Boxing purists may not have warmed (yet) to multi-platform influencer and wunderkind KSI’s abrupt interruption into the sport, but a legion of his 41.5 million social media followers are clearly entertained by the pugilistic exploits of the gamer, music artist and entertainer – who now calls boxing his “addiction”. KSI is on a mission. And it just happens to involve fighting.
The end game, reveals KSI – aka Olajide Olayinka Williams Olatunji, or simply ‘JJ’ – as we meet on the cobbles in the shadow of London Bridge, is a fistic challenge with Jake Paul, the British influencer having already stepped into the ring twice with Jake’s infamous brother Logan Paul.
They slugged it out to a majority draw at the Manchester Arena in 2018; then KSI was the winner by split points decision at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2019. Both events heralded a new age in what is seen as ‘celebrity white collar boxing’. It has since spawned KSI’s Misfits Boxing venture, with Wasserman Boxing, pitching YouTubers and influencers against each other. And it has its critics.
In an open, heartfelt interview, KSI outlines how boxing has become a deep addiction, creating greater discipline, and having brought about significant changes to his life. Moreover, what is key to KSI is that this is something that the uber-successful modern entrepreneur wants to do, not has to do.
“If I have no interest in something, I’m not going to force myself to do it. That’s why everything I do, I’m seriously interested in – like the boxing, YouTube, music. I love doing those things,” explains KSI. “People have asked me, ‘Do you want to do podcasting?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I have no interest in it.’ They could throw 10 or 20 million at me to podcast and I’m like, ‘No.’ It’s not about money; it’s about doing the stuff that I enjoy. I’ve worked hard to be in this position to be able to choose.”
So why boxing, arguably, one of the most testing environments an individual could choose? In reality, he explains, boxing has been running in the background of KSI’s life for five years, but recently, it has now become a part of his daily ritual, and indeed, a prime place in his business portfolio.
KSI’s digital reach has given the UK’s biggest influencer the Midas touch with seemingly everything he applies himself to, and the end game for the 29-year-old is the pursuit of a stadium fight with YouTuber Jake Paul – or indeed, as he recently declared, even with fellow Briton Tommy Fury, younger brother of heavyweight champion Tyson Fury.
Huge ambition, but also viable, based on his numbers. The true test is just how good he can become as a boxer. Unlike Jake Paul, though, KSI appears not to have aspirations to enter the real boxing world. More to stay in his own lane. Earlier this year, the global digital sports broadcasters DAZN inked a five-year, 30-event deal with KSI’s Misfits Boxing venture, with ten of those events scheduled to be as pay-per-view fight nights.
The proof, as they say, is in the numbers, and when KSI had his sixth boxing match against FaZe Temperrr in mid-January, it sold 300k pay per view buys on DAZN, with 10,000 fans swarming into Wembley’s OVO Arena. There was delirium for his ring walk, and the venue was full from first to last. The numbers don’t lie. Love it, or loathe it, YouTuber/influencer boxing is here – and with a growing market, and numbers, will follow its own commercial gravy train.
Some purists have accused the milieu of ‘hijacking’ the sport, creating a parody of the sport of boxing, but while this form of combat entertainment should not be viewed as ‘real’ professional boxing, it has its place and is bringing a younger set of fans to witness the entertainment.
Ringside, among the onlookers at Wembley’s OVO Arena in January, was one of KSI’s fans, his friend Louis Theroux, the television film-maker who is making a documentary about KSI. Having watched him train in camp, Theroux described KSI’s obsession with boxing, as “someone who’s relentlessly driven to succeed and his boxing is a side effect of that very, very basic, almost all-consuming passion he has to dominate everything that he does.”
So did KSI choose boxing, or did it choose him? For a start, physically, he looks in fantastic shape, having shed two stone as a result of a strict adherence to his daily rituals. “I was definitely on the bigger side, and now I’m kind of just embracing the whole lifestyle of being a boxer and even when I’m not in camp, I’m still in shape,” he explains, looking out across the Thames. “I’m still going for runs and I’m still exercising.”
A fighter’s mentality and lifestyle, then. “Yeah, it’s a lifestyle now,” he adds. “I feel like it’s a happier, more enjoyable lifestyle. I just feel great about myself and mentally as well it puts me in a way better mindset because I just feel good. I do just feel good about myself. Everyone’s entitled to be whatever shape they want to be but like I think for me it just made me feel so much better being the shape I’m in now compared to when I was way bigger and I was eating junk and I was just not caring.”
KSI’s brother Deji fought Floyd Mayweather Jr, one of the greatest boxers of all time, in an exhibition bout last year. Could Mayweather be a target for him? “They’d have to pay me way more money than what they paid my bro. It’s one of the things where I’m always interested in things – there isn’t anything that’s off the table – but it just has to make sense for me.
“I don’t like being disrespected, especially negotiation-wise, so if it’s not going to work, then it’s not going to work. But if we can make it work then of course I’m always down. And I always feel like I’m able to win anything that I do; I’m never going to say ‘yes’ to something I don’t think I’m going to win.
“Belief, deep self-belief brought him here through trial and error,” says KSI. It brings to mind another thing Louis Theroux told me about him: “He’s a YouTuber, he’s someone who from the age of 13 has grown up dominating YouTube and then came to boxing through that, but I think what you see is the relentless passion and drive he has and if you’ve seen him in the ring, or if you’ve seen him train, it’s almost frightening how much commitment he has. I enjoy seeing him in the ring and at the same time it’s almost slightly terrifying.”
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images
I remind KSI of these words. He is made up, and even a little surprised, by Theroux’s assessment. “I have so much self belief but I feel like you have to have that. There’s so many times even to this day where people don’t believe that I can do certain things. People think, for example, that Jake Paul’s going to knock me out.”
He pauses. “That’s the reason why I came back to boxing. Yeah 100%, that’s the reason why I’ve come back: to box, to fight Jake Paul and knock him out, because after I beat Logan Paul, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s done; I’ve completed it, so let me just focus on music and do all the goals that I’ve set for there.’
“I got all those goals and I was grinding, grinding, grinding, and then obviously Jake Paul was seen as this guy, people were starting to disrespect my name, being like, ‘Oh Jake Paul would destroy me in the ring, this and that,’ – and I was like, well ‘No. OK, let me show you.’ So I’ve come back into the ring and I’m going to show everyone when I fight Jake Paul that he is nothing.”
There is also vaulting ambition about the numbers and the venue. “Wembley Stadium, Cardiff Stadium, Emirates – there are venues, big venues that, I think would be awesome for us to fight in.” He’s grinning but KSI is completely serious. “Hopefully by the end of 2023, touch wood nothing happens, war or pandemic wise, but that’s the plan.”
The implication of what he is doing has a huge knock-on effect. What advice does KSI impart to all his millions of subscribers, many of them young people, based on what he has learnt from boxing, regarded as the loneliest, toughest sport on earth?
“I think discipline is very important, being able to have this mindset of ‘I want to work harder than the other person,’ so waking up nice and early, going on a run, thinking my opponent or my rival isn’t doing this. I’m doing the extra work to put me in a different space and yeah just being disciplined, doing that every day. Yeah, you can have cheat days here and there, you can do stuff outside the training and this and that but staying disciplined and focused is so important, then maintaining that.
“It’s a journey, it’s not a destination. It’s not like you reach a certain level and that’s it, you can just stop. Nah, you want to make sure you just continue. It’s constantly building you as a person until you die and then you can look back on your life and go, ‘Wow, I did all of this and I’m so proud of myself.’”
KSI points out there was graft in the early days to get to this point. “I think for me I’m definitely lucky with what I’ve done. I put all my eggs into the whole YouTube space, and I was very lucky that was a space that was booming. But at the time – best belief – no-one thought it was booming; it was this space where everyone was like, ‘Why are you doing YouTube videos?’
“A lot of people were very against it and saying, ‘Oh you shouldn’t do it; blah-blah this, blah-blah that, you’re wasting your time, you should focus on your studies or you should focus on things that are more attainable or substantial…’ – and if I’d listened to my parents, would I be in this position? No. And would I be as happy? Probably not.”
Admittedly, he is happiest now when he is creating new things, when he is creatively satisfied. “I think if I work hard on something and create, say, music, or if I work hard and am able to create a piece of art that I’m super proud of, yeah it’s super fulfilling for me to put that out there, for it to be received well.
“It’s a great feeling in general, and even with the boxing, to train super hard, so hard, and then get into the ring, fight someone and beat them easily, or to knock them out, it’s like a great achievement. Even YouTube videos, just making a YouTube video, to make it hilarious and then put it out there and people really receive it well, all of that feels good and I think that’s one of the reasons why I do it — because it’s a good feeling…”
KSI is in full flow. “I guess the best thing I can do is always just influence people in the best way possible, but I’m human, I’m going to make mistakes so I think also portraying that is important, showing people that yeah I’m not perfect, like I have taken several Ls in my life, and I’ve worked hard to get to a point where I’m at now.
“I’ve failed several times, I’ve wanted to give up several times, I’m not a robot that just does well. My relationships have failed because of me; I’ve messed up in previous relationships. It’s like, I’m not the perfect human being. I’m flawed, I’m a flawed individual. But what I guess makes me me is that I look at all my flaws and I go OK, how can I improve on that?”
“I think to make a mistake over and over and over again, that’s stupidity, that shouldn’t happen. If you make a mistake and then correct that, and then improve through that then that’s how you become a better person.” Boxing, he admits, has helped that honesty.
Does KSI have a final message for Jake Paul, who for now has set his sights on a fight with Nate Diaz?
“A message for Jake Paul? I mean I’ve made so many messages for Jake Paul but yeah he’s getting knocked out… I can’t wait, bro.”
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Watch KSI vs Joe Fournier on 13 May on DAZN.