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Can YouTube star Logan Paul find redemption in boxing?

"I'm an athlete, I'm funny, I'm creative, I can tell a story, I'm likable. I can sing, I can act," Logan Paul says. "I don't know if there's a person on the internet who can fulfill the things I just said. Most important, I work hard as f---." Chris McPherson for ESPN

Editor's note: This story contains mature content.

On a September morning in Los Angeles, one of the internet's most popular entertainers is not in the mood to entertain. He's not here for the jokes and antics that have defined his YouTube career, Logan Paul says into a camera, his blond hair cut short, his fingers each adorned with a silver ring. This year, he insists, he's a boxer first.

But when he walks onto the stage near Staples Center, sunglasses on, biceps peeking out from the sleeves of his flamboyant silk shirt, it quickly becomes clear what kind of mood Paul is in. Minutes into the introduction, he starts flicking a cup of ice water at his opponent, British YouTuber Olajide "KSI" Olatunji, prompting security to get between them. When it's his turn to talk, Paul grabs the mic from the podium, stalks the stage with a hungry energy and rattles off a series of insults. "You look a little thick, and you smell like herpes" is one of the more memorable ones. He works the crowd, getting people to chant in full, youthful voice, anything from "U-S-A" to KSI "has no d---." KSI retorts, "Go ask your mum. Your mum's right there. Hey, how's my d---?" Paul goes over to his mom, Pam Stepnick, whose YouTube channel "Vlogmom" has 793,000 subscribers, and asks if KSI does in fact have one. "No!" she announces confidently.

It feels like a scene out of a drunken frat party, only hosted by sober adults who make a living from providing entertainment for the few hundred kids there (and hundreds of thousands more online). The youngest stand on a planter to see. The oldest look like they're in college. There's a solid KSI contingent, but most of them are Logan Paul fans. "He's inspiring," a teenage girl says about why she likes Paul. "I like the way he respects his fans."

These kids are the reason Logan Paul and KSI are here today, why these two internet stars with little boxing experience and 20 million YouTube subscribers each have been sanctioned by the California State Athletic Commission to stage a professional fight at Staples Center on Nov. 9. Because when they orchestrated their own amateur fight last year, so many of these kids tuned in that the adults couldn't help but figure out how to cash in. They might have had to Google their names, but they understood what Logan Paul and KSI could do for them. As mainstream entertainment yearns to reach young people on the internet and internet stars yearn to go mainstream, Logan Paul and KSI -- and their combined 40 million followers -- could be boxing's perfect match.

To be clear, neither of these guys is a professional boxer, and how they fell into boxing is one of the great flukes of the internet. KSI, the 26-year-old son of Nigerian immigrants to the U.K., started his career posting videos of his exploits on FIFA. One of Paul's earliest videos showed him prank-calling a restaurant under the name "Mike Buttski." Neither of them had ever boxed until 2018. But they both have viewership numbers that mainstream entertainment outlets dream of, and their fight last year dwarfed most professional bouts in pay-per-view buys.

An 18-year-old KSI fan says he used to like Paul but feels the 24-year-old "crossed a line with the Japanese forest thing." That "Japanese forest thing" was the first time many people outside the YouTube generation had heard of Logan Paul. In December 2017, Paul and his friends took a trip to the Aokigahara Forest outside Tokyo, known as a common suicide site, and filmed a video featuring a man hanging from a tree. In it, Paul, wearing a fuzzy "Toy Story" alien hat, says, deadpan to the camera, "What, you never stand next to a dead guy?" The incident was the most controversial of Paul's controversial career. The internet declared him canceled, and he lost fans, sponsorships and a lucrative partnership with Google. For a moment, it looked as if Logan Paul's career might be over, that this one stunt too far would turn his fans, not to mention commercial partners, against him for good.

Paul doesn't avoid talking about Tokyo. In fact, he brings it up frequently, as if he understands that the only way to overcome his mistake is to face it head-on. He credits it for bringing him to boxing. Boxing is "a shot at redemption," he tells the assembled media in L.A., "a second chance." But as Paul humps the air onstage, it seems like just one of those things he says that doesn't quite hold up. The thing about Logan Paul is that if you wait long enough -- or not very long at all -- he'll contradict himself. How does punching another guy in the face in front of millions of people redeem him? And even if boxing does equal redemption, what does redemption mean to Logan Paul?


Paul's six-bedroom, $6.6 million mansion sits deep in the hills in L.A. It's listed on Google Maps as Maverick Enterprises, Paul's brand, but the compound is ringed by tall wooden spikes, defenses to keep fans and trolls out. Inside the front door lies a body pillow adorned with Paul's blue-hoodied image, one of the many props that litter the place.

The Logan Paul of today is calmer than the rabble-rouser of yesterday. He has traded his silk shirt for black workout clothes, takes long pauses before answering questions and picks at the skin on his arms and legs while talking. Lying outstretched on an enormous tan beanbag in his recording studio, he rails about how underwhelmed he was by the news conference. He feels he wasn't his best self -- and blames it on KSI. "I thought he would give me more to work with," he says. "Since he didn't, I ended up going to a place of the old Logan Paul that I'm not sure I loved. Just a guy that yells and screams and says mean things."

Paul often talks about the old Logan and the new, as if his life can be split into Before Tokyo and After Tokyo. "Before, I would say or do anything. I would do whatever the f--- I wanted. That was the brand. F--- everyone, I got this," he says. "When Tokyo happened, it was like a slap in the face."

Long before Tokyo, before his meteoric rise and his cancellation, Paul was a 10-year-old in Ohio with a camera, a brother and an idea. He'd heard of a new website where anyone could post anything, so he and his younger brother, Jake, started making stunt videos and comedy skits inspired by "Jackass." They loved it, and a few people online seemed to love it too. The brothers amassed about 4,000 YouTube followers over eight years, Paul remembers. Not bad for two kids from a suburb of Cleveland, but they wanted more.

Then came Vine. The brothers' brand of bro-y physical comedy and hyper-masculine meme humor took off on the short-lived platform of looping six-second videos, and the money started coming in. Paul started doing ad campaigns and sponsored content with major companies such as PepsiCo and Dunkin' Donuts. He asked his dad, Greg, how much money he had in his own bank account, and when the answer was less than the 19-year-old had, Logan realized he could be an internet star full time. He dropped out of Ohio University and moved to L.A.

"I'm a maverick. I'm unlike any other creator on the internet," he says when asked what makes his channel so special. "I'm an athlete, I'm funny, I'm creative, I can tell a story, I'm likable. I can sing, I can act, my physical comedy is on point. I can do the splits. I don't know if there's a person on the internet who can fulfill the things I just said. Most important, I work hard as f---."

The most he has made off YouTube in a year is somewhere between $6 million and $7 million, which he says isn't a lot, at least not compared with his apparel line, Maverick by Logan Paul. He can't imagine a universe in which he would not be an internet creator, but if social media had not been created, he thinks he would be "inventing products that would revolutionize human technology." Instead, he's revolutionizing the internet, and he talks about his career as if he can already see his name gleaming in the record books. "I don't know if I've seen a rise as big as mine, or a fall as big as mine, in internet history," he says. "From any creator. And I don't know if it'll ever happen again."

As Paul talks, people come in and out of the room casually, one guy wearing just a towel. No one can confirm how many people actually live in the house, though Paul's full-time chef says she always has food ready for 10 to 20. The vibe is like a college dorm, where all the residents are employed in the business of Logan Paul.

In fall 2016, Paul returned to YouTube from Vine and started daily vlogging. For nearly 500 consecutive days, he lived about 80% of his life publicly on video. Some days the content created itself, like when he drove an electric blue bus to appear on "Jimmy Kimmel," where he told a story about losing 15% of a testicle because of a stunt. Other days he had to create something -- anything! -- to keep viewers hooked. "So you come up with the most random, outrageous s--- you can, break some plates, call it a day," he remembers.

His subscriber count soared. Forbes estimated his 2017 income to be $12.5 million, making him the fourth-highest-paid YouTube star that year. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson partnered with him for a web series to promote "Baywatch." He and Jake "became a staple of a generation," Logan says, two kids who showed other kids that everyday life could be more than school and homework and chores. "We just made anything we wanted come true." Paul felt invincible. "I was becoming such a skewed person due to the internet and the type of content I was making, and it being encouraged every day over and over again by 7 million people watching my daily vlogs," he says.

That's how he got to Tokyo, driven to madness by the algorithm that made him a star. After Tokyo, as he read article after tweet after article about what he had done wrong, Paul stopped daily vlogging and took a month off -- the most time he has ever spent away from the internet -- and it gave him anxiety. Making videos was such an ingrained part of his identity and his life. He didn't know what to do with himself.

And so boxing saved him. KSI's challenge gave him an out when he was at his lowest, a place to direct his energy that wasn't the internet. "Boxing allowed me to breathe for a second, to focus on personal, physical, mental growth," he says. "Human growth, not subscriber growth." He says he changed, evolving like a Pokemon (his analogy) to become a better person.

It's a nice narrative, one that allows Paul to cast himself as yet another victim of the internet. It's such a nice narrative that Paul has released a documentary about his post-Tokyo rehabilitation that he tweeted would be "timeless & our proudest piece of work."

But he doesn't seem all that different. At least the guy making d--- jokes onstage the day before doesn't seem different. It's never really clear when he's talking if he's being serious or if he's trolling. One minute he's speaking candidly about how much he loves attention, the next he's bragging that he can be the biggest prizefighter in the world. "Let's be honest, it's just acting," Paul says. "I can be that guy, for sure. Or I can be this guy. Or I can be the guy in training camp who doesn't talk and is locked in. I can morph depending on what the event is."

He might not be vlogging every day anymore, but Paul never stops mythologizing and remythologizing his own story on his channel. He calls himself a storyteller, and his main subject is himself.


From a distance, the crowd of young men in black raincoats looks menacing. But approaching the old theater in East London on a rainy October evening, it becomes apparent that some are in school uniforms. Others carry their backpacks, which are thoroughly searched for possible projectiles and weapons. This second news conference had been announced less than a week before -- a last-minute addition due to popular demand -- and around 4,000 kids show up to fill the theater.

It's hard to pinpoint how this spectacle started, since YouTubers are constantly rewriting their narratives, spawning a subgroup of YouTubers who dissect and explain those narratives with their own memes and flourishes. According to KSI, it began with Joe Weller, a British YouTuber with about 5 million subscribers, who challenged KSI to a boxing match to settle a beef. (The subgroup of YouTubers disputes whether the beef was genuine and whether the fight was arranged.)

Genuine or not, KSI and Weller did box, in February 2018, which KSI won by technical knockout. In the ring afterward, he challenged Logan Paul. (KSI talks up his hatred for Paul, but he said he chose Paul because it was "a smart way" to tap into the American audience.) Paul accepted, and in August 2018, they went six rounds at a packed Manchester Arena. The quality of boxing was low, the undercard laughable, but the fight sold nearly a million pay-per-view buys on YouTube at $10 a pop.

All those eyeballs -- young, fee-paying eyeballs! -- were too much to ignore. Eddie Hearn, the smooth-talking Englishman who promotes bona fide boxing stars like Anthony Joshua, says he laughed when he heard about the first fight, which ended in a majority draw. "'These guys are going to look like idiots,' I said," he recalls. "A week later, they sold out Manchester Arena. They did a million pay-per-view buys. From there you start understanding how young people are digesting content and understanding that our sport is an aging sport. We have to bring a younger fan base into the sport."

Hearn agreed to stage a rematch, this time with no headguards, smaller gloves and professional fighters on the undercard. It's the perfect formula, if it works, and could herald a new business model. Boxing fans will still tune in, joined by those millions of young, fee-paying YouTube fans whom Hearn can then convert into long-term customers. "Part one, you bring them to the fight," he says. "Part two, show them what we love about boxing and we hope you enjoy it too." Hearn has been inundated with requests from YouTubers and mainstream celebrities alike to be on the undercard or to stage fights of their own. Jake Paul, who has 19.7 million YouTube subscribers of his own, is training with his brother for a potential fight later this year.

Many of the kids in the London theater say the beef between KSI and Logan Paul isn't real. "They're just doing it for the money and attention," one teen says. But no one wants to miss the hype. They might hate Paul, but they know everything about him. A surprising number of people in the crowd are boxing fans, full of admiration for Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury. But they still can't wait to see this fight, even if the level is much lower. "It's amateur, yeah, but since you know the people, it's more interesting," says an 18-year-old who has been watching KSI on YouTube for four years.

Another 18-year-old with glasses and acne says he has recently started posting videos of himself playing FIFA on YouTube, hoping to follow in KSI's footsteps. He shrugs away the controversies of KSI's career, including accusations of sexual harassment in 2012. "He's my inspiration," he says. "He started from being a normal person to being famous."

As soon as the show begins, the fans let out a roar. Standing in the orchestra pit between them and the stage, it's impossible to hear anything over their "F--- you, Logan" chants. (Paul later said he could barely hear either.) People start ducking, and a few objects land on the stage: wadded napkins, coins, a Vaseline bottle. Something lands next to me with a thud, bouncing off a YouTuber nearby. The volume has a familiar cover: "A Doll's House," by Henrik Ibsen, weaponized.


"Come here."

For a minute, I'm not sure which of us Shannon Briggs, the two-time heavyweight champion training Logan Paul, is talking to on this sunny October morning. But then I realize he's staring at me. I step forward gingerly, and Briggs makes me hold on to the heavy bag so I can see how strong Paul has become. "Give me five hard punches!" he orders Paul.

"He's a specimen! He's built like a soldier!" Briggs proclaims proudly as the heavy bag rattles in my hands. I can't disagree.

Inside Paul's personal gym, the walls are a window into his mind. Directly above is an American flag mural; to the left is a list, painted to look like handwriting on the lined paper that kids use in school, with goals Paul wrote as a teen: "I will excel. I will be the best. I will be a champion." Reflected in the mirror are two more mantras: "Dent the universe" and "Unleash the beast."

Paul, shirtless and sweaty, doesn't acknowledge Briggs or me during our exchange. He hardly speaks at all during the workout, though he listens intently to the training staff. He looks exhausted but focused, his face devoid of the usual cheeky grin and meme-able expressions. He and Jake started the day with 20 minutes of jump-roping and a drill where they practiced punching with 3-pound weights. "Drills pay the bills!" Briggs yells. Paul has always been athletic -- he played football and wrestled in high school -- but this is the hardest he's ever trained. Having tired early in the first fight, he wants to increase his endurance.

Selling the fight is the easy part. Paul has been telling journalists that he'll knock out KSI in the first round and that he wants to fight Conor McGregor in the UFC next. But here in the gym, it becomes clear he's taking this seriously. He understands that whoever falls on Nov. 9 won't just lose one fight; the humiliation will live on the internet forever, the memes and GIFs haunting him in every comment section and Twitter feed.

Toward the end of the workout, Briggs turns off the music. "Ain't no music in the ring!" He seems pleased with Paul's left hook. "If you just do that, bro, this s---'s over." He tells Paul to stop, to rest and recuperate for sparring the next day. "When you get it right, you gotta let it go."

As Paul walks slowly toward the main house, his attention returns to the Logan Paul empire. One guy is hosing down tie-dyed hoodies in the yard for the Logan Paul merchandise line. Paul asks staff members if they've uploaded the latest episode of his podcast, "Impaulsive," and listens to the opening multiple times over lunch, checking for something in the first few lines of his audio: "Coach Shannon Briggs found out that last night I blew my batch, I threw away my precious seed ..." Paul might be focused on boxing, but the content machine doesn't stop.


Carved into the wall outside Logan Paul's gym is a giant Buddha. He doesn't want to be photographed with it, though, lest the Buddhists come after him online. "We've had to avoid it before," he explains to us. A photographer then suggests that Paul wear his gray fur coat. (He's depicted wearing it, and a crown, while riding his pet parrot, Maverick, in a mural in his house.) His publicist hesitates, then asks us to clarify that it's faux fur.

Just this week, Paul has been in the headlines for the following: making light of London's knife crisis before his trip there; saying that KSI was "on his fifth abortion. That's five babies dead"; and claiming he already has brain damage from boxing. He seems willing to say just about anything to promote the fight, so it's shocking to learn that he does carefully manage his image. But to a guy whose job is to attract attention, it's all a question of risk versus reward. "If I'm being honest, whenever I say or do something questionable, I know what I'm doing," he says later.

In between photo setups (with faux fur coat, without Buddha), Paul settles back into the giant beanbags in his studio and starts talking again about how Tokyo was a turning point and how he "used boxing to escape the hole I was in." He corrects himself: "That I put myself in" -- as if he can hear a self-help guru telling him to accept responsibility for his actions.

He's no longer the person chasing clicks and money. The old Logan, he says, didn't take criticism well. The old Logan would have broken a KSI fan's phone at the L.A. news conference because the kid got in his face. The old Logan would have been offended by his videographer, who suggested going into the second news conference that he act less like a child.

The trash-talking and the controversy don't seem to fit into this image of a new man, but Paul doesn't see the contradiction. "You saw the practice today. I'm taking this sport incredibly serious, so I'm going to do everything in my power to break him down," he says. "At the press conferences, I'm going to say everything I can to f--- him up. Right now I want to f---ing murder this kid. That's still an authentic version of me. I'm not doing that for views."

He insists that he's absolutely not driven by clicks anymore, that he only wants to make content that resonates with him. He plans to release a music album after the fight and jokes about having a kid (but without a wife). "Family channel coming soon!" he says with a laugh. But all of what we see onstage and on-screen is authentically him. "The character of Logan Paul is just an amplified version of Logan. It's still me. I have all of it in me. I'm not faking any of it."

And how would he describe himself? "I don't know," he says. "Just a dude disguised as a dude playing another dude."

If boxing is his redemption, how does punching KSI in the face redeem him? "That's a great question," he says, before pausing to think. Then he says he's no longer concerned about redemption. "I wanted to prove to Logan that I could redeem myself, forgive myself, stand tall with my chest out and move on. And I did that. I'm not so concerned about what the public thinks of me, or what they think the future of Logan Paul looks like."

The Logan Paul narrative has shifted again. He's no longer selling a redemption story but the story of a successful transition from YouTube to pro boxing. If the boxing match is the success he wants it to be, if it generates the blockbuster viewership numbers Hearn and DAZN are betting on, if he knocks KSI out as he plans, then maybe we'll stop talking about him as "that guy who did that thing in Tokyo" and start talking about him as "the guy who had that awesome fight." What Paul understands, what makes him the perfect celebrity of our age of short attention spans and news fatigue, is that as long as he keeps moving, keeps talking, keeps finding the next thing, people will keep watching. His sins will be forgotten, if not forgiven, just another entry in a long list of stunts. He's only as canceled as his latest headline.

That's what he's learned from all of the controversy, the biggest revelation before and after Tokyo. "If you don't give up, no one can stop you," he says. "You know how many times I've been canceled?"