LAS VEGAS — Austin Turpin is pondering a question that should be simple to answer: Why did you quit a job you love and accept the risk of undefended blows to the face in order to pursue a career as a slap fighter?
Turpin was a land surveyor in Jacksonville, Florida, and he delights at describing the intricacies of his former gig.
“Walking through those swamps with them gators and snakes and all that,” he says, his eyes dancing. “Man, I loved it.”
He gave it up to focus fully on being a slap fighter. He’s dropped roughly 50 pounds to move from heavyweight to light heavyweight, and in two days, he’ll fight Alan “The Kryptonian” Klingbeil in front of a crowd of invited guests — a large number of them social media influencers — at UFC Apex.
Numerous doctors have slammed slap fighting as unsafe. Two members of Congress, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-NJ), and Rep. Don Bacon, (R-NE) wrote a letter to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav demanding answers to why Zaslav green-lighted it to be on the popular cable channel TBS. Men running state athletic commissions have vowed it will never be legalized in their jurisdictions.
UFC president Dana White, who created Power Slap, has heard it before. In 2001, after he and partners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta purchased the UFC, White drove around the country, often with fighter Chuck Liddell, talking to newspaper journalists and editors begging for coverage.
Flush with the success of the UFC, which was recently valued at more than $12 billion after being purchased for $2 million in 2001, White sneers that he’s begging no one for coverage of slap.
“You don’t like it?” White asks. “I don’t give a s***. I don’t care. I’m not asking the media for a thing. I don’t need them. I heard all this s*** before, how it’s unsafe and this and that. That was the UFC. It’s the same thing, but now it’s slap.”
Turpin believes in White, and what White has built with the UFC. And he’s all in with Power Slap. After pondering the question of why he’s doing this, he gives an answer.
“I take all of the criticism of this with a grain of salt, and I understand it’s a new sport that not everyone understands,” he said. “ … I hear this question a lot and my answer is easy: MMA fighters, boxers, look at how many strikes to the head they take in a fight. I do this, and I get maybe one, three at max, in a fight. And there is no sparring like there is in MMA and boxing, so we’re not getting hit in the head during training like they are.”
It’s a point, but it’s obvious that Turpin gets the sense that the person he’s talking to isn’t fully buying that, so he comes up with an example. When he was in high school, he was a nose tackle and the star running back at his rival school was Derrick Henry, now a NFL star with the Tennessee Titans. In his senior year alone at Yulee High School, Henry rushed for 4,261 yards and 55 touchdowns.
“I tackled him multiple times,” Turpin said. “But he ran right over the top of me I don’t know how many times and he did it all three years. The guy was incredible and he was so big and strong and was moving so fast. I’d move over into the gap where he was coming and — Boom! — he’d just run right over the top of me. I’ve never been hit that hard in anything I’ve done, before or since.”
That’s no shock, given Henry has run over the top of many of the NFL’s greatest defensive players, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone he could do it to still-developing teenagers.
Slap fighting is a new sport that, much like MMA in the late 20th and early 21st century, is being ripped as unsafe and barbaric.
A Power Slap fight is three rounds, or five rounds in a title fight. The person being slapped is not allowed to flinch and has to take the hit with no movement or blocking. It’s a foul to flinch. The striker must hit with the palm of his hand and not the butt of his hand where it connects to the wrist. Strikers must hit essentially on the cheek and not on the ear or higher.
There is a coin toss to get to determine who slaps first. There were eight fights on Friday and the coin toss winner only won two of them.
Turpin scored a one-slap knockout in his bout on Friday against Klingbeil, a former MMA fighter. Klingbeil said he doesn’t understand the criticism that comes with slap fighting and said he suspects it’s because it’s new.
Asked how he would respond to doctors who criticize slap as unsafe, Klingbeil pointed to boxing and MMA.
“We get hit once at a time in [slap] and there aren’t repeated strikes,” Klingbeil said two days before he faced Turpin. “If you get taken down in MMA and you’re getting a guy dropping elbows on you, how is that worse than what we’re taking?”
White is justifiably proud of the UFC’s safety record and in his 20+ years of ownership, there has never been a death or a traumatic brain injury. He said the UFC spends at minimum $10 million a year, and likely more, on medical testing to ensure the risk of the fights are minimized and the athletes are safe.
On Friday, Josiah Harrell pulled out of his UFC 290 fight with Jack Della Maddalena with a rare brain issue called Moyamoya where the carotid artery becomes blocked or narrowed. Harrell was 7-0 and was set to make his UFC debut. He had never been required previously to take an MRI of his brain until he fought in the UFC. That MRI may well have saved his life.
White pointed to that as one issue of many that the UFC discovered in its fighters over the years. He said the slap fighters undergo the same rigorous medical testing that UFC fighters do.
“There is nothing — nothing — more important to us than the safety of these athletes, and that’s why we spend what we spend,” he said. “Our track record speaks for itself.”
Yahoo Sports spoke to Dr. Paul Wallace and Dr. Michael Schwartz, two of the most prominent ringside physicians in the country. Each has worked boxing and MMA fights for more than 30 years. Wallace is the chairman of the medical advisory committee for the California State Athletic Commission. Schwartz founded the American Association of Professional Ringside Physicians and is chairman of the Association of Boxing Commissions’ medical advisory board.
Neither are fans of slap fighting. Wallace questioned how being slapped without being able to defend against it is a sport, and referred to it as barbaric. He praised the UFC for being open to any and all medical testing that his commission felt would be helpful, but still has issues with slap as a sport.
“I don’t like the argument at any point that any combat sports are safe,” Wallace said. “They’re not safe at all. We try to minimize the damage done to individuals who are involved in these sports. In boxing and MMA, they can theoretically defend themselves. They can block [punches] and do like [Floyd] Mayweather did and try to slip punches.
“When we’re discussing slapping, they don’t have that ability and so does it come down to how strong their neck muscles are? The trauma that happens to a person being slapped without any protection is what my greatest concern is.”
White has insisted the fighters are getting better at where they slap and are more consistently slapping within the designated area, which would, in theory, minimize the risk fighters take. But Wallace pointed out that in the heat of action with the adrenaline flowing, fighters aren’t always able to slap accurately.
“I think a good way to equate this is to a baseball pitcher who has excellent control,” Wallace said. “But he doesn’t always throw the ball where he wants. He walks batters. He sometimes hits batters. And sometimes, he throws a pitch he wants to go one way and it doesn’t go there and the batter hits a home run.
“The [strikers] aren’t trying to foul, but they can’t guarantee that every slap is going to be in the legal area. And that’s a head trauma the receiver is absorbing.”
Schwartz said “It’s an indefensible sport and allowing someone to create contact to someone’s head and brain without the ability to defend is ridiculous.”
Schwartz said that fighters who are staggering around the stage after being slapped are concussed. A person who is concussed and is hit again is at risk, Schwartz said, of second-impact syndrome. A second concussion before the first has healed, Schwartz said, can cause a loss of the brain’s ability to regulate blood flow through it.
In their letter to Zaslav, Parcell and Bacon noted the dangers of the rotational acceleration of the brain from blows to the head.
“In recent years a large body of evidence has established CTE as a direct cause of memory decline, impaired cognition, depression, impulsive behavior, suicidal ideations, Parkinsonism, and dementia. These disastrous health effects are often correlated with contact sports like boxing and football. Yet, the governing bodies of these sports have made strides in recent years to preserve the history and tradition of physical activity while seeking to understand the causes of CTE and implement appropriate safety precautions.
“The Power Slap makes no similar good faith effort to do the same, while exposing participants to brain trauma without protective measures. In fact, participants are penalized for any movement or attempt to mitigate a blow. This deadly combination of force, rotation and lack of defensive gear or posture is inexcusable and possibly fatal.”
White has relied on the UFC’s safety record and extensive medical testing athletes are to undergo as one of the reasons slap isn’t as dangerous to the athletes as some insist.
It’s become hugely popular on social media. There is now betting on Power Slap at most of the major sportsbooks in the U.S. and on many that aren’t U.S.-based. White claimed Power Slap gained 293.6 million followers on social media outlets from July 1 to July 9 and had 107.7 million video views in that timeframe. He also claimed Power Slap had the most video views on TikTok from July 1 to July 9, garnering 22.4 million views. UFC had 20.8 million, the NBA had 17 million and the NFL had 7 million.
According to White, all of the investors in Power Slap have been paid back and the company is already profitable.
“Believe me when I tell you, this thing is a juggernaut and it’s not going away,” said White, who is confident it will gain regulation from states around the country in the coming years. It’s expected that Florida and Texas athletic commissions will soon sanction it.
The strikers are thrilled. Koa Viernes, known as “Da Crazy Hawaiian,” signed with Power Slap recently and made his debut on Friday at Power Slap 3. He said he had made $145,000 from slap fighting matches in 2021, which didn’t include his sponsorship money.
He won his fight against his friend, Micah Seiuli, on Friday, though he wasn’t happy with how he’s performed.
“He told me he didn’t realize how huge this thing is already and he’s going to take it way more seriously in the future,” White said of the 6-foot-3, 404-pound Viernes.
Viernes, whose older brother is also a Power Slap star, told Yahoo Sports the money is going to be big for the strikers in the not-too-distant future. According to White, two strikers, Ayjay Hintz and Ron “Wolverine” Bata have already made excess of $100,000 from Power Slap in 2023.
“In my own experience, I’ve collected some massive checks in my years of doing this, and I think it’s just the start,” Viernes said. “People f****** love it and with these guys at UFC in charge of this, man, it’s going to be massive. It’s fast, there’s a ton of action and craziness going on and Dana and them know how to promote. You watch what happens.”
Damien Dibbell is the heavyweight champion of Power Slap as well as one of the coaches. He’s 21, finishing up his degree at Central Florida and planning to attend law school, preferably at the University of Miami, Florida.
He dreams of being a boxer, but hasn’t gotten started yet and is using slap for that. He said he has “a crazy backstory I’d rather not get into,” but said his desire to be a lawyer is so he can pay back those who helped him.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for so many people who went out of their way to help me,” Dibell said. “I can do this and make some real money and support myself and get my law degree and that will be a win-win. There are a lot of people who are like I was, in tough positions, and they need help and when I become [a lawyer] I can do that. So this is coming at the perfect time for me.”