In boxing, a fighter with a “good chin” is one who can endure repeated blows to the head without falling to the canvas.
But the best boxers, like Muhammed Ali, are those with a more refined skill: Knowing how to avoid those blows.
In all combat sports, including mixed martial arts (MMA), fighters learn the value of not getting hit. The great ones with highly refined defensive skills, like Ali, can (arguably) be a joy to watch.
Alas, there is nothing joyful about the latest big thing in combat sports: slap fighting. This is a contest involving two people who stand facing each other and offer no defense as they take turns slapping each other in the face.
You read that right. It’s a thing, and it’s on TV. (Here is a clip. But be forewarned that it is not pleasant to watch.)
Green Light in Nevada
It’s called the Power Slap League, a new venture from Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest MMA promoter in the world. The new league gained the approval of the Nevada Athletic Commission, and its competitions air on TBS.
The competitions generally go three to five rounds and, as in boxing, judges decide who wins each round. In large part, they make this decision based on competitors’ reactions to the slap. If they go down and are slow to recover, it’s too bad for them because that means they lost the round. But victory often comes via a TKO or an actual knockout. The winner is often literally the only one left standing.
If this sounds barbaric, you’re right. But that’s why more than a quarter of a million people tune in. Slap fighting first emerged as a spectator sport in Russia and eastern Europe a few years ago and it caught the attention of UFC president Dana White as a potential moneymaker in the U.S.
And since when have we stepped in to halt barbaric sports (except when they involve chickens and dogs, of course) when there’s money to be made?
Medical Experts Weigh in
Supporters of slap fighting defend it by claiming that other combat and contact sports are worse. Here is one from White, now also the Power Slap League president: “The bottom line is: In a boxing match guys get hit with 300 or 400 punches in a … night. These guys are going to get hit with three slaps.”
Experts disagree, saying several participants appear to have suffered concussions. And getting struck on the cheek and the side of the head is particularly dangerous because it causes the brain to twist in the skull, which can damage nerves.
“These people pass out from one blow,” said Nitin Agarwal, a neuroscientist and expert on brain injury at Washington University’s School of Medicine. “In reality, they suffered a traumatic brain injury.”
Critics also point to the death in 2021 of a Polish man who was rushed to a hospital after a competition and died there.
At this point you may be asking: How did we sink so far?
The answer is that slap fighting didn’t just appear out of nowhere; it grew out of mixed martial arts. The first organized MMA events began appearing around 1980 in Pennsylvania, and three years later the state legislature banned them. However, MMA events moved elsewhere, and the sport attracted a growing fan base.
It also drew detractors, including the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who referred to MMA as “human cockfighting,” leading an effort to ban the sport. While he didn’t succeed at achieving a ban, McCain got TV networks to stop televising MMA matches for a while.
Largely because of McCain’s opposition, the fledgling UFC sought acceptance in a way that might seem surprising: By going to state lawmakers and regulatory bodies and asking to be regulated. New Jersey was the first state to establish regulations and approve MMA fighting, in 2000. In 2017, New York became the last. MMA is now legal in every state and is regulated in all except for Alaska.
What About a Ban?
For a sport in the U.S. to be banned, it must be extremely dangerous for participants and also pose a threat to others. Street racing and BASE jumping (skydiving off buildings) are illegal everywhere, for instance.
But boxing is still legal despite the long list of deaths and brain injuries it has caused. The same is true of football.
Mixed martial arts are on safe ground as well. While the sport produces many injuries, researchers have found that they are much less serious than those produced by boxing. In large part, that’s because the sport has drawn good athletes who know how to defend themselves.
Again, however, no such skill can be learned in slap fighting. For that reason, it’s probably a safe bet that we’ll be hearing calls for a crackdown — if not a full ban — sometime soon.
Meanwhile, promoters in Florida submitted a letter to the Florida Athletic Commission seeking to launch the nation’s second league there. No doubt aware of the controversy caused by the first league, the FAC is remaining mum for now.
And the then-chairman of the Nevada Athletic Commission who approved slap fighting in his state last year? He now regrets it.
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