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 411mania » MMA » Columns

The Odd Career of Bob Sapp
Posted by Dan Plunkett on 05.20.2014

It is a success story almost too outlandish to believe. First the National Football League. Then the world of combat sports. From there, unparalleled fame. Slot machines. Music videos. Ice cream bars. Daily television appearances. And yes, the top-selling Bob Sapp Wild Sapp Dildo.

This past week, Bob Sapp, 40, announced his retirement from kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Sapp ceased being competitive in the sports that made him a millionaire many times over long ago. He hadn't even given an honest effort in years. However, Sapp's retirement is still something to note: the end of perhaps the oddest career in combat sports.

Sapp was selected in the third round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. In 1998, he was suspended after a failing a drug test for steroids. At the close of his short football career, someone suggested pro wrestling may better suit the 6'5" 370-pound behemoth. He was signed to World Championship Wrestling and paid handsomely to learn the ropes of the business. When WCW went out of business in early 2001, before Sapp made it to the big time, Sapp was offered another shot in a ring. Over a four year period around the turn of the century, FX aired toughman contests. Sapp was offered a spot in a celebrity version, representing pro wrestling against ex-football star William "The Refrigerator" Perry. Sapp enlisted Sam Greco, a K-1 fighter he had met while both were under WCW contract, to train him. Sapp blitzed Perry with wild punches in the toughman, and an impressed Greco recommended him to K-1 founder Kazuyoshi Ishii.

After failing to find work as a pro wrestler in Japan, Sapp geared for his fighting debut. He was sent to Pride Fighting Championships, then in a working relationship with K-1, to compete in mixed martial arts. He debuted on April 28, 2002, against Yoshihisa Yamamoto. Yamamoto was primarily a pro wrestler, and Sapp dispatched him by knockout in less than three minutes.

On June 2, Sapp debuted for K-1, competing against Tsuyoshi Nakasako. Sapp's nickname was "The Beast" and the Japanese promoted him as just that. In the pre-fight video, he was shown crushing apples in his hands, compared to a gorilla, and shown eating a picture of his opponent. The fight only further established the gimmick. Sapp immediately bull-rushed Nakasako, and crushed him with an elbow to the back of the head. The clock continued to run, and when Nakasako couldn't continue he was ruled the winner by disqualification in 90 seconds. In reality, the match was over in 9 seconds.

His next fight, back in Pride, didn't last much longer. Famous pro wrestler Kiyoshi Tamura was squashed in 11 seconds; his corner threw in the towel after Sapp knocked him down. Sapp's next bout would be the most noteworthy of his MMA career.

In August 2002, Pride and K-1 combined for a super-show called "Shockwave," featuring both MMA and kickboxing matches, as well as a special rules grappling match. The show, featuring the double headliner of Mirko Cro Cop vs. Kazushi Sakuraba and Hidehiko Yoshida vs. Royce Gracie, attracted a live audience of 71,000 (announced as 91,107) for a $7 million take. The pay-per-view set a new record with 100,000 buys, a very strong number in Japan, while an edited version on television drew a 10.6 rating (actually disappointing at the time).

Sapp was matched with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on the show. Nogueira was the class of the heavyweight division, dropping just one fight in 18 outings. A year earlier, he became Pride's first ever heavyweight champion. Sapp's camp hoped their fighter's size and strength would overcome the skill of the much smaller champion. They were almost right. Nogueira immediately shot on Sapp, who stuffed the takedown and lifted Nogueira in the air, bringing him down with a piledriver. The pro-wrestling move was no mistake or accident; it was what Bob knew, and he figured he was strong enough to use pro-wrestling moves in competition. For more than 10 minutes, Nogueira struggled mightily with Sapp, until Sapp's gas tank emptied and Nogueira secured a fight ending armbar.

While his performance against Nogueira boosted Sapp in the eyes of the public, it was a win less than two months later that made him a superstar. Ernesto Hoost had won the K-1 World Grand Prix three times more than any other competitor. Sapp and Hoost squared off in the opening round of K-1's 2002 World Grand Prix. As he had done in every other fight, Sapp immediately charged forward. Hoost stood firm, returning strikes and dodging as many of Sapp's massive hands as possible. Midway through the round, Hoost hurt Sapp with leg kicks, but Sapp retaliated by pushing Hoost into the corner and throwing punches until the Dutch fighter went down. Hoost made his way up, but Sapp knocked him down again and landed some grounded punches for good measure. Hoost stood again, but Sapp stalked him back to the corner. The bell rang as Sapp fired blows at Hoost. Sapp got a few more blows in after the bell, causing Hoost to fall once again. The doctor called a stop to the fight between rounds, giving Sapp one of his trademark victories.

The validity of the bout has been questioned. "K-1 had its fixed fights, too," The Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Dave Meltzer told Jonathan Snowden in Total MMA. "There were an awful lot of exchanged wins, and they would bring guys in strong. I was told that a lot of the spectacular 30-second knockouts when they brought a new guy in would be worked to get the new guy over." The booking styles of K-1 and Pride were pro-wrestling inspired. In Japan, they were looked at more as different forms of pro-wrestling than pure sport. It was not uncommon for officials to give a fighter preferential treatment, whether by the referee looking to give a certain fighter an edge, or the promotion giving little advance notice to an opponent. And then, of course, there were matches that were worked or where an opponent was paid to take a dive. There's nothing more than circumstantial evidence that Hoost "put over" Sapp, but in other instances Sapp seemed to receive the preferential treatment that a lot of other superstars received.

In December, Sapp and Hoost fought again in the World Grand Prix quarterfinals. This time, the referee stopped the match late in the second round as an exhausted Sapp threw everything he had left at a cornered Hoost. Sapp bowed out of the tournament due to injury, while Hoost took his place and went on to win two more matches that night to win the tournament.

The Hoost wins made Sapp a cultural sensation in Japan. He had to squeeze in training between television and promotional appearances. His name and likeness appeared on every product imaginable. Even crossing the street became a hassle, as throngs of fans would swarm Sapp. As Sapp became more popular, he found it increasingly difficult to find time to train, prioritizing money-making endorsement deals and TV appearances. As a result, Sapp's progress as a fighter suffered. In his first match of 2003, Sapp was easily beaten by Mirko Cro Cop and suffered a broken orbital bone in the process.

In mid-2003, K-1 looked to establish Sapp in his home country. They came to Las Vegas in August, headlining with Sapp against Kimo Leopoldo, who was considered a safe opponent. The show was to build to a post-match showdown between Sapp and Mike Tyson, with the hopes of setting up a match between the two. Kimo nearly derailed those plans in the ring, knocking Sapp down in the first round. In the second round, Sapp recovered enough to knock Kimo out, albeit with a punch to the back of the head. After the fight, Tyson hit the ring and he and Sapp jousted verbally. K-1 got some publicity from the move, but the match failed to materialize.

Instead of Tyson, Sapp moved on to the biggest match of his career. In 2002, Sapp's New Year's Eve fight against Yoshihiro Takayama drew a strong 24.5 rating, establishing combat sports in the time slot. One year later, New Year's Eve was the place to be for a combat sports promotion in Japan. Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye, featuring a mix of kickboxing, MMA, and pro wrestling, aired on NTV. Pride Shockwave 2003 aired on Fuji. K-1 Dynamite aired on TBS. All were running against the Red & White Musical Festival on NHK, which was traditionally the biggest television event of the year in Japan. Sapp headlined the K-1 show against famous sumo Akebono. The K-1 rules match front page news across the country. The freak show fight was easily won by Sapp, who only had to work for 2 minutes and 58 seconds that night.

Overall, the musical festival won the ratings, but it was really Sapp's night. K-1 drew a 19.5 rating, while Pride and Inoki lagged behind with a 12.2 and 5.1 rating respectively. Sapp vs. Akebono drew a monstrous 42.5 rating and 54 million viewers. Certainly, there has been no mixed martial arts or kickboxing bout that drew the kind of attention that Sapp vs. Akebono did.

While the Akebono match was unquestionably the peak of Sapp's popularity, he remained a major draw in Japan for years. His New Year's Eve 2004 match against Jerome Le Banner, which alternated between MMA and K-1 rules, drew a great 28.6 rating. As a fighter, his accomplishments in the first year of his career dwarf those in the next 10. From 2009 onward, Sapp went just 2-25 combined in MMA and kickboxing. Sapp's much ridiculed fall stems from a lack of desire and a lack of love for combat sports. He's been known to give up at the first sign of trouble, saving him from damage and allowing him to continue on to the next show or appearance.

His beginnings were the result of reckless spending by an ill-fated pro-wrestling company. His rise was fueled by smart bookings, the Japanese public's fascination with "The Beast" gimmick, key performances and wins, and a willingness to be a celebrity. His fall was the result of a desire to be an entertainer rather than a fighter. In many ways, the reasons for his fall were the same things that built to his peak. Although his final matches weren't good or even ethical, Bob Sapp is an entertainer.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at plunkettdan@yahoo.com.


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