Wembley, a damp Thursday evening in early May, and two men are bumping bellies in a conference center above a library. In an event full of oddities, Steven Williams, 49, and Richard Jordan, 37, are the oddest of the lot; known online as Boogie2988 and WingsOfRedemption, they have a combined 4.5 million YouTube subscribers and a combined weight of nearly 800 pounds. In two days’ time, they’ll step into a boxing ring at a sold-out OVO Arena Wembley, with another 400,000 watching live online, for a fight being billed as “800 Pounds, 1 Ring.” It would be the most ridiculous face-off I’d ever seen, had I not just witnessed an adult film star in lingerie hurl a mackerel at a glamour model before the pair were dragged off stage by security.
This is the press conference for Misfits & DAZN: X Series 007, the hotly anticipated crossover boxing event (“crossover” meaning “people who aren’t proper boxers punching each other for money”). The headline bout in London this Saturday is between Olajide “KSI” Olatunji—YouTube colossus, rapper, Prime entrepreneur, and part-owner of Misfits Boxing, the fight’s organizer, and the dominant crossover boxing promotion outfit in the world—and Joe Fournier, a 40-year-old nightclub owner with a 9-0 professional boxing record. It has already sold 8,000 tickets and a reported 300,000 pay-per-views, putting it on a par with next weekend’s lightweight world championship fight between Devin Haney and Vasiliy Lomachenko in Las Vegas.
But in this wood-paneled room, illuminated by klieg lights, a crane-mounted camera flying in for close-ups, the headliners are long gone, and we’re into the depths of the undercard. Williams and Jordan have been streaming almost since YouTube started, making them near mythological for those immersed in this world. The reaction to their fight was like someone had announced three rounds of boxing between Galahad and the Green Knight.
Just getting them to London was a coup for nascent crossover promotion company Happy Punch, which is running its first event as a warm-up for Saturday’s big Misfits show. According to the fight’s promoter, both men had undergone gastric surgery to help them lose weight; even so, Jordan still weighs in at 404 pounds. Williams, who six years ago weighed 600 pounds and was stuck in a wheelchair, had worked his way down to a fight weight of 391 pounds. But Williams also has polycythemia vera, a form of blood cancer that, though manageable, is still blood cancer. His doctor cleared him to be here only reluctantly. “I asked him, Can I do this?” Williams says. “He said, ‘You’re asking the wrong question. Should you do this? No, absolutely not.’”
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But naysayers be damned. Here these huge men are, against the odds, ginning up this crowd and thousands more watching online, as they threaten to put each other back into the hospitals in which they have already spent so much time. In return for fighting, Williams tells me, each will receive $10,000, flights and hotels, plus a shot of adrenaline to languishing careers.
Celebrity boxing matches have a long and grubby history. But in the last few years, what started as a series of largely staged feuds between internet creators has exploded into its own, unique genre of sporting entertainment. Somehow, a group of people doing the most novel, terminally online career possible have embraced one of the oldest: punching each other for money.
Crossover boxing’s modern history starts in 2017, when two YouTubers, Joe Weller and Theo Baker, boxed in an almost empty gym for #content. Olajide “KSI” Olatunji joked on Instagram that he’d fight the winner. The resulting bout between Weller and KSI sold out and has been viewed over 23 million times, for three rounds of boxing that looked like two men trying to swat mosquitos off each other. Gen Z drank it up like it was the Rumble in the Jungle.
KSI won, and challenged the Paul brothers—Logan and Jake—two influencers then best known for a series of controversies and viral stunts. KSI’s fight with Logan Paul made an estimated $200-plus million, and has been described as the biggest amateur fight ever. The professional (meaning no headgear) rematch in 2019 at LA’s Staples Center reportedly sold two million pay-per-views and earned KSI and Logan Paul each a guaranteed $900,000, with their total payouts said to be in the millions.
The money legitimized what had been a sideshow. Jake Paul turned pro in 2020, and after fighting a run of YouTubers, a basketball player and MMA fighters, was in 2022 named the world’s 46th highest-earning athlete by Forbes, after reportedly making $38 million from fights and endorsements. (A representative of Paul’s told GQ that “Jake Paul isn’t a ‘crossover boxer.’ He is a professional boxer.”)
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KSI co-founded Misfits in 2021. Jake Paul launched his own company, Most Valuable Promotions, the same year. “We looked at the scene and said, ‘There’s definitely something here’, but the scene is quite messy,” KSI says. “There wasn’t really an organization everyone can look to and go, ‘this is crossover boxing.’ So we’re gonna just make that.”
The first Misfits event, in August 2022, reached nearly two million viewers on the streaming network DAZN, 90 per cent of whom were new subscribers. Four months later, at 11:30am on Christmas Day, Misfits inked a five-year exclusive tie-up with the broadcaster, which earns Misfits a license fee and split of the pay-per-view revenue. “It’s similar to a movie deal,” Kalle Sauerland, Misfits co-president and one of its four cofounders, says.
Sauerland’s a born salesman, a monster of a man, his arms like sacks of gravel testing the stitching on his monogrammed shirt. He has spent two decades as a boxing promoter, working with everyone from Don King to David Haye. The economic model of the Misfits events, he explained, is the same as the one for classical boxing: “Media rights, gate and sponsorship.”
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But the real inspiration isn’t boxing. It’s the WWE and UFC, which merged in April to create a $21.4 billion sports entertainment juggernaut. (For comparison, Matchroom Sport, the UK’s best-known promoter, was reportedly valued at around $850 million by potential investors earlier this year.) While crossover might just about follow the traditional rules of boxing, Misfits and its competitors are out to create something new.