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Halftime Thoughts: The rise of celebrity boxing

Nobody could have predicted how the rise of social media would shift the landscape of sports. In the case of boxing, YouTube stars have burst onto the scene and popularized a new branch of the sport known as “celebrity boxing”. Subsequently, retired professional athletes have also started participating in this new trend.

In doing so, they have started a debate on whether this development is beneficial for the promotion of what many consider a “stagnant” sport or if it instead spits on its very integrity. 

A new era

Perhaps the lure of celebrity boxing started with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor’s fight, which clinched the former’s 50th win of his unblemished career. However, this was more accepted because although the latter may not have been a boxer, he was still a big name in combat sports.

But a big turning point for celebrity boxing was when British YouTuber Olajide “KSI” Olatunji went against American YouTuber Logan Paul, first in an amateur bout in August 2018, and then in a professional rematch in November 2019. The first match ultimately ended in a draw but sold out 21,000 tickets in Manchester Arena, alongside 1.3 million pay-per-view buys, making it the biggest non-professional boxing match in history at that juncture. However, the second fight exceeded it. Olutanji trumped via split decision, but, in a way, they both still won. According to Forbes, the fight brought in close to 3.5 million USD, and both boxers earned 900,000 USD each. Notably, outside of Mayweather bouts, the second fight earned more pay-per-view buys than any previous HBO and Showtime fights.

No discussion on celebrity boxing is complete without the man who is currently making the most noise in Hollywood, Jake Paul. Initially more known as the younger brother of Logan Paul, Jake has now established himself as a household name with his controversial actions. In the boxing scene, his first fight was in an undercard in the first KSI-Logan bout against Olatunji’s little brother, Deji, which he won via technical knockout in the fifth round. In his first professional match in January 2020, he went against British YouTuber AnEsonGib, whom he knocked out in the first round. His next two fights were against two retired professional non-boxing athletes, namely, three-time NBA Slam Dunk champion Nate Robinson and Bellator MMA champion Ben Askren. Jake knocked out both individuals in the second and the first round, respectively.

A notable celebrity boxing match occurred last November when a pair of former heavyweight champions, 52-year-old Roy Jones Jr. and 54-year-old Mike Tyson, duked it out in an exhibition that ultimately ended in a draw, while recently, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Logan Paul faced off in about which drew disappointing reviews no victor was declared.

A new dispute

Many journalists and professional fighters have claimed that this trend is nothing but a “cash grab” and is considered an insult to those dedicating their lives to the prestigious sport. Long-time Yahoo Sports analyst Kevin Iole stated that boxing will take a big hit with this trend because it is more about opportunism than an active promotion of the sport. Others like perennial champion Canelo Alvarez choose to lay the blame on those who sanction these fights. In an article from The California Aggie, he says, “They give the boxers licenses when they’re not a boxer. They could get them killed. Why do they give licenses to people who have never in their life even thrown a punch?” 

However, there are also some who lean toward the positive outcomes that this new trend brings. Tyson, in that same article, stated that they owe the YouTubers respect for “saving” the sport and that they should be allowed to fight for separate belts because they gave boxing new life in a time when UFC was completely dominating combat sports. British professional boxer Dillian Whyte echoed the sentiment, adding, “It’s good that two guys can bring all these fans. Everyone’s complaining about it, 

I think it’s great.” Another argument used by the supporters is that these YouTubers do have professional boxers as trainers (Paul with Shane Mosley), which serves as evidence that they are taking the fights seriously.

A new outlook

All things considered, I would lean more toward welcoming the change. I understand that we as fans, especially us boxing-obsessed Filipinos, want our sport to be respected and scorn those who go against these ideals. But, realistically, is trying to keep the integrity of boxing at the expense of continued deterioration really worth it? 

Over the past decade, boxing has lost its allure, as matches started to become boring and predictable, while UFC has continued to showcase premier action-packed bouts. This new trend of boxing gives us a new reason to always tune in, whether it is to finally see Jake Paul meet his match or just to support our favorite influencers. As Whyte stated, we are creating a new audience so boxing can thrive again.

Celebrity boxing is here to stay for long, especially as new fighters from different fields continue to emerge. This trend should not be condemned because it is a different category of boxing—completely separate from conventional fights. This new facet of the sport will only benefit the up-and-coming boxers because more fans are being introduced to the world of boxing, giving them a much larger audience because of YouTubers who decided to take their talents to the ring.

By Aren Reyes

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