Boxing & YouTube: An exploration

Andrew Harrison
28/04/2015 5:43am

On an overcast, unremarkable spring evening in 2005, Toledo-based PayPal employees Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim committed 19 seconds of video footage to their newly created website. It featured Karim and Yakov Lapitsky - an Assistant Professor at the state university - lolling beside the elephant enclosure at San Diego Zoo. Perfunctory, banal, YouTube.com had hatched. Later that year, the trio opened Pandora’s Box and the world got busy uploading.

Within 18 months, Google had paid $1.65 billion in stock for the company; billions of uploads are viewed each day and, in tandem with BoxRec.com, the site has since developed into one of the boxing community’s most invaluable repositories. But what actually is in there should someone happen to search the word “boxing” - and what might those results say about the sport?

The most popular boxing-related video returned (please note: these results explicitly exclude tenuously linked oddities like “Taekwondo Girl vs Boxing Guy Street Fight Scene” and “Shaolin monk KO U.S. Navy SEAL’S Boxer (IFK Champion)) was uploaded on May 2 2011 by a user named “Boxing Now”. Registering 11m views (all hit counts are at time of writing) and entitled “Manny Pacquiao Ultimate Highlight”, viewers are presented with something akin to that over 14 satisfying minutes that rattle along to the score of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (these operatic numbers are a familiar YouTube device users tend to employ in order to lend an offering grandeur) and speaks to both the vast popularity of the Filipino icon (boxing bloggers will attest to the power of having an article linked into ‘Pacland’) and his hyper-kinetic style that has thrilled fans for more than a decade.

Trailing in Pacquiao’s wake is a video that connects two of boxing’s greatest icons. “Muhammad Ali vs Mike Tyson – The Fight”, is a 2:08 submission from “Ricky Boy” that aims to spotlight boxing’s most obvious fantasy showdown. Published on 21 Jun 2012 and attracting 9m hits, this is little more than archive footage juxtaposed like some sort of low-rent HBO 24/7 storyboard.

Pretty predictable stuff so far then…and then it gets weird (or normalises if you assume that this digital emporium is quintessentially weird). 

Clocking in at 8.9m clicks is a piece dubbed “Biggest Boxing Tragedy Ever”. At first glance, it’s a small hall English title affair from January 2010 between flyweights Ashley Sexton of Cheshunt and Derby’s Usman “Uzzy” Ahmed - which seems an incongruous pairing for such high numbers until you hit play. Ahmed gyrates – nay bodypops, fucking krunks; spastically, hysterically, like some Prince Naseem Hamed imitator fresh from a Wetherspoons - before being starched (and I mean starched) in the opening round. As payoffs go, this viral approaches perfection. Only it’s flawed.

As the contributor “DrHarry” now points out in the description, this is a cut-and-shut job: crushingly, the entrance scene was edited in from “Uzzy’s” losing effort to Chris Edwards in May 2009. The made-to-measure Imran Khan entrance track has also been dubbed over the original. Sometimes, most times even, reality sucks.

The rest of the pecking order plays out thusly: 4. “Top 15 MOST SHOCKING BOXING MOMENTS”, which is “divinesense’s” fair fist at compiling such a collective, yet oddly includes the likes of Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns and Bernard Hopkins-Oscar De la Hoya - results which don’t really qualify as shocks; 5. “Key & Peele – Boxing Press Conference”: a comical Mike Tyson parody taken from an American sketch show that riffs on Tyson’s propensity back in the day to intimidate rivals with homoerotic, homo-aggressive threats while 6. “Boxer Knocked Out and Still Punching” is the boxing equivalent a snuff movie: 20 seconds of cringeworthy film that shows Maryland’s Vincent Pettway creaming Jamaican Simon Brown in 1995. Brown, unconscious, prostate, throws punches in the air – ghoulishly - while disconnected on his back.   

At number 7 sits “Kimbo Slice vs Shane Tillyard – Best Boxing Match“, which is an obvious misnomer. “Best Pub Fight”, or “Best Slobber-Knocker between Three Round Novices” maybe and when such flagrant false advertising is the boast of a user named “Best Boxing Vids” it’s probably a safe bet you can skip that particular subscription.

And then, interestingly, Ahmed vs Sexton reappears at number 8. This time translated into Russian and set to drum and bass, which isn’t nearly as good (current hit rate: 6m). On an aggregated basis could Ahmed be boxing’s biggest YouTube sensation?

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YouTube’s algorithms aren’t exactly Skynet, it turns out; there are a host of boxing vids that don’t contain the word “boxing” in their title. Although finding them turns out to be something of a skeet shoot in the dark, surfing popular fighters’ names helps uncover the real undisputed champion of cyberspace. 

Mike Tyson’s top five YouTube entries have amassed an incredible 123 million views. While that lags woefully behind the site’s real big hitters (cats and babies) only one other fighter comes close (we’ll come onto that in a minute). Muhammad Ali? If we shelve another Key & Peele sketch that involves a spoof rap battle between Ali and Michael Jordan (is that really an Ali vid? is it a boxing vid?), then the great man trails behind with a paltry 42million clicks. Floyd Mayweather? 37 million. Pacquiao? Only 30 million.

Tyson is perfect for the medium: immediate, violent, visceral, there is a perversely comic bent to his early work. Tyson footage appeals to the “hey, watch this guy get his lights punched out” dark side of social media (perhaps that should be anti-social media?). From the evisceration of Marvis Frazier to the sight of him smearing Sammy Scaff’s fur-covered body – matted in blood - across the canvas at the Felt Forum, a Tyson highlight reel is the equivalent of concussion porn. YouTube user Jan Dahl glibly sums up Tyson’s fourth most popular video “Mike Tyson Knockouts Collection” – featuring both of the above - in the comments section as follows: “And they say man can’t fly…these men flew :)”.

The most popular Tyson video (28.8m hits) shows his definitive demise at the hands of Lennox Lewis (with all respect to Kevin McBride). 30 seconds long, we see the image of Tyson (the fighter had long since departed) euthanised with a right hand in their 2002 showdown. As Tyson flops onto his back the camera looms over him: split open, blood splattered, exhausted, he appears eerily at peace before rolling over onto one knee to be counted out. But why this clip? Did the world need to reassure itself that the Tyson character – sport’s ultimate grotesque - was finally done? Throughout all its murk, does boxing still offer the world morality tales?

The rest of the Tyson canon includes: “Bob Sapp vs. Mike Tyson” (25.9m hits), which shows Tyson having a bit of verbal argy-bargy with MMA behemoth Sapp in 2003; “Iron Mike Tyson” (25.6m), which is nothing more than a really basic photo montage set to music, and the aforementioned fight with poor Scaff (21.4m), who presumably still snores at night, somewhere in Kentucky, from a deviated septum.

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YouTube’s top 30 most popular uploads are music videos save for “Charlie Bit My Finger”, which is a video of a baby biting his brother (Tyson own infamous biting incident lags a disappointing 802m hits behind Charlie). Which brings us onto to the only boxer that can hold a candle to Tyson’s dominion of the platform: Roy Jones Jr. Makes sense, right? Like Tyson and Pacquiao, Jones and YouTube seem a nice fit: dynamic, visually arresting, other-worldly, a Jones highlight showcases one of the sport’s truly unique talents. Well forget about all that. 

During his pomp in the 90s, Jones, a sensitive soul, grew listless. Bogged down in an existential funk and struggling to manage his apparent omnipotence (like some 1970s Superman comic) he once played a basketball match on the morning of a fight. He also embarked upon a music career. Most boxing diehards will recall his 2002 rallying cry from debut album Round One entitled “Yall Must Have Forgot” from 2002 (it was recorded in 2001, around the time Shane Mosley has been adjudged to have surpassed Jones in the imaginary Pound For Pound rankings).

But it was a tune from his second album in 2004 (yes, that’s second album) - a collaboration with Body Head Bangerz, a Jones-formed Pensacola-based hip hop group - imaginatively titled Body Head Bangerz: Volume One that sets Jones apart. The video of “Can’t Be Touched” – written by Jones, Awood “Magic” Johnson and Tony Harris and uploaded on 25 Nov 2007 - has attracted a mind-boggling 67m visits. To put that into context: Jones comfortably outperforms The Beatles “Let It Be” (30m) and “Hey Jude” (49m) yet remains some way behind the likes of “Thriller” (Michael Jackson; 233m), “What Makes You Beautiful” (One Direction; 629m) and the champ: “Gangham Style” (PY;2 bn). Most importantly, he buries Oscar De La Hoya’s “Run To Me” (305k).

But what of the video? It’s pretty standard gangster shtick; Jones and co. (one of whom bears a passing resemblance to Cornelius “K9” Budrage) crow about their invulnerability; cloaked in shadow while dolled up like 21st century Black Panthers (southern sect). The timing couldn’t have been poorer: it was recorded just prior to Jones being knocked out in consecutive fights by Antonio Tarver and Glencoffe Johnson.

It’s difficult to pinpoint anything else to trump Roy and further attempts are a game of chance (played with diminishing enthusiasm). Googling “Rocky” for example can only gather 21.5m clicks thanks to, bizarrely, a moody rock lament from Rocky IV: “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper. There’s no logic here. The most watched Raging Bull clip garners only one third of the love foisted upon the trailer of Grudge Match (and half as many views as Deontay Wilder beating on an internet troll). Even the greatest boxing video ever made – Larry Holmes drop kicking Trevor Berbick from the roof of a car – can only muster 379k. The most popular fights appear to be Lewis vs Tyson (13.1m) followed by Ali vs Foreman (7.6m). Even trying to outsmart the search facility by merely searching “vs” only serves to highlight that people would rather watch “Kobe vs Messi: The Selfie Shootout” and “DOG vs. WATER BALLONS” than Hagler vs Hearns. Heck, an actual “Cobra vs Mongoose” film manages to comfortably outstrip Ezzard Charles vs Archie Moore.

So, is there anything to draw from all of this then, other than YouTube is a complete bagatelle where vapidity outshines the bizarre? Probably not, other than some comment about the world’s taste, innate meanness and collective attention span that’s already been said elsewhere. Not even boxing, as absurd a pursuit as this sport can often be, can ripple this outré pond. The only conclusion is this: forget Kim Kardashian’s oiled up butt: if Mike Tyson had bitten Usmain Ahmed’s finger or either one of them had rapped with Roy Jones (with an angry cat featuring somewhere), those dudes really could have broken the internet.

(Video: That legendary Larry Holmes-Trevor Berbick street brawl)