Harley Morenstein is an eater, not a fighter.
The co-creator of the YouTube food channel Epic Meal Time, he’s known for cooking bacon-wrapped meals and other ostentatious eats. But this Saturday, he’ll step into a boxing ring to square off against professional wrestler John Hennigan, one of 12 bouts that will make up Creator Clash 2.
Last year’s event — something of a surprise success — sold out the 10,000-seat Yuengling Center in Tampa, Florida, drew more than 100,000 pay-per-view buyers and raised $1.3 million for the Alzheimer’s Association, American Heart Association and Healing Horse Therapy Center. The YouTube video of the full event has accrued more than 3.3 million views.
The event brings unlikely internet celebrities together to do something unexpected. It’s like a concert crossed with “Dancing With the Stars,” if the stars were all punching each other in the face.
Internet celebrities prepare to step into the boxing ring for Creator ClashApril 10, 202304:06
“When I was there, I thought the vibe was way more similar to a VidCon or a fan meetup,” Morenstein said of the event’s first year (VidCon is the year’s biggest in-person event for internet content creators). “People came with their merchandise already. They are fans of certain fighters. They wanted to watch one person on the card. They didn’t care who they were fighting.”
It’ll be Morenstein’s second bout. Last year, he emerged victorious against his friend Arin Hanson of the gaming YouTube channel Game Grumps in a match that surprised even him.
“I had his little blood stain on my glove,” Morenstein said. “And he was fine, but I was still like, ‘Oh, my god, he was supposed to go to Busch Gardens today. He’s got a bloody nose and like, what am I doing here?’”
Live events have been a staple of internet creator culture dating back to early fan meetups. Conventions like VidCon and Playlist Live have given fans the opportunity to interact with their favorite content creators for over a decade. But in recent years, influencers have begun to create their own live events tailored to their communities, including tours, award shows and even their own conventions, to varying degrees of success.
Meanwhile, boxing emerged more recently as a popular way for internet creators to settle beefs, attract attention and fire up their most fervent fans. Beginning with the fight between YouTubers Olajide Olatunji (better known as KSI) and Joe Weller in 2018, established creators have increasingly pivoted to boxing after finding the sport to be a lucrative opportunity. Much of the hype around influencer matches, like most boxing events, is predicated on showboating, betting and trash talking.
Creator Clash hardly has any of that. Instead, it aims to be different by de-emphasizing online drama and big payouts, said Ian Jomha, one of the event’s co-founders, who will also jump in the ring on Saturday.
Jomha said that the sport of boxing itself has enough drama to focus on and that the main goals of Creator Clash are to “entertain and raise money for charity.” This year, the event is bigger, with three additional fights, more commentators, 15 charity partners and a venue that’s double the size (Tampa's Amalie Arena).
“I think the wider the variety of creators that you get, the more interesting it’s going to be and the more curiosity you’re going to have,” Jomha, who is known for his audacious YouTube reaction channel iDubbbz, said. “For me, that’s always been the appeal.”
The event also capitalizes on the pivot toward niche communities in the creator space. In recent years, it has become increasingly important for creators’ longevity to cultivate a core fanbase rather than appeal to a general audience. Niches produce stronger, more engaged fans that will, for instance, follow a person into a boxing arena and show their support.
In addition to the charity aspect, several fighters told NBC News that the event allowed them to try something new, meet other influencers and get out of their comfort zones. Influencers and fans have praised Creator Clash for the positive energy, collaboration and good sportsmanship around the event.
Amanda Golka, a YouTuber who reviews influencer events for her channel Swell Entertainment, attended last year’s Creator Clash as a spectator. Golka was pleasantly surprised, but said that this year is a “really big test” for Creator Clash’s longevity.
“The novelty as a whole for YouTube events and creator events, doing sports and things like that, the sentiment I’m seeing online from the general public of people who just watch YouTube, whether they’re fans of these people or not, a lot of people are getting sick of these events,” she said. “They’re like, ‘Why can’t you just make content? What do you mean you guys are getting into boxing? Like what are you doing?’”
Jomha knows the pressure is on.
“It feels like it’s the first time we’re doing it, just having to do it again,” he said. “Because you got to at least match what you did last time, but you also have to do more.”
With higher expectations and more eyes on the event, it is perhaps unsurprising that the organizers have run into some drama in the weeks before fight time. Less than a month before the event, it was announced that YouTube rapper Tyler Cassidy, or Froggy Fresh, had been dropped from the lineup and would be replaced.
The backlash that ensued took over the conversation around Creator Clash and threatened its success, as some Cassidy fans vowed to boycott the event and demanded refunds.
However, Jomha felt the event would thrive in spite of the outrage.
“Our whole objective is to keep it obviously drama free and positive, and that’s the goal,” Jomha said. “And we got to focus on, you know, our fights, because we’ve all been working hard.”