Ali Loui Al-Fakhri, somehow, by the grace of all that is fair and good, dodges Jake Paul's right hand, which is very much trying to nail his jaw so hard that it flies clean off his face and into the ooo-ing and ahh-ing crowd. We're in the ring, between the ropes, and two YouTubers are a minute and a half into their first pro boxing bout, desperate to avoid the second-worst thing that could happen to you in an influencer fistfight—getting knocked out cold—and the first-worst thing: being made into a meme.
Jake's calm. Ali is not. He's crouching, bobbing his head back and forth, punching up at the dude four inches taller than him. Ali shows Jake his right hand. Doesn't do much, just pushes Jake's head to the side. Shit. Ali tries a hook. Whiffs. Goddamnit, man. He rushes, leading with his front hand, and Jake moves to the side to let him bonk his head right into the white rope. Instant meme. Then, crack. With one last shot to Ali’s cheek, Jake ends the fight in the first round. A year later, in April 2021, Jake will take a fight with Ben Askren that’ll make him, like it or not, one of the biggest stories in boxing. Al-Fakhri? Just another guy in his trail.
"It's not just a fucking cool experience," says Al-Fakhri—better known as his YouTube alter ego, AnEsonGib—lest you doubt that social media stars like him are trolling around in the ring. "It's a serious game and someone's getting hurt. That's what's happening."
If you've been offline lately (lucky you!), boxing is going viral. For years, many claimed the brutal, bloody, triumphant sport that introduced Muhammad Ali to the world was dying a slow death, with declining pay-per-view (PPV) numbers and an uptick in competition from the likes of the dynamic, upstart UFC and MMA to blame. But over the past few years, boxing has seen a baby-faced challenger to its old guard, as a rapidly growing number of influencers have leveraged their millions of followers into Super Bowl-esque spectacles that rank amongst the most successful PPV events of all time. This past Sunday's exhibition between Logan Paul and Floyd Mayweather, which was the first time an influencer collided with a legend in the sport, was just the beginning.
Now, on June 12, we'll see the first card exclusively filled with wannabe Alis in Social Gloves: Battle of the Platforms, featuring a lineup of millennial YouTubers who’ll spar with intrepid, younger TikTokers at Miami's Hard Rock Stadium. Rest assured, these guys have years of beef with each other, imagined and real, and an honest-to-god desire to do what Jake Paul did to AnEsonGib to each other. Meanwhile, as dudes better known for Fortnite bans get shredded and brawl in press conferences, those with skin in the boxing game are grappling with the possibility of a future where influencers have more opportunities than pros who've boxed their entire lives.
Say what you want about Logan Paul, but the guy's Mike Tyson impression isn't half bad. It sounds a little less like Jamie Foxx's pitch-perfect take and more like a stoned Daffy Duck, but still. Not bad!
"Everyone haths a plan unthil phey get punthed in thah phace," he slurs over Zoom a couple days out from his fight with Mayweather.
Seeing the Showtime mic in Logan’s face makes it all feel like a Will Ferrell sports comedy come to life. This is the same dude who, almost four years ago, recorded a diss track against Santa that now has 88 million views on YouTube, and one month ago was revealed as the Grandpa Monster in The Masked Singer. Now, he's made a meme out of Money Mayweather. In a stunt reminiscent of the brothers' neverending YouTube prank wars, Jake stole the baseball cap right off of Mayweather's head in a pre-fight press conference. Naturally, Mayweather rushed Jake and a skirmish broke out. Logan claims the beef was real. "I think Floyd is pissed,” he says. “I really think that upset him. It's just frail ego." All good for business; so many people bought the PPV one month later that Showtime's server crashed. After the dust-up, Logan says his mom is his new bodyguard. "We're not going to hurt someone when their mom is next to him. That's just immoral.” Still, if you get him out of WWE mode, it's not lost on Logan that he's contributed to the upending of the sport of Ali and Frazier, about to make as much as $20 million from a single exhibition.
"It's crazy to think that Floyd Mayweather is my second opponent," he says. "What happened here?"
Great question. It goes back to the first YouTuber to beat the snot out of another YouTuber and film it. According to Liam Chivers—who founded OP Talent, which manages several influencers (and influencer-boxers)—the James Naismiths of this thing are British YouTubers Joe Weller and Theo Baker. It's as simple as this: In 2017, the friends found a small boxing gym, put on oversized gloves, wailed on each other, and filmed it on handheld camcorders. No crowd. No arena. No idea what it would become. Watching it in 2021 is already a The Arrival of a Train experience. Before Weller posted the fight (which is nearing seven million views, by the way) to YouTube, he teased it in an Instagram post. A challenger popped up in the comments: KSI, all-timer of a YouTuber with a BTS-level army of followers. “Lemme fight the winner haha.”
"He didn't really mean it," says Chivers, who has been KSI's manager for almost a decade. "He just thought it would be fun for YouTube. He didn't think in terms of the scale that it would go to or anything at that time. But Joe Weller jumped on that. Because obviously KSI, biggest influencer in the UK, if he comments on it saying he'll fight you, Joe Weller is like, Oh absolutely, I will."
Next thing you know, Weller and KSI are beefing their way into an 8,000-capacity arena. Press conference. Sponsors. Tickets. It becomes the second-highest concurrent livestream in YouTube history at the time, next to the Red Bull Moon Jump. KSI wins and calls the Paul brothers out after the fight. Cut to 2018: KSI vs. Logan Paul, with Jake fighting KSI's brother, Deji, in the undercard. Logan and KSI draw, Deji loses, and the whole thing nabs 1.3 million PPV buys and a sellout in the famed Manchester Arena. KSI and Logan schedule a rematch in the Staples Center a year later. This time, Chivers wants to get the fight off of YouTube and into the hands of a sports network, so he shops streaming rights to DAZN, ESPN, and Showtime. DAZN bites, as long as the rematch presents itself as a legitimate sporting event. Logan and KSI get boxing licenses and turn pro. From then on, there is no going back to filming one-step-above-a-street-fight scuffles and throwing them on YouTube. Guys are getting hurt—they say boxing isn’t a sport you can just pick up and play—but people love to watch it. The Pauls are making more money than fighters who’d ground through over 100 amateur fights before going pro.
For the influencers, it had to be boxing over, say, NASCAR. "In the street, if you or I had a fight, people would crowd around," Chivers says. "Whereas if two guys are running down the path to race each other, it'd be like, What are those idiots doing? So you see, it's innate human nature. Oh yeah, boxing is the perfect thing to do. Joe Weller could have been playing croquet and it would have done okay as a YouTube series. But because it was boxing, because of the danger factor, and because it was KSI, the whirlwind was created."
So, four years after a stray Instagram comment, Logan is in Miami a few days before his Mayweather fight, gleefully reciting the Tyson quote. “He's right,” he says about Tyson. “You get rocked with that first shot and you go, Oh shit, this dude is trying to kill me and everyone's watching.” Near the end of our brief time together, I ask Logan if he has any final musings on this bare-chested, batshit armageddon that he instigated alongside his bearded little brother, or the YouTubers and TikTokers who are about to play a real-life game of Super Smash Bros. in the same stadium where he'll try to land a single punch on the man who's stunted the careers of some of the best fighters on this planet.
Logan lurches backward in his seat, like he's trying to make sure a wayward jab doesn't smack him in the nose.
"Are you baiting me? Is there something I should say?"
The choose-your-own-adventure question has thrown him off, which isn’t totally surprising, given the Paul fam’s hate-hate relationship with the media. Maybe he’s trying to bait me. He is looking for a post-Mayweather fight, after all. I tell him that I end every interview this way. "Well..." he starts, the corner of his mouth curling into a grin. Oh no.
"How's my hair?"
If we're charting the history of all of this—calling it the "influencer boxing movement" doesn't quite capture the rabid, foaming-at-the-mouthedness going on here—Triller Fight Club is what took a fat tube of a syringe, loaded it with all-caps MEMEZ, and shot it in the arm of whatever the hell was happening with Logan Paul and KSI. This past October, the entertainment platform, which branched from the social media network Triller, gave Mike Tyson a reported 10 million bucks to come out of retirement to fight Roy Jones, Jr. Led by former Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh, the inaugural Triller Fight Club event ranked in the top 10 all-time for PPV buys. The undercard saw Jake Paul knock former NBA player Nate Robinson out cold. Lil Wayne and DaBaby rapped before the main fight. Snoop Dogg commentated. Not bad for a first whack at the fight game. But it was the second one that did it in. Dear god. The second one.
"We wanted to deliver something that was specifically made for the younger audience, very specifically," Kavanaugh says. "So we brought in the director of American Meme, right? Because what is Jake Paul? He's an American meme."
Triller Fight Club's sophomore effort—which bumped Jake up to the main fight, in a duel with former UFC fighter Ben Askren—went down in the middle of April. Even as sexual assault allegations mounted against Jake, the fight was another Internet-swallowing feat. Where to start? There was commentator Pete Davidson asking his fellow boxing analysts Snoop Dogg and Mario Lopez, "You think they'll start KISSIN?" Ric Flair refereed a slap fight (a slap fight!). Justin Bieber, Saweetie, Doja Cat, and the Black Keys handled the music. Jake added to his myth by knocking out Askren so swiftly that the man certainly will live in memedom until the next chump is slammed by a guy who made his name on Vine.
"It felt like it had a rich dude with a lot of money, and he just put the fights on at his house," quips Regis Prograis, who fought on the undercard that night. "Everybody was so loose. I was like the only real, silent fighter."
Prograis is among the handful of lifelong boxers who landed in the middle of the YouTubocalypse. He tried to slip past the chaos. But having Snoop Dogg and Jack Harlow and Mario Lopez running around made fight night feel the tiniest bit different than usual. Prograis won his matchup and took home $850,000, so he can't really hate on influencer boxing, which inspired him to hire a cameraman and start his own YouTube channel to promote himself. He says that kids even show up at his gym saying they want to learn how to fight because of the YouTuber-brawlers.
"My son, he doesn't know about a sport like boxing like that except for what I tell him," Prograis says. "And he was so excited at the fight. He was meeting all these TikTokers and YouTubers. He's seven years old, so you got these people, they're influencing the younger generation."
Next up for Triller Fight Club is a half meme, half traditional boxing bout on June 19. The old-guard fight: the undisputed lightweight championship duel between Teófimo López and George Kambosos. The meme: the continuation of a fight that spontaneously broke out and went viral in the real world, between animal ranger The Real Tarzann and UFC fighter Vitor Belfort. (Which means there's probably a home in the ring for Joe Exotic when he's out of jail.) Past that? Triller Fight Club hired Nigel Lythgoe, who co-created So You Think You Can Dance and produced American Idol, to make a show called So You Think You Can Fight. It'll see pros train celebrity action stars—think Mark Wahlberg and Jason Statham, Kavanaugh says—for an amateur fight. Kavanaugh is shopping it to major networks now. All of this said, we likely won't ever see another Jake Paul matchup on Triller. In late May, Jake signed a multi-fight deal with Showtime Sports worth a reported $10 million, with the first fight against another UFC alum in Tyron Woodley.
"We had a great experience with Jake," Kavanaugh says. "We just believed in different things. We saw Jake's next fight as having to be against a boxer, and we also saw him needing to be an undercard. So we said, 'Look, you've had three fights... Now you are calling yourself a boxer. If that's the case, you've got to fight a boxer.' He and his team obviously didn't think that was best. They also wanted a top-dollar check, and we didn't understand how to make the economics work on that."
(Jake Paul did not respond to a request for comment.)
Kavanaugh's prediction for how long the boxing community—from the morbidly curious to the prickly purists—will tolerate Jake beating up on fighters who made their names in wrestling and mixed martial arts? As opposed to, you know, boxers who’ve been using their fists, and only their fists, for a decade longer than Jake?
"I don't think people are going to be forgiving on the next one."
There's a militia of boxers who would like to uppercut Jake Paul's jaw so hard that he falls asleep and wakes back up on the Disney Channel. One of them is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, and the only boxer to ever hold all four major world titles in boxing, simultaneously, in two different weight classes.
"I would whoop Jake Paul's ass," says Claressa Shields, who once offered to fight Jake and donate her winnings to relief for the Flint water crisis. "No question. No question about nothing."
Nor do you have to look hard to find people in the boxing community saying that fights like Mayweather vs. Logan Paul are terrible for the sport, damaging the integrity of one of America's great pastimes and taking big-money opportunities away from rising fighters. Just this week, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith riffed on First Take, “I’m not knocking the Pauls—Jake Paul, Logan Paul—like some people have, because paying attention to the world of boxing, promoters have been controlling the sport for far too long. And when you have promoters controlling the sport, not giving you the fights you want to see, the fact that a guy like Jake Paul has about 14.8 million Instagram followers, I have to pay attention to that.” Smith added that he felt sorry for “legitimate professional boxers.”
But there are lifers in the sport who counter that boxing needs something, anything, to bring it back to the mainstream. Shields, who recently left boxing for the Professional Fighters League (a journey documented in her own series on ESPN), lands somewhere in the middle of the debate. She says that MMA has already given her what boxing never did—a larger fan base, more respect and recognition, sponsorships—all before her first fight on June 10. As far as influencer boxing goes, Shields believes the sport depends on an influx of fans. Her issue is more with women not getting nearly the opportunities that men do.
"It's not good, because they are getting paid more than women fighters who've accomplished way more," she says. "But at the same time they're making all that money because they are giving opportunities for their fans to buy the fights. I wasn't given that opportunity. A lot of women aren't given that opportunity. I'm not hating on Jake Paul—go ahead, do your thing, whatever. But there are other fighters who are worthy of those positions, to be the main event, to get the PPV money. There are other fighters who are working, and I was one of them.”
So the fact that YouTubers and Instagrammers and TikTokers were able to storm boxing's Bastille might be more the result of the sport’s inability to reel in new fans. Some argue that boxing became less relevant to the American public in the years after Muhammad Ali and George Foreman's legendary "Rumble in the Jungle" battle, with no one ever truly succeeding The Champ. DAZN's executive vice president, Joe Markowski, who worked on bringing the 2018 KSI-Logan Paul fight to the then-upstart platform, claims that traditional boxing institutions missed a chance to "think more strategically" when PPV numbers started declining. "If someone does that," he says, implying DAZN is that someone, "the upside on boxing globally is huge. And if celebrity boxing is part of that strategy? Great."
That's assuming that the public would watch Mayweather make his way through every vlogging challenger—he's already said that Jake Paul is "probably" next—for so long that influencer boxing becomes... boxing. Think about it: What's one of the laws of the Internet? Things are popular until they aren't. Nyan Cat was cool once! So was Tay Zonday.
"If I have a big prediction, I think it would sort of go by the way of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and American Idol,” says ESPN's Michael Eaves, who covers combat sports for the network. "It'll be really hot for a period of time. People will try to duplicate it with other things. They won't be nearly as successful. And eventually, somebody is going to jump the shark, and it's going to be over."
Until that day comes, when boxing's current stars—Tyson Fury, Canelo Alvarez, and Deontay Wilder among them—are enough to satisfy the boxing traditionalist and those who trade Dogecoin in their free time, influencer-boxers have more than enough support from many of the sport's leaders to keep hiking up those PPV numbers, NFTs and Charizard cards and subtweets and all. World Boxing Council President Mauricio Sulaimán, who’s hung out with Tayler Holder, a TikTok sensation on the Social Gloves card, points out that Ali was pulling stunts back in his day, sparring with wrestlers, so he's all for any new fans of the sport he's championed his entire life. Sulaimán draws his line way past influencer brawls, to a potential end to this simulation where a swarm of inspired kiddos start throwing gloveless white-collar brawls in mom’s backyard. "If we are now experiencing some people allowing bare knuckle fighting? It's brutal. It's boxing going backward 150 years."
Bryce Hall is wearing one of those all-muscle-no-shirt tanks, boulder shoulders and all. Over Zoom I tell him that he, you know, looks like he fell out of the back half of a training montage. He's getting big.
"No, I'm actually getting small," the TikTok phenom replies, quite politely, considering the things that are about to come out of his mouth. Hall's cutting weight for his first headlining fight at Social Gloves. "I've lost 15 pounds."
Did you really think there wasn't already a new wave of influencer-fighters training to cash in on the House That Paul Built? This Saturday, at Social Gloves, they'll battle each other in hopes of ushering in the storm of fame and money that followed KSI and Logan Paul's first bout. The event will feature a music-festival-sized entertainment lineup headlined by DJ Khaled, Lil Baby, and Migos. Even AnEsonGib will have a shot at redemption, and he’s playing up his comeback kid storyline. “We're not friends,” he says of his matchup with TikTok’s Holder, so excited to fight that a wad of spit flies out of his mouth.
As for the main fight, Hall will come to blows with former D-1 hooper Austin McBroom, who's best known nowadays for his ACE Family YouTube channel, where he's raised his family to the tune of 19 million subscribers. If you want to know how personal this thing has gotten, you'd have to study a social media history equivalent in volume to the entirety of General Hospital, but here's the gist. Hall has (rather brilliantly) turned himself into the event's heel. McBroom, even though this also is his first time in the ring, is treating him like a fly who needs swatting. They did the push-each-other-over thing at the pre-fight press conference. And they had some exceedingly kind things to say about each other during interviews for this story.
Hall: "This is like a great opportunity to punch Austin McBroom in the face because he's a pussy.”
McBroom: "He's actually smaller than I thought."
Hall: “I don't think he's a fighter. He's not a fighter. I've never seen a fight of him. I've never seen him get angry. I just see him giving his kids toys on camera.”
McBroom: "I think ever since he got off juicing and lifting weights, he lost a lot of size. I think that's going to hurt him a lot".
Hall: "I'm going to show this video to my kids one day. I'm anticipating a second-round knockout."
McBroom: "I predicted a first-round knockout. My coach thinks he's going to go the second round because he wants me to take my time, be relaxed the first round, feel him out. But I just think he's nowhere near my level and I'm going to catch him slipping in the first."
Hall: "There was a reason why I accepted this fight. I'm not allowed to talk about it, but he's going to get hurt in that ring."
McBroom: "He's claiming a lot of just weird stuff because he never wanted to do the fight in the beginning."
If you're questioning how much of this is just boxing’s wonderful tradition of shittalking at work, take the word of the boxing Hall of Famer who was at that press conference and will commentate this fight, Michael Buffer. (You might know him better as the LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLEEEEEEEE guy.)
"I was standing about 12 feet away [from the scuffle]. I backed up real quick. My footwork is pretty good moving backwards," he says, chuckling. "Judging by the press conference, they really don't like each other at all. And they each have almost 20 million followers. And you go down the line and look at the followings. They have this one guy that's going to be fighting in an earlier fight, Michael Le. Forty million. Forty million followers on TikTok. That's unbelievable."
Sorry, Mr. Buffer—it's 48.6 million, five million less than the actual TikTok account. The sweetheart-imaged, Gen-Zer Le has legitimate dancing training, but now he’s jacked (like, excited-jacked, but also muscles-jacked) and ready to fight YouTuber FaZe Jarvis, a gamer whose claim to fame is getting banned from Fortnite, a defining experience he made a music video about. Le figures all the boxers who are upset that social media whizzes like him might rake in PPV buys haven't taken full advantage of social media themselves. "If they don't, then that's kind of them being an old head, in a sense. Like, Ah, I'm going to stick to what works. I'm going to stick to hard work," he says. "But then again, social media is hard to work, too."
Speaking of hard work, that TikTok dancing has to help his boxing odds, right?
Le says “yeahhhhhh” real slow, like he's surprised that shuffling to "No Hands” with his adorable little brother has translated into a sport known for rupturing major organs. "It's all about balance. It's all about footwork. About being super slick."
He obviously wasn't hurting for clout before he jumped on the Social Gloves bill. Of course, there's the money—but Le's getting his Raging Bull on for another reason.
"I want people to respect me more in a sense of like: I'm not just a dancer."
When the cameras are off and the Pauls have put down their phones for the night, it’s as clear as a shot to the face that the challengers are here to stay. They’ve all watched the Rockys. Both Creeds. There are bruises on their hands! In the morning, they train with the champs. At night, it’s bag work, alone. A whole generation has found a new love, a violent passion, a different way to prove itself. It's good to have it all—the singing, the dancing, each and every one of those million followers—and now, the gloves, the whaps, the bap-bap-baps, the whacks! Purpose in the sweet, sweet science.
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