The role of celebrities in sport

In the early hours of Sunday just gone, fans across the globe will have tuned in to watch the boxing rematch between YouTube sensations KSI and Logan Paul.

At the Staples Center – home to both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers – the pair, who boast more than 40 million subscribers between them, put on a second underwhelming display, lacking in boxing ability to an almost laughable extent.

However, this was different; this time they fought as professionals – not amateurs – in a six-round cruiserweight bout with lighter 10oz gloves and without protective headgear.

Promoter of the rematch, Eddie Hearn explained this, stating that the duo would have to “follow the code of everybody else,” to avoid it being a “novelty event.”

This is quite the retraction from his position before the first fight that he would not get involved, even being insulted by it as a purist of the sport.

The first fight, over a year ago, generated a live gate of almost £3 million and close to 1 million pay-per-view purchases at £7.50 each. Considering many more opt to stream these events using pirated websites, it could be argued that the fight introduced boxing to a younger, previously out of reach demographic.

However, in response to this, it is submitted today that these fans will simply not be followers of boxing in the long-term.

Generally, the most loyal sports fans attend events where they are financially able to do so. Therefore, it is interesting to note that unlike their first amateur bout where they sold out the 21,000 capacity Manchester Arena, the YouTube megastars were unable to fill the 20,000 seats available to be purchased in Los Angeles.

Why, you may ask? One would assume that a professional boxing match without as much protective gear, with world championship fights on the undercard, in what has traditionally been the world’s biggest boxing nation, would lead to an enormous demand that could not be met by the organisers.

But one would be mistaken. Interest in attending appears to have fallen, and it is clear that the many casual or even committed fans of the internet sensations were not sufficiently convinced by what they saw in the first fight to attend the sequel.

This should have been anticipated. If you’re one of the 20 million YouTube subscribers or 9 billion viewers of KSI and Logan Paul’s videos, you don’t care that IBF super-lightweight champion, Josh Taylor, said they’re not boxers. Nor that promoter, Frank Warren, called them, “Not even decent amateurs.”

If you’re not watching the main event for the quality of the boxing, then likewise, why would you care about professional boxing at all?

Those two having top-billing over world champions, such as Billy Joe Saunders, compromises the integrity of boxing. Paul had a far greater advantage in both reach and weight than is standard in a boxing match, yet the combined lack of skill of the pair managed to render these factors almost immaterial.

The fact that the duo received a professional boxing license in itself is nonsensical. According to the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, boxing record, boxing experience, boxing skill and physical condition are all factors to be considered in the granting of such a license.

Aside from their first fight, only one of the two YouTubers had a single amateur fight to their name.

KSI was coached by Viddal Riley, a British boxer of only three professional bouts, while Paul’s trainer was a former world heavyweight title holder Shannon Briggs, who has been unable to obtain a licence to fight himself since failing a drugs test.

Surely then, former England footballer Rio Ferdinand – a professional sportsman trained by drug-free Richie Woodhall, a former WBC super-middleweight champion – would be granted a licence. He was not.

In fact, general secretary of the British Boxing Board of Control, Robert Smith said that this would not be “sensible for him or for the sport”. Clear as day it is then, that this divergence from standard policy must be linked to the far greater financial incentives in play.

This is not unfamiliar territory for boxing. The finest boxer of his generation, Floyd Mayweather Jr – unbeaten in 49 fights and 26 world championship contests with titles in five weight classes – fought an opponent with no professional boxing experience, Connor McGregor.

These unsafe, illogical events are not one-offs.

Former manager Frank Maloney, described former cricketer Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff’s sole foray into boxing as “a mockery.”

Outside of boxing, there is CM Punk – a formerly scripted wrestler – being granted a waiver to compete in the UFC, the largest MMA organisation in the world. This is in spite of him having no amateur fights to his name. Strangest of all may have to be Jesse Owens’ races against thoroughbred horses. 

Of course, exceptions to all rules of thumb exist, with Soccer Aid – a charity football event that raised almost £7 million for children’s charity Unicef – being a prime example of this. Here, however, they take greater care with the health of the celebrities involved, perhaps illustrated best by Michael Sheen repeatedly being substituted after only a matter of minutes each year that he turns out for the event, simply due to a lack of fitness.

Further, Soccer Aid helps to bring an important social message to a wider audience, much like the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in 1973, which brought women’s sports – particularly tennis – into the limelight.

Had KSI and Logan Paul donated the proceedings of their rematch to charity, then they would certainly be entitled to the “respect” that Eddie Hearn believes they deserve.

Instead, the rank commerciality of the event reflects a bastardisation of the sport that attracts fans of celebrities, who quickly get bored, rather than enthusiasts who can appreciate the rules of the match.

I am inclined to agree wholeheartedly with a comment made by fellow promoter Bob Arum: “there are things in life to get excited about and this is not one of them.”

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Luke Saward