The competitors stand rigidly upright with their hands behind their backs, waiting to absorb a brutal slap to the face.

When the open-handed blow is delivered, there’s a sharp report and the reaction can be dramatic.

Some fighters barely move, while others stumble backward or fall to the floor. Some are knocked out.

UFC president Dana White is selling slap fighting as the next big thing in combat sports, putting his money and the resources of one of the world’s foremost mixed martial arts organisations behind the Power Slap League.

The Nevada Athletic Commission has sanctioned the league for competitions in Las Vegas.

“It’s a home run,” said Mr White, who is among several UFC officials involved in the league.

Some slap-fighting beatdowns have gone viral, including a graphic video from eastern Europe showing a man who continues to compete even as half of his face swells to seemingly twice its size.

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Such exposure has led to questions about the safety of slap fighting, particularly the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.

A former chairman of the Nevada Athletic Commission, which regulates combat sports in the US state, said approving the league was a mistake.

Chris Nowinski, co-founder and CEO of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, agreed, calling slap fighting “one of the stupidest things you can do”.

“There’s nothing fun, there’s nothing interesting and there’s nothing sporting,” Mr Nowinski said. “They’re trying to dress up a really stupid activity to try to make money.”

Mr White and the competitors remain unfazed, comparing commentary on slapping to the negative reaction the UFC faced in its infancy more than 20 years ago.

“I think it’s definitely overblown with the topics of CTE and the damage that we’re taking,” Ryan Phillips, a Power Slap League fighter, said.

“I think a lot of people still just don’t understand that it’s still a slap.”

Concerns about concussions leading to CTE, which can cause violent mood swings, depression and memory loss, are not confined to combat sports.

The disease has shown up in the brains of former rugby players like Paul Green and several AFL players like Richmond footballer Shane Tuck, whose family has tried to raise awareness about the disease. CTE can only be detected during an autopsy.

White points to early criticism of UFC

Despite the naysayers, Mr White said he believed slap fighting would follow a similar trajectory to mixed martial arts, which late US senator John McCain referred to as “human cockfighting” in 1996, when the UFC did not have weight classes or many rules.

Senator McCain’s criticism helped force the organisation to become more structured, leading to its widespread acceptance.

Mr White said the ratings of the TBS reality show Power Slap: Road to the Title reveal the early popularity of what to many is still a curiosity.

Mr White said he realised there could be a market for the sport in the US when he clocked the millions of YouTube views of slap fighting videos from eastern Europe in 2017 and 2018.

A bald man wearing a black t-shirt smirks.
UFC president Dana White is selling slap fighting as the next big thing in combat sports.

The videos were often poorly produced and the slap matches unregulated. Mr White became convinced that fights with written rules and shot with professional video equipment could convert many internet viewers into dedicated, paying fans.

The Nevada commission gave slap fighting some much-needed legitimacy when it unanimously sanctioned the sport in October and a month later awarded Mr White a licence to promote it.

But Mr White’s enterprise was hampered when he was captured on video slapping his wife on New Year’s Eve.

Mr White apologised, but acknowledged it damaged efforts to get the league off the ground. Mr White is no newcomer to controversy: Former UFC fighters Kajan Johnson and Clarence Dollaway filed a lawsuit in 2021 against Endeavor, the organisation’s parent company, alleging that UFC took an inordinate share of the profits.

Decision, knockout or disqualification

But Mr White is charging ahead.

Three qualifying events have taken place at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, ahead of the March 11 telecast on the streaming platform Rumble in which champions will be crowned in four weight classes.

Power Slap fights are typically three to five rounds. The fighters take turns hitting each other in the face with an open hand, and those on the receiving end stand with their hands behind their backs.

A fighter has up to 60 seconds to recover and respond after receiving a blow. Fighters can earn up to 10 points based on the effectiveness of the slap and the defender’s reaction.

A man is pictured getting a slap in the face from another man as a cloud of white dust arises from it.
Mr White says slap fighting is safer than boxing or mixed martial arts because each contestant usually takes only three blows per bout.(AP: Mike Roach/Sciaffo LLC)

Fights can end in a decision, knockout, technical knockout or disqualification, such as for an illegal slap. All slaps are subject to video review. Each event has two referees and three judges.

Also present are a supervising doctor and a physician or physician’s assistant, plus three paramedics and three ambulances. Mr White has touted the safety record of the UFC, but has not talked specifically about injuries in the Power Slap League.

Slap fighting ‘safer’ than boxing and MMA

Mr White says slap fighting is safer than boxing or mixed martial arts because each contestant usually takes only three blows per bout. In boxing, Mr White said, that number could be 400 or more, and that did not include the shots taken during sparring. There was no sparring in slap fighting, he noted.

Mr Nowinski of the concussion foundation said while there might be no sparring in practice sessions, that did not mean it did not happen elsewhere. He said comparing boxing to power slapping was misleading because slap fighters took a full blow each time.

“You can slip [boxing] punches,” Mr Nowinski said. But in slap fighting “you’re taking out everything that’s interesting to watch and everything sporting [from boxing] and just doing the brain-damage part.”

Mr Nowinski said slap fighters did not make enough money to justify the risk. The Power Slap League would not disclose how much it paid fighters, but said in a statement that participants were compensated for every match and could also earn “appearance fees” and “additional discretionary bonuses”.

Stephen J Cloobeck, who was the chairman of the Nevada commission when it sanctioned slap fighting, said Mr White and former UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta sold him on the legitimacy of the sport.

“I made a mistake,” Mr Cloobeck said. “I’m not happy about it.”

A man slaps another man as two referees look on. Behind them a big screen with the word 'slap' on it in blue.
Travis Aragon slaps Jon Kennedy at a Power Slap event in Rio De Janeiro in November 2022.(AP: Mike Roach/Sciaffo LLC)

The commission recently approved amended rules to better define what constituted a legal slap in an effort to minimise serious injuries.

“The number one thing is the health and safety of the fighter,” commission chairman Anthony Marnell III said at a February 15 meeting. “Always has been, always will be.”

But he went on to say: “It seems like there is a market for this, whether you like it or not.”

Mr Phillips, the slap fighter, said participants could defend themselves without losing points, such as by rolling away before the hand made impact.

And the fighters know if they lose the coin toss and get slapped first, it will hurt.

“I know what’s coming,” fighter Vernon Cathey said. “I’m tensing up. There’s a lot of stuff I can do to protect myself.”