TOKYO (AP) — Former NFL player Bob “The Beast” Sapp isn’t exactly a household name back home in the United States. But he’s big in Japan. Very big. And soon he hopes to be living large — for a week, anyway — in North Korea.
Shades of Dennis Rodman, anyone?
Sapp, a 6-foot-5, 350-pound tank of a man who played briefly as a lineman with the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings before becoming one of Japan’s best-known mixed martial arts personalities, will be topping the bill at a martial arts extravaganza in Pyongyang later this month. The two-day event is being staged by a Japanese pro-wrestler-turned-politician in an oddball attempt at sports diplomacy just as relations between North Korea and Japan are beginning to thaw.
“This is the No. 1 unusual and a little bit crazy thing (I’ve ever done),” Sapp said of his upcoming trip. “I’ve done everything from the NFL, pro wrestling, movies, I made the cover of Time magazine, done all types of commercials and now I’m going to North Korea. You name it, I’ve done it.”
About 20 wrestlers and martial artists from around the world are expected to attend. Organizers say the event — dubbed, rather blandly, the International Pro-Wrestling Festival in Pyongyang — will be broadcast over the Internet, aired on Japanese network television and also shown on North Korean state-run TV.
The exhibition will be the biggest sports show with a marquee American since Rodman and a team of other ex-NBA players took to a Pyongyang basketball court in January. Rodman called that event “historic,” but was panned by members of the U.S. Congress, the NBA and human rights groups who said he had become a public relations tool for North Korea’s government.
As soon as he got back to the United States, Rodman apologized publicly for his conduct and entered rehab.
Sapp, who divides his time between Japan and his adopted hometown of Seattle, told The Associated Press he was familiar with the Rodman debacle but says he will steer as far away from controversy and politics as he can. It’s not clear if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — whom Rodman serenaded with the birthday song — will attend the event.
“I have no idea what any of that stuff is, and for me, it’s quite simple,” Sapp said in an interview. “I am there to bring entertainment.”
He will also be bringing cookies, which he plans to hand out to children — in contrast, he notes, to Rodman, who showed up in Pyongyang with crates full of his personal brand of vodka.
There is a strong political undertone to the event, however.
It’s all the brainchild of Kanji “Antonio” Inoki, a savvy showman and charismatically eccentric Japanese politician who is one of the only members of Japan’s parliament who supports — and actively participates in — exchanges of any kind with North Korea. Inoki, who has visited North Korea nearly 30 times, was suspended by parliament for a month after making an unauthorized trip to the North last year.
The square-jawed, 6-foot-3 Inoki, serving his third term in Japan’s parliament, is probably best remembered elsewhere for fighting Muhammad Ali in Tokyo in 1976. But in 1995, he fought American Ric Flair in the “Collision in Korea,” a two-day event held in Pyongyang’s huge May Day Stadium that drew a reported 380,000 spectators. It was the biggest pay-per-view event in pro-wrestling history. Ali was among the guest attendees.
Inoki said he had originally hoped to get the same stadium for the upcoming show, but it is under renovation and the venue will instead be a 15,000-seat indoor arena.
Inoki’s connection to North Korea dates back to his mentor, a pro-wrestler named Rikidozan who was possibly the best-known sports figure in postwar Japan. Rikidozan was Korean and his name and exploits in the ring are still known in North Korea today.
Though he has made quite a stir in the Japanese media, the general response to his plans has been subdued.
Tokyo has cut off virtually all official ties with Pyongyang since 2006 over its nuclear weapons program and other issues, but recently announced it was lifting some unilateral sanctions after the North agreed to revive a probe into the fates of at least a dozen Japanese who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s.
Tokyo will continue to enforce U.N. sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program, but the breakthrough on the abductions issue is expected to allow more contact between the countries. Inoki is so far the first to step in.
“We shouldn’t cut off contacts no matter what the situation,” he told the AP. “The atmosphere in Japan is changing. I think the government is taking notice of the changes in the mood and acting accordingly.”
Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge.
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