Why People Love to Watch Influencers Get Punched In the Face

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These fights garner interest because of their characters, not their quality. This is the world of influencer boxing, of internet-famous tough guys and celebrities clinging to relevance, of manufactured beefs and emotional arcs plotted via training videos and podcast appearances. Influencer boxers know something boxing purists don’t: that a fight without a narrative, no matter how poetic its execution, is just a hollow technical exercise.

Boxing promoters have spent decades enticing viewers with the prospect of seeing celebrities in the ring. In 1991, when the former N.F.L. All-Pro Mark Gastineau became a professional fighter — a popular figure suddenly competing in a very new context — his career attracted national interest. (“60 Minutes” later reported that most of his fights were fixed, with opponents paid to take dives.) The appeal of familiar faces in violent battles emerged in fiction, too, as with “Celebrity Deathmatch,” which debuted in 1998 and featured stop-motion animations of celebrities killing each other in the ring. In 2002, Fox ran two episodes of “Celebrity Boxing,” starring the likes of Vanilla Ice and Tonya Harding, before canceling it. (TV Guide would later rank it the sixth-worst show ever.) That same year, Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino hosted the “Brawl at the Taj Mahal,” a stunt fight between two regulars on Howard Stern’s radio show. Such spectacles may not have the craft of top-tier boxing, but they capitalize on a powerful force: the desperate demeanor of people prepared to do anything to grow or maintain their fame.

Logan Paul and his younger brother Jake Paul seem to understand the power of narrative better than their peers. Jake is a Disney Channel actor turned YouTuber turned rapper; Logan is a YouTuber turned podcaster turned energy-drink salesman. Each began boxing in 2018. Since then, Logan has lost to Mayweather in a widely publicized exhibition match, while Jake has landed among the most recognized names in boxing, cultivating the image of a renegade disrupting the sport. It hardly matters to viewers that the Pauls are top-​tier self-promoters but (at best) midtier boxers. What matters is their flair for the dramatic and their internet-bred ability to get people to care about them.

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In every other professional sport, major events promise elite performance first, and then search for narratives to enliven them. The record-setting ratings at this year’s U.S. Open tennis final between Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka, for instance, owed something to Gauff’s irresistible ascension and charisma, but they were earned mostly by the otherworldly talent on display. Yet in boxing there is no longer a discernible marriage between talent and narrative. To care about the fight between Paul and Danis — or one between the rapper Blueface and the TikToker Ed Matthews, or the retired N.F.L. star Le’Veon Bell and the YouTuber JMX — is to care almost exclusively about the caricatures these figures present. There are no real athletic stakes, no championship belt to be lifted. The match’s meaning is derived almost solely from its plotting.

Boxing as a mainstream entertainment, the stuff of front pages and towering athletes, had its peak in the 20th century; now, increasingly, it is a niche product, not a mass-market one. As the combat-sports journalist Ariel Helwani said in an episode of Netflix’s “Untold” documentary series spotlighting Jake Paul, “I can’t tell you just how hard it is to get people to be emotionally invested, to get people to care, to get people to buy pay-per-views and tickets.” But there is a robust new audience that follows social-media celebrities and would not mind watching them duke it out. If nothing else, the Pauls know how to curry that attention. Before pivoting to boxing, Logan was perhaps best known for posting a video of a body hanging from a tree in Japan’s “suicide forest,” a stunt that spawned outrage and led YouTube to suspend his ad revenue. Somehow, he emerged from the controversy more famous than before, reinforcing a sinister lesson about content creation: Do whatever it takes to maximize engagement.

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