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The UFC’s Dana White is creating a slap fighting league. Doctors have concerns.

UFC President Dana White sees potential in televised slap fighting despite concerns over safety. (John Locher/AP)
4 min

A promotional video opens with scenes of roaming lights and fighter faceoffs, then transitions to howls, chest-thumping and slow-motion slaps across still faces. The video, released late last month, isn’t new. But it was shown ahead of Friday’s news conference during which Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White shared early details about the recently announced slap fighting league, called Power Slap.

“This all started for me back in 2017,” White said at Radio City Music Hall in New York. “I started seeing some of these slap videos on social media … and I was blown away by the numbers. Some of these have like 300 million views, so I started thinking. Obviously, this thing really works for social media, but I thought it would be good for television if done the right way.”

White said the league, which will be regulated by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and is set to launch early next year with an eight-episode series that will air on TBS, will include “rules, rankings and extensive medical testing.” Its medical requirements and weight classes will be similar to those featured in mixed martial arts promotions, UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell previously told ESPN.

In a typical slap fighting match, two competitors stand across from each other and trade slaps across the face. White sees promise in polishing the competition, which had been unregulated for years, by using weight classes to create more fitting matchups, limiting how many rounds those matches run and instituting various requirements and regulations, including fouls, mouth guards and earplugs. Campbell told ESPN the league will use the 10-point must system used to score boxing and MMA fights.

“After testing it, it became clear to us that there’s massive potential here as a sport, not unlike the early years of the UFC,” Campbell said. “It made all the sense in the world to go toward regulation before the sport’s commencing, for all the obvious reasons — number one, the health and safety of the competitors.”

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Worries about safety reemerged after last month’s news that the NSAC would regulate Power Slap. But White suggests league organizers and athletes have taken those concerns seriously.

“These guys that have been doing it for a while, there actually is technique to it,” he said. “You can actually roll with the slap; they know how to defend, brace — whatever you want to call it. There’s actually technique to this thing, believe it or not.”

Despite White’s stated emphasis on safety, medical professionals are skeptical of anyone who suggests they can make slap fighting safer.

Nitin Agarwal, a neurosurgeon at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis whose research focuses on traumatic brain injuries, takes issue with the suggestion that slap fighting can be made safer.

“When it comes to the physical aspect of the martial arts, safety and defense are primary. By its virtue, slap boxing is an offensive sport. There is no defense,” said Agarwal, who has practiced taekwondo, krav maga and jujitsu. “You can’t use your shoulder to protect you, you can’t use your hands to protect, you can’t even turn your head to soften the blow or control where the blow is going to be placed. So that’s very worrisome.”

In the Power Slap promotional video, a quick sequence of slaps is followed by clips of bodies folding and dropping to the floor — or into the arms of awaiting attendants.

Agarwal said just one of those slaps can be “life-altering,” adding that “no amount of preparation prevents the actual blow.

“You see these people pass out from one blow. In reality, what that is, is they just suffered a concussion. They suffered a traumatic brain injury,” he said. “Anybody who presents to the emergency room after a blow like that is being worked up with the full trauma work-up, including a trauma pan scan, which includes a full body CT scan and a scan of their head. I would not be surprised if there’s both visible and occult brain injury. … So I’m very worried for these participants.”