When the two worlds of boxing and MMA met in August 2017, Conor McGregor swapped cage for squared circle and took on Floyd Mayweather. It was dubbed ‘The Money Fight’ which generated in the region of $150 million dollars for the fighters alone. While it grabbed the attention of an audience far beyond that of a normal bout, it also opened the door for social media stars to hijack the sport.
Almost exactly a year later, YouTube stars KSI and Logan Paul met at a sold-out Manchester Arena for “the biggest event in internet history” generating millions of live views, streams and enough content to stoke the fire for a rematch in Las Vegas a year later. Despite initial ridicule that two vloggers turned boxers could create a buzz about their faux beef, broadcasters and promoters quickly took note of the figures and scrambled to grab their share of pay-per-view rights. The amount of pay per views eventually sold rivalled that of the Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz heavyweight title fight and suddenly, boxing had a new, viral dimension.
Now a year on from that rematch, Paul’s brother Jake has stepped into the ring too – most recently knocking out ex-NBA star Nate Robinson on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s exhibition fight with Roy Jones Jr. The event as a whole was marred with concerns on safety, with the age of Tyson and Jones questioned for a licensed fight. However, attention quickly turned to Jake Paul’s brutal knockout of Robinson which left the former basketballer needing medical attention for several minutes after hitting the canvas. As the BBC reported soon after the fight, many boxers and coaches took to social media to question the ease with which Robinson could get a license to compete with his lack of training and protection putting him in unavoidable danger. Was the tail wagging the dog now, with boxing cutting corners to maintain the surge of interest in glorified exhibition fights?
So when Jake Paul backed himself to be “new Floyd Mayweather” and called out Irish MMA legend McGregor after just his second boxing match, what on face value appears to be crass and disrespectful is just another step in driving the online brand. Mike Tyson certainly wasn’t one of the detractors, saying, “Give them some belts because these guys make boxing alive. Boxing was pretty much a dying sport. The UFC was kicking our butt.”
With Jake Paul now up and running in utilising boxing to increase his exposure and global reach, surely the way is paved for him to take on KSI or even his own brother, Logan. If the Twitter algorithm demands it, then this new age of internet tycoon will rarely miss out on the opportunity to manipulate it in their favour.
Therein lies a problem that boxing itself must solve, where investing in these new stars for them to quickly hang up the gloves and move on to the next trend could leave a reputational damage for the sport that proves hard to repair. The purist fan and gym-based, grassroots coach may well wonder what direction the sport they know is drifting in. For all the initial buzz, bluster and undoubted worldwide interest in this celebrity crossover, elite quality and training is something that can’t be replicated overnight and as such, leaves a superficial taste to the legacy of this period in boxing.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that boxing has always been about showmanship and unabashed promotion in the build up to a fight. Some of the biggest clashes of recent years, particularly involving Tyson Fury and David Haye before him, have followed weeks of volatile press conferences, skirmishes and appearances in Batman costumes, all centered around sales. The virtual droves that flock to engage with a KSI/Paul type clash are already at a number that most boxers and promoters could only dream of, only amplifying the search for an iconic quote or ‘likeable’ image.