I have seen more than a few foreign — gaijin — film, rock and sports stars pass through Japan over the past 25 years. But I've never seen anyone quite like Bob Sapp.
Every time he steps outside he risks being mobbed by squealing fans of all ages. People want to pose for pictures with him, shake his hands, or squeeze the formidable biceps on his 6-foot-4-inch, 375-pound frame.
Let me tell you, this guy is HUGE in Japan. And he just may be one of the biggest comeback stories in sporting history.
Sapp was a lineman for the University of Washington Huskies in the 1990s. Drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1997, he looked set for a formidable pro career. But he didn't make the cut.
Picked up by the Minnesota Vikings, he managed a few seconds of game time, but, mostly sat on the bench. "They called that position 'butt-back,' " Sapp recalls. "As soon as I ran onto the field, the coach would shout, 'Sapp, get your butt back on the bench!' "
Next, he found himself temporarily suspended by the NFL for using a nutrition drink that contained banned steroids. He recovered from that setback, only to see his pro career ended for good by crippling tendinitis. Then came a failed wrestling career, the loss of all his money to a financial scam artist, and severe depression.
But Sapp's life took a dramatic turn last year, when a Japanese promoter who had seen him wrestle in the United States hired him to fight in Japanese K-1 fighting league.
A violent mixture of boxing, martial arts, street brawling, and glitzy showmanship, K-1 is wildly popular. It's the fastest-growing sport in Japan today. And, almost immediately, Sapp became its No. 1 attraction.
Victories for ‘The Beast’
Under his new ring name, "The Beast," Sapp immediately racked up a string of victories against the world's biggest and baddest brutes. But what turned him into a sensation here was his gentle side.
He has appeared on hundreds of television talks shows, demonstrating a knack for self-deprecating, slapstick humor. Growling like "The Beast" one minute, cooing over pictures of his pet cat the next. Picking up a TV host over his head to show his strength, then allowing skinny kids to beat him up. "Itai," he'll shout in a squeaky voice, "It hurts, it hurts." The crowds love it.
In fact, Sapp evokes two of Japan's most beloved stereotypes: the fierce, giant sumo wrestler and the goofy, slapstick comic. Ask almost anyone here about Bob Sapp, they will tell you his is "kowai" (scary) and "kawa-ii" (cute).
It's a schtick that Sapp has turned into a gold mine.
Sapp says he has made more than $3 million this year. He has been on hundreds of television shows, earning up to $50,000 for each appearance. His image appears on T-shirts, handbags, key rings, mouse pads, and sporting equipment. It's not quite the same as Wheaties, but he's even on the box of "The Beast Apple Crunch."
He is also the pitchman for a growing list of Japanese products, usually showing his sensitive or silly side — nestled with his kitty in an armchair for Panasonic or dancing as a giant shrimp with a group of children for PizzaLa.
A ‘Prison Paradise’
Sometimes Sapp finds it hard to believe his good fortune.
"I pinch myself everyday," Sapp says. "Japan is a dream come true. The best food, the best people, a real paradise."
Of course, it's a "prison paradise," he likes to say. He's so popular right now, he really has to limit his exposure on the streets. The police tend to get a little nervous and angry when Sapp shows up unannounced, creating sidewalk mobs and backing up traffic for miles.
And that is exactly what happened when we tried to interview Sapp on a Tokyo street recently. "See what I mean," he said, as we strolled through a rapidly growing crowd of fans. Still, the ever-gentle and ever-patient Sapp tried to give as many autographs and shake as many hands as he could.
Sapp says he knows that fads can end in Japan as fast as they begin. But he is grateful for the second life the Japanese have given him. "I'm a real cultural phenomenon here," he says. "I don't think I could have ever achieved this back in the U.S."
That's probably true. But in a measure of just how big Sapp has now become here, even the NFL has come calling again. Sapp has now been hired to promote the league's efforts to sell American football to the Japanese.
At a recent event to promote a preseason game to be played in Tokyo this August, Sapp danced on a laser-lit stage with a troop of visiting American cheerleaders. "Welcome to the NFL," he shouted in the distinctive voice of "The Beast" — the former NFL washout, now NFL ambassador.
"For a former-bench warmer," says Sapp with a wide grin, "this is a very sweet, sweet victory."