Posted by Jonathan Snowden on February 15th, 2008
The strong first year that saw Sapp thrash K-1 star Ernesto Hoost twice and almost beat Pride Champion Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera made Sapp a legitimate celebrity in Japan. Things got weird quickly. Soon he couldnâ€™t even walk outside without an escort. â€œWhen I would walk down the street and everyone would start flipping over taxi cabs and going nuts,â€ Sapp said. â€œThe police would ask me not to walk outside. It was nuts.â€ Japan had its share of gaijin stars in the pro wrestling and fighting industries, but none could compare to Sapp.
His life was pretty crazy. Itâ€™s amazing that he even had time to fight at all. He became a staple of the network Japanese morning and evening shows and was on the air every day, sometimes on multiple channels.
â€œI would eat breakfast early, go to sleep, wake up again at 8 AM. From there Iâ€™d go and do television shows from about 8 to 2 oâ€™clock. From 2 to 4 I would eat lunch, from 6 to 9 I would have to do some more television shows and then some rest and go eat dinner. Then Iâ€™d have to do some commercials and television shows, some of the late night television shows. The next day Iâ€™d get up and go anywhere from a pro wrestling match or pro wrestling practice, then kickboxing practice, followed by MMA practice,â€ Sapp said. â€œA kickboxing or MMA match would be followed almost immediately by commercials or pro wrestling. Then the next day Iâ€™d have a full onslaught of television. It was hard. And thatâ€™s one of the reasons my records are going to stand. I donâ€™t think youâ€™ll find anyone whoâ€™s going to be able to work and do that much stuff. I did comedy shows and the only thing beating out my fights were my comedy shows. The entertainment I was providing was ridiculous. They had me doing absolutely everything and anything.â€
The Race Card
The schedule was killer and Sapp was spending more time becoming a television celebrity than he was becoming a world class fighter. In many ways his fighting career and abilities peaked in 2002 with the wins over Hoost. His celebrity, however, continued to grow. Sapp was willing to do anything to make it big. He acted like a beast, literally. He crammed bananas into his mouth and mimicked a gorilla. It was pro wrestling at its finest, booking to peopleâ€™s fears and hidden prejudices.
â€œKazuyoshi Ishii was brilliant at marketing Bob Sapp. He fit all the Japanese cultural stereotypes - a big, scary foreigner who also was black,â€ FightOpinion.com founder Zach Arnold said. â€œThere are still very negative or cartoonish stereotypes about black people in Japan, as itâ€™s more a result of naivete than it is malice. So, Sapp fit in perfect because heâ€™s this larger-than-life cartoon character that was willing to say or do anything to get over with audiences.â€
Sapp says the skits were all in fun. He was â€œThe Beastâ€ and simply playing a role. Still the criticism obviously bothers him.
â€œI get asked about the banana thing and everything else. Bottom line is the Beast not only had bananas, I had raw meat and all kinds of crazy stuff going on. It wasnâ€™t anything that had to do with racism,â€ Sapp said. â€œWhat happens, and this is very common, we in America assume that the rest of the world has all our same views. Sometimes Iâ€™ve been criticized for my Panasonic commercial, they say â€˜You look like a pimp.â€™ I start laughing and say â€˜Thatâ€™s not the way the Japanese are going to look at it.â€™ Thatâ€™s how Americans look at it. They donâ€™t have pimps over here, they have mama-sans. Itâ€™s a female, the mama, who is in charge of the prostitutes. Not a male. Not a pimp. So they had no idea. But itâ€™s very common that it happens.â€
To Sapp, he and comedian Bobby Olugun are playing a major role in expanding Japanese horizons and helping them confront stereotypes. After all, you need your Mr. Bojangles before you can have your Sidney Poitier.
â€œIf itâ€™s racism, why have there been no African Americans, no Americans, that have come over to Japan and done what Iâ€™ve done? They arenâ€™t in the streets hollering negro this, n**gger this, theyâ€™re out there saying â€˜Bob Sapp, Bob Sappâ€™ and everyone is going nuts. Would you say itâ€™s racism because Iâ€™ve also got the number one selling womenâ€™s sex toy in Japan? The Bob Sapp Wild Sapp Dildo. The closest thing that compares to is a horse. I donâ€™t think it has anything to do with a Gorilla. I think whatâ€™s occurring is that things are going so well people say â€˜Why donâ€™t we knock him down a peg?â€™ The success Iâ€™ve had should show you something,â€ Sapp said. â€œTheyâ€™ve got another African comedy over there Bobby Olugun and he also does some things that we couldnâ€™t do over here but you canâ€™t find a single African upset at him in Tokyo. Because I read the stuff online like Bob Sapp and Bobby Olugun, heâ€™s a sellout, heâ€™s perpetuating stereotypes for blacks. Every African loves him. You know why? Theyâ€™re happy just to see a black on TV in Japan. They know that with evolution, other things are to come. Theyâ€™re excited about that, but everyone wants to get upset and push and shove, but one thing thatâ€™s great about it: in Japan you can bitch and moan all you want to brother, but I promise you it ainâ€™t going to change a damn thing. Itâ€™s a different country and you will never, never understand it.â€
The Battle of the Giants
New Yearâ€™s eve in Japan is all about music. The NHK networkâ€™s New Yearâ€™s Eve concert is the biggest television show in the country, not just for that night, but for the whole year. Itâ€™s a tradition and a phenomenon, untouched by competition for 40 years.
â€œUnlike in the U.S., where people go out to celebrate New Yearâ€™s, in Japan nearly everyone stays home for what is the most important television night of the year, and the concert is their version of the Super Bowl, the show that everyone watches,â€ Wrestling Observer Editor Dave Meltzer said. â€œFor years, the networks in Japan threw in the towel rather than compete with something so big.â€
Competing networks had finally found their programming kryptonite. After Sappâ€™s success in 2002, three different networks would air MMA shows in competition to the New Yearâ€™s concert. The most successful would be a battle of the giants. For the first time, Sapp would be the smaller man in the ring. His opponent was the recently retired Yokozuna Akebono. In the 300 years of Sumo wrestlingâ€™s history as a professional sport, there had only been 64 Yokozunaâ€™s, or grand champions. Akebono was one of them and the first foreigner to earn the distinction. This was a big deal. This was the new, flashy fighting icon against the traditional representative of Japanese culture and combat. The fight drew 54 million people. Thatâ€™s half the country. Keep that in mind when people go crazy for The Ultimate Fighter hitting two million viewers, calling the sport mainstream in America. This was mainstream and Sapp was atop the crest of MMAâ€™s cultural tidal wave.
K-1 and Conflict
He continued as a cultural icon into 2004, but it was becoming obvious that he would never live up to his potential as a fighter. He didnâ€™t seem to enjoy it, it was the part of his act he took the least joy in. His lack of time for proper training hurt quite a bit as most fights ended when Sapp got so tired he couldnâ€™t compete anymore. After the Kimo debacle that saw Sapp saved by a forgiving referee in his North American debut after being hammered by the hand picked job guy, K-1 had to bring in a lower level of tomato can to ensure a Sapp win. And even that almost failed in the case of Seth Petruzelli. Sapp was fed to Kazayuki Fujita where he was absolutely brutalized by soccer kicks in a one sided match and then knocked out by Ray Sefo a month later in K-1. It seemed like the Bob Sapp fad was finally coming to an end, yet his popularity lingered.
â€œWhatâ€™s most amazing about all this is that back in 2002 and everyone told me â€˜Bob itâ€™s just a fad.â€™ Weâ€™re going on seven years later,â€ Sapp said. â€œI donâ€™t exactly how long they want this fad to last. But let me tell
you brother itâ€™s 2008, you know what Iâ€™m saying?â€
After a brief resurgence in 2005, including winning the K-1 Japan tournament, Sapp and K-1 parted ways in 2006. He was scheduled to fight Ernesto Hoost in Hosstâ€™s retirement match in Amsterdam. Sapp was in the building but chose not to fight due to a contract dispute. His contract had expired and they were negotiating right up until the day of the fight.
â€œI said â€˜O.K. letâ€™s resign. No problems. We go to Amsterdam, they were supposed to put almost a million bucks in, they didnâ€™t, they said â€˜Just trust us that youâ€™ll get it.â€™ I said, â€˜Listen I canâ€™t trust you. Thatâ€™s too much money to be trusting anyone with. So, I tell you what, Iâ€™ll fight for free and then you guys just have to leave me alone.â€™ They chose not to do that, and then they chose to play several games,â€ Sapp said.
When Sapp no-showed the event he went in to hiding. The rumor mill said he was hiding from K-1 yakuza who were looking for revenge. Sapp has a different story, insisting he was afraid of the reaction from the rowdy European fans. Either way, his storied K-1 career was at an end. It was time for the Beast to come to America.
To Be Continuedâ€¦â€¦..