Could Getting Slapped Hard Enough Cause Memory Loss? This Slap Fighter Shared Her Story With Us.

The TBS show Power Slap was recently canceled. We asked doctors about the potential health consequences of slap fighting competitions.

Slap fighting is a combat sport where participants wear no gloves or protective gear, and, just as the name suggests, compete through open-palm blows to the face. Assistants stand behind the players to catch their falling bodies, and slow-motion replays of the face-damaging shock waves are part of the entertainment.

A coin toss decides who gets to go first. At times, whoever receives the first slap is knocked unconscious in under 30 seconds.

In March 2022, Kortney Olson, a now-retired slap fighter, competed against Sheena Bathory in an exhibition for contestants of the now-canceled TBS show Power Slap. In the hard-to-watch clip, Olson is slapped and falls, her eyes visibly rolling back as the crowd gasps. The video includes commentary from Dana White, the executive producer of the show and president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sports promotion company that specializes in mixed martial arts. 

“After I regained consciousness, I stood back up to get to the table and reset, but lost consciousness again and wound up doing a forward roll,” Olson said. “I don't have any recollection of doing a forward roll.”

After the match, Olson said she was left with a golf ball–sized lump under her jawline, making it hard for her to swallow for a week. She also said she was concerned about lapses in memory after the match. 

Olson told us she has been getting medical tests to try to determine the cause of her memory issues, and is getting urine, saliva, and stool tests to rule out issues like mold sensitivity or Lyme disease. She said that she's never been knocked out before, even though she competes in martial arts.

“I've legitimately struggled with memory loss throughout the remainder of the year until this day but can't pin that down directly to getting knocked out,” Olson told BuzzFeed News. “But the unknown of how much of that played a part in my memory is enough concern to speak out about it growing.”

The show, known as Power Slap: Road to the Title, features competitors (with nicknames like "Slap Jesus") who live in a house together and fight for a Power Slap world title as determined by three judges who score the slaps. (The show, which was supposed to premiere in early January, was pushed back a week after a video surfaced of a physical altercation between White and his wife in which she hit him during a 2023 New Year’s Eve party and he struck her in the face.) 

From the Power Slap trailer, it seems many contestants are at risk of being knocked out. In one video, Chris Kennedy, another fighter on the show, was knocked unconscious. As can happen with head injuries, he was disoriented while waking up and didn’t remember where he was or what had happened, asking the team, “Got knocked out doing what? Was I fighting?” 

The TBS show has faced criticism since it aired in January, including from people in fighting sports. Stephen Cloobeck, the former chair of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, said he regretted his decision to sanction the show and professional slap fighting in Nevada. (The show was filmed in Las Vegas.)

We reached out to TBS, Power Slap, and the UFC for comment, but haven’t heard back. 

“After my personal experience, I'm glad to see it get canceled,” Olson told BuzzFeed News. “Dana White is an incredibly smart businessman, hence why I thought it'd be safe enough to participate. It wasn't until I saw my footage, seeing exactly where I got slapped on the neck and how it was delivered, along with every other knockout, that I truly realized how dangerous and unintelligent the whole thing is.”

Ryan Garcia, a professional American boxer also tweeted after the show aired, saying, “Power slap is a horrible idea and needs to be stopped.” 

Outside of the show, there are other slap fighting events, with competitions such as the PunchDown gala in Poland that ended up with the death of a fighter. Artur "Waluś" Walczak, a Polish slap fighter, was knocked out in October 2021 and ended up in a medically induced coma. He died in November 2021 at age 46 due to a traumatic brain injury

It's not clear if Power Slap wasn’t renewed for a second season due to ratings, the safety criticisms, or some other reason. The first episode of the show ranked 45th of the top 50 cable telecasts the night it aired on Jan. 18. 

But whatever the reason for the show’s cancellation, we asked sports medicine doctors and neurologists about the risks of slap fighting. We specifically asked about the possibility of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by repetitive hits to the head that’s been a serious, life-threatening issue for football players and others who play contact sports. 

Slap fighting isn’t new, but it’s now more popular 

Slap fighting, or slap boxing, is thought to have originated in Russia in the Sarychev Power Expo and annual Slap Championships, but it made its way into mainstream sports in the US by 2022. 

With social media influencers like Logan Paul hosting slap fighting events and evidently promoting them, more viewers are tuning into streamed fights. 

White revealed in a press conference that his fighters make around $45,000 if they win Power Slap, adding, “These guys are changing their families’ lives. They’re gonna walk out of here with $45,000. … Some of these guys probably don’t make $45,000 a year.”

It’s clear White himself has seen the criticism; he seems to address it in an interview with 10X Cardone Ventures, the show's marketing partner. “In Slap, they take 3 to 5 slaps per event. Fighters in boxing take 300 to 400 punches a fight," White said. "Oh, you're disgusted by it? Watch The Voice.” 

Here’s why head injuries are dangerous 

Repetitive brain injuries associated with repeated blows to the head, as can happen in football, soccer, ice hockey, rugby, and boxing, can cause behavioral and mood changes, memory loss, cognitive impairment, and even dementia down the road. 

Originally called “punch-drunk syndrome,” or dementia pugilistica, neurological problems linked to head injuries were first reported in both amateur and professional boxers in 1928. As a result of the neurological effects, boxing rules have changed, limiting championship fights to 12 rounds, using larger glove sizes, and increasing medical supervision. 

However, slap fighters don’t have any protective equipment and in fact are competing with specific rules against protecting themselves. Slap fighters can’t flinch, raise their shoulders, or duck their chins into their necks. 

Given that the intention is to knock the other person unconscious, traumatic brain injuries can occur, according to Dr. Michelle Henne, a certified ringside physician and sports medicine physician based in Winter Haven, Florida. Henne has attended boxing, MMA, karate, and bare-knuckle fights — and has witnessed a number of hits to the head that required treatment. 

“With a high-velocity impact to the head, concussions and brain bleeding are the most immediate and notable concerns,” Henne told BuzzFeed News. “With repeated blows to the head, the risk of more chronic brain injury increases, including conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy and dementia pugilistica.” 

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy symptoms can include short-term memory loss, physical tremors, loss of physical coordination, and difficulty in speech. The condition can develop in people who have repeated blows to the head from sports, military duty, domestic violence, and even repeated head banging due to conditions like autism.

A greater understanding of the damage that can be caused by blows to the head has led to stricter rules surrounding how soon athletes and soldiers can resume playing or fighting after a concussion, which is known as a mild traumatic brain injury. According to the UFC, MMA fighters take a three-month suspension if they get hurt or knocked out. Until fighters are cleared by a doctor, they can’t get back into combat sports. However, there was no formal concussion protocol issued by the UFC until 2021, according to a 2022 study. 

Whether in sports or accidents, nearly 52,000 deaths occur each year in the US as a result of traumatic brain injuries. According to Henne, slapping someone, or the repeated hits to the head during a slap fight, can result in death. “Dying from a slap can occur if that person develops bleeding and/or swelling in the brain,” Henne said.

Dr. Munro Cullum, a neuropsychologist at UT Southwestern’s O’Donnell Brain Institute, told BuzzFeed News that there are various factors that determine whether a blow to the head could be fatal.

“This includes repeated significant brain injuries over a short time span that produce brain swelling before the brain has time to recover from a previous injury,” Cullum said. “In addition, the presence of cerebrovascular abnormalities, such as aneurysms, might result in bleeding into or around the brain with acute trauma. Other medical comorbidities, like a heart condition, might place someone at greater risk.”

Some medical experts are also stepping away from the competitions because of the high risk of injuries and the focus on entertainment. “If the Florida Athletic Commission does approve slap fighting events to occur in our state, I can assure you that I will not be working at them,” Henne said. 

Memory problems are Olson's biggest concern. “Again, I don’t know if it’s coincidental or not, but it’s the worst feeling in the world to not be on top of your game mentally.”

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