Televised Slap Fighting? What Are We Becoming?

What’s next, who can survive being run over by a tank?

Knife fights on national television?

Maybe a money-minded promoter will crib from the gladiator days: Sign up now to watch the world champ fight a frothing lion on pay-per-view!

In case you missed its appearance on cable TV or the manifold viral videos ricocheting across the internet, an ugly undertaking masquerading as a sport is making a bid for popularity and acceptance.

The phenomenon of slap fighting has given rise to the Power Slap League, regulated by the Nevada Athletic Commission, but the whole enterprise has little to do with the sports that derive their power from tapping into the best parts of humanity.

It’s more like a display of pure punishment created for TV ratings, video views and money, money, money.

If you possess even a fraction of knowledge about brain trauma and the dangers posed by blows to the head, let this be a warning: Don’t watch without a sick bag in your lap.

Kortney Olson learned the hard way. A bodybuilder and clothing company owner, Olson, 41, appeared in the first episode of “Power Slap: Road to the Title,” a series that made its debut on TBS in January. Her appearance on the show was her first slap fight, and, she said, her last.

“It was an awful experience,” she said in a recent interview, referring to the so-called competition produced by Dana White, president of mixed martial arts’ Ultimate Fighting Championship and slap fighting’s most prominent carnival barker.

On national television, the mohawked Olson and her opponent followed the typical slap-fighting rules. Standing a few feet apart, they took turns delivering full-throttle, adrenaline-fueled, open-palmed blows to each other’s face.

Taking the strikes, Olson and her opponent, Sheena Bathory, didn’t flinch. That’s not allowed. They did not step back to avoid being hit. That’s not allowed. They did not put their hands up to stop or deflect a beating. That is not allowed, either. When Olson was struck, she lost consciousness, then fell to the stage at the U.F.C. Apex in Las Vegas like a crunched-up soda can tossed away as litter.

“Instantly,” she told me, “it was lights out.”

She got up but immediately fell into a forward roll. She struggled to her feet, wobbly and dazed. “Where am I? What am I doing here?” she recalled thinking.

A slow-motion clip of the blow played on the TBS broadcast, her face being disfigured for a television audience of about 415,000 viewers. The camera cut to White, who watched in a room nearby, gleeful.

White wants slap fighting to be the next thing.

“Morons,” he calls his critics, pointing out that plenty were similarly dismissive of the U.F.C. and its predecessors in the past.

He says that slap fighting, as he presents it, with safety checks and doctors on hand, is safer than boxing.

“In Slap, they take three to five slaps per event. Fighters in boxing take 300 to 400 punches per fight,” he said, adding that if you don’t like it, don’t watch.

He left out the fact that many slap fight participants take only one blow — and it knocks them out cold.

Look, boxing deserves its own level of criticism and castigation. But there is deep skill involved. Competitors can at least protect themselves. They can slip blows, move away and put up their hands. It is called the sweet science for a reason.

There is little discernible skill in slap fighting and only one line of defense: the human skull. That’s the problem.

I’ve written often of our societal impulse toward violence, and how, in many of our sports, delivering pain is a significant part of the whole undertaking. The harm has become the thing. Suffering is the spectacle.

Nowhere is that more true than in slap fighting.

Will someone come up with something even more base? If slap fighting or something like it succeeds and finds a real audience, not only in the United States but worldwide, as White and others hope, count on it.

Olson, who struggled to swallow and suffered through headaches in the days after being felled, argues that slap fighting shouldn’t be sanctioned as a sport.

“Absolutely not,” she said.

When I spoke to prominent brain trauma experts last week, they immediately pointed out a sad coincidence: Just as society and the sports world are paying attention to limiting concussions and saving athletes from the dire effects of head blows in other sports, slap fighting comes along.

Hits to the side of the head — the only kinds allowed in slap fighting, where the cheek area is targeted — are by far the worst kinds of blows, said Dr. Geoffrey Manley, a professor and vice chairman of neurological surgery at the University of California San Francisco. As Manley explained, in the aftermath of such a strike, the receiver’s head swivels violently, the brain twists inside the skull, and nerve connections across the brain can end up severed.

That kind of trauma, experienced often enough, increases the risk of dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease that has plagued dozens of former boxers and N.F.L. players.

“If you wanted to have a concussion model in humans, basically you would have someone stand like they do” in a slap fight, Manley said. “You would have somebody deliver a blow to the side of the head, unprotected, and with no defense.”

Slap fighting as organized competition is a relatively new phenomenon. The undertaking gained steam after videos from Russian slapping contests went viral early in the pandemic.

As it made its way to America — where it was eventually glommed onto by backyard promoters and celebrity backers such as White, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the YouTuber turned boxer Logan Paul — it sprouted in Europe.

In Poland in 2021, a former mixed martial arts fighter named Artur Walczak died after being struck in a slap fight.

What a world. What a disgrace.

Shame on the Nevada Athletic Commission, which sanctioned slap fighting late last year, giving it an air of official blessing.

TBS and its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, deserve scorn as well. They provide a glossy, highly produced platform for slap fighting, disregarding both the human toll and the way the fights undercut the broader push for athlete safety.

White is a multimillionaire who has wielded his power to keep people defenseless. Under his leadership, he has balked at U.F.C. fighters’ pleas for better pay. He also suffered no repercussions for publicly slapping his wife in January.

Of course he’s a Svengali for slap fighting. But there is no chance he would ever put himself in the dangerous, powerless position he’s pushing on others. Instead, he will watch from the sideline, gleeful.

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