Celebrity boxing is a satire, but the punchline is an unexpected one | Jonathan Liew

The bout between KSI and FaZe Temperrr underlines the phenomenon’s growing popularity and poses questions for the sport itself

The fighters circle each other uncertainly, a little skittishly, pawing at fresh air, loosening their limbs, feeling the spring and thud of the canvas under their boots. It takes them around 15 seconds to get bored of that and start swinging at each other.

KSI flings a straight right that looks uncannily like a man falling into a bus. FaZe Temperrr, a little off-balance, responds with a check-hook that brings to mind a guy trying to pick up a cat in one arm. Approximately half a minute in they start trading, although again this description seems somehow inadequate. What really happens is that KSI runs at Temperrr wildly flailing his arms, and so Temperrr also starts wildly flailing his arms – you know, the way any of us would in a similar situation – before finally entangling themselves around each other like a pair of discarded Christmas trees on a Sidcup pavement.

After a while KSI begins to find his range, to time his rushes a little better, to stay clear of Temperrr’s long levers and use his superior speed in lightning bursts. With just under a minute remaining of the first round he moves in and unleashes a solid right-left combination that bursts through Temperrr’s entirely theoretical defences and catches him flush on the face. As Temperrr’s legs buckle beneath him, around 12,000 fans at Wembley Arena whoop and holler and rise to their feet as if this is all an actual thing.

And, you know, maybe it is. Perhaps the most arresting aspect of influencer boxing – a relatively recent phenomenon in which social media stars slap each other around for a couple of minutes to frankly astonishing audience numbers – is how keen it is to cloak itself in the togs of “proper sport”. There are actual commentators saying actual boxing things. After his victory KSI gets handed a belt for an entirely made-up title. On social media fans analyse the fight in earnestly granular detail, discuss potential next opponents for KSI. Joe Fournier is an option, apparently. Salt Papi has been calling him out. Jake Paul is the one everyone wants, obviously, but nobody expects that to happen for a while.

If you’re not familiar with the characters of this curious parallel universe, then it’s possible that your eyes began to glaze over long before this point. And perhaps the natural reaction here is simply to tune out, perhaps with a small shake of the head, a quiet elegy and a gruff aside about young people these days. Even within the sport the rise of the influencers has been subject to fierce debate, pearl-clutching and fist-shaking, visions of an apocalyptic future in which boxing has been entirely consumed by frivolous celebrity sideshow. In just a few years influencers have warped the economy of the sport to the point where the likes of KSI and Paul have already earned more in a few fights than, say, a world champion such as Josh Taylor will ever earn in his life.

KSI goes on the attack against FaZe Temper.
KSI goes on the attack against FaZe Temper. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

For me the really interesting part of this is why hundreds of thousands of people are so invested in a product that – by any objective sporting standard – is not very good. And they really are invested. According to some reports – and as with any big number in boxing, these probably need to be taken with the appropriate saline accompaniment – the KSI v Faze Temperrr fight last weekend attracted 300,000 pay-per-view buys on Dazn. A KSI-Paul showdown would likely break all known records.

The first thing to point out is that by all accounts the audience for celebrity boxing is quite different to the audience for traditional boxing. By and large they skew younger, follow stars rather than the sport itself, pay scant attention to The Ring lineages or the writing of George Plimpton. You’re probably not going to see them at York Hall on a Friday night. Once the YouTube boxing bubble begins to flag – as pretty much every internet trend eventually does – then most likely the influencers will take their fans with them.

The second point to make is that there is a certain irony in the accusations of vulgarity and avarice, of poor quality fights and content for content’s sake, given they are traits that have been woven into the fabric of boxing itself for what seems like decades. The big fights so rarely get made, nobody really means anything they say, self-interest reigns supreme and the quality of the product often fails to match the promotional spiel. Besides, PR stunts and crossover experiments are really nothing new. Remember Muhammad Ali’s ill-fated foray into wrestling in the 1970s?

It is in this context that the grotesquely fascinating rise of the influencers needs to be seen. In a sense, influencer boxing is a kind of sporting cosplay: almost a satire on boxing itself, arch and knowing and irony-soaked, taking its existing characteristics and exaggerating them for effect. They look like boxers. They walk and act like boxers. They trash-talk and call each other out like boxers. The product itself looks superficially like boxing. By the time the punchline sinks – they fight like drunks in The Grapes at 1am – you are already in on the joke.

And by any measure this really is a very good joke: creating a pastiche of boxing so effective and note-perfect that it has proven more popular than the real thing. Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many of the YouTube boxers began their careers filming pranks and putting them online. Boxing’s task is to discover why it was so ripe for parody.


Jonathan Liew

The GuardianTramp

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