduce a new audience to boxing and grow the sport, he did so in perhaps the worst possible way. All of the new eyeballs that otherwise would have skipped whatever offerings were available from Dazn or Matchroom witnessed not only bad boxing in the ring but the ugliest aspects of the sport as a whole.
The officiating needs to be singled out first. The aforementioned Paul knockdown that resulted in a point deduction was a bizarre sequence, to say the least. A clean uppercut was followed by a half collar tie and second uppercut that resulted in the knockdown. Although the clinch technique is illegal in boxing, Weiss decided to score it as a legal blow. The following shot to the back of the head while KSI fell to the canvas was icing on the cake and prompted a two-point penalty. While a penalty was in order, two points in a six-round contest is quite excessive. Somehow, despite the deduction, one judge actually scored it for Paul, as even an uneducated crowd was audibly bewildered.
While it is possible to temporarily suspend good taste in favor of a brief departure from credible bouts, it’s nearly impossible to forgive the snake-oil-salesman approach by those with the microphone during the festivities. To hear Hearn and in-ring interviewer Radio Rahim talk about the possibility of more celebrity mashup fights becoming the norm and the future of boxing was painful and laughably misguided. It wasn’t much of a surprise to hear the commentary team take a similar approach in the “piss is rain” switcheroo.
This event from top to bottom was not indicative of what combat sports is at its best. Just a week after the fictional BMF title resulted in an actual scheduled five-rounder in a major market UFC pay-per-view, it is clear that falsely equating the circus to the opera is big business. Whatever criticisms can be thrown towards UFC 244, it was clear that the powers that be were in on the joke. Even if some fans held the label literally and let it affect their view of the action in front of them, the promotion did not follow suit. It was a marketable and profitable sideshow, and it was presented as such. When Jake Paul, Logan’s brother, sports his WBO YouTube belt in the crowd while Hearn and the commentary repeat the mantra that this carnival was great for boxing, it’s hard to be as forgiving. It’s all fun and games until you pretend that it’s something more.