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I was flipping through the channels late at night when I saw it. Surrounded by officials, two men in ill-fitting jerseys exchanged slaps. They weren’t allowed to defend themselves in any way, standing there with their arms behind their backs holding either a towel or pole while the opponent had 30 seconds to wind up and hit them as hard as possible across the face with an open hand. I was a few minutes into the premiere of “Dana White’s Power Slap: Road to the Title.” For almost an hour, I sat there, slack-jawed, as I watched a tornado of brutal brain damage, complete with blood, knockouts and badly swollen faces. The whole time, White was as giddy with delight as he is at the blackjack tables or nightclubs at Cabo San Lucas, confirming my belief that, yes, he would prefer if all Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts involved both combatants trading wild haymakers Toughman-style. What did I learn about the pursuit that White, without a hint of humor, kept calling a combat sport?
To start, let’s give the devil his due. Power Slap features a tremendous amount of visceral violence and huge knockouts, and if I’m being honest, that’s a central part of the attraction to any combat sport. It’s a big reason why I was initially drawn to boxing and MMA as a little kid in the early to mid-1990s and still love them to this day. The thrill of scientifically delivered brutal violence is as powerful for the casual fan as the most longtime hardcore observer. It’s also why White was drawn like a moth to the flame to slapping. However, even here, I’m left scratching my head. If one simply wants to enjoy big knockouts and head trauma, there is an endless supply of clips on Twitter or WorldStarHipHop, to mention just two prominent platforms; or one can watch Bumfights, where at least the participants are allowed to defend themselves.
This farce is droolingly idiotic. There is a fine line between enjoying the violence in combat sports and watching barbarous exploitation, and Power Slap crossed into the latter. The amount of brain damage slap competitors receive far, far exceeds what they would absorb in either MMA or boxing. By being forced to take huge blows flush, massive brain trauma is inevitable. Participants can’t block, retreat, side step or move their head to lessen the damage. At least one person has already died from slapping, which is even worse when one considers how rare this lunacy is compared to any actual combat sport. Now, some may argue that if the competitors didn’t lose their brain cells this way, they would find another way to do so. While that’s likely true, just because someone is a heroin addict doesn’t make it any less morally repugnant to offer them a syringe full of the drug. There is a dirtiness in watching the participants in White’s venture suffer horrific and possibly lasting damage for pennies. Again, Bumfights is a great comparison.
Of course, even if one ignores the moral aspect, it’s still imbecilic. For one, it will never become popular since every slap fight looks the same. There is no real variation from one contest to another except for how badly each person is hurt. Lack of distinction between competitors and contests is why powerlifting has never taken off. A world-class 900-pound deadlift looks exactly like a guy at the local 24 Hour Fitness doing 300 pounds, except for the weight itself. By contrast, consider the huge variability in the sport of basketball. Consider how differently Allan Iverson played compared to Shaquille O’Neal. Even within the same position, a point guard like Magic Johnson played very differently than a point guard like John Stockton. Then consider how differently all of them played compared to anyone at the local rec league. With slapping, a relative novice looks very much like a world champion.
Worst of all, slapping first is an enormous, unfair advantage. A great many of these contests were ended when the very first slap caused a knockout. The loser never even had a chance to strike. Even for those that did not end so abruptly, the first blow left opponents badly dazed, affecting how well they could deliver their own slap and often leading to a knockout from the follow-up. At one point, a coach and supposed world-class slapper noted what a huge advantage going first is. Immediately, a guy identified as the President of Power Slap and White both stridently shouted him down, claiming that the “sport” was a “test of one’s chin.” Their tone was the same as a first grader who says “No, my unicorn lunchbox is not lame!”
This does not reflect negatively on White alone. I noticed three prominent UFC referees calmly watching as body after body hit the floor. I wasn’t surprised by Chris Tognoni. More depressing was the involvement of referees Mark Smith and Jason Herzog. I don’t know what possessed them to work this carnie spectacle.
White’s little sideshow hustle effects the UFC. Based on the ratings, Power Slap has been a failure and I doubt any more people will watch it than the Zuffa Boxing White talked about for years. However, he undoubtedly spent at least a few million dollars setting this all up, filming a show for TBS, etc. You know what he could have done with that money? Used it to help retain UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, who is leaving the promotion with the belt. Either the company could have increased the $8 million he was offered to face Jon Jones to eight figures or agreed to his proposal of health insurance for a trial run. So in a very real way, White prefers Power Slap to Ngannou, merely one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all-time. Keep that in mind the next time anyone tries to argue White is good at his job.