In the days before his fight on Saturday night in Tacoma, Wash., Japanese cultural icon Bob Sapp is in a completely different frame of mind than your average fighter.
Before a fight, most fighters get rid of all distractions and clear their schedule for nothing but training. Or as Sapp puts it, "Yeah, they stop doing all the things they will have to do to make them money once they can no longer fight."
When the former University of Washington football standout and K-1 kickboxing and MMA star fights in Japan, his routine is different. He does the media rounds. He does variety shows. If he's lucky, he gets in some training. He rushes through meals and attends business meetings.
In between, he gets mobbed on the street. Some nights he does pro wrestling, and some nights he fights.
Sapp has appeared in six movies, including "Electra" and "The Longest Yard." Spike TV was recently in negotiations with him to do a Bob Sapp reality show, filmed in Japan.
So how did the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Sapp go from just another ex-college football player to full-fledged Japanese cultural phenomenon?
Sapp was a good enough college football player to win the 1996 Morris Trophy as the Pac-10 lineman of the year. He had size and speed, and was a third-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears. But he never made it in the NFL, playing only one regular season game, bouncing from team to team. Most of his fame came from failing a steroid test. By 2000, he was done in football.
He tried American pro wrestling, but failed there, too. Then K-1 promoter Kazuyoshi Ishii called in 2002. K-1 was a growing spectacle of fighting and production values that was a huge prime time television hit in Japan. It was basically kickboxing, but to the Japanese public it was promoted as style vs. style similar to the early days of UFC, pitting fighters billed as being from various martial arts and fighting disciplines. Sapp's "discipline" was the NFL, and his character, Bob "The Beast" Sapp, was born. Clips of his big plays at Washington would run on television for his ring entrances of his early fights.
Sapp was a comedy cartoon version of The Incredible Hulk come to life. He'd come out wearing the fancy robe to music stolen directly from wrestler Ric Flair, then he'd throw off the robe and sprint down the aisle into the ring. With little in the way of skill, he'd throw wild arm punches and hope they connected before his size worked against him and he'd gas out. A few times he was disqualified, which only served to make him a bigger star because "The Beast" was supposed to be uncontrollable.
At the time, the K-1 and PRIDE Fighting Championship organizations worked together and Sapp did both kickboxing and MMA matches. From the start, he became a huge attraction and both groups wanted him on every major show.
Then came three of the most improbable matches ever. On Aug. 28, 2002, at Tokyo National Stadium before 71,000 fans, Sapp faced then-PRIDE world heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. In a moment that is burned in the brain of every Japanese fight fan, Nogueira came charging at Sapp who picked up his much smaller foe and drove him to the canvas with a power bomb, nearly knocking him out.
But Nogueira, the current UFC interim heavyweight champion, is a warrior, and after nearly 15:00 of fighting, Sapp's cardio was gone and Nogueira finished him with an armbar.
He also scored two first-round knockout wins in kickboxing over legend Ernesto Hoost, the second being the most famous. With more than 30 million Japanese fans watching, Sapp had Hoost in the corner and was throwing haymakers while Hoost was trying to defend. It was pretty clear Hoost was one or two punches from being finished – but Sapp was heaving and about to collapse. The fight was stopped and Sapp's hand was raised.
Sapp "the phenomenon" soon became bigger than Sapp the fighter. He did game shows, talk shows, television commercials, almost never sleeping and barely training. There were Bob Sapp-licensed products everywhere, from arcade games to food products to sex toys. He had a novelty record, "Sapp Time," that made the pop charts and was a popular music video. There was even a Bob Sapp store in Tokyo.
When Sapp returned home to Seattle at the peak of his fame, Japanese tourists would rummage through his garbage, taking items back home to sell.
His fighting suffered. People learned how to beat him. After he suffered a fractured orbital bone in a quick knockout loss to Mirko Cro Cop in kickboxing, they started booking him as much as possible against gimmicks like himself, but with even less experience in fighting.
There were the big pro wrestlers, including a 6-7, 345-pound German billed as "The White Bob Sapp," that was the older brother of Japan's most famous sumo, as well as a huge Russian arm wrestling champion. On Dec. 31, 2003, he had his most famous match ever, knocking out 6-8, 485-pound Akebono, an early '90s sumo legend in the culture, in a match viewed by 54 million people – nearly half the country.
Sapp's big ride in Japan ended when had a falling out with K-1, to the point he feared for his life after he walked out of a sold-out arena in Amsterdam, Holland, for the long-awaited rematch with Hoost on May 13, 2006. The sides settled out of court and Sapp got out of his K-1 contract.
He's had plenty of suitors in recent months, from different MMA groups in the U.S., pro wrestling groups and even American Gladiators. He filmed a segment of "Pros vs. Joes" for Spike TV, at which time they started opening talks of doing the reality TV show.
Sapp headlines the Saturday night Strikeforce mixed martial arts show at the Tacoma Dome in a battle of the giants against even larger Jan "The Giant" Nortje. The show, which also features an MMA battle of early-'90s kickboxing legends in Rick "The Jet" Roufas and 46-year-old one-time UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith, airs live on HDNet.
Sapp brings a 9-2-1 MMA record into his fight with Nortje. Nortje, a South African who now lives in Las Vegas, is a kind of jack-of-all trades and master of none. He's done pro boxing and pro wrestling, but is best known as the first of the slew of giant kickboxers imported by the K-1 organization. Sapp came later and became its biggest drawing card ever.
Nortje has knockout power in his short punch standing. But he has shown nothing on the ground. Nortje also hasn't shown in his MMA career an ability to keep from being taken down, even by men who he outweighs by more than 100 pounds. His MMA record is 1-5, with all but two matches being against Japanese pro wrestlers. He's also only had one match in the last four years.
The match may serve as a one-time homecoming for the former Husky. He's got a multi-year deal on the table to return to K-1. He's expected to go to Japan next week and fight again on the debut of the new Dream promotion (the MMA group backed by K-1) on March 15, with no idea who he's facing.
- Bob Sapp
- pro wrestling