YouTubers need to stay out of the ring – they're ruining boxing

It’s a night etched in boxing history – April 29, 2017.

Anthony Joshua stopped Wladimir Klitschko in a thrilling heavyweight fight in front of 90,000 paying punters, the biggest crowd for a heavyweight boxing fight in 90 years.

Six years on, and boxing feels like a very different beast altogether. 

What was once a sport that was the preserve of generational athletic talents, now looks to be defined by becoming the side hustle of YouTubers. 

I’ve been a fan of the sport for as long as I can remember, I have fond memories of waking up at 4am to watch Lennox Lewis defeat Evander Holyfield in 1999 and was mesmerised at age 10 by Prince Naseem flying into the ring on a carpet.

I’m also the founder of a social media agency, working with a lot of influencers, so I’ve watched the rise of influencer boxing with interest, and increasing concern.

People from all over the world are paying to tune in to watch the likes of the Kingpyn, an influencer boxing tournament, and ‘Misfits’, the promotion of KSI. 

Kingpyn’s ‘High Stakes’ tournament has ridden the huge rise in the popularity of influencer boxing over recent years, and last weekend’s first round, on a card that featured rappers and adult film models, was covered by major news outlets.  

This weekend, KSI will fight businessman Joe Fournier at Wembley Arena, on Dazn, the same network that hosts Anthony Joshua and Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, lending real sporting legitimacy to this type of bout – previously the preserve of ‘white collar’ amateur fights.

Influencer boxing is now big, big business  - and that makes me feel uneasy. 

While more fans should be a good thing, I worry that the influence of these part-time pugilists, who compete without years of training, are completely discrediting this noble art.

While some may be licensed as pro-fighters, I believe they are ultimately amateurs, and therefore it’s a ticking time bomb before someone gets seriously hurt.

Perhaps the biggest names in influencer boxing are KSI and brothers Jake and Logan Paul, and their bouts are now such landmark events that legitimate world title fights take place on the undercard. 

I may not like influencer boxing, but I won’t pretend its rise is a mystery to me.

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The likes of the Pauls and KSI have stepped in where traditional boxing has been failing to capture the public imagination, with a slow decline in the sport thought to be caused by uncertainty around the PPV model, big fights like Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk not being made, and the proliferation of governing bodies making it hard to determine true champions. 

For better or worse, influencer boxing embodies the mix of social media, fashion and internet culture that chimes with younger generations. Influencer boxing fights often feature music by rappers, hosted by pop stars and sponsored by trendy brands, with often the added frisson of online beefs being settled in the ring. 

You only have to tune into some of the events to see some influencers train properly and fight others who haven’t; some don’t just lack the technical skills but basic fitness, and a respect for the rules.

Look at Ryan Taylor, who headbutted his opponent in the face when things weren’t going his way.

Jake Paul savagely knocked out former basketball player Nate Robinson in a clear mismatch, while Salt Papi (who was described by a number of pros as having legitimate boxing skills) took less than 30 seconds to finish Andy Warski, who looked like he’d never laced up gloves in his life before.

The talent pool isn’t deep enough among influencers alone so these mismatches are going to always happen; some are like lambs to the slaughter and it only takes once incident for life changing injuries to be sustained.

Then there are the farcical events like KSI fighting two weak fighters in one night, or the tag team boxing event, which reduced the reputation of this once proud sport to a WWE spectacle.

Other than Tyson Fury, Joshua is one of British boxing’s few current household names, and his star power is on the wane – he struggled to sell out his recent fight at the 20,000 capacity O2 Arena, a far cry from his days of entertaining 90,000 at Wembley. 

It is clear that even the biggest stars are struggling to spark the public imagination again and grow the sport in the UK at the moment, not least among younger people, who it seems prefer the online buzz around influencer boxing.  

Apart from thinking the spectacle itself undermines the sport I love, I can’t help but be wound up by every influencer fight sparking uninformed commentary from those who barely understand what they’re watching.

Each bout is followed by thousands of suggestions of fight rigging, accusations that someone who was rendered unconscious by a concussive blow is ‘weak’, or claims that judges were bought. 

We’re all used to seeing pro boxers hype up fights at ill-tempered press conferences, but I can’t help but cringe when I see YouTubers act like they are real fighters or call out professional boxers knowing full well the fight will never happen.

But more importantly, while influencer boxing might have the professional sport on the ropes right now while it tries to find its feet, my concerns are about more than just the reputation of the sport. 

The brakes really need putting on these celebrity punch-ups, where too many participants rush to pick up a pay cheque, which I worry creates an unacceptably high injury risk.  

Otherwise the headlines aren’t going to be about the future of the sport, or whether a YouTuber could be world champion – they’re going to be about an influencer getting KOed and never coming round – and paying the ultimate price.  

You can find out more about James here

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