|Look out, Godzilla, the Beast is here! |
|Ken Belson NYT |
Saturday, December 27, 2003
TOKYO It was a sign, Bob Sapp knew, that his self-described Beast phenomenon had gone too far: He shaved his chest for a television commercial, and someone swept up the hair and sold it for $500.
It was also a sign of how far Sapp had helped take K-1, Japan's kick-boxing promotion. Since arriving in Japan nearly two years ago, Sapp, a former lineman in the National Football League and professional wrestler, has become perhaps the most popular entertainer and sports figure in the country.
His ring name, the Beast, has come to symbolize not only his fearsome build of 2.01 meters and 170 kilograms, or 6 feet 7 inches and 375 pounds, but also a media frenzy that has turned a burly fighter into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Sapp, who will take on Akebono, a Hawaiian-born former Sumo grand champion, on New Year's Eve in a baseball stadium, says he has fought three pro wrestling matches and 10 kick-boxing bouts in the past year. He also says he has been interviewed 1,000 times, made 200 television appearances and 10 commercials and been the subject of four books.
Hundreds of products - from clocks to dolls to a video game - have flooded the market with his image.
His promoters are now trying to arrange a fight with Mike Tyson next year; the format, K-1 or traditional boxing, is still to be negotiated. Sapp, who is 29 and calls Seattle home, also has hopes of becoming a Hollywood action hero.
While Sapp ate dinner recently at a restaurant in Tokyo, dozens of people walking by stopped to take pictures of him through the window.
Two young assistants worked on his schedule on a laptop computer; his two daily training sessions, media appearances and other commitments were blocked out in different colors.
"How do you say no to that?" Sapp asked, pointing at the computer. "It's so hard. This stuff is really selling."
The main product Sapp is selling, K-1, was created 10 years ago by Kazuyoshi Ishii, a Seidokan karate school owner who wanted to settle the age-old question: Which fighting style trumps all? Ishii set up single-day tournaments in which fighters competed in three three-minute rounds, with the winners working their way to a title bout.
The "K" in K-1 stands for karate, kick-boxing, taekwondo and kung fu, all styles that can be used during the short and often violent fights. The "1" represents the winner. Knockouts are the most common outcome, and more than a few fighters leave the ring bloodied. The nature of the fights conjures up images of gladiators.
Sapp is an unlikely star of the sport. After a brief and unhappy career in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings, Sapp, who is not related to Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, joined a pro wrestling league that soon folded. Ishii's organization spotted him boxing in a celebrity event against William Perry, a former Chicago Bears defensive lineman. Facing the alternative of working at a funeral home, Sapp went to Japan to fight in K-1, a sport he knew nothing about.
Although not much of a kicker, Sapp used his size and tongue-in-cheek character to become an instant hit with the Japanese. Purists say his fighting style has turned the sport into a farce. Other critics accuse him of reinforcing negative stereotypes of African-Americans; among other things, he has appeared in advertisements eating bananas.
Sapp's critics are offset by thousands of fans who adore him and dozens of companies that are eager to use his image. "As Sapp gets more popular, he gets more endorsements, which lead to bigger sponsorship deals and then bigger purses," said Daisuke Teraguchi, the international operations manager for K-1. "It's like a chain reaction."
Sapp missed a shot at the K-1 world championship when he was disqualified for hitting his opponent while he was down during a match in October. Still, Sapp received a huge round of applause when he appeared at the K-1 World Grand Prix finals on Dec. 6; he was there to promote the idea of a fight against Tyson.
Sapp remains so popular that tickets for his New Year's Eve fight with Akebono sold out in a day. The bout will be held in a domed baseball stadium in Nagoya, a two-hour bullet-train ride from Tokyo.
The same kind of fanaticism was on display at the Tokyo Dome, where eight finalists vied for the world title. The fighters had worked their way through about 20 tournaments held in more than a dozen countries during the year. In a testament to the sport's international appeal, the contenders came from Australia, Belarus, France, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and South Africa.
The kicking and the punching in the K-1 ring are real, but K-1 events are elaborately orchestrated - a cross between the pyrotechnics and theatrics of pro wrestling and the drama and blood-curdling energy of boxing. At the world championship, fighters entered the cavernous stadium on cranes and cars, with smoke, strobes and fireworks. Music blared over the public-address system.
Like pro wrestlers, the K-1 fighters adopt personas. Francois Botha, known as the White Buffalo, is a former International Boxing Federation champion who resembles Hulk Hogan. Peter Aerts, a three-time Grand Prix champion, enters the ring dressed as a lumberjack. Remy Bonjasky, a former banker known as the Gentleman, earned a second nickname, the Flying Dutchman, for his high kicks.
Sponsors are eager to be involved. Sapporo Breweries and Aiful, a consumer loan company, had billboards at the Tokyo Dome.
Like a fight night in Las Vegas, K-1 bouts draw comedians, television stars and pop singers to ringside.
The bouts are short and unpredictable, largely because the fighters' styles are often quite different. Some are strong with their fists but weak at kicking; others use their speed to surprise larger opponents. Fights can end violently in seconds. Peter Graham crumpled after Bonjasky jumped high to drive his knee into Graham's chin. Graham staggered to his feet, but Bonjasky soon floored him again with another kick, this time ending the bout.
Several hours later, Bonjasky was crowned champion after having won two more fights. All of the fighters returned to the ring with their retinues to hug and watch as Bonjasky was given a golden olive branch for his head.
With the tournament season completed, fans and the sports media are focusing on the year's final event, the showdown between Sapp and Akebono. The fight promises to be a spectacle, mostly because neither fighter is a kicker but also because Sapp will finally face someone as large as he is. Mike Tyson, who is being courted by K-1, will offer commentary via satellite from Hawaii, where he will be on vacation.
Having Sapp and Akebono, who are both American, battle it out in Japan should help the sport in the United States, said Scott Coker, the chief executive of K-1 USA. Coker has struck deals with ESPN, a U.S. sports network, to expand its coverage of K-1, and he calls Sapp an ambassador for the sport.
K-1 is still relatively unknown in the United States, but as more children take up martial arts, K-1 is bound to grow, Coker said. He has hired a scout to search for more Bob Sapps.
"We're overturning stones to find them," Coker said. "It's just a matter of getting them not to play baseball or football."
The New York Times
Reprinted for About Boxing