Logan Paul vs. KSI is not the boxing PPV you’re used to

Boxing likes to judge itself by its numbers, and this week’s highest-profile bout is no exception. Nine million viewers for a promotional tour media event in London, with 3,000 turning up in person. Millions tuning in for the final press conference at Staples Center in Los Angeles, with the final figures still being counted on Thursday night.

More than 800,000 buying on pay-per-view the first time the protagonists fought, with millions of dollars left on the table because another 1.2 million were able to watch for free due to a proliferation of pirated streams.

In the modern boxing world, these are big, serious, legitimate numbers. The fight they are related to, however, has come under fire for being anything but legitimate.

On Saturday, Staples Center will be packed for the second matchup between a pair of YouTube sensations, Logan Paul and KSI (real name Olajide Olatunji). The card is being orchestrated by Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn, who jumped aboard after being attracted by the interest in the first fight — a draw fought under amateur rules in Manchester, England, in December 2017.

Hearn is one of the most influential promoters in the sport and Paul and KSI were grateful for his promotional nous. Before long, Hearn had arranged for DAZN — the 14-month-old streaming service that has boxing stars Anthony Joshua, Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin under contract — to serve as broadcaster.

This time — at Hearn’s insistence — the fight will be held under professional rules. Both men had to get medically tested, licensed by the California State Athletic Commission, and formally approved. There will be no headgear this time around.

Paul has been trained by former world heavyweight champ Shannon Briggs, while KSI has worked under the supervision of the Mayweather Gym in Las Vegas. And in an extraordinary marriage of entertainment and sports, two official world title fights are on the undercard of two guys making their pro debut.

Rising star Devin Haney will defend his WBC lightweight title against Alfredo Santiago, while WBO super middleweight champ Billy Joe Saunders puts his belt on the line against Marcelo Esteban Coceres.

Within boxing circles, the whole thing is attracting more debate than the most hotly-derided split decision. Purists hate it.

“I had no trouble pushing Paul vs. KSI when it was a prank/mad/fun fight: I loved that it did great numbers,” British boxing expert Steve Bunce wrote on Twitter. “It’s trickier now that they are in my business.”

“It probably will come to no good end,” Hall of Fame boxing broadcaster Larry Merchant told The Athletic.

However, while boxing has repeatedly shown the ability to generate large audiences when marketed and promoted in the right way (and boxing has always been tremendous at promotion if nothing else), its lingering problem has been in its aging core fan base. Hearn believes an event such as this — Staples will be filled predominantly with teenagers this weekend — is a huge opportunity.

“How can it not be a good thing?” Hearn said. “Are we not going to try to attract a new audience to the sport and just stick with the existing audience? That would be moronic. This is a quick way to bring in a new audience and the key is to keep them. It is our job to show them the greatness of boxing and keep them in.”

For those of us above, ahem, a certain age, Paul is a vlogger and internet personality who has attracted widespread notoriety for various less-than-tasteful stunts over the years. KSI is a rapper and YouTuber who has built a following while engaging in a series of “beefs” with other online rivals. Both men have vowed to put on a worthy show.

“I have so much respect for the boxers and the boxing community,” Paul told me in a recent telephone conversation. “The way they live their lives and the way they promote themselves. I understand that some people are going to be skeptical of the fight, but I feel it’s my job to win them over.

“I want to show them that by taking this seriously and devoting myself to the craft of boxing, I’m showing love to the sport. Of course, we want to make money, but for me this is a new way of life, not a one-time thing. Boxing has got me. This will not be my last fight, whatever happens.”

Both Paul and KSI are known for their crude antics. In truth, the promotion for the fight has sometimes been tough to watch. KSI mocked Paul over his deceased pet dog, which was attacked by a coyote. On stage during the media tour, Paul threw a pack of condoms at his opponent. Those were two of the classier moments.

Yet whatever the method, both are master promoters — you don’t get a combined social media following of 40 million people otherwise. And let’s not fool ourselves too much here. Floyd Mayweather wouldn’t have made nearly a billion dollars if he had just been one of the best boxers of all time. He boosted those numbers drastically by making a wider audience either love or hate him with his outrageous antics and excessive lifestyle.

This fight shares some similarities with Mayweather’s clash with UFC fighter Conor McGregor in the pre-fight trash-talking stakes. That event, which also drew heavy criticism, remains the second-biggest PPV matchup of all time.

DAZN’s executive vice president for North America, Joe Markowski, is looking past the detractors.

“Hardcore boxing fans don’t want other boxing fans to become hardcore,” Markowski said. “It’s like there’s a little club around them. They want to build a gate around the casual audience and say ‘you can’t come in.’ We don’t respect that attitude and we want to bring as many of those casuals into the sport of boxing, as we see huge potential in growing the sport long term.”

This weekend’s fight, clearly, is not for everyone. The antics, the likely fighting quality of the main event itself, the way the fighters became famous — this is not boxing as we know it.

Except — and here lies the rub: that’s the whole point.