Celebrity boxing is set for a new era with some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment now looking to get in on the action. As it moves forward, we look back on some of the history behind the venture.
By now you’ve probably heard that social media personality Jake Paul is taking aim at several of the stars of mixed martial arts. If rumors are to be believed, he plans to take aim at former Bellator and ONE Championship title holder Ben Askren, then Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu bad boy Dillon Danis, and finally will step into the ring with UFC superstar Conor McGregor.
— Brendan Schaub (@BrendanSchaub) December 17, 2020
His efforts have been called everything from creative to cringe, but there is one thing that they are unanimously considered: successful. Paul has turned approximately five minutes of boxing on the Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones Jr undercard into a wave of interest in the business of celebrity boxing. The event was such a huge success that the media company Triller has already announced the formation of a new league that will not only feature former athletes but also stars from the realm of social media and other entertainment to compete in their athletic events. Furthermore, even pay-per-view megastar and boxing legend Floyd Mayweather is getting in on the action as he is set to face Paul’s older brother Logan in a special pay-per-view event in February.
Of course, forays into the world of boxing for big pay days are nothing new in combat sports. Technically speaking, Conor McGregor’s bout with Floyd Mayweather three years ago was essentially celebrity boxing on the highest of levels. MMA legend Cris Cyborg has long flirted with the idea of facing a big name opponent in boxing after achieving everything possible in the cage. Finally, even Paige VanZant joining the world of bare knuckle boxing for a lucrative contract is considered a level of celebrity pugilism.
But the world of celebrity boxing goes back even further. Though public figures have entered the squared circle with different levels of experience, getting in the ring to build one’s brand is a tried and true concept that pre-dates the social media age. To that effect, it has also seen some of the craziest turns of events and controversial figures participate.
Perhaps the participant with the most infamous celebrity boxing incident is former baseball player Jose Canseco. The two-time champion and six-time All Star tried his hand at boxing and even fought MMA in facing Hong Man Choi in the Japanese organization DREAM. Notably, he competed not only in exhibitions but also in sanctioned bouts that did not all go his way. But no turn of events tops an incident in 2011 where Canseco signed to compete at a celebrity boxing match in Florida for promoter Damon Feldman. Canseco was paid in advance, but come fight night sent out his twin brother Ozzie to compete. Fans immediately recognized the bait-and-switch as Ozzie did not have the familiar tattoos of Jose and were understandably outraged. It was not the first instance of a switch being pulled by the brothers as Jose was known for having his brother Ozzie appear in his place for autograph signings in the past.
While there are many examples of celebrities who entered the ring as a way to return to the spotlight, it is not unheard of for stars on the rise to give it a go as well. In 2010, a young socialite by the name of Kim Kardashian entered the ring for a charity boxing match along with other members of her family. Winners bid at auction for a shot at throwing punches with the reality TV stars, and the centerpiece of the event was Kim getting into the ring herself. As documented in their reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the auction winners were gleefully aggressive with the family and had no issue landing solid punches during their allotted time. Today, Kardashian-West’s social media empire and bar-setting reality show are bigger than ever and the idea of taking punches for any amount of money is firmly in the rear-view.
The participants in celebrity boxing come from far-and-wide, with names everywhere from Kardashian to Vanilla Ice. A common thread and appeal, however, is that it is celebrities who can cash in on the public’s desire to see them humbled in the ring. Perhaps no public figure has taken this approach to become successful in celebrity boxing more than former Olympic ice-skater Tonya Harding. In 1994, an acquaintance of Harding infamously assaulted her Team USA teammate Nancy Kerrigan in a moment that captured the world’s attention. Harding would later accept a plea bargain for hindering the prosecution of the case, and her ex-husband was found to have orchestrated the attack. That did not stop the public from condemning Harding as the mastermind behind the entire incident.
Banned from skating and looking for a way to make a living, Harding soon found herself in the ring. As you can imagine, the desire to see the former Olympian receive a pugilistic comeuppance for one of the most infamous moments in sports history made her an instant attraction. Though her stint was rather short-lived, it served to keep her in the public eye and led to a consistent role in giving her takes on viral videos on TruTV.
Going into 2021, celebrity boxing is set to go from grainy film on YouTube to being streamed worldwide in 4K High Definition. Once considered a sideshow, recent success has seen that the audience for the right match-ups and events can earn revenue and sell pay-per-views on par with some of the biggest combat sport stars of today. At a time when seemingly anyone can build a following on the internet, it isn’t a stretch to believe that this is only the beginning of more stars jumping into the realm of celebrity combat on the biggest stage.