Before 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,” one of his schoolmates tells The Independent. “He played the judge, and when he died at the end, he was twitching and doing the worm across the stage. Everyone was in stitches. He was funny, a nice guy – everybody liked him for that. He was popular, but not like, ‘I’m the s***’; he was confident but also a nerdy, endearing, sweet guy.”
With those qualities, JJ was tailor made for YouTube, where he launched his channel ‘KSIOlajideBT’ in 2009 – four years after the platform’s inception. Fifteen years old at the time, JJ quickly garnered a following by filming himself playing Fifa – the famous football video game – at his parents’ house in Watford. His bewitching cackle was a key feature in each upload. “He always had that very distinctive laugh,” his schoolmate recalls. “I remember that. He would laugh at something during morning registration, and the teachers would be like, ‘JJ, please!’”
By the end of 2009, Olatunji had amassed 1,000 subscribers. That number had tripled by the end of 2010, and Olatunji’s growth accelerated at a startling pace in 2011, as he reached 150,000 subscribers, and in 2012, when he crossed the million mark. JJ had become KSI – standing for ‘Knowledge Strength Integrity’ – and he would soon become arguably the most famous YouTuber in Britain.
“When he started getting big on YouTube, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone,” this schoolmate says, “but you’d hear from certain people that knew him: ‘Oh, he’s definitely got a bit of an ego now. He’s not as sweet anymore, there’s an arrogance there, he talks about himself a lot. He used to be more engaged when he would talk to people.’”
If the YouTube venture “made sense” to his peers, then so did his next move, when he released his first rap song in 2015. “I remember he’d written a rap to learn every element on the periodic table, and all the teachers were so impressed,” his schoolmate adds, but it was singing about supercars, after dropping out of school, that demonstrated how drastically KSI’s life had changed. His debut single “Lamborghini”, featuring P Money, peaked at No 30 in the UK chart. It has since been followed by numerous EPs and two studio albums.
KSI’s next endeavour was less predictable, however.
KSI ushers in the era of ‘influencer boxing’
“He was so sweet that no one would’ve said, ‘Oh, he’s gonna fight when he’s older,’” says his schoolmate. “When he did, it was like: ‘Oh, jeez. Well, I guess he can, so who’s gonna stop him?’”
Popularity is not the synonym for likeability that some think it is, and KSI has long had his detractors. Wisely, however, he began to weaponise a widespread desire to watch him get punched in the face. In 2018, KSI fought in his first amateur boxing match, beating fellow British YouTuber Joe Weller via TKO inside three rounds, following a build-up that saw KSI mock his opponent for opening up on experiences with depression. KSI later apologised for his comments.
Next for the Briton was Logan Paul, who in some ways appeared to be his American equivalent, and the pair fought to a draw in a sold-out Manchester Arena. The fight did a reported 1.3 million pay-per-view buys, leading to a professional rematch in 2019 – held at Los Angeles’ famed Staples Center, streamed on Dazn, promoted by Eddie Hearn, and won by KSI on points. Fighting on the undercard were world champions Billy Joe Saunders and Devin Haney, the latter of whom defends his undisputed lightweight titles against Vasily Lomachenko this month.
The dynamic was disconcerting for most boxing fans, who accused the YouTubers of making a mockery of the sport, yet pop star Justin Bieber was present as the likes of Haney and Saunders were exposed to an entirely new audience – one that they would have otherwise never reached. Hearn, the most recognisable promoter in boxing, recognised that.
Alongside Paul and the American’s younger brother Jake, KSI had ushered in the era of ‘influencer boxing’.
KSI flourishes as new-age entrepreneur
KSI, for his part, has mastered the art of self-promotion, but he is now trying to turn that outwards, too. Now 29, with more than 30 million subscribers, seven billion views and a reported net worth of over $25m, KSI returned to boxing in August. At London’s O2 Arena, he stopped rapper Swarmz and pro boxer (in loose terms) Luis Alcaraz Pineda on the same night. Notably, the event was the first staged by Misfits Boxing – a promotion created by KSI in partnership with the established Wasserman Promotions and streaming platform Dazn.
Another more unlikely partnership followed, as the mutually antagonistic KSI and Logan Paul launched the energy drink Prime together. For reasons that – beyond the international awareness of the YouTubers – are difficult to discern, the drink flooded through the nation and off shelves, selling out in many stores and ultimately being banned in some schools in the UK, US, Canada, Australia and South Africa. It has, however, attracted sponsorship deals with Arsenal FC, the UFC and WWE, with KSI appearing alongside Paul at this year’s WrestleMania. Trying the drink on Heart radio, Gordon Ramsay said: “Oh, Jesus. It’s like swallowing perfume. What would I give it out of 10? A zero.”
KSI came under starker criticism just last month for his use of a racial slur in a YouTube video, which led the 29-year-old to apologise and visit a Mosque in Bradford – an effort to educate himself on the matter. “There’s no excuse, no matter the circumstances,” he wrote on Twitter. “I shouldn’t have said it and I’m sorry. I’ve always said to my audience that they shouldn’t worship me or put me on a pedestal, because I’m human. I’m not perfect, I’m gonna mess up in life, and lately I’ve been messing up a lot.”
Fighting into the future
Fans will hope that KSI’s preparations for his future fights will keep him out of such trouble, though his progress has only ever been gradual. His form is lacking, but his power is impressive, as he demonstrated against Joe Fournier in May. The 40-year-old, a former pro boxer with a 9-0 record and an exhibition defeat by David Haye in 2021, was continually caught by heavy shots from KSI for a round-and-a-half, although it was in fact an accidental elbow that finished off Fournier.
Fournier, left Wembley Arena in a daze to return to his fitness and nightclub businesses, happy that the result was later overruled to a No Contest. Perhaps KSI will venture into Fournier’s business spheres one day; it would not be a surprise. For now, however, his boxing endeavour takes priority, and it continues with a clash against Tommy Fury – half-brother of heavyweight champion Tyson – in Manchester.
JJ’s goal was always to leave his schoolmates in stitches. KSI sets out to leave his opponents with stitches.
Note: Article originally published in May 2023 and updated in October 2023.