UFC president's Power Slap League latest example of celebrity blurring line between marketing, dishonesty

UFC president Dana White, pictured in April 2021, is attempting to dress his new slap-fighting league up as something besides a place where muscled-up tough guys go to suffer concussions. (Alex Menendez/Getty Images - image credit)
UFC president Dana White, pictured in April 2021, is attempting to dress his new slap-fighting league up as something besides a place where muscled-up tough guys go to suffer concussions. (Alex Menendez/Getty Images - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The term "slap fighting" is, of course, a misnomer.

In a real fight, both combatants have an equal chance to inflict damage, and to defend themselves against it. But you can lose one of these slap contests — which seem to be everywhere lately — on a coin toss. First person to deliver a blow might knock their opponent unconscious, and never have to take a shot.

Or the first receiver might weather that first impact and continue competing, but compromised. Balance, depth perception, rhythm and weight transfer all thrown off by that initial concussive slap. In a more equitable setup, both competitors would…


What are we even doing?

Overthinking it, just like the folks trying to sell the new Power Slap League would like us to. If you asked me to describe the sport as it appears, I'd call it artless and destructive. Slap fighting wants to bill itself as a home run derby for combat sports, but it looks like more of a beanball contest. The difference is that nobody would ask Mookie Betts to stand in the batter's box and take an Aroldis Chapman fastball to the earhole. We would know it's a prescription for broken bones and brain trauma.

But with Power Slap and its peers, if we perform the proper mental contortions, we can convince ourselves it's a legitimate sport, and not a lowest-common-denominator spectacle. So, of course, here comes Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and the executive heading up Power Slap, ahead of the promotion's debut event, to dress the enterprise up as something besides a place where muscled-up tough guys go to suffer concussions.

Downplaying the danger

In a video clip that rippled through social media earlier this week, White and an interviewer discuss how slap contests aren't actually that dangerous.

"They take three to five slaps per event; fighters in boxing take 300 to 400 punches per fight," White said. "Nobody's asking you to watch. Oh, you're disgusted by it? Watch The Voice."

From another sports executive, I'd wonder whether that kind of spin stemmed from shame. You know you're selling something crude and dangerous, so you present it as nuanced and relatively safe, just to head off criticism, and to feel better about your product.

Except we live in a post-shame era, and White's presence in front of cameras is the latest case in point. On New Year's Eve he was captured on camera in a nightclub in Mexico, slapping his wife, Anne. Three weeks later he's doing interviews, selling open-handed strikes as sport.

Power Slap was a cynical hustle even before that video of White hitting his wife surfaced, and if you think this week's marketing push feels hypocritical, you have a point. My kindest analysis? It's the latest example of a celebrity blurring the line between marketing and dishonesty, except…

What line?

If Tom Brady can tell us his sports drinks fight concussions and viruses, why can't his buddy Dana White claim with a straight face that "slap fighting" is both safer and more nuanced than it looks? Who are you going to believe: Dana White or your lying eyes?

Right here, I could debunk White's specific claims, but first let's give him credit.

Over his nearly two decades in the public eye, White has crafted a personal brand as a straight shooter who favours blue jeans, black T-shirts and the occasional F-bomb. When he has a problem with somebody — fighter, referee, journalist — he'll let them know, in public or in private.

He also opens each post-fight news conference by announcing the evening's attendance and gate receipts. If you think transparency like that is common, ask the president of your favourite MLB team how much ticket revenue they collect each night. Most pro sports teams guard that info more closely than U.S. presidents do top secret documents, but White routinely shares gate revenue figures to the dollar.

After the video of White smacking his wife went public, several figures at the intersection of mixed martial arts and the mass media used their megaphones to absolve him.

Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports wondered whether White's workaholism cost him his self control.

"For much of his adult life, he's gone near warp speed to build the UFC," Iole wrote. "It's OK to relax and no longer feel the need to push."

UFC contender Sean O'Malley suggested on his podcast that White's spousal abuse was justified.

"His wife slapped him," he said. "That's rude, and it deserved a slapping back."

White, in contrast, made no excuses when he addressed the incident at a news conference in early January. He also explained, essentially, that suspending him would only hurt the UFC and its business partners. The only visible blowback was borne by Power Slap, which saw its debut event pushed back by a week, to Jan. 18.

A seven-day delay, to an aggressive promoter like White, just gives more opportunity to hype the event, even if it means spewing half-truths and falsehoods.

The interviewer in the viral video sets White up by noting that Power Slap participants are not defenceless, even though slap fighters stand with their hands at their sides as their opponent winds up and unloads. Defence, or the lack of it, distinguishes slap fighting from other combat sports.

As for White's claim that boxers regularly absorb 400 punches per bout?

It fails a basic math test.

According to CompuBox, super-flyweight champion Roman Gonzalez lands more punches per round — 31.4 — than any other world-class fighter. Across 12 rounds, he would connect 377 times, still short of the 400 landed punches White claims are within the normal range for random boxing matches.

We don't know if White was lying or just exaggerating for effect, but we know he knows better. He's a former amateur boxer, and he co-promoted the bout between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor in 2017. McGregor absorbed 170 punches that night, and still took less visible damage than Sorin Comsa did in the other video clip that coursed through social media this week.

One slap caused half his face to inflate like an air mattress, and blood to trickle from his ear.

A grotesque scene, and an express ticket to highlight shows and social media feeds. The type of free publicity every internet-savvy sports outlet chases these days, and the kind of viral clip that could spell success for Power Slap's debut event.

But organizers like White might not say as much in public.

Too much like asking people to watch, and they'd never do that.