Competitors stand rigidly with their hands behind their backs, waiting to absorb a brutal slap to the face.
When the freehand blow is struck, the report is clear and the reaction can be dramatic. Some fighters barely move, while others stumble backwards or fall to the ground. Some are knocked out.
UFC President Dana White is selling slamming combat as the next big thing in combat sports, putting his money and the resources of one of the world’s leading mixed martial arts organizations behind the Power Slap League. The Nevada Athletic Commission sanctioned the league for competitions in Las Vegas.
“It’s a home run,” said White, who is among several UFC officials involved in the league.
Some slap fight beatings have gone viral, including a video from Eastern Europe showing a man continuing to compete even as half of his face apparently swells up to twice his size. Such exposure has led to questions about the safety of slap fights, particularly the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease said to be caused by repeated blows to the head. A former chairman of the commission, which regulates combat sports in Nevada, said the league’s endorsement was a mistake.
Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, agrees, calling slapping fights “one of the dumbest things you can do.”
“There’s nothing fun, there’s nothing interesting and there’s nothing sporty,” Nowinski said. “They are trying to disguise a really stupid activity to try to make money.”
White and the contestants remain unfazed, likening the slapping comments to the backlash the UFC faced when it debuted more than 20 years ago.
“I think it’s definitely over the top with the CTE topics and the damage we’re taking,” Power Slap League fighter Ryan Phillips said. “I think a lot of people still don’t understand that it’s still a slap in the face.”
Concerns about concussions resulting in CTE, which can cause violent mood swings, depression and memory loss, are not limited to combat sports. Disease originated in the brains of ancients rugby playersand the NFL And college football have took action reduce hits to the head by modifying the rules regarding tackles and other hits. CTE can only be detected during an autopsy.
Despite the naysayers, White said he believes slap fights will follow a similar trajectory to mixed martial arts, which the late Sen. John McCain called “human cockfighting” in 1996, when the UFC had no no weight classes or many rules. McCain’s criticisms helped force the organization to become more structured, which led to its widespread acceptance.
White said the ratings for the TBS reality show “Power Slap: Road to the Title” confirms the early popularity of what to many is still a curiosity.
White said he realized there could be a market for the sport in the United States when he logged millions of Youtube views of videos of Eastern European slap fights in 2017 and 2018. Videos were often poorly produced, slap matches unregulated. White became convinced that fights with written rules and shot with professional video equipment could convert many netizens into dedicated, paying fans.
The Nevada commission gave the slap fights some much-needed legitimacy when it unanimously sanctioned the sport in October and, a month later, granted White a license to promote it.
But White’s business was hampered when he was filmed slapping his wife on New Years Eve. white apologized, but acknowledged that it had hurt efforts to get the league off the ground. White is no newcomer to controversy: Former UFC fighters Kajan Johnson and Clarence Dollaway filed a lawsuit in 2021 against Endeavour, the organization’s parent company, alleging the UFC is taking a disproportionate share of profits.
But White charges ahead.
Three qualifying events took place at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, ahead of the March 11 telecast on the Rumble streaming platform in which champions will be crowned in four weight classes.
Power Slap fights typically last three to five rounds. Fighters take turns punching each other in the face with an open hand, and those on the receiving side hold their hands behind their backs. A fighter has up to 60 seconds to recover and react after taking a hit. Fighters can earn up to 10 points based on the effectiveness of the slap and the defender’s reaction.
Fights can end in a decision, a knockout, a technical knockout or a disqualification, as for an illegal slap. All slaps are video reviewed. Each event has two referees and three judges.
Also present are a supervising doctor and a doctor or medical assistant, as well as three paramedics and three ambulances. White touted the UFC’s safety record, but didn’t speak specifically about injuries in the Power Slap League.
White says slap fights are safer than boxing or mixed martial arts because each competitor typically only takes three punches per fight. In boxing, White said, that number could be 400 or more, and that doesn’t include blows taken during the fight. There is no sparring in slap fights, he noted.
Nowinski, of the concussion foundation, said that while there’s no sparring in practices, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening elsewhere. He said comparing boxing to power slapping is misleading because slap fighters take a punch every time.
“You can slip from (boxing) punches,” Nowinski said. But in slap fights, “you take out everything interesting to watch and everything sporty (from boxing) and you just do the brain damage part.”
Nowinski said slap fighters don’t make enough money to justify the risk. The Power Slap League did not reveal how much it pays fighters, but said in a statement that participants are paid for each match and can also earn “appearance fees” and “additional discretionary bonuses.”
Stephen J. Cloobeck, who was chairman of the state commission when it sanctioned the slap fights, said White and former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta sold him on the sport’s legitimacy .
“I made a mistake,” Cloobeck said. “I’m not happy about it.”
The commission recently approved amended rules to better define what constitutes a legal slap in an effort to minimize serious injury.
“The No. 1 thing is the health and safety of the fighter,” commission chairman Anthony Marnell III said during a Feb. 15 meeting. “Always been, always will be.”
But he went on to say, “It looks like there’s a market for it, whether you like it or not.”
Phillips, the slap fighter, said participants could defend without losing points, such as rolling before the hand made impact.
And fighters know that if they lose the toss and get slapped first, it will hurt.
“I know what’s coming,” fighter Vernon Cathey said. ” I’m tense. There are many things I can do to protect myself.