Inside the Savage, Surreal, Booming World of Professional Slap Fighting

Inside the Savage Sport of Slap FightingJESSE CHEHAK

The image that I can’t forget—the one that truly pulls me into the savage, surreal, and ridiculously compelling world of professional slap fighting—is the open hand of heavyweight champion Damien “the Bell” Dibbell smashing into the giant bearded face of Ryan “the King of Kings” Phillips in slow motion. In the moment, I can’t tell whether my horror or pleasure is greater. Phillips’s eyes are closed, all 255 pounds of him anticipating the blow, hoping to endure it so he can return fire. He can’t move to evade the slap. That’s not allowed in this relatively new, super-fast-growing combat sport. Flinching is a foul—spiritually, the greatest foul in slap fighting—and the penalty is that your opponent gets an extra chance to smash you in the face. So you just have to take the blow. Dibbell’s slap takes maybe a second to deliver in real time. Phillips drops—whatever was him, gone at least briefly—and his body crumples to the ground.

It’s the replay, caught with super-slo-mo cameras, that makes it exactly the kind of weird I like: We see the hand approaching the face and then the impact. BAM! Phillips’s face is briefly displaced off his skull, his neck skin stretching, his face in this moment deformed like a rubber mask—that’s how unlike a face it looks!—and then suddenly it snaps back on. And in that extended instant we see the light going out. His face is almost peaceful as he falls in the aftermath of such a sudden blast of pain. The clip ends and we don’t see what happens after.

This is the money shot that Power Slap—the newer of the two American slap-fighting leagues, the one with the vastly higher budget and bigger footprint—has perfected. It’s shocking. It’s dumb. It’s fun. It’s nuts. It’s barbaric. And it’s brief, so it’s extremely shareable online, which is part of the point. In an age of the unreal and the fake, the AI-doctored and the dubiously sourced, slap fighting—a sport in which two men stand over a pedestal or a barrel and take turns slapping each other and being slapped—is indisputably really freaking real. It’s so real, in fact, and seems so simple that it almost feels like it can’t be. No way, you think. They’re not actually just doing this. Shouldn’t somebody stop them? This is awesome!

Most articles incorrectly trace slap fighting back to a 2019 video from a Russian strongman competition that went viral. But they’re wrong, at least according to JT Tilley, CEO of SlapFIGHT Championship (SFC), the original slap-fighting league, which continues as an underground, more intimate alternative to Power Slap. Tilley tells me that he started slap fighting as a rules-based sport four years earlier, in 2015, after he saw a viral video from Lubbock, Texas.

las vegas, nevada april 12 ryan the king of kings phillips prepares to face damien the bell dibbell during the power slap 7 event at at ufc apex on april 12, 2024 in las vegas, nevada photo by chris ungerschiaffo llc
Ryan “the King of Kings” Phillips enters the octagon in Las Vegas before his Power Slap heavyweight title fight. SCHIAFFO LLC (POWER SLAP)

In the video, taken at an Ink Masters Tattoo Convention, set in what looks like a high school gym, two unsvelte dudes square off over a picnic table covered with a taped-on red tablecloth. A slightly smaller guy in a hat slaps the face of a big dude with his back to the camera, but not hard enough to do much damage. As an announcer on the stage hypes up the crowd, the big dude returns the slap, knocking the smaller guy out. He goes limp immediately from the blow; the crowd goes absolutely apeshit. The comments below the Lubbock video outline the conflict that continues to rage around—and not coincidentally help spread—slap fighting: a contrast of thrilled, jacked-up smack talk versus “We’re close to landing men on Mars, yet this exists.”

It was after seeing that video and the response online, says Tilley, that he decided to “invent” slap fighting as a proper sport. That meant giving it shape and rules. And also trying to make it safe—by which he means safer relative to what it was at the time, which was a total free-for-all. The underground videos he was watching online were wild and compelling, sure. But he remembers thinking, Somebody’s going to die out there. So Tilley worked out a simple set of rules and the format. SFC started streaming its first events in 2017, and from there it grew.

The sport began to catch on overseas, including in Eastern Europe. A couple years after Tilley launched SFC, he was asked to consult with an unregulated Polish slapping show called PunchDown. Tilley says he told the organizers that they needed to incorporate his safety rules to protect the fighters. They didn’t. And shortly after that, someone did die. In 2021, Artur “Waluś” Walczak, a Polish bodybuilder, suffered a stroke in PunchDown 5 and died in the hospital. People freaked out. PunchDown disappeared, and, briefly, so did every other slap-fighting organization except for SFC.

las vegas, nevada april 12 damien the bell dibbell knocks out ryan the king of kings phillips during the power slap 7 event at at ufc apex on april 12, 2024 in las vegas, nevada photo by chris ungerschiaffo llc
The moment Ryan “the King of Kings” Phillips was KO’d by the heavyweight champ, Damien “the Bell” Dibbell, at Power Slap 7.SCHIAFFO LLC (POWER SLAP)

But the visceral appeal of slap fighting was too potent not to attract new competition. And soon it caught the eye of the unofficial king of combat sports himself. In 2022, Dana White, the longtime president and impresario of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), founded Power Slap in Vegas, based on SFC’s rules and even using some of its fighters. Power Slap held its first bouts in January 2023, debuting on the TV network TBS. The initial ratings were disappointing, however, so Power Slap moved exclusively online, where it has been booming ever since.

The metrics tell the story of slap fighting’s social-media popularity. From April 2023 to early May 2024, Power Slap’s YouTube subscribers jumped from 121,000 to 2.4 million and its Facebook followers more than doubled, from 1.6 million to 3.3 million. The Power Slap YouTube channel has racked up more than a billion views in roughly two years. And White has leveraged that audience to help Power Slap acquire sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch,, and Fanatics. SlapFIGHT can’t match the speed and scale of Power Slap’s growth trajectory, but it still boasts a pretty robust global following. The SFC YouTube channel has some 250,000 subscribers, with more than 57 million views since it launched. Tilley claims that SFC has garnered more than 2.5 billion views globally across all platforms and says the league has been televised in Hungary, Switzerland, Germany, the South Pacific, Nigeria, and the Middle East. Its most recent event, says Tilley, was seen online by 500,000 people live.

Slap fighting is unsafe, but all combat sports are. This is why we watch them. Frankly, most contact sports are dangerous, points out Power Slap president Frank Lamicella, who was tapped by White to run the league. The proven connection between football and CTE doesn’t seem to be hurting the NFL, after all. Both Lamicella and Tilley say that slap fighting is safer than boxing or MMA. Lamicella, who happens to be a lawyer, rattles off a whole list of medical precautions his league takes. Power Slap errs on the side of safety, he says. “So far we’ve had zero positive CT scans and really a very low hospital-transport rate compared to other combat sports.” Plus, he points out, no one is being forced to compete in his sport. “We live in a country where it’s capitalism and your freedom to do what two people want,” he says. “Look, people want to fight. We provide the platform to do it; we spend the money to make sure they’re safe and healthy. We make sure it’s as safe as possible.”

Wildman connects with FPS on his way to winning a decision at SlapFIGHT 420 in Oklahoma City.JESSE CHEHAK

Compared with MMA or boxing, slap fighting also seems more accessible, since the athletes don’t need to be as perfectly toned or highly trained as MMA fighters. Quite a few are former football players, wrestlers, or martial artists. But many slappers are just dudes who work in a Dollar General warehouse in your town and have a love for slapping and being slapped, or at least for what they learn about themselves after eating a powerful smack and delivering one of their own.

With the violence comes the physical damage. A slap leaves a mark. Consider the face of Austin “Turp Daddy Slim” Turpin from Power Slap 7 after his victory over Wolverine, one of the best-known competitors in the sport. The left half of Turpin’s face has ballooned to twice the size of the right half. His cheek is bleeding. His eye is pressed closed. The damage is obvious, though it’s temporary. He’s smiling as a bead of sweat rolls down the center of his forehead.

The face of Austin “Turp Daddy Slim” Turpin before and after his victory over Wolverine at Power Slap 7 in Las Vegas.SCHIAFFO LLC (POWER SLAP)

I should say before we get too deep into this: I’m not a fan of combat sports. I haven’t been in a fight since eighth grade. My contributions to my own pain threshold are distance running and lack of self-control when eating bags of chips. That is, I’m a bit of a glutton and definitely a wuss, which became super obvious watching these guys hit and take hits from one another. I have no interest in seeing how much pain I could take by being slapped. But I like watching men do crazy stuff. And how crazy it is, and in what ways, is what I wanted to find out, so I went to experience two slap-fighting events live: Power Slap 7 in Vegas and SlapFIGHT 420 in Oklahoma City.

Having a sensational name is a big part of the showmanship in slap fighting, and the competitors at Power Slap very much delivered on this promise: Kainoa, Pretty Boy, the Kryptonian, Bodacious, the Joker, the Truth, Static, the Waterboy, Da Hawaiian Hitman, El Perro.

Seated behind the stage in the media row, I could see the whole impressive production coming together. Lights and music (“Sandstorm,” by Darude, and the Moby song from one of the Bourne movies), fog machines, spotlights, booming voice-overs. The fight took place in the UFC Apex, which meant that the raised stage was an octagon. Everyone was dressed up. (Even the media was given a dress code: business casual.) Lots of sharp-looking, moneyed dudes with their girlfriends and entourages who’d paid $600 to $1,200 per seat.

a collage of hands
The slapping hands of competitors at SlapFIGHT 420.JESSE CHEHAK

The first fight resulted in a knockout after two slaps. The crowd roared but clearly wanted more. The Power Slap undercard bouts consist of only three rounds (a coin toss determines who goes first, then you slap, and then you get slapped, and then repeat), which should tell you how hard these guys whack each other. The second match got to round 3 and ended in a knockout. The third was a fiesta of fouls resulting in disqualification.

The fourth match was one I was looking forward to. It featured a relatively unknown underdog, Anthony “Babyface” Blackburn, challenging the terrifyingly named Christapher “KO Chris” Thomas, one of the most public faces of Power Slap. KO Chris looked kinda mean, with neck tattoos, and had the name and record to prove it. But after taking one of KO Chris’s slaps, counted as a foul, Babyface knocked him out in round 2 with a righteous blow, much to everyone’s surprise.

A few days later, I talked with Babyface. A former wrestler and football player, he really does have a sweet face and demeanor by comparison with some of these guys. He said he had never been hit in the face before Power Slap and that he was outwardly a kind and helpful person. “I’m not confrontational at all,” he said, “but I’ve always been an angrier person and been able to turn that switch on.” For slap fighting, it helps to know “that burst of aggressive energy is just sitting inside of you.”

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Just before his bout at Power Slap 7, Babyface had been let go from his job at a pizzeria outside Detroit, where he lives. To go from that disappointment to the thrill of knocking out a fellow slap fighter he idolized, like KO Chris, was almost too much for Babyface to process. “To be paid to do it, and be on a show, and do something really, really monumental like this, for this dream to happen and for it to come true, is like mind-boggling for me. Fucking awesome.” He described the slappers as a brotherhood and said he had Facebook Messenger groups with a lot of them. “We’re in each other’s lives every single day. That’s my brother up there. I have to fight my brother each time.”

Time for the main card, each fight featuring five rounds. An entertainingly obnoxious Ayjay “Static” Hintz beat Azael “El Perro” Rodriguez by technicality, with Rodriguez getting disqualified for an illegal strike that knocked out Hintz. Then, during the break, a commercial informed us that Power Slap 7 was brought to us by AminoHeal, “the official brain-protection supplement of Power Slap.” I tried to get AminoHeal to return my calls or send me a sample of its brain-protection product, which its website claims will “reduce and prevent the effects of mild concussions to severe traumatic brain injury,” but nobody got back to me.

Since we’re on the break, this is a good time to delve further into the rules, which both leagues told me are designed to protect the slappers. When Tilley created SFC in 2017, he embedded the league’s initials in its guidelines, which feature only three kinds of fouls: Stepping, in which the slapper’s feet lift off the ground in the windup or the follow-through to create more force in order to get an unfair advantage; Flinching, in which the slappee moves before impact to anticipate the blow and doesn’t allow their opponent to get a fair slap in; and Clubbing, which is any slap that initially connects with the neck or eye or ear, really anywhere other than the cheek and the chin, or doesn’t make full contact with the palm of the hand.

Power Slap’s rules are elaborations on SFC’s, laid out in considerably more detail. Tilley grouses that Power Slap’s adaptations, like a smaller barrier separating the combatants, make the slapping less safe, even though Power Slap events involve fewer rounds than SFC’s. When I asked if Power Slap had taken the SFC rules as a model, a spokesperson gave me this answer: “We wrote the rules from scratch without any reference materials. We of course watched what was going on in other leagues, adopted certain things we liked, and changed things we didn’t like. We also professionalized the rules for government regulation purposes.”

Smiley, in yellow, lost by TKO in his bout against Mallet at SlapFIGHT 420.JESSE CHEHAK

Power Slap is still working on its rule enforcement and consistency, as White told us after the show. There were a lot of fouls called in Power Slap 7, and four of the eleven matches ended in disqualification. In spite of that, it was obvious why the sport is catching on so quickly. We’re in an age of making our sports shorter and faster paced: NHL hockey with its three-on-three overtimes and shoot-outs; Major League Baseball with its new pitch clocks and abbreviated extra innings; even football, with new clock rules to move things along at the end of a game. If you want people to pay attention to a sport in 2024, it has to be short and highlight filled, with plenty of time for commercial breaks.

The very last fight of Power Slap 7—the aforementioned showdown between Dibbell, a soft-spoken, 249-pound twenty-two-year-old who’s saving up his prize money to go to law school, and Phillips—pushed harder on the question of safety for me. Dibbell’s slap that knocked out Phillips in the fourth round was thrilling and disturbing in equal measure. Watching Phillips in the overhead shot on his back, opening and closing his mouth, clearly not all there, while the announcers chuckled about it (“down like a box of rocks, out like a light”) was not easy. He went down so fast that the beefy dudes whose job it was to catch a knocked-out fighter couldn’t get to him in time, and his head hit the canvas. As Dibbell was named the winner, flexed his victory on the stage, and eventually walked off for his post-match interview and we all left to try to get back to the pressroom, Phillips was still on the ground, being attended to by medical staff. He wouldn’t be available for the post-fight press conference. White said afterward that the knockout was in his “top two.”

After Vegas, the venue in Oklahoma City was underwhelming, as anything after Vegas should be. On the drive over, I passed three billboards advertising Oklahoma’s Largest Knife Show the following weekend before I rolled up to the site of the former Crossroads Mall, once “the premier shopping experience in Oklahoma,” according to KOKH Fox 25. It is now largely empty. Two local charter schools occupy the space that was originally a Montgomery Ward. The north side, where I arrived, also advertised an antique show SATURDAY ONLY. Confused, I circled around the south side of the complex until I saw the signs for Chronic Palooza VI, a two-day festival celebrating the legalization of medical marijuana in Oklahoma.


Yes, the following day would be April 20, the high holy day for cannabis connoisseurs. And Tilley’s league was holding SlapFIGHT 420, “the dankest event in SLAP history,” as part of this promotion of all things weed. SFC mostly puts on underground shows for streaming audiences with tiny crowds in undisclosed locations. Tomorrow’s event would have a larger live crowd, but true to SFC’s underground brand, it would be in an abandoned Dillard’s.

No one from SFC had yet arrived. Bass echoed through the cavernous space as dealers like Stristed Art (which made elaborate dragon sculptures out of bone), Paradise Vape, Permanent Jewelry (“ask us about our tooth gems”),, and Little Darlings (a strip club just up the road) straggled in to set up their booths. I was so early, in fact, with so much time to kill that I felt obliged to go get a beer from the closest joint I could find, which was Little Dick’s Halfway Inn, an extremely divey dive bar. It was busy at 4:30 on a Friday, and at this point I realized that you could still smoke (tobacco) in Oklahoma bars, which felt like going back in time twenty years—just in time to shop at the old Crossroads Dillard’s.

The news was on: That’s how I realized that today, April 19, was the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. Twenty-nine years ago, Timothy McVeigh killed at least 168 people in downtown OKC. It was a somber reminder: Where there are humans, there is violence. Was watching or engaging in slap fighting an outgrowth of that violence or a solution to it? I didn’t know, but Afroman was telling me to roll, roll, roll my joint. It was a jukebox song, I realized, maybe folks pregaming for Chronic Palooza or looking for some respite from history. There was little of that to be had. Choking on the smoke—not a good sign for my ability to report on a pot festival, I noted—I finished my canned beer quickly and drove back to the venue.

Inside, no one seemed concerned by my presence. So I went upstairs in search of slappers, which meant walking up the nonoperational former Dillard’s escalator to the second floor, empty except for a bunch of dudes waiting for SFC’s 6:00 P.M. weigh-in. Already the flavor of this weekend could not have been more different from Power Slap’s: relaxed and very casual. There was no mention of a dress code.

This article appeared in the Summer 2024 issue of Esquire

Here I met Tilley, the SFC founder and CEO. A former wrestler, Motown singer, comedian, and Hall of Fame MMA promoter, he is a big, burly, likable guy who recently turned fifty. He has a promoter’s jovial personality, a genuine smile, and an infectious enthusiasm for slap fighting and especially for the people who slap and get slapped. He is the face of SFC and, with retired MMA star Mark “the Hammer” Coleman, does the play-by-play on all the SFC live streams. From our first communication, he was super welcoming and described what they do as a family operation. That would come to be echoed by nearly every person involved with SFC. Tilley is a self-described inventor of “bullshit sports,” as he told me with a laugh, like carjitsu, “jujitsu but inside of a car,” a new sport for which he signed a deal with ESPN; ultimate tire wrestling, “a big stack of tractor tires, and your objective is to stuff the other guy inside the hole,” also ESPN bound; beast ball, “one-on-one football in a shipping-container unit”; sumo boxing, which I couldn’t entirely figure out; and a new one he was developing where two guys get roped together as in the “Beat It” video and have to fight.

Tilley has complicated feelings about his Power Slap rivals. When Power Slap was starting, Tilley says that White & Co. called him and asked him to partner with them. He considered it but was unwilling to give up his league or have it subsumed by White’s glitzier operation. He acknowledges that the growth of Power Slap is probably good for SFC, too, but he wants everyone to understand that he is the true slap-fighting pioneer. “I don’t want to talk shit on anybody. But I’m also not going to pretend like I didn’t write this sport on a piece of notebook paper on my coffee table.”

Today at Dillard’s, there was drama of a different nature: Tilley pulled me aside and told me that an official from the Oklahoma State Athletic Commission had come in earlier that day and forbidden him from putting on the event. He said he was planning to do it anyway, but there was a good chance he could get arrested. And if he did, he wanted to at least make sure we were there to get some photos. That’s how much he was committed, he said, walking away to huddle up with a couple of the other production guys.

After a few minutes, he came back and told me he’d changed his mind and that he didn’t want to endanger Chronic Palooza. The new plan was not to put on the show downstairs in front of the live audience tomorrow at 6:00 P.M. as intended but to do it secretly—no crowd, no announcements—and record it, then stream it later that night from “an undisclosed location,” since at that point they couldn’t stop the fight. He told me absolutely not to tell anyone; he would break the news to the slappers individually after the weigh-in. It was probably a coincidence, I told myself, that I’d mentioned to Power Slap’s Frank Lamicella the day before that I was going down to Oklahoma City for an SFC event.

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The crowd at SlapFIGHT 420 reacts to the action.JESSE CHEHAK

On the docket were five bouts, assuming the event happened at all. The headline matchups were for titles. For the welterweight championship: Okuma 915, a tall, quiet guy from El Paso with a serious face, vs. the current champ, the Cannon. The Cannon’s brother, Runt, would be slapping for the middleweight belt against challenger Shamokin Thunder Clap. The Cannon and Runt were both shorter than me but seriously jacked. They didn’t say much.

The competitors who were not contending for a title were the big dudes, superheavyweights: an absolutely massive guy at six-foot-six and 342 pounds named Cowboy, who religiously wore, yes, a cowboy hat, against Dangerous Danny Steele, a former pro wrestler with the biggest arms I have ever seen. Steele had driven down with his crew from London, Ontario, to take part in this event.

The middleweight division would feature SlapKage, a talkative, anime-loving dude, vs. Biscuit, also known as the “slap-happy hippie,” an extremely chill guy with a beanie he never took off and false teeth that he took out for each fight. In the catchweight division: Smiley, a kid with curly blond hair who could have been one of my undergraduate writing students, would be taking on Mallet, who had his name tattooed above his right eyebrow and told me he was the lightest slap fighter on the planet but had been trying to put on some weight so that Tilley could find him someone to fight. In lightweight: FPS, a tall, gangly dude with a goofy affect who liked playing, you guessed it, first-person-shooter games, would slap against Wildman, a bearded, intense guy who looked a solid foot shorter than him.

These guys were characters, to say the least. Several had backgrounds in other combat sports or martial arts; some had military backgrounds. Some had just seen slap fighting and thought they might be good at it. Mallet told me he’d just lost his dad a year ago and had a lot of anger he was working through, and he was really glad he found slap fighting because otherwise, he said, he would probably be in jail. Having experienced a significant personal tragedy would be part of many guys’ answers to one of the obvious questions: Why did you sign up to get smacked this hard in the face? Shamokin Thunder Clap, the best dressed of the bunch in a bow tie and a leather cap, had lost an infant son to Covid, then lost a long-term relationship, and on top of that he had just got through prostate cancer, so the brutality of slapping and getting slapped didn’t seem so bad to him. In fact, he liked the pain, he told me. He’d spent a lot of time street fighting before he found his way here. He would be aiming for a belt tomorrow.

a couple of men holding trophies
The Cannon and his brother, Runt, pose in their title belts after SlapFIGHT 420.JESSE CHEHAK

Smiley told me the event was his second slap fight ever. He got into the sport because of Biscuit. He and Biscuit work together in a Dollar General warehouse in Fulton, Missouri. Smiley trains at the gym some nights and with Biscuit every Monday to work on slap-fighting technique. In his free time he hangs out with his girlfriend and plays Magic the Gathering, because he doesn’t drink. Slap fighting, he said, has changed him for the better and given him a good way to release bad energy. “It’s like a form of therapy.”

There were reasons to root for all of the fighters, and the more I got to know them, the more I liked them. I was starting to see the appeal of slapping and being slapped—how when you realized you could take it, as one of them told me, it gave you a sense that you could take more than you thought you could, and then you got to give it right back out. In SFC, most of these guys were friends—family, as Tilley would have said—and the love between them was obvious.

Tony Charles and the team from TNT Premier Sports were setting up a device called the PowerKube that was, he said, designed to measure the force of a blow. They’ve been measuring MMA fighters and boxers and martial artists for years, he explained, and one of the reasons they chose to come down here was that he has a lot of respect for SFC and wanted to give its slappers the first shot at setting the Guinness World Record for the strongest slap. He Velcroed the target, a cube sixteen inches on each side with a bull’s-eye on the front of it, to an iron beam so that each guy could take a shot at it. Naturally everyone was eager to see what kind of number they could post. A Guinness World Record would be set tonight, and the videos of each of the guys slapping the Kube would be rolled into their introduction reel tomorrow. I watched for a while as they took their best shots.

Slapping force, Tilley told me, isn’t really what makes you a great slap fighter. What you want is to hit the right spot, not necessarily to smash the face with your power. There’s a nerve behind the mandible, and if you hit the right spot and slide the mandible back in, it connects with that nerve and slides out and your opponent goes down. I noticed this, too, watching both Power Slap 7 and SlapFIGHT 420: Being big didn’t necessarily help. In fact, almost all the tall fighters I saw facing more compact opponents lost. Many of the fighters had clearly been practicing a slap technique that started low and went up into the face and chin, and it appeared to be very effective.

JT Tilley, SlapFIGHT Championship founder and CEO, says he was inspired to “invent” the sport of slap fighting after he saw a viral video in 2015.JESSE CHEHAK

The second reason they brought the PowerKube in, Tilley would tell me later, was that he wanted to quantify just how relatively safe slapping was in contrast to punching or kicking. That would be borne out by the numbers, in which the hardest slap of the night—unsurprisingly by Dangerous Danny Steele—and thus the world record, was 75,906 Franklins. I had to read a Reddit thread to understand just what this proprietary measure actually measures, which is some combination of power, speed, and energy. Whatever the exact formula is, Steele’s record slap was less than half as powerful as the hardest punch (191,796 Franklins) or the hardest kick (235,875 Franklins) they had recorded. That gave at least some credence to the arguments about relative safety that both SFC and Power Slap were making. Plus, as Babyface told me later, any kind of slap that generated world-record-level force, as Steele’s did, would be a foul, so the record-setting slaps aren’t anything like what you’d get in a match.

Charles asked me if I wanted to try, but I demurred, figuring my arm would fall off and I’d die of blood loss and shame. As I was nursing my insecurity, I overheard Cowboy saying that Steele had ripped his biceps while hitting the Kube and would not be able to compete tomorrow. Tilley was trying to find another opponent to fill in so that Cowboy would have someone to fight, but there are only so many giant guys who are willing to stand on a stage and take a slap on short notice, even in Oklahoma.

The following morning, Tilley texted to tell me they’d decided to call the Athletic Commission’s bluff and run the event as planned onstage with a live audience. When I arrived, Chronic Palooza was now in full force. The haze of pot smoke would get thicker and thicker throughout the day until by evening it resembled a stew. Rappers worked the stage. An extremely stoned and very wizardly dude from Dragon Group Entertainment’s Build-a-Bong Workshop beckoned folks with his wizard staff, which was also, obviously, a bong. The number of kids in attendance was vaguely disturbing, but the organizers had clearly planned for it, with opportunities to pet two small cows for two dollars and a dicey-looking inflatable ball pit.

SlapKage tends to his bloody nose.JESSE CHEHAK

I didn’t want to build a bong, but I did want the Donut Burger from Miss Tammy’s Lunch Wagon: a fresh burger served with a glazed doughnut for a bun. Miss Tammy had just started up this business six months ago, she told me as she cooked. All four ladies working the truck were lunch ladies at local schools, which I found extremely charming.

I have to say the Donut Burger kicked ass. It was tasty and messy in a novel way. Both doughnut and burger were fresh and delicious, and together they felt absolutely over-the-top. The yellow mustard really worked with the glaze, which is a sentence I never thought I would write. It was a lot, but I was here to watch men slapping each other in the face, so I felt like I needed to eat it for science. For health, I skipped the fries.

Both SFC and Power Slap told me they thought their event was safer than the other’s. Power Slap touted its relatively few rounds (three and five rounds for prelims and main events, compared with seven and ten rounds for SFC) and its top-notch commitment to medical protection and care. Meanwhile, SFC cited the close nature of the relationships among its slappers and argued that, unlike the Power Slap guys, SFC’s slappers don’t lead with the base of the hand, which makes a slap much more like a punch. Tilley and his team claimed their slappers were more scrupulous about the rules. And they, too, had a medical professional backstage who checked out everyone after the fights. To my eyes, both events featured dudes getting crushed in the face.

In Oklahoma City, though, I did get to witness the camaraderie among the SFC competitors that Tilley was touting. Whether it was Biscuit telling his opponent, “You got this” while preparing to eat said opponent’s thunderous slap, or whether it was Mallet and Smiley hanging out in their hotel room before their fight, again in the greenroom, and then afterward in the crowd watching the title match, I came to really believe in the friendships between them.

As we approached showtime, it looked like this event might really happen.

Now the Little Darlings were done up like actual showgirls, feathered headpieces and all, which I found delightfully upscale. The ladies shared the greenroom with the slap fighters, walled off between the up and down nonfunctional escalators to the second floor. More than once I’d see what I thought was blood on a table only to realize it was (probably) red makeup. I walked upstairs, and finding two people there having a private conversation, I continued up to the empty third floor, where I happened on a whole pile of figures in the dark, some standing, some sitting. When I clicked on my phone’s light, I was shocked to see a white-faced clown with a cleaver. Pan right to an evil jester. A freaky woman with long blond hair. And maybe worst of all, an unidentifiable figure with a bunch of what looked like hangers for a face. I wondered how much of that smoke I had inhaled before I realized it was a huge pile of Halloween decorations stuck up here between seasons. HE’S HERE was spray-painted on the wall. I went back downstairs as quickly as I could.

I was excited for the show, but I wasn’t excited for the show. Now that I’d met these guys—mostly sweet and chill, here for their own reasons—I honestly didn’t want to see them hit each other in the face, even if they did. But I wasn’t here for the burger or the clowns. And besides—the evil clown might have told me, if it didn’t kill me—the show must go on, unless it got shut down by the Athletic Commission.

It didn’t. A few minutes after 6:00, a big crowd of mostly but not entirely stoned folks gathered around the main stage, and the show went live.

This was also a production, if not quite at the level of the Power Slap experience. A small crowd rounded out the stage, standing behind the slappers. The crowd chanted one, two, three for every slap, which felt inclusive. Wildman beat FPS on judges’ decision. Mallet TKO’d Smiley. Biscuit outlasted SlapKage for the win. Runt TKO’d Shamokin Thunder Clap in the third round to retain his belt. Unfortunately they couldn’t find a big enough opponent on short notice for Cowboy. And the main event, Okuma 915 vs. the Cannon for the welterweight championship, lived up to its billing, going an incredible ten face-slapping rounds. Both these dudes ate every slap and gave each back, their faces reddening and swelling, and at the end, the judges’ decision went to the Cannon, who retained the belt.

And with that, the event was over.

My adrenaline was running high, and I was just watching. I couldn’t imagine how the slappers felt afterward. SlapKage told me that there’s just a feeling, that fight-or-flight instinct kicking in after you take a massive slap in the face, and when you’re able to master it—if you’re able to master it—and compose yourself to give it back to your opponent, that feeling is hard to give up. Mallet talked about what it’s like when you go back to your day job with your face all lit up with battle scars. And then you have to explain to your coworkers that you spent the weekend getting hit in the face and maybe getting “knocked the fuck out,” as Smiley said happily. People just look at you like you’re crazy—Why would you do that?!—but they’ll never know. And there’s a letdown, I suppose, after the adrenaline subsides. There always is. What you have left over, after that goes away, is the story and the memory of it that only you can know.

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