BBefore KSI, there was Olajide Olatunji – “JJ” for short. Before the YouTuber, gamer, rapper, boxer, promoter and energy drink magnate, there was the affable class clown in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.
“I remember we did a production of Sweeney Todd,” says one of his classmates The Independent. “He played the judge, and when he died at the end, he twitched and spun the worm across the stage. Everyone was devastated. He was funny, a nice guy – everyone liked him for that. He was popular, but not along the lines of “I’m the bastard”; He was confident but also a nerdy, lovable and sweet guy.”
With these qualities, JJ was made for YouTube, where he launched his channel “KSIOlajideBT” in 2009, four years after the platform was founded. JJ, then fifteen, quickly gained a following by filming himself playing Fifa – the famous football video game – at his parents’ home in Watford. His adorable cackle was a main feature with every upload. “He always had this very special smile,” his schoolmate recalls. “I remember that at morning registration, he was laughing at something and the teachers were like, ‘JJ, please!'”
By the end of 2009, Olatunji had 1,000 subscribers. By the end of 2010, that number had tripled, and Olatunji’s growth accelerated in 2011, when he reached 150,000 subscribers, and in 2012, when he surpassed the million mark. JJ became KSI – which stands for “Knowledge Strength Integrity” – and would soon become arguably the UK’s most famous YouTuber.
“When he started making it big on YouTube, it came as no surprise to anyone,” says this schoolmate, “but you’d hear from certain people who knew him, ‘Oh, he definitely has a bit of an ego now.’ He’s not that cute anymore, there’s an arrogance there, he talks a lot about himself. He used to be more engaged when he was talking to people.’”
If the YouTube project “made sense” to his peers, then so did his next step, releasing his first rap song in 2015. “I remember he wrote a rap to learn every element on the periodic table, and so on.” “The teachers were so impressed,” adds his classmate, but it wasn’t until he sang about supercars after he dropped out that it showed how drastically KSI’s life had changed. His debut single “Lamborghini” with P Money reached number 30 in the UK Singles Chart. Since then, numerous EPs and two studio albums have followed.
However, KSI’s next venture was less predictable.
KSI heralds the era of “influencer boxing”.
“He was so cute that no one would have said, ‘Oh, he’ll fight when he’s older,'” says his schoolmate. “When he did that, he was like, ‘Oh my God. Well I guess he can, so who’s going to stop him?’”
Popularity isn’t synonymous with likeability as some might think, and KSI has long had its detractors. However, he wisely began to weaponize the widespread desire to see himself slapped in the face. In 2018, KSI fought in his first amateur boxing match, defeating fellow British YouTuber Joe Weller by TKO in three rounds. KSI later apologized for his comments.
Next for the Brit was Logan Paul, who appeared to be his American counterpart in some ways, and the pair battled to a tie in the packed Manchester Arena. The fight reportedly garnered 1.3 million pay-per-view purchases, leading to a professional rematch in 2019 – it took place at the famed Staples Center in Los Angeles, was streamed on Dazn, promoted by Eddie Hearn and was rated by KSI on points won. The undercard featured world champions Billy Joe Saunders and Devin Haney, with the latter defending his undisputed lightweight title against Vasily Lomachenko this month.
The dynamic was unsettling for most boxing fans, who accused the YouTubers of ridiculing the sport, but pop star Justin Bieber was on hand as the likes of Haney and Saunders were introduced to a whole new audience — one they would never have reached otherwise. Hearn, boxing’s best-known promoter, recognizes this.
Along with Paul and the American’s younger brother, Jake, KSI had heralded the era of “influencer boxing”.
KSI thrives as a New Age entrepreneur
For his part, KSI has mastered the art of self-promotion, but he is now trying to take it to the outside world. Now 29, with more than 30 million subscribers, seven billion views and a reported net worth of over $25 million, KSI returned to boxing in August. In London’s O2 Arena, he stopped the rapper Swarmz and the professional boxer (in plain language) Luis Alcaraz Pineda that same evening. Notably, the event was the first to be hosted by Misfits Boxing – a promotion created by KSI in partnership with incumbent Wasserman Promotions and streaming platform Dazn.
Another, rather unlikely partnership followed, when the feuding KSI and Logan Paul jointly launched the energy drink Prime. For reasons that are hard to fathom — beyond the YouTubers’ international notoriety — the drink spread across the country and off the shelves, selling out in many stores and eventually becoming available in some schools in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and the United States South forbidden Africa. However, it was able to secure sponsorship deals with Arsenal FC, the UFC and WWE, with KSI appearing alongside Paul at that year’s WrestleMania. Gordon Ramsay sampled the drink on Heart’s radio and said: “Oh my god. It’s like swallowing perfume. What would I give out of 10? A zero.”
KSI came under heavy criticism just last month for using a racial slur in a YouTube video, prompting the 29-year-old to apologize and visit a Bradford mosque in an attempt to shed light on the matter. “There is no excuse, no matter what the circumstances” he wrote on Twitter. “I shouldn’t have said it and I’m sorry. I’ve always told my audience not to worship me or put me on a pedestal because I’m human. I’m not perfect, I’m going to screw up my life, and I’ve screwed up a lot lately.”
Fight into the future
Fans will hope that KSI’s preparations for his future fights will save him from such troubles, even if his progress has always been slow. His form leaves a lot to be desired, but his power is impressive, as he showed against Joe Fournier in May. The 40-year-old, a former professional boxer with a 9-0 record and a show loss to David Haye in 2021, was constantly caught by heavy shots from KSI for a round and a half, although it was actually an accidental elbow that Fournier denied finished off.
In any case, it was a brutal knockout for Fournier, who left Wembley in a daze to return to his fitness and nightclub business. Perhaps these are areas that KSI will need to conquer one day; it wouldn’t be a surprise. For the time being, however, his boxing sport takes precedence.
JJ’s goal was always to let his classmates down. KSI sets out to leave his opponents with stitches.
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