Over the past few days, as Bobby Lashley prepared for his fourth pro mixed martial arts fight in Biloxi, Miss., one thing he hasn’t had to deal with is an opponent trying to make him out to be a joke because he’s best known as a pro wrestler.
That’s because Bob Sapp, his opponent in the main event on Saturday night’s "Ultimate Chaos" pay-per-view show, has plenty of experience in that kind of world in Japan.
Lashley’s last two opponents, Jason Guida and Mike Cook, spent the few days before their respective fights making constant "fake pro wrestler" references, making sure to tell him that this time the punches will be real.
Cook even wore a mask of wrestler Rey Mysterio into the ring for their May 15 match in Edmonton, posing like he was a pro wrestler as he entered the battlefield. Lashley stewed, then choked his foe out in 24 seconds.
Lashley admitted that in his March 21st match against Guida, the older brother of UFC star Clay Guida, the taunts got to him. Lashley won a three-round decision in a fight he looks back on and largely hates.
"I wasn’t thinking about the fight," he said. "I was all upset with everything he was saying about the pro wrestling. I realize that guys are going to say that and you can’t let it affect you."
There was a silver lining in a performance that made a lot of people question him. Guida was only a .500 fighter who had often competed at light heavyweight but Lashley’s coaches, Marcus "Conan" Silveira and Dan Lambert at Florida’s American Top Team, thought it was a good experience because they had tape from live competition to learn from. From that, Lashley developed the confidence that he can go the distance.
"We had 15 minutes of video to look at and they could show me, 'here is where you pass guard, this is where you have to strike, this is how you can set up a takedown,'" Lashley noted. "I know I can go 15 minutes."
Lashley (3-0) is often compared with UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, and there are obvious similarities. Both were college wrestling champions (Lashley was NAIA national champion in 1997, 1998 and 1999 at Missouri Valley College) at a high enough level that both had the ability to at least compete for a spot on the Olympic team.
Both are powerful, actually freakish physical specimens who were shockingly agile for their size, even noted for having great vertical leaps. Lashley came into pro wrestling after Lesnar left, and copied his ring entrance of jumping flat footed from the floor onto the ring apron.
Both were recruited into pro wrestling by WWE executive and former amateur wrestler Gerald Brisco. Both rose quickly and were headlining pay-per-view shows. Then both walked out of the company and wound up as fighters. Both even endured the same taunts, and thus far have been successful in shoving those taunts down their opponents’ throats.
Lashley was ranked top six nationally in his weight class (he wrestled Greco-Roman at 211 pounds) in 2003, with a goal of making the 2004 Olympics. However, he badly aggravated a knee injury when he instinctively dropped to the ground avoiding a bullet in a Colorado Springs bank that was being robbed in September, 2003.
"He took a shot to the back of my head," Lashley recalled. "The guy opened the door and he shot right afterwards. I dropped to the ground, and injured the knee."
Two surgeries later, he was told he wasn’t going to be able to make it back in time for the 2004 Olympic trials, which led to him taking the offer from WWE.
Sapp (10-4-1) poses Lashley's latest challenge. Lashley doesn’t think Sapp has the skill of Cook, but he might be the biggest opponent Lashley ever faces.
The 6-foot-4 Sapp is expected to come in at 318 pounds, the lowest fighting weight of a career that saw him usually range between 340 and 382 pounds. Lashley is listed at 6-3, although he’s probably closer to 6-1 as Sapp towered over him when they were put together for photographs.
The 32-year-old Lashley has, after hard workouts in Florida and altitude training in Colorado, dropped from being a 273-pound guy who looked like he walked right off the Mr. Olympia stage to 249 in his most recent fight. Lashley said he’s got no problem talking about his strategy for the fight. "I’m going to take him down and wear him out, and as soon as I see his mouth wide open, I’m knocking him out," he said. "I just have to worry about his big right hand and make sure he can’t throw it."
To some, this would seem like a freak show type fight, but for Sapp, that’s been the world he’s lived in for most of the past seven years. Sapp has been the stranger in a strange land ever since he became a cultural phenomenon in Japan in 2002.
Sapp was carefully marketed by the K-1 promotion in Japan, where his size – he was 380 pounds and muscular – and his personality clicked with the audience.
Sapp actually beat Ernesto Hoost, at the time the world’s best heavyweight kickboxer, on two occasions. He also had a legendary MMA fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira before 71,000 fans when Nogueira was the PRIDE world heavyweight champion and almost universally considered the No. 1 heavyweight in the sport.
Sapp gave Nogueira a beating for nearly 14 minutes before finally gassing out and getting armbarred. The scene of Nogueira at the start of the fight, charging in for the takedown, and Sapp picking him up and dropping him in a pro wrestling power bomb is one of the most memorable moments in Japanese MMA history.
At Sapp's peak, 52 million people tuned in for a New Year's Eve fight. But that run is largely over and he’s trying to get a few more years in as a fighter. He disappointed Japanese promoters in his last fight, on May 26, as part of a freak show Super Hulk tournament that included Jose Canseco. Sapp lost in just 1:15 to an Achilles tendon submission against 196-pound Ikuhisa "Minowaman" Minowa, a popular journeyman.
"Maurice (trainer Maurice Smith) and I practiced getting out of leglocks, but he came at me with one Maurice didn’t know," said Sapp, who was expected to easily win based on size and then face 7-2, 330-pound Choi Hong-man, who was expected to beat Canseco. "The Japanese wanted me to win that. It was the Super Hulk tournament. Now they have to continue the tournament and the Hulks (he, Mark Hunt and Jan Nortje) all lost in the first round."
But his prior fight, which Sapp said was the strangest of his career, was on New Year’s Eve against a wrestler more accomplished than Lashley, seven-time Japanese national champion Akihito Tamura, who Sapp knocked out in 5:22. Tamura was billed in the fight as Kinniku Mantaro, or "Kid Muscle," a popular Japanese anime character, wearing a pro wrestling mask, in the fight.
"The thing they have to realize is this is not a wrestling match, it’s a fight," said Sapp, who had been training under Antonio McKee to avoid being taken down.
Sapp was taken down at will early by Tamura before overwhelming him in the corner with big punches, destroying the Japanese promoters' hopes of making Kinniku Mantaro into the next big attraction on the MMA scene. Now he’s in the same position in America on Saturday with Lashley.