Like thousands of others, this weekend I traveled to Manchester in England to watch the (sort of) boxing match between two notorious YouTubers: American reprobate Logan Paul and British self-promoter KSI. A conflict between villains, it was the culmination of an embarrassing series of badly acted trash talk videos and diss tracks. I was entirely ready for this to be a shambolic failure; instead, I got a flawlessly executed circus of bullshit. Logan Paul and KSI’s teams ran a nearly perfect event, showing the packed Manchester Arena the most successful demonstration yet of YouTubers breaking out from their video constraints.
The show was more of a Logan Paul x KSI collaboration than a fight of genuine rivalry. Jake Paul, Logan’s younger brother, also fought KSI’s younger brother Deji Olatunji. Immediately after the fight, Jake announced that he’s launching his own clothing line and that he wants (documented domestic abuser) Chris Brown to be his next opponent. It was a perverse mix of brazen commercialism and the infliction of genuine pain: the amateurism of the performers translated into a brawling performance that left most people in the crowd delighted. Whoever it was that they hated, that dude got punched in the face and bled for their entertainment.
Serving up bloody violence as a $10 pay-per-view on YouTube and charging as much as $200 for floor seats in the arena, this was an affirmation of the enduring bankability of toxic masculinity. In executing their contrived feud, the two pairs of brothers sought to assert their superior manliness through base insults about strength, pain tolerance, attire, material possessions, and sexual prowess. You’d think we’d all know better by now that our shared culture would be moving on from such retrograde tropes, but nope.
Arriving on Friday, I headed straight to the pre-fight weigh-ins, where I got a moment to chat with KSI (real name Olajide Olatunji). The location was packed with beefy gentlemen giving each other that manly half-hug, half-handshake where you press your shoulder into the other person’s chest. The interviewer before me proposed that they do their on-camera interview with their shirts off, and KSI, cackling with delight, obliged. (I opted to keep my hoodie on.)
In person, KSI comes across as remarkably affable and down-to-earth, someone who seems more at ease talking about the hard work of his training than speaking ill of his opponent. I got the sense that, if he could, he’d much rather just dance and be a clown for the camera, but money and foolish pride had overridden his better judgment. I asked how real his beef with Logan Paul was, and he responded, “100 percent. It’s always real. It’s harder to fake stuff.” Then he asked me, “Do you think this is all scripted?” I replied, “No.” “Do you think this is all for show?” he followed, to which I said, “Yes!”
When I questioned KSI about the sensationalism surrounding this fight, he disowned it. “It’s because of our fan bases,” he claimed. “Have you seen my [YouTube subscriber] numbers? Have you seen his numbers?” (Logan Paul’s YouTube channel currently has more than 18 million followers, while KSI’s has in excess of 19 million.) KSI would have us believe that the hype is all self-generated from an avid fan base, an assertion directly contradicted by the pair’s matching diss tracks; KSI’s features him rapping over Logan Paul’s head on a platter with an apple stuffed in its mouth.
After meeting him, it seems obvious to me that there’s a KSI character being acted out by Olajide Olatunji. Unlike many of his fellow YouTubers, however, Olatunji doesn’t draw an explicit line between his inner self and the larger-than-life theatrical performer. He claims it’s all “100 percent real” all of the time, appearing unwilling to acknowledge the many contradictions in the way he conducts himself in person and on camera.
The journalist interviewing KSI after me was a dashingly dressed reporter from ITV, one of the biggest British TV networks. He was just one of a number of serious reporters from serious networks and publications taking this event entirely seriously. The BBC, ITV, The Independent, and many other mainstream UK media outlets treated KSI vs. Logan Paul like a traditional boxing match. They reported on the content of the bout rather than the farcical nature of its very existence.
But back to the weigh-ins. The undercard featured two athletes and four dudes someone picked up at the nearest pub. That part was underwhelming, but then former world heavyweight champion Shannon “The Cannon” Briggs turned up alongside legendary boxing announcer Michael Buffer, the man who made the “Let’s get ready to rumble!” catchphrase famous. If there was any question left about the mainstream legitimacy of YouTube stardom, the involvement of these two names put it to rest.
Briggs introduced Jake Paul by saying the younger Paul had been trained by the same trainer who helped Briggs defeat George Foreman back in 1997. Indeed, after casting off a T-shirt, shorts, and ostentatious jewelry that would make Mr. T envious, Jake Paul strode onto the scales in perfect Instagram shape. Deji, meanwhile, turned up looking distinctly human in a way that made me feel preemptively sorry for the younger Olatunji brother. He was shorter, lighter, and in worse condition than Jake. What was Deji fighting for, exactly? By all accounts, he’d been roped into the whole thing because it’s more spectacular to host a family feud rather than just one clash of two massive egos.
Logan Paul reported for his weigh-in looking like the product of all those training videos he’d shot in the buildup to the fight: lean and Adonis-like, ready to do an underwear photo shoot at a moment’s notice. KSI… well, KSI came out wearing a mask of Logan’s girlfriend’s face and got weighed with it on. They later faced off and tried to act tough. I think one of them brought breath mints as a prop, but by that point, my brain was erroring out from the overweening exhibition of pale male flesh and over-serious manliness.
The day of the fights was a revelation. Never mind the famed great British reserve, people were roaring for blood. Troublingly, many were children. No one at the Manchester Arena was attending in the hope of seeing the sport of boxing; the attraction was the embarrassment and humiliation of the opponent, a sanctioned, legalized hate for the other. Just for fun, we were also treated to the casual misogyny of local grime artist Bugzy Malone, who entered the ring to regale us with lyrics about receiving fellatio from a “shady” “bitch.”
It was while watching Jake Paul and Deji make their way to the ring that I realized something important: though the anger and hatred between the fighters was manufactured, those same feelings were real among their fans. “Fuck Jake Paul” chants were bellowed out in profoundly sincere, urgent tones. In response, Paul was wearing a huge chain with those same words on it, embracing his role as the heel.
Each fighter entered the ring to his own recently released diss track for the other, the hook to Jake Paul’s being “Bitch, I’m a fucking champion,” while Deji’s, not to be outdone, included “Teachers can suck my dick.” Despite amassing 26 million YouTube subscribers between them (16.5M for Jake and 9.5M on Deji’s channel), these 21-year-old men were still emotional adolescents, yet to mature out of the phase where they find words like “fuck” and “bitch” edgy. Other young minds will see the popularity of these four siblings, and they’ll interpret the associated arrogance, smugness, and machismo as somehow instrumental to their success.
Outside of the main event, the biggest cheer of the night came after the first round of Jake vs. Deji, when the overhead screens showed a close-up of a bloodied Jake Paul. It was rapturous glee. Centuries of cultural, economic, and military fraternity with Americans were apparently not enough to prevent Brits from being primordially thrilled to see an American bro bleed. The tribalist flames were further fanned by US and UK flags flying ahead of the main event. Granted, Jake, like his brother Logan, is a certifiable asshole of the first degree, but I can’t say that gave me any joy in seeing him hurt. I was, however, in the minority.
After four rounds of sloppy but brutal walloping back and forth, Deji’s team finally threw in the towel as exhaustion set in. Unlike his ultra commercial rival, Deji — with a bloodied nose and face — was deeply apologetic in his post-fight interview. “I know you’ll all be tweeting at me,” he said, deeply conscious of all the criticism that would be streaming his way for his loss. “I’m really sorry.”
Instead of the champions that they fashioned themselves as, instead of the towering, powerful figures they wanted others to believe them to be, at that moment, they were young men bound to their fates, compelled by overwhelming pressure to perform, no matter how daft or dangerous the task. Jake Paul, a Trumpian figure of boundless greed, seemed ready to do anything with anyone, so long as there was a big payday at the end of it. Deji was just a kid caught up in the suffocating cycle of living up to the increasingly extreme expectations of a growing audience he desperately wanted to please.
The actual main event — the fight everyone had paid and waited for — started off with both KSI and Logan Paul exhibiting quickness and technique vastly superior to their younger brothers. That lasted for about 30 seconds. Logan kept up the arrogant preening act throughout the first round, but he was forced to take the fight seriously after receiving a few meatier punches in the second. By the fourth round, the two vloggers were tiring, which opened their already weak defenses to some meaningful assaults from the other side. The crowd rose from its seats at every moment of KSI ascendance, only to be told to sit again by arena staff, which was a rather enjoyable bit of exercise from an outsider’s perspective.
By the final round, everyone was firmly on their feet, Logan Paul was sporadically huffing out a mist of blood from his nostrils, and KSI’s face was starting to swell up. In spite of all their simulated antipathy, the pair had given the audience all the violent aggression and macho endurance of pain that we’d all signed up for. That part of the hype was real, and it was underscored at the end by fellow YouTuber True Geordie, who interviewed Logan Paul and said he had “proven his heart” by withstanding all those punches. Take a moment to appreciate this sentiment: a man proves himself a man by surviving a beating and meting one out in return. In 2018.
The “hate” between Logan Paul and KSI strikes me as being of the same kind as the “love” you’ll see displayed on reality shows like The Bachelorette or Love Island. Two people, both of whom stand to benefit financially from a contrived emotional relationship, do their utmost to convince the cameras that they care about each other. In both cases, you get plenty of eye contact, songs dedicated to the other, intimate face-to-face moments, and the nervous tension of the audience not knowing if things will get physical. KSI and Logan Paul just made the physical payoff into a formal pay-per-view event and gave everyone the brawl they’d been so bloodthirsty for. Fittingly, their match was judged to be a draw, setting the stage for the (already planned) rematch in the US a few months from now.
KSI, still very much playing his role, said, “I guess there’s only one thing we can do, Logan. How about a rematch?” (Again, the second match was already part of the initial deal.) “I think that’s what the people want to see,” came the response. The crowd agreed.
Ultimately, this weekend’s hugely lucrative event was a reminder of some unpleasant, yet still central aspects of our broader culture. Thousands came to fill up the Manchester Arena, hundreds of thousands paid to watch the official YouTube stream, and more than a million others tuned in to pirated Twitch streams. People invested both time and money to watch two widely hate-loved internet clowns smack the spit out of each other’s mouth. The theatrics before this match were filled with Trump-tier insults, chants of “suck your mom,” and other car-crash misbehavior. And more than a million people couldn’t stop watching.
I can’t hate the Pauls or Olatunjis for winning at the viral-fame game. Their shameless boorishness, materialism, and sexism are popular, and the blame for that lies more with us, the audience, than with them. They embody and embrace the simple reality that, when it comes to getting paid, there’s no longer a difference between fame and infamy.
YouTube was supposed to democratize access to global stardom — and it has — but the implicit promise of greater freedom of expression hasn’t materialized. Instead, we’ve got people demeaning and diminishing themselves, appealing to our basest desires for unsavory spectacle. I wish I could rise above it, pretend that I’m not caught up in the same vicious whirlpool of self-reinforcing negative hype, but here I am, writing all about it, and here you are, reading to the last word.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge