Like the unwanted gatecrashers at a party, YouTubers and influencers won’t be leaving boxing anytime soon, writes Elliot Worsell
I came to discover the latest action from the world of YouTube Boxing the same way I came to discover the previous round of action from the world of YouTube Boxing and the same way one should always discover the latest round of action from the world of YouTube Boxing. In bed and bored, I scrolled past clip after clip, having watched not a second of it live, and found myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by what I saw, my reaction no different than had I been watching, say, a video of two women scrapping in a McDonald’s, a nurse pretending to cry in a corridor, or an afternoon beheading.
They were everywhere I looked, these clips. I knew none of the YouTubers featured in them but there were punches being thrown and bodies tumbling to the canvas and this, the punching and the tumbling, proved a recipe tasty enough to grab my wandering, whorish attention. It worked for many others, too; both those who watched the event live on DAZN and those who, like me, found the “highlights” on their social media feed sandwiched between sanctioning body presidents writing love letters to fighters, female boxers posing for bathroom selfies, and male boxers posting either conspiracy theories or CBD oil promo codes.
Still, what can you do? They are the players and this is the game. Ever-changing, and never fair, YouTubers in the ring is just the latest unlocked level of said game and avoiding it has become increasingly difficult due to both its rise in popularity and the attention given to it by the mainstream media and DAZN, a platform commonly associated with “real” boxing.
Seemingly, with little else going on that weekend (in boxing terms), plenty within the sport appeared to fill their time either working on KSI’s “Misfits” event or, if not in attendance, commenting on it, be it positively or negatively, in the aftermath.
I simply rubbernecked, however, and it was from a safe distance I was able to deduce that the people being negative about YouTube Boxing are deemed out-of-touch curmudgeons who are fretting unnecessarily about something that has no direct influence on a sport whose integrity they like to believe matters, whereas the people being positive about it are deemed morally bankrupt grifters whose desire to benefit financially (either now or in the future) supersedes their desire to care about things that actually matter in the sport.
I still don’t know where I personally stand on it, if I’m honest. But what I will say is that, like any other traumatic event in my life, I have managed to compartmentalise it, giving it pride of place between two very distinct islands: Love Island and Shutter Island.
It makes me think of Love Island for many reasons, all of which speak to the accepted dumbing down of society and how phrases like “escapism” and “just a bit of fun” have been used to green light any and all celebrations of stupidity. Both, too, Love Island and Misfits Boxing, are things I have never watched but, due to their coverage, feel as though I have.
Shutter Island, on the other hand, springs to mind because of how manipulative the whole thing appears to be, from the brainwashing of the masses (this is boxing, promise) to the brainwashing of the so-called boxers by people who should probably know better. Together, whether a boxer, a trainer, a promoter, or a member of the media covering the event, you are, by virtue of your involvement in this charade, playing dress-up, no more than pretending. You are shielding yourselves from the ridiculousness of the experience by gormlessly smiling, and nodding, and telling yourself and each other, “See, it’s not that bad, is it? It’s only a bit of fun.”
That’s fine if kept amongst yourselves, but such delusion has a trickle-down effect. Now, because of this, what we have are a number of YouTubers thinking they can actually box, and even have a right to box, as well as a number of boxers, actual boxers, considering the financial benefit of calling out these YouTubers for an exhibition bout, so keen are they to not be forgotten.
It’s a grim state of affairs, whichever way you look at it. Moreover, we have reached a stage now where “boxing people” are turning on other “boxing people” who don’t lighten up and welcome with open arms the latest intruder to show up unannounced. “If anything, pro boxers should learn from the influencer boxers and invest in their social media platforms,” I saw one person preach on social media last weekend. “Vlog on YouTube, post training clips on Instagram and TikTok. Takes time and investment, but it’s important to create your own platform to promote yourself.”
While I accept the fact times have changed, and boxing and boxers need to adjust accordingly, to amend tradition as a consequence of an influencer’s supposed impact would be an act even more submissive and pathetic than letting them enter in the first place. Not only that, to promote has always been the job of the promoter, not the boxer, so why should that be any different now? Boxers, let’s not forget, are, by nature, fighting people. That’s what they do. Promoters, by their nature, are promoters. They talk. They sell. They lie. They put themselves and their boxers out there.
And yet somehow in the past few years, fuelled no doubt by the rise of pay-per-view and especially social media, promoters have been given free rein to point an accusatory finger in the direction of boxers for not doing their bit in terms of the big sell. Meanwhile, call it jumping before the ship sinks, these same promoters will periodically be seen running around twerking for the already established needle-movers (boxer or not) instead of doing their actual job: highlighting talent early, nurturing it, and telling the world how great the boxer is on the boxer’s behalf.
They’re in the business of doing deals, I realise that, but some deals you make with the devil. Here, no different than in any other walk of life, content creators will inevitably bring more eyes to whatever it is they’re doing – which, regrettably, includes their take on “boxing” – but, if colluding with them, you must give away your soul – that is, in this instance, boxing’s soul.
Look around for proof. Whether we’re talking pay-per-view events, or regular Saturday night cards, we have seen a gradual decrease in not only the quality but also the importance placed on competitive matchups as a selling point. Why? Because these things are almost unnecessary nowadays; too challenging, too risky, too basic an idea. Moreover, why would you choose to make high-stakes matchups when all that is required to pull in big numbers is to glove up a famous but talentless man-child and monetise the “beef” they have with an equally talentless man-child? “Oh, but you can tell he’s really trained hard for this…”
I guess if I care about anything in this Grave New World it’s how the perception of boxing could become disfigured in the future. Already, in fact, when out in the real world, I find myself getting asked more about Jake Paul and his next fight than I do anything or anyone else and have a habit of reacting the same way every time: basically, feigning ignorance while dying a little inside.
But I understand the interest, I do. I understand that, as with most things, boxing is ruled by perception. And while those within the sport know YouTube Boxing has (to date) no real ripple effect on the sport itself, the perception of the sport in the eyes of those on the outside is that it’s becoming a playground for the loud mouths, the influencers, and the gamers with silly names. It’s becoming hip and fashionable, the fights ideal for short attention spans and shallow knowledge.
More worrying than that, the rise in YouTubers being legitimised in boxing makes you question boxing, if only because it reduces a sweet science to its most basic, primal elements. It makes you wonder if in the end the naysayers are right: maybe it is just punching people in the head. Nothing more.
For being so universal and easily understood, it has become easily replicated, considered fun for all. But, if that’s true, doesn’t that do a disservice to and reflect badly on the skill boxing – real boxing – actually requires?
Those who understand the nuances, those who marvel at the likes of Oleksandr Usyk or Terence Crawford, or even the skills shown in a British title fight, will see the difference, of course they will. However, my concern is that the general public might not, thus leaving the remarkable feats of boxers underappreciated beyond the keen but tired eyes of the boxing community.
Whether the Misfits intend to deceive is up for debate, though one could argue, in calling themselves misfits yet cashing in on their online popularity, they are already telling fibs. The truth, it seems, is that rather than misfits they are a bunch of go-getters made “social media famous” by screen-addicted children whose primary concern is their follower count and bank balance. Then again, perhaps, because of my own lack of knowledge, that’s doing them a disservice.
Certainly, if coming at it from a financial perspective, I get it – and them. We have let them in and they are now free to rape and pillage as much as they want, just as those within boxing are free to suck from the giant tit that emerges from this movement as a result.
In that sense, the business model is obvious, one easy to grasp. But although I am able to understand the business model of YouTube Boxing, it is a business model I understand the same way I understand the business model of drug dealing, or pirating, or extortion, or money laundering, or cockfighting, or prostitution, or human trafficking. It is, in other words, something I am able to both understand and still dislike.
I can also accept that to criticise the business element from within the business is akin to criticising a gang of youths for entering a shop called STEAL EVERYTHING and taking goods from the shelves without paying. Because there can be no argument now: boxing and its blasé approach to any kind of governance or moral standard has made itself an easy target for this sort of behaviour, this sort of access, and this sort of infestation. Once respected, it is now, sadly, a sport analogous to pantomime; something social media stars do for fun during downtime; something easy; something harmless.
Yet, despite kindly letting them in, the sport is not going to be appreciated and embraced by the cool kids the way promoters, those holding the doors open, would like you to think. It is instead being mocked, used, its fate that of the unpopular student who completes popular students’ homework in the hope of no longer being ignored. The true misfit, you might say.