During the opening scene of Power Slap: Road to the Title, the TBS show debuting last week that features the emergent sport of slap fighting, striker Chris Thomas steps into a square and calls “right three.” He’s indicating to the official that on a count of three, he will wind up and smack his opponent, Chris Kennedy, with all the velocity and power available to him in his right hand. Kennedy, meanwhile, holds his hands behind his back, clutching a sort of stick to ensure that he won’t raise his hands to defend himself from this assault.
One, two … SMACK! The chalk that Thomas put on his hand before the blow flies off Kennedy’s face, as Kennedy falls to the mat. Ohhhh! the people in the crowd yell. Someone curses. Though the words are bleeped out, it’s easy guess what was said. Something that rhymes, perhaps, with “holy spit.” Or “oh, puck.”
The force sends Kennedy careering so fast, the two men standing behind him—whose job is to catch him before his head bounces off the mat—don’t seem to make it on time. The ref calls the “fight” immediately. (Is it a fight if, by rule, a combatant can’t defend himself?) The ref summons a doctor. Kennedy’s eyes appear to be rolling to the back of his head. Thomas flexes for the camera and screams, “That’s what I’m about!” Power Slap producers replay the strike in slow motion, from three different angles: you can see Kennedy’s skin, and picture his brain, quaking.
Kennedy comes to. But he can’t recall his whereabouts. An official told him he got knocked out. “Was I fighting?” Kennedy asks a medic.
And with that, many Americans were introduced to slap fighting and Power Slap, the new combat sports outfit backed by the UFC and its lighting-rod president, Dana White. With Power Slap, White hopes to do for slap fighting what the UFC did for mixed-martial arts: organize and promote it to the masses. The timing of Power Slap’s launch, however, has proved problematic. For one, Damar Hamlin’s near-death experience on the football field, on Jan. 2, reminded millions of risks involved in violent sports. Marketing defenseless blows to the head, after science has shown that concussions and brain injuries suffered in sports can lead to serious long-term cognitive damage, comes across as especially egregious.
What’s more, on Jan. 2 TMZ released a video showing White and his wife, Anne, slapping each other at a New Year’s Eve party in Mexico. White told TMZ she was “embarrassed” by the incident, and shared that he and his wife have apologized to each other and to their children. “To say this is out of character for him is an understatement,” Anne said in a statement to TMZ. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.” They said that excessive alcohol consumption contributed to the the spat, though White told TMZ that drinking should not excuse his behavior. TBS pushed back Power Slap’s premiere by a week. A UFC spokesperson did not make White available for an interview.
Sports-medicine experts have criticized Power Slap. “There’s no justification for it,” neuroscientist Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, and a former WWE wrestler, tells TIME. In a recent interview, White mentioned that while Power Slap athletes sustain three-to-five blows in their matches, boxers may take 300 to 400 blows to the head in a bout. “He’s missing the point,” says Nowinski. “He knows what he’s selling is garbage, but he’s trying to make money on other people’s suffering. This combines all the worst elements of any sport. No drama, no art, and just trying to test human limits that lead to permanent damage.”
“I hope the sport doesn’t last very long,” says Dr. David Abbasi, a sports-medicine specialist who has worked as a ringside physician at pro boxing and MMA matches. “Because these athletes’ brains are at serious risk.”
Even some MMA fighters lashed out against slap fighting. “This type of event (I won’t doing to call it a sport) is the dumbest thing there is going,” fighter Josh Barnett wrote on Twitter, in response to a clip from a Romania-based promotion showing a slap fighter with a swollen, disfigured face sustaining another blow. “Why do people support this s–t?” Matt Frevola, a rising star in White’s UFC, blasted Power Slap after its debut. “I don’t want to know how much money went into this Power Slap s–t,” Frevola wrote on Twitter. “Why not put that money towards making the UFC a better overall product and legitimizing the sport? It’s also dumb af lol”
Slap fighting first came to White’s attention in 2017, when he saw online clips of the sport originating in Russia and eastern Europe. The page views impressed him, so he decided to invest, along with former UFC owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, in organizing, regulating, and promoting the sport. Power Slap is sanctioned in Nevada, and the TBS show will feature fighters training and competing in the sport, with a debut live pay-per-view event to follow.
Power Slap fights consist of three to five rounds, with one slap per round. If no fighter is knocked out, the judges declare a winner based on “the strikers effectiveness, as well as the defender’s reaction and recovery time.” Fighters must stand still in a box before striking an opponent; a combatant can’t, say, get a running start to increase the force of the strike. Hits must be open-handed, and the cheek is the target area. Blows to the ear and temple, for example, are illegal. Hard strikes anywhere on the head, however, can do damage. “If you’re able to get their head to rotate, if you’re able to hit them off center, then you’re talking about the potential of physically damaging their brain,” says Nowinski. “Because you get centripetal force and shearing injury because parts of the brain are going to twist at different speeds.”
Power Slap president Frank Lamicella points out that before each bout, the strikers undergo a battery of tests—physical exams, MRIs, performance-enhancing drug screening—to ensure that they are fit to compete. Multiple physicians and first responders and ambulances are on-site at fights. “There’s inherent risk in the sport,” Lamicella tells TIME. “Our job—and this is what we’ve done with the UFC—is to make sure that the health and safety guidelines are as premier as they can get, and they are followed each and every time there’s a match.” Lamicella says that in the more than 50 Power Slap matches that have already taken place, “there has not been one serious injury.”
The second episode of Power Slap: Road To The Title airs Wednesday night on TBS, at 10 p.m. E.S.T. The program drew 295,000 viewers in its debut, making it No. 45 out of the top 50 cable telecasts for Jan. 18. Power Slap, however, lost a majority of its lead-in audience: AEW Wrestling, which airs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. on TBS, was the No. 3 cable show on the night, with 969,000 viewers. A TBS spokesperson did not make any executives available to speak to TIME about Power Slap.
Power Slap did attract more than 1 million viewers on Rumble, the video-sharing platform that streams Power Slap: Road to the Title outside the United States. One Power Slap clip on TikTok—featuring a knockout blow—now has more than 100 million views.
Chris Thomas, whose ferocious strike was highlighted at the top of the Power Slap premiere, was dabbling in MMA when he saw slap fighting on Facebook. “They posted something about Power Slap and I was like, ah, this s–t ain’t real,” Thomas, 31, tells TIME. “This stuff’s dumb, whatever. Then I was like, f–k, maybe I’ll take a slap if it’s real. Because I can take a hit. I haven’t been knocked out a day in my life.”
After his stunning debut, Thomas was selected to train with other fighters pursuing a Power Slap career. He won’t disclose how much he earned to appear in Power Slap, or his prize money for victories. But he insists the sum “changed my life.” (Former UFC fighter Eric Spicely said on Twitter that he was offered $2,000 to appear in a fight and another $2,000 if he won. A Power Slap spokesperson did not reply to a request for comment.)
Thomas gets more of an adrenaline rush from defense than offense. “You’re like, let’s go,” he says. “I’m going to eat this s–t and spit it out. Every time I get hit, all my power, all my focus, comes into point. If they hit me, they will not survive after it.” There’s an art to absorbing force, according to Thomas. “Right before I take a hit, I clench,” says Thomas. “At the same time they’re hitting me, I’m clenching in, and moving with it. I’m absorbing the impact a lot more than if I was just being stiff or being soft.”
Thomas says he grew up Idaho, in and out of the foster-care system. He did his first line of drugs when he was 11, he says. He stole food to survive. Thomas says his difficult upbringing has inured him to any fear in the ring. “I’m not scared,” he says. “If you can survive that, you can survive anything.” He believes slap fighting has powerful allure. “You’re going to see a lot more damage, a lot more testosterone being thrown around,” says Thomas. “If you watch the show, you’ll see a lot of real life stuff. It’s not just about Power Slap. It’s about people’s lives.”
He also feels like it’s the Power Slap critics who are missing the point. “If anybody is out to make the sport a bad thing or have something bad to say about it, just realize that there’s people out here who really enjoy it and have love for it and have love for the people who are in it,” says Thomas. “It’s kind of selfish to say that somebody can take a stick, stab it in the ground, flick themselves over another stick and land on a bed and call that a sport, but we can’t call Power Slap a sport.”