The concept of social media influencers branching out beyond their virtual lane is not a new one. In fact, one of the long-established early steps in the prototype Youtuber’s career is releasing some form of ‘merch’ line – generally, bulk-bought hoodies and tees plastered with their logo, courtesy of the family ironing board. As laughable as buying a £30 T-shirt with a picture of a car you don’t own on it may seem (yes, there’s a guy that really does that), such ventures are both enormously popular and extremely profitable. For confirmation of this you need only look as far as the commercial success of the likes of the Sidemen, who have nurtured what began as a spare bedroom-run endeavour into a now multi-million pound apparel enterprise with collaborations with prestigious sportswear brands like Ellesse. So is it fair that influencer-endorsed clothing, sports drinks and even alcohol are seemingly publicly venerated, but as soon as they turn their attention to boxing they are met with hostility?
For a start, it is worth noting that celebrity crossover boxing, of which influencer boxing is a denomination, is not a new concept. The phenomenon goes back some 40 years and has seen the likes of disgraced skater Tonya Harding, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and The Greatest himself, Muhammad Ali, step inside the ring. With such an esteemed and varied history of competitors, it seems unfair to criticise influencers participation disproportionately, simply owing to their profession outside of the sport.
Besides, it’s not as if influencers are leveraging their notoriety into mainstream professional contracts and leaving other pro fighters out in the cold, nor are they seeking representation through the likes of big promoters like Eddie Hearn or Frank Warren. Instead, as seen with the ‘Misfits’ outfit, founded by KSI and co, influencer boxing is evolving according to its own set of rules. Though ‘Misfits’ is officially licensed and sanctioned by the PBA, this is little more than a token status in order to qualify as ‘professional’; the PBA is an independent London based body and is a far cry from the prestige elicited by the likes of the IBF, WBA, WBC or WBO.
Despite officially ‘professional’ status and a few sensationalist claims to garner interest, the influencer scene holds no real pretensions to claiming true professional status and therefore surely cannot be considered a threat to the true, professional sport.
The one exception to this is Jake Paul (6-0), fittingly nicknamed ‘The Problem Child’, as he is the only member of the influencer boxing demographic to have consistently fought under professional, regulated conditions across the last five years, albeit against often decrepit opponents whose primary discipline does not lie in boxing. He is also the only influencer turned boxer that has apparently abandoned social media as his primary focus in favour of devoting himself to the sport entirely. Somewhat unsurprisingly therefore, Paul is the only fighter to have secured a professional bout with a notable opponent with any sort of self-respecting record: Tommy Fury (8-0), younger brother of the infamous two time heavy-weight champion Tyson Fury (33-1-0). Though the confirmation of the bouts future is a development of only the last week, Paul securing the fight at all only lends validity to the influencer scene, regardless of the result.
That being said, it’s not as if the amateur(ish) influencer boxing scene is unpopular, nor for that matter, unprofitable. It is quite the contrary. The breadth of viewer and subscribership among the influencer scene has ensured packed out stadiums at every event with some 10,000 fans reportedly having attended the most recent ‘Misfits’ event. The influencers’ entry into the boxing scene has undeniably been a resounding success, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed, as the rapidly emerging streaming service, DAZN, have signed on to platform the Misfits events with a PPV. Though the days of influencer boxing being gratuitous ending has irritated many, the difference between the £11.99 for Misfits’ most recent event as opposed to Sky Box Office’s bank-crippling demand of £19.95 in exchange for the full Eubank Jr. vs Smith card is not insignificant. Yes, the influencer events aren’t free and yes, the fights themselves are far from professional standard, but the price of the PPV reflects this and for many, it is seeing their favourite internet personalities in the ring at all, that compels them to gracefully hand DAZN their credit card information.
The truth is, that the issue of influencer boxing is only an issue at all for the type of traditionalist boot-cut-jeaned believers in the ‘good old days’ that you tend to meet on a Monday morning down your local spoons.
The purity of the sport isn’t ‘poisoned’ by influencer boxing; the two are mutually beneficial. One provides a platform for some of the greatest fighters to ever walk the planet, battle 12 rounds in pursuit of eternal glory, and the other engages younger audiences, brings in future revenue and maintains interest in a sport that is becoming increasingly inaccessible through extortionate pay-per-views and insurmountable pricewalls. Ignore the remonstrations of the former Top Gear presenter types, sit back, and enjoy the fight.
Image desription: Youtubers KSI and Logan Paul ahead of their first influencer boxing bout
Image credit: KSIvsLogan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)