Johnson visits with Bob 'The Beast' Sapp

When thinking of people who exploded onto a scene and became cultural icons, the usual standards come to mind: The Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964; Michael Jordan's astonishing performance in the 1985 NBA Slam Dunk Contest; David Beckham arriving in America last year surrounded by swarms of paparazzi.

But for former Husky Bob Sapp, his emergence as a Japanese sensation was unique. It came about by stomping on someone's head followed by a trip to a massage parlor. How this occurred will be made clear soon enough.

From his playing days at Washington, Sapp was best known for his fumble recovery for a touchdown in the 'Whammy in Miami'. It was in that game that the Huskies snapped the Hurricanesí NCAA record 58-game home winning streak. He was a powerful offensive lineman with much promise, and was selected in the 3rd round of the 1997 NFL draft by Chicago.

But by 2000, he had washed out of the league as a failure. At one point, he was unemployed, broke and with the IRS on his heels like a hellhound.

Then appearing almost as a gift from God, an offer appeared. Bob Sapp went on to fight and defeat William 'The Refrigerator' Perry in a Toughman boxing special promoted by the FX channel. Before Sapp knew it, he was in Japan as a wrestler, before preparing for his debut in K-1 fighting, which is mixed martial arts.

When Sapp entered the ring on April 28, 2002, to take on Norihisa Yamamoto, his presence alarmed and excited the Japanese crowd and TV audience. Most K-1 fighters are slim, quick and explosive. Sapp loomed immense and broad like a colossus, yet surprisingly agile. He had trained for six months, but was not technically proficient in martial arts. 10 million eager Japanese fans stayed glued to their TVs, delighting in Sapp's subsequent TKO victory in the first round. A month later, Sapp fought again, this time against the notorious Tsuyoshi Nakasako. During the first round Sapp stomped on Nakasako's head, prompting Nakasako's cornerman to fly into the ring and attack Sapp. Others poured into the ring and the fur was flying.

"I made a move which was not legal," said Sapp recently to "A fight ensued. I was disqualified. I lost the match. But they later told me that they liked that I kept going and kept my poise. They told me that I had a tremendous fighting spirit. That I showed them 'The Beast'. That I could have quit and backed down because I didnít know the moves and didn't know how to kick box. But I stood in there and did everything I could to win the match.

"Even though I was the loser, I got cheered immensely," said Sapp with a laugh. "The winner didn't get any applause at all. It was the strangest thing."

Then things started getting crazy. Sapp didnít know it, but he was about to become a cultural icon along the level of the Beatles and Michael Jordan. "Later that day, when I went out into public everyone was going crazy," said Sapp. "I couldnít even go out. The (K-1) staff was telling me they hadnít seen this before and I should go back to my hotel room. I did so, but then I snuck back out. I mean, this was Japan and I wanted to see what it was about.

"Now you always hear about the Orient and massage parlors," said Sapp with a laugh. "I was wondering, `Is this thing really happening here?' So I walked by this one place where a lady gave me a business card. I was too nervous to go in, plus I didnít know the language. This beautiful lady spoke broken English and she said, `I give you card and come to your room! No problem!'

"So I had the card and was looking at it," he said. "And this Russian fighter is going I CAUGHT HIM! I CAUGHT HIM! There was a paparazzi hiding behind a car. He snapped pictures me of me standing there with the woman. He went and sold it to a paparazzi magazine called Flash, which is (Japan's) version of People magazine. The headline went HERE'S BOB! BY DAY HE'S ON TOP OF THIS GUY - BY NIGHT, HE'S TRYING TO GET ON TOP OF THIS GIRL!

"The story blew up huge!" said Sapp. "Of course, they pixilated the girlís face out, but they didn't pixilate my face out! You should have seen my face. My mouth is hanging open in amazement and I'm looking like a little kid. You could tell from the picture that I didn't know what was going on. From then on, it was massively nuts and crazy."

Sapp became an overnight sensation and the number-one conversational topic throughout Japan. He was a bigger celebrity than even Ichiro. The more he was interviewed, the more he awed the Japanese by his many contradictions: Ferocious, introspective, witty, self-deprecating, goofy, violent, humble, charismatic, charming, and at the core - a good guy.

In 2003 Time magazine did a feature on Sapp, entitled THE BEAST GOES EAST. Writer Jim Frederick crafted this passage: "Sapp the entertainer drapes himself in feather boas, dances goofily to Madonna tunes, runs in terror from spiders and talks dreamily about his love for his cat, Trinity. Fans eat it up. Some ad campaigns he has done would be considered taboo in the U.S. because of their racial overtones. To promote a wrestling match, he was shown eating bananas in front of the gorilla cages at a local zoo, while an ad for Panasonic TVs has him dressed like a hipster pimp. You don't need to be a French poststructuralist to realize that much of The Beast's appeal in Japan is not rooted in the universalism of slapstick humor but in the fact that he is a curious and foreign specimen - a seemingly terrifying yet ultimately harmless embodiment of the Other."

Sapp was asked to catalog his success.

"I have done thousands of TV shows plus 70 commercials," he said. "There are over 400 products in my name, likeness and image. I've done over 20 kick boxing matches, 20 MMA matches and over 50 pro wrestling matches of which I have been #1 and MVP in everything I've done. I've made the cover of Time magazine, Wall Street Journal and some of my products have gone to the stock market. Plus over 200,000 (music) CDs and over 400,000 slot machines. I've been in eight Hollywood movies, been on with Jay Leno and Jimmy Kimmel. I have fought in front of 70,000 fans and with another 50 million watching on (Japanese) TV. It's been absolutely crazy. I'm still hot and itís still going strong. It's jammin'!"

"It's a dream come true, and yet I never anticipated it coming," he added

While Bob Sapp speaks unabashedly about his vast success, there remains a sense that he retains his humility. Did his early struggles combined with his experience in Japan teach him to be humble?

"Without question," he said. "I went from having no success in the NFL and being broke. For awhile I couldnít catch a break. It was rather humbling. It taught me to accept everything in order to move forward. In other words, I had to keep my mouth quiet and I had to keep my opinions to myself. I had to be cheerful and polite, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. And what better place to do that than in Japan, where the culture teaches you to be patient, teaches you acceptance. If you do that very well, you can reap the benefits, as you can see. On top of it all, I've stayed humble."

Back during his playing days at Washington, Sapp was not known as 'The Beast'. His moniker was Urkel, the nerdy kid from the TV show Family Matters. Sapp was asked how that could be.

"If you took a look at the 'Whammy in Miami' video, I'm petty sure it says it all," said Sapp with another laugh. "I had coke-bottled glasses and all I was interested in was sciences and insects. I was pretty much a big nerd. How much of a nerd? Well, I stayed in the dorms for four years in the University of Washington. I went to school year-round each year I was there, which is why I graduated in three years. Isn't that funny?

"We had some great times during my days at Washington," he said. "We used to have what we called `Shooting the Dozens'. Basically everyone would do a funny put down. We would these before our meetings. It would be me, Olin Kruetz, Damon Huard, Ernie Conwell, all of us. There was a time when we would kid Louis Jones about his big teeth. He would smile, and I would say DANG LOUIS! THAT THERE IS THE BITE OF SEATTLE! Everyone would fall out laughing. And then Tony Coats had really long back hair. I would imitate Tony brushing his teeth, then realize that I was out of dental floss. I would say THAT'S OKAY! And I would pretend to pluck out a back hair and floss my teeth with it.

"And Tony would get me back," said Sapp. "You see, I would always get confused. I wore a white glove and black glove as a way of helping remember which way to switch when we did our two-minute drills. So Tony would put on different colored gloves, and then act totally confused about which way to go.

"We all had an absolute blast together," said Sapp. "Those are some great memories."

The interview concluded with Sapp being asked to offer advice to Washington's current players.

"I don't get to follow them much," he said. "I do know they're going through hardships. We had our own sort of hardship when we went through probation (back in 1993). My best advice to them is to remember that they don't have a large abundance of time. That's an illusion. Before you know it, this is going to be gone. You and I are talking about times that happened over ten years ago. If you asked me back then I would have said those time would be there forever. But they're not. So with that in mind you might as well enjoy it. You need to work as hard as you can to make the season as great as you can. Because after you leave college, you learn the definition of HARD. You've got to worry about bills, retirement, homes and blah blah blah. Look at the practices and training sessions as blessings and a privilege. That will totally change your attitude on things.

"When I was going through tough times (in 2000), I thought OH WHAT HAVE I DONE? I MESSED UP! I BLEW IT! But I kept doing things openly and honestly. I began taking advantage of my athleticism, my size, of being able to articulate to people in public speaking, and I combined that with the research skills I learned at the University of Washington. It allowed me to have success. Think about it - every job I've done, none of them do you look in a newspaper and find an application. And every job I've had has paid a minimum of six figures. So how can that be? That's nuts!

"I didn't do things traditionally and listen to what other people said I was supposed to do," he said. "But I listened to myself! It took me a while to learn, but I finally did it.

"And it's paid off."
Bob Sapp will be making his American MMA debut in Strike Force at the (Tacoma) Dome. The event is on February 23, 2008 at 7 PM. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.
Derek Johnson can be reached at

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