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Celebrity boxing: Gimmick or game-changer?

Looking behind the curtain of the phenomenon
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REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY
REBECA MOYA/THE VARSITY

Boxing is a sport with generational relevance. From the record billion people that watched Muhammad Ali knock out George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle to Manny Pacquiao vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s fight — the best-selling pay-per-view fight in history — the sport has been able to attract an ample viewership for a long time. In recent history, however, boxing’s audience has been exponentially increased by ‘celebrity boxing.’ Although the phenomenon of stars entering the ring has been present since 1994, it has seen unprecedented growth in recent years. 

This growth can undeniably be attributed to popular YouTubers KSI and Logan Paul battling it out in the Manchester Arena in 2018. Prior to Logan Paul, KSI had already fought YouTuber and amateur boxer Joe Weller in an event amassing an audience in the millions. KSI used that platform to call out Logan Paul. Months of hype, diss tracks from both parties, and YouTube videos boiled down into the then largest non-professional boxing event of all time with an estimated one million people watching via pay-per-view. The fight ended in a draw but opportunists world over won, as they realized the potential of the previously untapped industry of celebrity boxing. 

As of today, the popular video-sharing service Triller has its own Celebrity Boxing League, and the world has seen popular content creators, celebrities, and even professional athletes generously devour a piece of this pie. The revenue is largely made from pay-per-view passes and brand deals, and although only one of the two fighters gets the trophy, both get a pay cheque. In a nutshell, the amount of money involved in this industry is massive, with a match involving well-known celebrities — for example, the fight between Ben Askren and Jake Paul — raking in upwards of 75 million USD in pay-per-views alone. Although celebrities leave no stone unturned — at least according to their social media channels — in training for their fights, the money they make from a fight is far greater than what most professional boxers would make. This points to a rather sad truth: while celebrity boxing has boosted boxing’s reputation as a sport, the reason celebrity boxing is a hit with the masses is because of the stars and not the sport itself. 

“The rise of celebrity boxing has blurred the line between sports and entertainment,” claims Adam Friscia in The Slate, and rightly so. In the past, boxing was revered as a sport where you leave everything in the ring and not in the media. The hype for the fights wasn’t created by unimpressive diss tracks or clickbait YouTube videos but rather by the personae of the fighters involved and the belt that they were fighting for. 

However, now the sport, although increasing in viewership, has been tainted by the cheap stunts of promotion. Purists claim that the sport is increasingly looking like its distant cousin, professional wrestling — think WWE, not the Olympics. Although we can’t know whether the boxing world will completely imbibe the theatrics of professional wrestling, opportunist YouTube stars will continue to imbibe the world of celebrity boxing if there is money in it.