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'An Out-of-Body Experience': What Being a Slap Fighter Is Actually Like

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterMay 25, 2022

Koa "Da Crazy Hawaiian" Viernes slaps Dawid "Zales" Zalewski
Koa "Da Crazy Hawaiian" Viernes slaps Dawid "Zales" ZalewskiGaelen Morse/Getty Images

After a long day, Koa Viernes needs to unwind. That means retreating into a world of happy trees and fluffy clouds. That's right: the world's most famous slap fighter is a Bob Ross fan.

"I love that guy," Viernes said. "He brings me peace when no one else can."

It's an uncomplicated pleasure for a practitioner of quite possibly the world's least-complicated sport. But therein lies the attraction of slap fighting, which is rapidly gaining notoriety in the combat sports underground.

Its appeal is universal, even elemental. Who wouldn't understand what slap fighters are doing or experiencing? It's a magnet for showmanship and spectacle, tailor-made to make crowds roar with each blow. No special knowledge needed; just plug in and, you know, watch people slap each other. 

Julia Kruzer (right) slaps Adrianna Sledz
Julia Kruzer (right) slaps Adrianna SledzGaelen Morse/Getty Images

"It's not rocket science," said Viernes, a 6'3", 370-pound gentle giant with a coal-black beard spilling down his chest, in an interview with Bleacher Report. "When people ask me what I do, I ask them, 'Have you ever been slapped?' They look at me like I'm crazy, so then I have to say, 'I'm not going to slap you, I promise.' But that's slap fighting. It's a simple sport, but it's a crazy sport, too. If you think about it, you gotta be crazy to be in this sport." 

Open hand or not, when you see these men and women repeatedly give and take these shots, it's enough to make you wince yourself right off the couch. No happy trees in sight at this point. This is when Viernes transforms into his nickname and alter ego: "Da Crazy Hawaiian."

"Getting hit is intense. It's like having an out-of-body experience," he said. "But I have to make it in my head like everything's cool. I have to turn on the f--kin' crazy-ass beast."

Viernes competes for what is now known as the Slap Fighting Championship, which held its first event on March 5. But slap fighting has been going on in various incarnations for years. Viernes is one half of slap fighting's biggest viral moment to date, winning a super-heated, 20-round marathon in 2020 with a 6'4", 350-pound behemoth known only as "Chuckles, the Hillbilly Hippie." At one point, a Viernes thunderclap literally knocked Chuckles off the stage.

Intrigued by the spectacle, which has drawn millions upon millions of curious eyeballs on YouTube and elsewhere (6.1 million views and counting for the March 5 event), mega-watt celebrities Arnold Schwarzenegger and Logan Paul have thrown their weight behind SFC events.

Some of the key rules for SFC events, which air live and free on streaming service Fanmio, include: 

- All strikes are delivered with an open palm to the opponent's cheek.

- Each bout is three rounds, with one slap per fighter per round.

- Winners are determined in three ways: knockout, a TKO if a fighter cannot continue after the 30-second time limit between slaps, or a judges' decision.

- Judges can order extra time if they believe there's a tie after three rounds.

- A slapper's feet must be parallel to each other, no farther than shoulder-width apart, and must remain stationary during and after the slap.

- Fighters cannot tuck their chins, lean back, or otherwise block or avoid the slaps.

Viernes has been positioned as a tent-pole star for the SFC. Back in March, though, he took a third-round knockout loss in a wild clash of the titans with multi-time champion Dawid Zalewski, a legendary Polish fighter known far and wide as Zales (pronounced "ZAHL-esh," so not like the jewelry store). The win advanced Zales to 17-0 in his slap-fighting career; Viernes fell to 9-1.

"After the second or third slap, I got an adrenaline rush," Zales told Bleacher Report. "And then I was unlocked. At that moment, I wasn't feeling any pain. It was all adrenaline. And then I was able to hit correctly. That's why my third hit was much stronger."

At 6'1" and 286 pounds, Zales is wide as a bus, bald as an egg, and in possession of a certain undefinable necklessness. He has the kind of bearing associated with strongman competitors and movie henchpersons. 

"For me," Zales said, "slap fighting is a discipline for the brave ones."

Both men are rare in that they are full-time slappers. Before their transitions, both men worked in security and construction—anything that took advantage of their size and raw power. Viernes, a native Hawaiian who now lives in Missouri, used to work "shoveling asphalt."

"I'd come home smelling like tar," he recalled. "It was just straight hard work." 

Underneath the carnival atmosphere that surrounds your average slap fight are serious work ethics. So, then, why slap fighting? Why not MMA, boxing, strongman, or something similar? Stripped down to you, your opponent, and your unadorned palm, slap fighting could be the ultimate individual sport. 

"I was training in the gym, and I was never into MMA or boxing," Zales explained. "I don't like to work out with cardio. I always knew that I had power in my hands, but I was never sure about my defense. So I wanted to try a new discipline, something new, something different than what other people were doing."

There was a touch of controversy when these two faced each other, with the sides arguing over judging and rules interpretations. Viernes wants a rematch; Zales is open to it if Viernes first gets another win or two under his belt. A return bout would certainly carry plenty of heat.

No new event is on the books, but officials are tentatively eyeing a date later in the summer. No matter when it happens, all parties involved are bullish on slap fighting's future. 

"When I went to my first match, watching the fighters, watching the crowd react, I knew this was something that was going to be like the next UFC," Viernes said. "Believe that."