Boxing, Speaker's Corner,

Crossing Streams

There was a bear, an octopus and man built like a mountain in the first versions of crossover boxing. Now there is a soft-drink impresario, influencers, nude sensations and survivors of television’s latest reality shows. The modern crossover boxers need just one ingredient to make it in the boxing world: a big social media presence.

Crossover boxing truly arrived late in 2019 on one glorious night in Los Angeles. The Staples Center was full, there was a WBO super-middleweight title fight involving Billy Joe Saunders on the undercard, but the main event was between two YouTube influencer sensations, Logan Paul and KSI. They were novices, keen and raw as boxers but slick and polished in their chosen field. They also shared close to 50 million followers across social media at the time. The ref on the night was Jack Reiss, who a few months earlier had been the third man in the same ring when Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder fought their first fight.

Paul and KSI fought to a lively standstill; KSI got the wafer-thin decision. They forged a friendship and are now partners in Prime, the drink.
Paul v KSI was big; the Saunders world title fight was ignored. Saunders was not bothered – he was well paid. The fight sent a message to every single influencer, YouTuber and social media darling: there is money in the boxing ring.

The Paul and KSI fight never damaged or threatened boxing, but inside the ancient sport there was fear and outrage. That fear has not vanished, and nor has the assumption – a delusion, by the way – that somehow a nude OnlyFans princess is taking money out of a licensed boxer’s pocket. It is a myth – different markets.

Now the crossover business is getting serious and organised. Misfits is the untouchable (right now) promotional company, and every single part of their business resembles a legitimate boxing promotional company. Misfits has a five-year deal with DAZN, and their recent KSI and Tommy Fury fight was watched by a capacity crowd of 20,000 at the Manchester Arena. The DAZN pay-per-view numbers were described on the night as “spectacular”.

Fury is possibly the ultimate crossover boxer, having turned professional after success on Love Island and then crossing over from the fully legitimate world of licensed and sanctioned fights to Misfits. Fury was 9-0 in the ring before his KSI adventure; Fury won a tight, tight decision and made millions. Without Love Island and the Fury name, he would be fighting at York Hall in his 10th fight and walking away with less than ten grand. Traditional boxing has lost Tommy but – and it might sound harsh – it is not boxing’s loss.

Without Love Island and the Fury name, Tommy would be fighting at York Hall in his 10th fight and walking away with less than ten grand. 

In his wake, dozens of angry pros have challenged Tommy to fights he would lose and fights that he would also be mad to take. He has a massive rematch with either KSI or Jake Paul, the oddly accomplished brother of Logan. In Saudi Arabia earlier this year, Paul floored Fury but lost a split decision.

KSI is one of the co-founders of Misfits, which has have lifted enough of boxing’s essential rules and regulations and added a few of its own. Fury and his new gang of crossover stars are making good money twirling their fists in 50-50 fights between novices. They have no plans ever to leave the glittering lights of their business and gatecrash the other boxing world. Nobody in boxing ever took less money to improve his image.

At the sold-out show in Manchester, boxing promoter Eddie Hearn was ringside. He was impressed with the event and stunned that every single seat was full for every fight. “We can learn from them,” said Hearn.

Odd, crazy and freak fights are not new, however. Chuck Wepner, the original Rocky, lost a world heavyweight title to Muhammad Ali in 1975 and a couple of years later was matched with a fighting bear called Victor. It was a great fight and there was a rematch. There was controversy in the second fight when it was discovered that the new ‘Victor’ was a ringer; Wepner took a beating. “That bear had a better jab than Ali,” Wepner never said.

In 1976 in Tokyo, Ali was matched with wrestler and mixed martial arts icon Antonio Inoki over 15 rounds. Ali threw six punches and Inoki, a giant lump of cunning and muscle, spent every second of the fight crawling across the canvas. It was a dreadful spectacle and Ali ended up in hospital with blood clots in his legs from the kicks.

And the octopus? Well, a man called Two-Ton Tony Galento once wrestled the sea beast in a giant water tank in Atlantic City. It was a publicity stunt for one of his fights. Galento won, but he had an advantage – the octopus was already dead.

The crossover fighters are not here to take over – trust me. They are very happy in their madly lucrative lane. They really don’t need us over here in the land of traditional boxing. The truth is that we might just need them.

Steve Bunce is a boxing pundit and presenter on BBC Five Live and BoxNation and writes about the sport for The Independent.

Please play responsibly