KSI, Logan Paul, Salt Papi: the influencers redefining boxing for the TikTok generation | Boxing

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Salt Papi, real name Busta Breezie, is a 28-year-old with slick dance moves, a pencil moustache and a mean left hook. He was born in the Philippines, moved to the UK as a teenager, and won fame – and a stage name – with his TikTok videos that parody Salt Bae, the celebrity Turkish chef known for ostentatiously sprinkling salt over meals. That, and videos in which he pretends to be running in slow motion. Papi used to be the “chubby” kid at school – fast food was his jam. Now he’s licking his lips as he dances around a boxing ring in Wembley Arena with Josh Brueckner, a YouTuber and MMA fighter with a cut-glass jaw and abs coming out of his ears.

It’s not boxing as you know it, but Wembley Arena is packed – 10,000 people on the edge of their seats. We’re midway through an undercard that features a string of match-ups between vloggers, TikTok stars, Love Island-ers and OnlyFans creators. It will culminate in a headline bout between KSI, the 29-year-old rapper, YouTuber and co-owner of the energy drink Prime, and FaZe Temperrr, a pro Call of Duty player and co-owner of one of the world’s biggest esports organisations, FaZe Clan. “Watch it,” KSI told me in the days leading up to the fight, acknowledging the anarchy of the operation, “It’s all over the place.”

Beyond the venue, 300,000 people on either side of the Atlantic are doing just that, having paid to tune into the action from their homes. Many more, I imagine, are watching via unofficial channels. And what’s not to like? Ripped internet celebs! Viral violence! Social-media spats! Knockouts! If you were going to bottle late 2010s to roaring-20s culture and send it to space so that aliens could understand the vibes, this is what you’d put in the bottle. It’s the strangest concoction of what could vaguely pass as family entertainment currently streaming to a teenager near you.

You don’t need John Prescott to tell you that everyone loves to see public figures swing punches, and celebrity boxing – in the organised sense – has been around for decades. In the past these fixtures haven’t made the easiest viewing. When Fox aired Celebrity Boxing, in 2002, the pairings were bleak. Tonya Harding, the disgraced figure skater, was pitched against Paula Jones, a civil servant known for suing Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. Season two (two!) sunk television programming to the depths of the Mariana Trench with a fight between Joey Buttafuoco, a tabloid villain from Long Island who had been convicted for statutory rape and shooting his wife, and Chyna, a female professional wrestler. Buttafuoco won, and used the platform to say he’d been screwed by the legal system. There was truly nothing to feel good about.

KSI and FaZe Temperrr duke it out.
KSI and FaZe Temperrr duke it out. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

A string of charity and exhibition matches followed. Millions watched Ricky Gervais fight Grant Bovey, which Frank Warren, the boxing promoter, said made a farce of this “noble art”. After outrage from the British Board of Boxing, future fights in the series were cancelled. Subsequent events involving celebs were pretty shallow: flash-in-the-pan pop culture moments you’d soon forget had ever happened (or wish hadn’t). But this new incarnation of celebrity boxing, drawing on the vast pool of internet stars, is coalescing into something more sustained. And, strangely, genuinely watchable.

It started in 2018. Simmering internet beef between KSI, real name Olajide “JJ” Olatunji, and another British YouTuber, Joe Weller, boiled over into an organised bout that was streamed by millions. After his victory, KSI took the opportunity to call out two of the world’s biggest internet celebrities – Jake and Logan Paul, the fair-haired bros from Ohio with a vast following (and a long list of controversies to their name). They were game. As Jake would later tell the New Yorker: “One thing that is great about being a fighter is, like, you can’t get cancelled.”

Bespectacled ‘chubby boy’ Salt Papi, the new fan favourite.
Bespectacled ‘chubby boy’ Salt Papi, the new fan favourite. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

A few months later an amateur fight was held at Manchester Arena. KSI faced Logan Paul (it was a draw) and KSI’s brother, Deji, took on Jake (who won). It was touted as the “biggest internet event in history” and drew the eyes of millions, including those of Eddie Hearn, who leapt in to set up a professional fight for the pair at the Staples Center in Los Angeles the following year. It was a roaring success, delighting as many viewers as it provoked, unlocking with it a Pandora’s box of debate that swaggers jauntily around the influencer boxing scene to this day. Is it legitimate boxing? Is proper boxing boring? What even is “proper” boxing? To those involved, mere tittle tattle. Two million people paid to view the fight, millions more streamed it illegally. It pulled in an estimated £150m. Ding, ding, ding.

In the years since, YouTuber, influencer or crossover boxing, whatever you choose to call it, has grown in stature, with more fights and more fans. It has become increasingly difficult to ignore, even for the most ignorant (and by that, I mean, most people over the age of 30). The audience at Wembley Arena boasts a uniquely broad spectrum of stars, some of whom I would look straight through were it not for Brent Jennings, a 24-year-old student from London, sitting next to me. He’s been tuned into these guys for years, paid £400 for a ringside seat and tells me it’s money well spent.

For starters, Jennings is pumped to be mere feet away from Danny Aarons, a 20-year-old Fifa streamer with half a million subscribers on YouTube and Twitch, quietly seated in the row ahead. Jennings’s younger brother watches this guy “for breakfast, lunch and dinner”, I’m told. He flicks open his phone to show me Aaron’s YouTube page. “Mad!” He asks Aarons for a selfie. Shortly after, Aarons leans forward to ask for a selfie with the woman in front of him. It’s Holly Willoughby. She obliges. On the other side of the ring (beyond a smattering of Love Island-ers, KSI’s YouTube crew the Sidemen and members of FaZe Clan) is Louis Theroux. Krishnan Guru-Murthy is also there with his children. So is Katie Price.

Anthony ‘Pretty Boy’ Taylor, on screens everywhere.
Anthony ‘Pretty Boy’ Taylor, on screens everywhere. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

There’s boxing royalty, like Michael Buffer, in a paisley tux, here to announce the headline billing; Derek Chisora, in shades and a beanie. Rappers like Jme and AJ Tracey. Vape smoke wafts in from behind me where a group of friends converse in a huddle: “I swear that guy used to review chicken wings.” They peer down the aisle: it’s Elijah Quashie (the Chicken Connoisseur) best known for his YouTube series, the Pengest Munch. Who isn’t here?

Up by the bar, Brian Michael Hinds, AKA the Bottom G, AKA the Gay Andrew Tate – who went viral last summer for performing a mocking TikTok dance of his controversial doppelganger – is having a dance-off with a bloke who also seems to be cosplaying as Tate with the help of a prosthetic scalp and a pair of aviators. Everybody gathers round to cheer, phones out, filming.

Celebrity, clearly, is evolving, but celebrity boxing is evolving, too. What was once a degrading spectacle is now a (sort of) serious sport. As the players throw themselves into training camps, the quality of the scraps has sharpened. Jake Paul, in particular, has gained notoriety as a credible fighter (even Logan lasted the full eight rounds in an exhibition match with Floyd Mayweather Jr). The transatlantic rivalry between Jake Paul and KSI, household names who both remain undefeated, provides an enticing narrative engine with which to drum up attention for all involved.

OnlyFans’ Elle Brooke and influencer Faith Ordway.
OnlyFans’ Elle Brooke and influencer Faith Ordway. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

KSI v Jake Paul is touted to take place later this year. If previous fights have lit up the internet, this one will probably break it. In the meantime, KSI is at the heart of those hoping to build something bigger than his imminent grand duel. In 2021, Misfits Boxing was launched. It’s a collaboration between KSI’s management company, Proper Loud, and boxing promoters the Sauerland Brothers (now under the fold of Wasserman Boxing). The fights – featuring an expanding roster of creators to porn stars, rappers to MMA fighters – have been raucous, even if the boxing itself is questionable. In January, after a string of successful pay-per-view events, Misfits and DAZN, the streaming platform, announced a five-year exclusivity deal. The people with the purse strings seem to think they are on to something. Could influencer boxing be here to stay?

Three days before the fight, KSI is leaning back in his chair, dressed in a gleaming white suit with a pink pocket square and a chain around his neck. The two of us are in a small room in Wembley Boxpark, where a press conference is due to be held as part of the promotional buildup. He exudes calm and focus – this past week has been pretty chill, I’m told. Watching TV, playing video games, shooting some content. None of the pre-fight nerves he used to get. “It helps when you train hard,” says KSI. “I’ve done about 111 rounds of boxing… not even light work… where they’re trying to knock my head off… and I’m surviving and holding my own.”

Brendon Davis, AKA BDave.
Brendon Davis, AKA BDave. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

The commitment among the fighters is commendable (Jake Paul trains at night to acclimatise himself to fight schedules). But people aren’t watching because they expect something balletic, right? “I’m not trying to compete with traditional boxing,” says KSI, as a young guy in a hoodie sneaks in behind him and leaves clutching bottles of Prime. “This is about who can be the most entertaining. Who can talk the talk and walk the walk, and be entertaining along the way. And that’s why people are so obsessed with it.”

The rivalries in this rolling soap opera can seem artificial – Jake Paul may be KSI’s arch nemesis, but it hasn’t stopped him partnering with Logan to launch Prime – but what’s wrong with a bit of theatre? Pro wrestling, such as WWE, is completely scripted, but has absolute buy-in from its audience. The “realness” is irrelevant. In that sense, Misfits seems to be built on an understanding that the best sporting events are not simply about who is the best physically, but about the storytelling and characters behind it. As KSI puts it: “We want to be the WWE of boxing.”

The press conference commences and the stars of the Misfits universe vie for attention. Each has their own narrative, each moulded to fit an archetype (though arguably the one archetype they all fit is “creator”). There’s Elle Brooke, a TikTok and OnlyFans star from Surrey, sauntering around in a tiara and “Birthday Girl” sash. Anthony “Pretty Boy” Taylor, an MMA fighter from California with a pencil moustache and red velvet smoking jacket. Ryan Taylor, a pro BMX rider from Walsall, lumbering about in a white furry bucket hat shouting back at taunts.

On stage, each takes their turn to square up, shout profanities, call out new names for fights and blow out their 15 minutes of fame. When KSI and FaZe Temperrr take to the stage, Anthony Taylor interrupts from the balcony. “What about me?” he yells, waving a bottle of Prime. “What about me?!”

Anthony Pretty Boy Taylor with Love Island’s Idris Virgo.
Anthony Pretty Boy Taylor with Love Island’s Idris Virgo. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

Cheering and jeering is a throng of fans in Dragon Ball Z hoodies, Drew House sweatshirts and 50 shades of North Face jacket. There is also a junket of vloggers, part of the self-sustaining media ecosystem fuelling the sport. These are largely fronted by teenagers, some of whom get more privileged access than the mainstream press. Like Fox Townley, who goes by the handle FoxTheG, a lean 17-year-old with long blond hair and a baseball cap with his moniker on it. He was actually flown over from the US by Misfits to film content around the fight, he tells me, and is there with his mum, Avian Townley, 48, who looks a little out of place in her red-checked shirt and Kanken rucksack. “I do not understand about 85% of what the hell is happening,” she says. “But I’m very proud.”

The following morning, the cast arrives for weigh-in. Cue more showboating and a stage invasion by Likkleman, a 3ft-tall fighter with half a million Instagram followers. Enjoying the spectacle are Kalle Sauerland and Mams Taylor, a pop producer and owner of Proper Loud, who was raised on a diet of WWE. The duo – dressed in Misfits brand tracksuit – are bridging the two worlds. “Let’s not beat around the bush,” says Sauerland, who ducks and dives like he’s dodging punches when he talks. “It draws numbers that very few entertainment sport segments could dream of reaching.” Now he’s getting calls from all sorts: “mainstream celebrities, footballers, athletes, actors, actresses…” Taylor chips in: “People you’d never dream of… I can’t even tell you.”

Shadow boxing: KSI.
Shadow boxing: KSI. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

So what’s changed? What makes this so desirable while celebrity boxing in the past has been associated with Z-listers chasing cash? “This rabid fanbase” says Taylor. “If you connect with those kids, they’ll buy your products. They’ll watch your TV show. They’ll follow you.” He looks at me from under his black cowboy hat, through a pair of blacked-out shades printed with the Louis Vuitton logo. “The uncool has become cool.”

Those representing the established sport have their reservations. Last year Jake Wood, the EastEnders actor and co-host of the Pound for Pound boxing podcast, tweeted that YouTuber boxing “undermines what professional boxers and boxing stands for”. Others have taken offence at influencers calling out professionals for a fight. “Know your limit,” Carl Frampton, a former pro boxer, said on the William Hill Stripped podcast.

But increasingly, there’s a muted respect. “It’s not boxing, it’s barely even fighting in some cases,” wrote Matt Christie in Boxing News. “But when the fans – those who pay – are happy and not constantly moaning about everything being a waste of money, then ‘celebrity boxing’ is doing something that ‘real boxing’ is not.”

Andy Clarke, a boxing commentator who was covering the fight at Wembley for talkSPORT, told me that it used to make him uncomfortable. “I worried that if someone suffered an injury, proper boxing would carry the can for it,” he said. “But as long as they are trying to make it as safe as possible, just as they do with pro boxing, amateur boxing, white-collar boxing – which happens up and down the country every weekend – then you can’t ask for too much more than that.”

Besides, says Clarke, since Misfits was set up, it has forged its own identity and community: “It just exists in its own crazy bubble.”

Finally, fight night. In the warren of corridors and dressing rooms behind Wembley Arena, the fighters prep for their moment. Glove up. Flurry about for a last moment of shadow boxing. Out on the streets a queue snakes from the building. There are men in sharp suits, women in stilettos, but between the glitz are awkward kids chasing their dads, and teenagers making their first trip to London.

Grrrr… KSI faces up to FaZe Temperrr.
Grrrr… KSI faces up to FaZe Temperrr. Photograph: Perou/The Observer

Sauerland was right. Unlike the usual boxing match, people really do show up early for the undercards. From 7pm the stadium is energised, though the age of the audience skews far younger than your usual boxing crowd. Some fights are forgettable, others magnetic. KSI, as promised, wins his fight against FaZe Temperrr after an impressive first-round knockout. But by then it’s clear that other fighters are rising up – in this strange new sporting universe, at least – with unexpected talent and unmistakable star quality.

That, undeniably, comes from Salt Papi. He showboats his way through his first round with Josh Brueckner, dropping his arms to hop a playful toe-to-toe jig before sharing a smile with the crowd. He has their undivided attention. Moments into round two, and it’s all over; Papi’s southpaw sends Brueckner to the deck. He slices a finger across his throat, raises his gloves in victory and swaggers back to his corner to return his wire-framed spectacles to his nose.

Not for the first time that evening, Jennings leaps out of his seat, waving his phone in the air. “Salt Papi, he’s the killer!” It’s not that he doesn’t love “proper” boxing too, it’s just that this has an extra layer to it. Following the stars as they train, watching their journey, their physical transformation, their beef, their banter, is a big part of it. Salt Papi, the chubby kid from school, the TikTok jester… now he’s winning praise from the likes of Chris Eubank Jr. Even Eddie Hearn is tempted. “I want to turn Salt Papi pro,” he said recently. “He’s a man of the people.”

It’s a fable for our time.

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