I Went to a Professional Slapping Competition and It Was Brutal

I never thought my first trip to the Midwest would bring me to a remote warehouse at an undisclosed location in Missouri. And yet, just moments after visiting a Bass Pro Shop for the first time (there aren’t many walkable places to purchase microphone batteries in the small city I was staying in), I paced steadily through a dark parking lot towards the door where SlapFight Championship’s Light-Heavyweight Invitational was set to take place.

Slap fighting has received its fair share of national attention in recent months, most of it negative. After a relatively understated debut on national television, Power Slap, which is backed by UFC president Dana White, brought more critical eyes than ever were on the new sport. There have been opinion pieces on the safety of these contests, suspensions for illegal substances, and White facing personal backlash after he was caught on video slapping his wife at a nightclub a couple weeks before the show’s premiere. The sport has been under the media microscope with medical professionals, and journalists questioning whether slap fighting can be a real competitive sport in the first place.

For the uninitiated, slap fighting is exactly what it sounds like: two contestants slapping each other as hard as they can to claim victory. Organized slapping, as seen in Powerslap and SlapFight Championship, is a turn-based fare meant to give the contests a bit of strategy.
While the breaks are meant to give fighters recovery time, medical experts say strikes like these – especially unprotected – do concussive damage that adds up over time neurologically, regardless if the strike is a punch or a full-powered slap.

On its face, the critiques are justified. The participants are a mixed bag of strongmen, ex- and current mixed martial artists, country hosses, and guys who take pride in being able to take a hit square to the jaw without breaking a sweat. Most of them are in the kind of shape one would expect from a trained mixed martial artist or have the kind of deceptive, barrel-chested frame you associate with the words “dad strength.” Many contests end with the loser being knocked clean off their feet, or with visible handprints on the side of faces.

But the same elements that have drawn criticism from the mainstream are exactly what drove my own morbid curiosity. As a very-casual MMA viewer and a massive fan of professional wrestling, the idea of putting one’s own body on the line for the entertainment of others isn’t foreign to me. Straight-up taking an open-hand haymaker to the chin, however, escalates that kind of sportsmanship to a level I couldn’t comprehend. I had to meet the guys behind it all.

Before my trip, I was only somewhat familiar with professional slap fighting. In college, my friends and I would trade social media links of highlights from Russian and Siberian slap contests. These were brutal affairs that racked up millions of views on sites like Facebook and YouTube during the mid-2010. But whereas those videos were all violent spectacles custom-made to go viral, the show I was about to attend is one of the few promotions left internationally trying to make slap fighting a legitimate sport.

Inside the remote warehouse, a woman with a clipboard recognized me, and after removing my shoes to keep footprints off the gym mats lining the arena inside, took me to meet the man of the hour, SlapFight Championship CEO JT Tilley.

“Glad you could make it my friend!” he said, smiling generously.

Tilley, an energetic, charismatic, and admittedly funny mixed-martial artist has been at the forefront of making slap fighting a major sport. Like millions of others, he caught wind of the sport on the internet. Realizing just how popular it was, and how engaged people in the combat sports world were with it, he wanted to bring it to the mainstream.

In 2017, he helped establish the rule set that took slap fighting from its origins as a sideshow at tattoo conventions and gentleman’s clubs, to a burgeoning combat sport recognized by the governing bodies regulating legal sports in states like Missouri and Nevada. Tilley’s rules are the same rules that White’s Power Slap league follows.

“I thought it had so much potential,” Tilley told VICE of the first time he saw a bout on YouTube. “I went to the athletic commission in Missouri and told them ‘I’m thinking about organizing a slap fighting league, writing some rules, and regulations to try and make it safe.’ They thought that it was crazy, but it was the Wild West – there wasn’t a single slap fighting league in the world. They said, ‘You can give it a shot as long as you keep it safe,’ and that’s what we’ve done.”

The rules are as follows at SlapFight Championship: You can only dish out open-handed slaps, the heel of your hand must not go further than their opponent’s chin, and there’s no pivoting of the hips or stepping during a strike. Flinching is penalized, and you are given up to a minute to recover after being hit. Anyone who violates these rules after a warning, runs the risk of being penalized and losing a turn, which can put participants at a severe disadvantage.

Tilley was transparent about the negative perception facing the sport. He admitted that slap fighting is the most dangerous of the combat sports, but whereas the average pro slapper goes at most ten slaps in a single contest, boxers in certain lighter weight classes can take dozens of punches to the head and body. 

He added that fighters known for accumulating penalties are not brought back to ensure the safety of participants: “The most important thing to us is to make sure we regulate the strikes, so that you see a slapping contest and not something else.”

Tilley stopped short of criticizing other promotions that have come and gone – he even wore a Power Slap hat during our interview. But Power Slap, which is putting the sport in front of more eyes than ever before, has been off to a slow and controversial start. The negative attention they’ve received as well as some of the terrifying-looking televised knockouts concerns Tilley.

“​​[I’m] a little nervous that another company may demonstrate a different style of slapping that gets us all deregulated. I would hope that at some point, someone would take a look and compare the regulations,” he said. “I have dedicated so much of my time, my friends and family’s time, my co-workers, and the athletes that compete here. We’ve worked really hard to make this a safe sport and there is a way to do this without hurting people.”

Tilley boasts that in the span of five years across 30 events in the US and internationally, there haven’t been any significant injuries since the creation of SlapFight Championship. Tilley attributes the longevity of the promotion and its performers to the emphasis on fighter safety.

“In the U.S., there have been three slapping organizations, none of them made it but us,” he said.

The first bout was set to begin in seconds: Monkey Wrench vs. Shamokin’ Thunderclap. (Many of the competitors take on creative pseudonyms, just like in boxing or pro wrestling.) Monkey Wrench, wearing his SlapFight Championship jersey and sporting what seemed to be his team’s signature shaggy beard, stood focused, legs and shoulders squared with his hands behind his back. Thunderclap, also in all black, was the charismatic talker of the two, cheering himself and his opponent on, and even cracking a few jokes and smiles toward the crowd.

The audience of about 70 people generated a big fight feel that the combatants visibly fed off of. Just a few feet in front of the camera propped next to me was a waist-high barrel that sat between the fighters. Sitting pretzel-style in front of me was the woman who first invited me in. She was one of two judges watching the posture, footing, and reactions of the fighters intently. Next to her was a stocky, ripped-to-shit doctor on hand for any medical emergencies. If I hadn’t personally introduced myself to everyone in attendance shortly after arriving, I could have easily confused him for one of the men in the tournament.

The give and take of the actual performers themselves were shocking. Not because of the impact of the hits – that was to be expected – it was the comraderie between the two opponents. After each hit, Thunderclap and Monkey Wrench psyched each other up with primal screams, and even fist bumped.

“That’s right,” Thunderclap told Wrench after receiving a hit. He popped his black ascot cap off, took a breather. After 30 seconds, he looks up at his opponent and signaled.

“You ready, buddy?”

Both of them clearly loved this. After going the distance for a total of seven rounds, the two exchanged smiles and embraced before Thunderclap was announced the winner by judges’ decision.

Every match I saw that night featured this kind of mutual respect. Biscuit and Okuma 915 shared moments of comradeship even through the occasional flinching penalty. Demon and Slim Reaper went the distance and embraced each other after the fight. Even Black G-Sus, who was performing in his very first contest against the lucha libre-inspired Mexicutioner, understood the respect one has to have for their opponent.

A big part of why the slap fighting community is so close is because they’re all in and betting big on its growth. “Monetarily, it’s not hit yet. But we have faith in the sport, and if we keep coming to it they’ll take us with it on that road,” Monkey Wrench told me after his fight. “I hope it becomes the next UFC without being too over the top. A nice, clean-cut, easy-to-understand sport.”

Ron “The Wolverine” Bata was a competitor at SlapFight Championship since 2019. before recently joining Dana White’s Power Slap league. Even as one of the more recognizable faces in the sport, he told VICE that he’s still working a full-time job to support himself. Even with the exposure he’s received on PowerSlap, he’s waiting for slap fighting’s big break.

“But I can’t complain none,” he said. “It’s gives me extra spending money for a sport I enjoy doing.”

Despite its detractors, SlapFight has had several major victories on its road to legitimacy. JT has been part of starting leagues in the UK and Nigeria. They have a television deal in Germany and Southeast Asia. Most recently, DraftKings, a sports betting app, determined the sport was safe enough to hold bets and is doing so in nine states. Tilley says that each of these milestones help pay for the shows and the slappers.

“We’re a family here,” he said. “If it makes me wealthy, mark my words, it will make all of these guys wealthy too, because that’s how we do things here.”

Even the audience felt like they were part of that growth. People shouted out favorite performers in between rounds, and cheered them with the fevor you’d see in professional wrestling. It should be noted that while SlapFight Championship sells its events online via pay-per-view, those who want to see it in person don’t have to buy tickets. Instead those fans are invited to watch the show live, free of charge.

UFC legends like Mark “The Hammer” Coleman and Tim “The Maine-iac” Sylvia were also in attendance, just hanging out with fans and catching up with old friends. And there were PowerSlap competitors who came out just to shoot the shit with SlapFight Championship competitors, who love this niche sport as much as they do.

“For me, it’s not so much like a test of skill as it is endurance, just how much you can push yourself physically,” Thad Sorrell told VICE.

Sorrell said he spent a couple hours driving and crossed state lines to be there that night. He’s not a traditional MMA fan, and has only been following slap fighting for a few months after stumbling into some of the promotion’s videos on social media. Just a few months out of college, he and his friends had now been attending, offering some production help to the crew putting on the show.

“I have respect for someone who’s willing to test themselves and compete and even get hurt,” he said. “Slap fighting is no different from any of those combat sports.”

Another fan in attendance, Mason Skiles, said that even as an MMA fan, slap fighting offers something completely different that other combat sports don’t. Unlike his friend Thad, he’s been watching slap fighting for three years.

“MMA has many different collaborations and styles of fighting,” he said. “And this one is just straight up. One person’s technique may be better, and one may be weaker, but if their jaw is stronger, they may withstand a way better chance of going the distance and winning the match.”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned for the fighters’ wellbeing. Not since the height of WorldStar had I seen that many people totally knocked off their feet. The fact that no one was knocked out cold, or showed signs of traumatic brain injuries seen in some of the worst viral videos around the world, helped alleviate some of the concerns I had. The constant check-ins by the on-site medical professional between slaps, as well as my post-match interviews with performers who stuck around after the event helped ease my concerns. And at the very least, they seemed to be having fun doing this.

But, independent of my own reservations, I had to admit that I could see a world where this sport could fill a small arena. All of the ingredients were there: clear, defined rules, a rabid fanbase, co-signs from some of the biggest names in combat sports, techniques and minutae for sports nerds to obsess over, and the same “can’t look away” trainwreck appeal that casual fans love about boxing and MMA.

Tilley, and his colorful cast of strongmen genuinely believe in the sport. And if the excitement of the room and the millions of views SlapFight Championship has earned on YouTube is any indication, there are more than enough people willing to make sure it’s here to stay. 

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