Celebrity boxing reaches its biggest stage Saturday at Staples Center in Los Angeles as KSI and Logan Paul square off. It’s a professional rematch of an amateur bout that drew hundreds of thousands of buys on YouTube pay-per-view last August, opening a lot of eyes to the overwhelming moneymaking potential such a fight could have.
Eddie Hearn, one of boxing’s top promoters, has put the support of Matchroom Boxing behind the rematch. The fight checks a lot of favorable boxes, specifically a younger, nontraditional boxing audience. The card includes not only KSI (real name: Olajide William Olatunji) vs. Logan Paul, but two championship fights with Billy Joe Saunders and Devin Haney putting their titles on the line. That pairing could provide a massive windfall for both the boxers and the sport.
While Saturday’s bout brings celebrity boxing to its biggest stage to date, it’s far from the first instance of a promoter trying to cash in on celebrity status, instead of fight quality. So where did it all begin?
Before the celebrity aspect came into play, white-collar boxing events at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York — one of boxing’s most venerated training grounds — began to spring up in the late 1980s. What started with informal clashes between bankers and other business professionals with minimal training turned into monthly events (which, over time, were occasionally challenged from a legal and safety perspective). The idea eventually spread to England through a collaboration between Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade and Englishman Alan Lacey.
The format called for headgear, big gloves and a handful of short rounds. Lacey, who began training in the ring at 45 years old, fought on the first event in London. The events eventually picked up enough momentum in England that celebrities got into the mix, sometimes adding a charity element to the equation.
After a couple of high-profile celebrity bouts, including one in 2002 that featured comedian Ricky Gervais and was watched by 5.5 million people, U.K. boxing authorities stepped in and pressured the BBC to stop airing the bouts, deeming them “dangerous and irresponsible.” Just a handful of celebrity fights have been approved in the U.K. over the last decade.
Around the same time, as reality TV was exploding in the United States, Fox network had a similar idea: a show simply called “Celebrity Boxing,” which would become the most famous (and infamous) instance of the trend.
Before we dig into the two-episode Fox debacle from 2002, there’s a piece of mostly forgotten history in the timeline: a 1994 bout featuring Danny Bonaduce, a child star who would repeatedly step back into the celebrity boxing world, and Donny Osmond.
In the 1970s, Bonaduce was one of the stars of the TV show “The Partridge Family,” portraying the pre-teen middle son of a fictional traveling band. By the mid-’90s, one of Bonaduce’s main gigs was as a late-night radio host, including a stretch on The Loop WLUP in Chicago. It was on that station that a fight with Osmond, the former teen idol and pop star, came to fruition thanks to some inspiration and goading from another WLUP host, Jonathon Brandmeier.
On Jan. 17, 1994, Bonaduce and Osmond, both in their mid-30s, entered Chicago’s China Club for a three-round bout, complete with boxing nicknames; Osmond’s “The Stormin’ Mormon” moniker felt particularly fitting. Once the bell rang, whatever limited training the two had each undertaken in preparation for the fight produced minimal and ineffective results.
Bonaduce’s headgear flew off multiple times (perhaps conveniently, in terms of getting unscheduled breaks), and clinches turned into miniature wrestling matches as Osmond and Bonaduce flailed at one another. Osmond even poked Bonaduce in the eye.
When the fight mercifully ended, Bonaduce was awarded a split-decision victory, to the chagrin of Osmond and confusion of most in attendance. A postfight verbal spat led Bonaduce to taunt Osmond about his sister, singer Marie Osmond. Bonaduce even suggested a fourth round without headgear or gloves. The fight presaged a lot of what would follow in the world of celebrity boxing: the level of “celebrities” participating, professional-level trash talk, dirty tactics and ugly, often unwatchable fights.
On March 13, 2002, “Celebrity Boxing” aired for the first time. The hour-long special featured a commentary team of Chris Rose and Boxing Hall of Famer Ray Mancini, ring announcer Michael Buffer and a national anthem sung by the Backstreet Boys’ Howie Dorough. As in many big fights of the era, the fighters had advertisements for online casino Golden Palace temporarily tattooed on their bodies.
That’s where the connections to real boxing start to trail off.
Bonaduce returned to the ring that night and squared off with another ’70s TV icon, Barry Williams, who starred as Greg Brady on “The Brady Bunch.” Bonaduce proceeded to batter Williams from pillar to post with five knockdowns over the course of two rounds until the fight was stopped by Williams’ corner.
Todd Bridges, of “Diff’rent Strokes” fame, was similarly dominant against Rob “Vanilla Ice” Van Winkle, earning a couple of knockdowns on his way to a 30-27 decision — this despite Van Winkle employing MMA legend Tank Abbott in his corner.
The main event of the evening pitted Tonya Harding, the former figure skater infamous for her role in the attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan ahead of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, against Paula Jones, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton had embroiled her into Ken Starr’s impeachment proceedings.
Jones was reportedly a late replacement for “The Long Island Lolita,” Amy Fisher. Jones was no match for Harding and bowed out of the fight in the third round.
Quality of fighting aside, what was initially planned as a one-off special was an undeniable hit for Fox, drawing over 15 million viewers — prompting a sequel, which aired two months later.
The increasingly hard-to-watch sideshow is best summed up by Bill Simmons’ running diary of the show that ran on ESPN’s Page 2 and by The Ringer’s detailed look back at the dangerously one-sided fight between Ron “Horshack” Palillo (“Welcome Back, Kotter”) and Dustin “Screech” Diamond (“Saved by the Bell”). Other fights featured on the card included “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire” winner Darva Conger outlasting six-time Olympic medal-winning gymnast Olga Korbut, and 7-foot-7 former NBA star Manute Bol topping NFL giant William “Refrigerator” Perry in a mightily uneventful bout.
In the main event, pro wrestler Joanie “Chyna” Laurer lost an intergender bout to Joey Buttafuoco by majority decision — closing a loop, in a strange way, given Buttafuoco’s connection to Fisher, who fought on the first “Celebrity Boxing” card.
After that second, sloppy night of action, celebrity boxing dropped out of the mainstream. Fox never aired a third edition of the show, though no particular reason was given publicly. But it wasn’t the end of celebrity boxing by any stretch.
As long as there were promoters looking to make a quick buck, and celebrities or athletes on the decline either financially or in popularity, there would be celebrity boxing, in some form.
In terms of his intersection between athlete and minor celebrity, no one was more well-suited for a transition into the celebrity boxing world than Jose Canseco. A 17-year Major League Baseball career included six All-Star Game appearances, two home run titles and the distinction of becoming the first “40-40” player in MLB history with 42 homers and 40 stolen bases in the 1988 season. But steroid accusations and a tell-all 2005 book called “Juiced” detailing baseball’s PED problem made him a pariah in the game.
He turned to reality TV, appearing on Season 5 of “The Surreal Life,” among other appearances. But by 2008, Canseco turned his attention to boxing. His first fight came against former NFL kick returner Vai Sikahema in May 2008 at a baseball stadium in Atlantic City, New Jersey. While Sikahema gave up seven inches to Canseco, he had a boxing history, having fought in the same Golden Gloves tournament as Sugar Ray Leonard in the 1970s. Sikahema earned a first-round knockout.
Canseco’s next fight came in January 2009 against Bonaduce, whose seemingly never-ending time in the strange world of celebrity boxing continued in Aston, Pennsylvania, about 30 minutes southwest of Philadelphia. By this time Bonaduce, who grew up in the area, had a radio show in Philadelphia and managed to find a situation in which he’d be the clear fan favorite. The bout, fought in front of an announced crowd of 1,500 at a local ice rink, ended in a majority draw.
The fight, promoted by Damon Feldman (of failed Lenny Dykstra vs. “Bagel Boss Guy” fight “fame,” eventually led Canseco into Feldman’s Celebrity Boxing Federation, which further strained the label “celebrity.” After a brief, unsuccessful foray into MMA, Canseco took on local fighter Todd Poulton in November 2009 and scored his first boxing win.
Canseco, at 46, lost a four-round charity bout to 60-year-old University of Arkansas at Little Rock athletic director Gary Hogan in July 2010.
Canseco teased fights against Dykstra, Michael Lohan and even an MMA bout with Shaquille O’Neal, but his sad, strange venture in the world of boxing will forever be known for the switcheroo he tried to pull in 2011.
Ahead of a scheduled bout in Florida that March, Jose Canseco tried to send his twin brother, former MLB player Ozzie Canseco, to fight in his place. The ruse was discovered because of the difference in Jose and Ozzie’s tattoos. Feldman sued Canseco, seeking restitution, and the former MLB star’s dubious career in boxing was over.
Celebrity boxing events promoted by Feldman continued to dip deeper and deeper into the world of reality show personalities along with tabloid standouts like Thomas Markle Jr., Meghan Markle’s half-brother.
Until the first KSI-Logan Paul fight, the sideshow nature of celebrity boxing was slowly winding itself into oblivion. While the antics and promotion are similar, albeit on a dramatically larger scale, KSI-Logan Paul 2 brings several key elements that were sorely missing from the equation: a gigantic built-in audience, a proven commodity and the added element of professionalism. Removing the head gear and oversized gloves brings the added element of a higher likelihood of a knockout, raising the stakes even higher.
If this fight is anywhere near as successful as the first bout, don’t be surprised to see more stars of the YouTube generation try to cash in. The promoters will be with them, right in step.