Slap the Pain Away

SHAMOKIN, Pa. – The sound of an ax chopping firewood echoed off a brick wall in Bill Dales’ cluttered backyard. There were rusted weights stacked atop one another in the dead leaves, some chains he uses to strengthen his neck, and a beat-up punching bag that dangled in the gray cold of this former Pennsylvania coal town.

Dales, 46, wasn’t cutting wood, though. He wasn’t punching anything either. He squatted, then exploded upward with a grunt, his arm swinging around like a Louisville Slugger. The sound was his bare hand, slapping a thick tree branch as hard as he could, over and over.

“Thwack … thwack … thwack … “

William Dales, also known as the Shamokin Thunder Clap when slapping professionally, trains in his backyard in Shamokin, Pa.  Dales is training for the heavyweight title fight.

On March 4, Dales, a 1994 graduate of North Catholic High School in Philadelphia and veteran U.S. Marine, hopes to slap other men in the face, over and over, until one of them gives up or can no longer stand. His nickname in the SlapFIGHT Championship league is the “Shamokin Thunder Clap,” a tribute to both the hardscrabble Northumberland County city he calls home and the anvil-like fists he honed through decades of masonry work. If Dales wins at the competition in Missouri, he’ll move onward in the bracket, until there are no men left to slap. Dales, a father of eight who works in construction, has a mixed record so far — two wins, three losses, and one no contest in the last two years — but fans of the relatively new and controversial sport noticed something different about him.

“Shamokin Thunder Clap flinches less than any man I’ve ever seen in a slap fight. It’s almost as if he likes the pain,” one commenter wrote on a YouTube video of his light heavyweight slap fight last year.

The origins of slap fighting competitions are murky, but most sources say it began in Russia. The SlapFIGHT Championship, in which Dales competes, originated in Branson, Mo., in 2017 and was one of the first leagues in the United States. Arnold Schwarzenegger and YouTube celebrity Logan Paul started their own league last year. It includes women in skirts and sports bras slapping one another. The debut of Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White’s Power Slap league was delayed after he was recorded slapping his wife in the face at a Mexican club on New Year’s Eve.

Unlike any other contact sport, or even fighting sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, there is no way for a contestant like Dales to avoid taking physical damage in a slap fight. Flinching is penalized in the sport. He said contestants wear mouth guards and put cotton balls in their ears so their eardrums don’t blow out but otherwise, there’s no protective gear. Dales said he could be slapped up to 40 times in his next competition.

Greg Ryan, a roommate of Dales in Shamokin, tried slap fighting and lost twice. He’s since called it quits.

“They don’t pay me enough for that,” Ryan said.

Dales said he wasn’t allowed to discuss his pay in SlapFIGHT Championships but he’s not in it for the money anyway.

William Dales spends time with his daughter, Cassie, 7, at his home in Shamokin. Dales, a professional slap competitor, is currently training for the heavyweight title fight.

On a Sunday afternoon in January, the southpawwas demonstrating his training regimen out back, ahead of the competition. He slapped boards, the maple tree, and the punching bag. His girlfriend watched from the back steps while two of his daughters ran around the yard.

“Did you know our house is haunted?” his daughter, Cassie, 7, said.

Dales clenched his teeth through most of the training. His face was a mask of feral anger. But as the slapping continued, his grunts began to sound like painful cries. Tears rolled down his cheek. There’s a reason why Dales doesn’t flinch.

“I’ve been beat up so much in my life, it’s normal,” he said. “I’ve been hit so many times in my life by people and things. It doesn’t hurt. Nothing that’s hitting me, physically, can hurt me.”

Inside the home, after his training session, Dales took a large, framed collage — all pictures of his son Alex — off a living room shelf. Dales hugged the photo so hard it looked as if he’d crush the frame. He sat on his staircase and sobbed. Cassie wrapped her arms around his neck, hanging on him like a cape. His youngest daughter, Iris, 2, hugged him.

“Don’t cry, daddy,” she said. “Don’t cry.”

Every Sunday night for the last year, Dales leads a grief counseling session in the bowels of the Shamokin Public Library. Often, no one shows up and Dales is alone in the basement with his thoughts, the vivid recollection of March 21, 2020, the day Alex choked to death in his sleep. He was just shy of 15 months old.

Dales said he tried to perform CPR on Alex but it was too late.

When he is slapped hard enough in a competition, and the lights go out in his mind, Dales said those images of Alex go away for a moment.

“It takes everything away,” he said of getting knocked out.

William Dales weeps over a framed poster featuring pictures of his late son, Alexander, who died at his home in Shamokin, Pa., as a baby.

The sport’s rise in popularity has caught the attention of both elected officials seeking more regulation and concussion and brain injury specialists who don’t think there’s a place for it at all. Last month, images from a slap fight competition in Romania — where the “winner” was left with a severely swollen face — made many on social media cringe.

“I believe adults can choose to do dangerous jobs if they understand the risks & reasonable efforts are made to protect them,” former WWE wrestler turned neuroscientist Chris Nowinski tweeted about the Romanian competition. “But head hits with no defense is just sad. It reminds us that people who don’t take the risks often exploit those who do.”

Dales, who said he wrestled at North Catholic and trained in MMA for most of his life, said he’s had a litany of health problems unrelated to slap fighting, everything from parasitic infections to prostate cancer. He said his only concussion occurred in a car accident, on the way to a slap fighting competition. The swelling from slaps, he said, is superficial.

His girlfriend, Melissa Howard, does not watch and doesn’t approve.

“You’re just a slap away from me changing your diapers for the rest of your life,” she said to Dales.

William Dales, also known as the Shamokin Thunder Clap when professionally slapping, trains in his backyard.

Dales joined the Marine Corps in 1995 after graduating from North Catholic. He served as a bulk fuel specialist for a reserve unit out of Folsom, Delaware County, and doesn’t really like to talk about those years.

“I’m just proud to have served,” he said.

For the last couple of years, Dales has worked for a Northumberland County construction firm doing bridge repair along with other construction jobs on the side. He stopped drinking alcohol late last year. It only made the pain of losing his son worse, he said.

As for the grief that still consumes him, Dales said lapses in health insurance and difficulties with VA hospitals have prevented him from seeing therapists. He said he suffers from PTSD that stems from a troubled, often violent relationship with his late father. Dales insists that slap fighting helps with that, too.

“I’ll do it until I die,” he said. “Or as long as they let me.”

Later that Sunday, after his training, Dales dressed up and drove his van to the library for his grief group. Many who show up have lost loved ones to opioids, he said. The NFL playoffs were on, though, so Dales wasn’t expecting a crowd. Outside, an icy rain made the Shamokin streets feel more empty.

“I’m the guy who said he would be here every week, so I’ll be here every week,” he said.

No one showed up that night to talk about grief. When an hour passed, Dales got up from the couch and, one by one, turned out all the lights.

William Dales weeps over the loss of his late son, Alexander, who died at his home in Shamokin, Pa., as a baby.

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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