In fight sports, for reasons that aren't totally clear, enormous men get our attention. It doesn’t matter if they don't have the lungs to match their quadriceps. It doesn’t matter if they throw punches like they're hitting a snare drum, or if their takedowns look like a Mack truck falling off a cliff. We like watching David beat Goliath, but we love watching two Goliaths bash one another about the face, again and again.
This New Year's Eve at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo, freak-show-fight trailblazers Bob "The Beast" Sapp and Chad "Akebono" Rowan face each other exactly a dozen years after their first insane meeting. The superheavyweight bout is part of the two-day fever dream that is Rizin Fighting Federation's debut fight card, and their match-up is to be contested under Shootboxing rules—guidelines that allow for takedowns and standing submissions, but no ground fighting. And really, the less time spent on the floor the better: the best possible outcome for this nostalgia trip is the same quick, ugly ending that happened when they first fought and captured the eyes and imaginations of tens of millions of Japanese.
At the Nagoya Dome on Dec. 31, 2003, Sapp versus Akebono was the kickboxing main event headlining the mixed-rules K-1 PREMIUM 2003 Dynamite!!—the capitalization and dual exclamation points are properly styled. Akebono, a Hawaiian-born sumo wrestling champion and the first non-Japanese to achieve that sport's highest rank, was making his debut in pugilism. Meanwhile, Sapp was a one-time NFL offensive lineman who had begun competing in fight sports the previous year, earning two kickboxing victories over decorated world champion Ernesto Hoost and looking goddamn terrifying in his PRIDE loss to heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Both had huge names in Japan that transcended sports, yet when they stepped in the ring, their hugeness couldn’t have been carried more differently: Sapp looked like a 350-pound Mr. Olympia in the off-season, and Akebono was a 400-something-pound stack of pancakes.
The three minutes that followed the opening bell are some of the most absurd in the history of unarmed combat.
For the first 90 seconds, Akebono throws clumsy punches and Sapp kicks his legs, they awkwardly clinch with Akebono pressing Sapp into the ropes, the ref breaks them apart, and no one does damage. By the midpoint in the round, Akebono is exhausted. Sapp starts connecting with his hands, looking spry against Akebono’s heavy steps. Just after the two-minute mark, Sapp drops Akebono with a ponderous two-punch combo. The fight resumes after an eight count, and Sapp drops Akebono once again. After another eight count and Akebono summoning the last of his energy to get back to his feet, Sapp lands a pair of shots that send him back down in two stages: into a squat, then face-first into the canvas. The end came at 2:58 of the first round—long enough for a validating experience, short enough that a second round never got a chance to turn viewers' fun to anguish.
While it wasn't the first Japanese freak show fight, it's arguably the best example of the pugilistic subgenre that repackages the high stakes of the fight game as comedy. It also solidified freak show fights as good business: according to Dave Meltzer of MMA Fighting, 54 million Japanese—close to half the population of the country—watched Sapp KO Akebono. Portions of that audience followed the fighters as they found subsequent success in pro wrestling and almost total failure in real fighting. Akebono went 1-8 in kickboxing and 0-4 in MMA, and his rematch with Sapp represents his first fight since Giant Silva submitted him on New Year's Eve nine years ago. Similarly, the reputation Bob Sapp carries today scarcely resembles the ascendant fighter he seemed in the early 2000s. By the time he retired in 2013 with an 11-17 kickboxing record and an 11-18-1 MMA record, Sapp had lost 12 straight MMA bouts, all but one in the first round. In his last 14 kickboxing matches, his only win came when his opponent injured himself. During a bizarre interview with MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani, he offered a defense against charges of fight-throwing that was, to put it charitably, unconvincing.
All of which, apparently, does nothing to diminish the idea of watching two immense human beings taking to the middle of a Japanese arena on New Year's Eve and hitting each other with supreme gracelessness. When you're enormous, you don’t need to be anything else.
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