On the 9th of November, 2019, audiences around the world tuned in for a historic night of boxing, broadcast from a sold out Staples Center in Los Angeles. The crowd was packed with celebrities, including Justin Bieber, Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa, Mike Tyson and the supposed "King of Instagram", Dan Bilzerian. A casual onlooker might assume Floyd Mayweather was about to make his big comeback; in fact, his uncle Jeff was sitting ringside.
But this wasn't the return of a boxing superstar. In fact, it wasn't even two career athletes entering the ring, but two YouTubers: British-born KSI (20.9 million YouTube subscribers) and American-born Logan Paul (20.1 million YouTube subscribers), who were having their first ever professional fight to settle a half-joking internet spat they'd begun two years earlier.
Their first fight, in 2018, had been an amateur affair. But this was the real deal. The global stardom of these two men (albeit among 15 to 25-year-olds) had been strong enough to seduce the professional boxing industry into foregoing all notions of competition, athleticism or talent, and treating this novice match like a pay-per-view blockbuster.
The fight was messy and frantic. Punches were wild, fouls were repeatedly called and both fighters were visibly shattered as it reached the final sixth round (a standard boxing match would go to 12).
In the end, KSI was crowned the victor. He leaped and screamed, then fell to his knees. Someone pushed Logan Paul's hood up, perhaps to let him briefly hide from defeat, but he pushed it back down, let out a noise that looked like "Gah!" and fixed his fringe.
After the fight, promoter Eddie Hearn said it was the UK's most successful pay-per-view boxing event of 2019. "You don't realise the audience these guys have," he told SiriusXM's Fight Nation, before promising that this would take boxing to "new territories, new demographics and new markets". KSI and Paul were paid £695,000 each (a higher fee than all but one of the professionals who fought before them that evening), and when you add sponsorship deals and a share of streaming profits, it's a payday that likely rises into the tens of millions. This wasn't Bob Mortimer fighting Les Dennis to raise funds for Sports Relief, this was influencers fighting for money.
The day after the fight, Piers Morgan interviewed KSI for Good Morning Britain. "You've made horribly large amounts of money out of this," he said. "How much have you made exactly?"
"What can I say," said KSI, after laughing the question off, "I'm a cash cow."
There are Christmas decorations everywhere when I arrive at KSI's apartment (not his only property, I assume – he told Men's Health he owns $10 million worth of real-estate in England) on a very high floor in a very tall building in central London: three trees, stockings on the walls, cushions with "jingle all the way" written on them and a large Santa Claus lying face down on the sofa. There are no discernible personal objects in the apartment, and almost everything in here could be described as "shiny, new, trendy stuff". There are two large state of the art TVs; the golf is playing on one. The kitchen shelves are stacked full with tubs of an energy supplement called G Fuel.
"Do you love Christmas?" I ask KSI.
"Do you love Christmas? There are decorations everywhere."
"Oh, my mate Simon [known as Miniminter – 8.36 million subscribers] did that for a video. He just wanted to film my reaction."
Thanks to videos like that, someone you know knows who KSI is. Pretty soon, everyone will. Born in London in 1993, and christened Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji, he started out as a FIFA gaming YouTuber more than ten years ago, at the age of 16, and left his place at the prestigious Berkhamsted School (whose alumni include Graham Greene and Zaha Hadid) during sixth form due to early success.
Over the years, his unstoppable ascent to fame has seen him branch out into comedy, music (his latest single, "Down Like That", featured Rick Ross), acting, boxing and books (I Am A Bellend, Orion Books, 2015). But he's also courted controversy: in 2013, Microsoft severed ties with him due to criticisms of a since removed video in which he verbally abused female staff and attendees at a gaming event (Olatunji later issued an official apology).
Today, he is regarded as one of the most influential YouTubers in the world, and probably the most influential in Britain. Across his two channels and that of his crew, The Sidemen, he has a combined subscriber audience of almost 35 million. Total video views across his main and sub channel are approximately 6.5 billion.
Olatunji's apartment is full of people the day I visit, so I ask if we can do the interview somewhere private, just me and him. He leads me to a room at the back of his apartment, and we sit at two arm chairs separated by a glass table. Olatunji swigs a G Fuel flask. He's wearing a black tracksuit with red trim and has a black bandana beneath his blonde-tipped dreadlocks. I can see the word "Strength" tattooed in curled handwriting on the inside of his left forearm (KSI stands for Knowledge, Strength, Integrity).
"Why did you want to fight Logan Paul in the first place?" I ask, half-expecting him to drum up the personal rivalry narrative that fuelled the diss tracks, vlogs, Instagram stories and trash talking meet-ups that led up to the boxing match.
"It was literally just to push myself more into the American audience," he says nonchalantly. He has a relaxed but focused gaze.
"How important was it to actually win the fight then…" I ask.
"Extremely!" he bursts.
"…and how much was it just a money-making spectacle in which you and Logan Paul were always going to 'win'?"
"Nah, bro – for me it wasn't even about that. It was all about winning. I had to win. My whole legacy was on the line. If I'd lost, everything would disintegrate."
"Do you really believe that?"
Some of the press coverage about this series of YouTuber boxing matches had spoken about the toxic masculinity of it all; the atmosphere of chest-beating and machismo, the notion that all that really matters when it comes to settling a dispute between two people is who could win in a physical confrontation. "What do you think about that?" I ask.
"It goes back to human nature," says Olatunji, after taking a few seconds to consider his answer. "People just like to see who is better between people. It's all a competition. People like to compare and compete with one another… it's just how it is."
"Do you feel up for that? Constant human competition?"
"You have to be," he says. "Especially in this industry – you have to be up for it. You have to be competitive, man. If I wasn't competitive, I wouldn't be in this position. If I wasn't competitive, I wouldn't have a song that's smashing it in the charts. If I wasn't competitive, I wouldn't be sitting here with over 20 million subscribers on one of my channels. If I wasn't competitive, I wouldn't be here. You have to be… you have to have that drive to want to be the best and show how good you are."
We live in a media-saturated world in which any number of screens are constantly competing for our eyeballs, in an ever growing and unrelenting storm that David Foster Wallace described as "Total Noise". But while the abundance of media and information is constantly booming, our days aren't getting any longer – and there are only so many hours in which we can direct our open eyes towards some form of content. Human attention is a scarce commodity.
A cynic could view YouTube simply as a platform that specialises in delivering human attention to advertisements – and if you take that view, stars like Olatunji are masters of it. The best YouTubers create a very different connection with their fans to traditional celebrities. Through regularity, relatability and a diversity of content, they breed loyal fanbases. Intentionally or not, they nurture their fans through what writer Megan Farokhmanesh described as "parasocial relationships" (a reference to a sociological theory from the 1950s), wherein a fan develops a sense of kinship and intimacy with a media figure that makes them feel as if they know them.
Since the age of 16, Olatunji has constantly allowed his followers into his life (except for a four-month hiatus in 2017). Now, he has built something everyone wants: a vast and attentive young global audience. In the attention economy, YouTubers are like oil-rich countries, and it's no surprise that fading sports like professional boxing desperately want a piece.
The problem is that, outside of their own sphere, YouTubers have often struggled to command respect from the traditional mainstream. No matter how much they are touted as the future of celebrity, they are still viewed with a certain snobbishness, similar to that of children's TV stars or reality show winners. And it's no surprise that some of the most critically acclaimed YouTuber crossover stories have come from those who entirely abandoned the platform, like the multi-talented Donald Glover (who started out in the YouTube comedy sketch group, Derrick Comedy) or the lo-fi R&B star Joji (once known as the YouTuber, Filthy Frank).
"Online and mainstream are two different worlds," said Olatunji in an interview with YouTube commentator Keemstar on the show Drama Alert. "When it comes to mainstream, we are still little fish. We don't get the respect we deserve. Events like [the boxing match] show the mainstream how powerful we are, and show them we are the next generation of celebrities."
Music is the next stage in the ascension of KSI: Olatunji has been releasing rap songs and EPs for more than four years, and has collaborated with UK rap and grime stars like JME, Big Zuu and P Money. In the first half of 2019, he released a collaborative mixtape with fellow YouTuber and rapper Randolph, and they toured it at live venues across the UK.
But now – with his name fresh in the minds of Americans, thanks to his boxing victory – he's pushed things up a level considerably. Big names now want a piece of the KSI pie. Two days after the match, with bruises still shining, he was on a film set with American hip-hop legend Rick Ross, the hyped Atlanta rapper Lil Baby and Childish Gambino producer, S-X, to shoot the video for his latest single, "Down Like That". It became his first ever top ten single in the UK and briefly touched the top spot on the iTunes chart. His next single I'm told, will feature yet another huge name in American rap. "I don't see myself as talented," Olatunji tells me, "I see myself as a person that works hard and smart. That's why I'm in the position I'm in."
The irony is that while YouTubers like Olatunji dream of knocking down the doors of mainstream acceptance, the most forward-thinking traditional celebrities are heading in the opposite direction. In the last two years, Will Smith, Jack Black, Zac Efron, Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Lopez, Alexa Chung and many more have launched vlog-style YouTube channels that trade on the platform's "personal touch" quality. As mainstream institutions like Hollywood begin to economically crumble under the pressure of technological advancement, and a sense grows that online platforms may be the more stable future, once aloof celebrities are now nurturing intimate and loyal connections with their fanbases. YouTubers may not be the future, but their style of managing fame might just be.
But, for now, they will continue to punch each other for money. After all, people just like to see who is better between people. On the 30th of January, 2020, Logan Paul's brother Jake Paul will go up against Olatunji's friend and fellow YouTuber, AnEsonGib, in yet another fight organised by the boxing promotions mastermind Eddie Hearn.
"What comes after this?" I ask Olatunji as our hour together draws to a close. "What's the next YouTuber trend going to be after boxing matches?"
"It could really be anything, man. We could do other types of sports," he says, and my mind irrationally drifts off to Manchester United fielding a YouTuber as a striker in a League Cup game, or two YouTubers playing tennis on centre court before the Wimbledon final, or 20 YouTubers careering around Silverstone in Formula One cars while Bernie Ecclestone claps approvingly in the stands.
"The problem is," I say, "how much more dramatic can it get than two of your favourite stars just beating each other up in a boxing ring?"
"A street fight," he says, smiling. "You get two YouTubers that hate each other, and they happen to be in the same place at the same time, and a brawl could happen. You never know."