Athletes & Celebrities

A Muscle & Fitness Interview with K1 Fighter, Bob Sapp

The Beast Named Bob

A Muscle & Fitness Interview with K1 Fighter, Bob Sapp

Has the sports world discovered the missing link between The Rock, Mike Tyson, The Beatles and Godzilla? If you answered "fat chance," you're probably unfamiliar with Bob "The Beast" Sapp, although the odds are good that you will know him very well indeed within the next year or two. At 6'8" and 385 pounds, Sapp is the unlikely breakout star of K-1, a Japanese professional fighting league that has been advertised as the fastest-growing form of sports entertainment in the world. Sapp's celebrity in Japan has reached such a fever pitch that the noise has carried across the ocean all the way to the ultimate celebrity empire, Hollywood.

Not bad for a man who only three years ago hung dark blankets over his windows and sat in despair in his apartment for two months, an NFL castoff reduced to hunting through the want ads for such dead-end jobs as mortuary assistant.

Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Sapp grew up an avid sports enthusiast who excelled in football. Although he is unrelated to NFL star Warren Sapp, Bob Sapp was good enough to be recruited by the University of Washington to play defensive line, but a knee injury forced him to protect quarterbacks rather than assault them. No doubt salivating over the potential embedded in his massive body, the Chicago Bears drafted him in the third round in 1996.

Sapp's NFL dreams hit a snag, however, when the team cut him before opening day. In 1997, the Minnesota Vikings hired him as their third-string tackle, but again his hopes proved short-lived, as Sapp became only the second player in Vikings history suspended for violating the NFL's policy on anabolic steroid use. Eventually, the Vikings cut him altogether, although Sapp denies the steroid charge to this day.

After a couple more years of struggle, Achilles tendonitis sidelined him for good. "Everything that could go wrong with the NFL did," Sapp says. "I like to say I played ass backward. Every time I ran out on the field, the coach would shout, 'Bob, get your ass back here.'"

Down and Out in Atlanta

In 2000, Sapp was living in Atlanta -- unemployed, overweight and depressed. He was also broke because his financial advisers had spent all his football savings. When he was still playing in the NFL, several people, including Jesse "The Body" Ventura, had pointed out that Sapp had the thickest arms in the league and that his gargantuan size might make him better suited for professional wrestling. Sapp figured he had nothing to lose, so he created a stage persona, thinking it might play well with World Championship Wrestling (WCW). He named his larger-than-life alter ego "The Beast," a primal man-child who spoke in Tarzan grunts and laughed with all the villainy of Dr. Evil. The Beast wasn't a huge hit with the WCW, although Sapp did catch the attention of the cable network FX, which was looking for someone to take on former Chicago Bear William "The Refrigerator" Perry in a celebrity amateur boxing match called The Toughman Competition. Sapp agreed and, with no previous boxing experience, managed to KO The Fridge in round two.

Despite this success, Sapp was still struggling to make ends meet, which was when he started seriously considering answering a help-wanted ad for mortuary assistants. "They were offering $125 per body moving corpses," he says. "At the time, that seemed like good money." Fortunately, Lady Luck took a definite swing in his favor when he received a phone call from Master Ishii, a legendary Japanese martial artist. Ishii had seen the Toughman fight and was interested in recruiting Sapp to his kickboxing league, called K-1. Although Sapp was skeptical, Ishii knew what he wanted and upped his Sapp Offensive by sending a limo over the next day to escort The Beast to the airport.

Ishii created K-1 back in 1993, bringing together fighters from various disciplines, including karate, tae kwon do, kung fu and kickboxing in an all-out battle to determine martial arts supremacy. Today it's considered the highest martial arts competition, much like what the World Cup is to soccer. Although K-1 is not yet widely known in the United States, Sapp points out that the sport is starting to catch on, particularly in Las Vegas, which recently hosted The K-1 USA Grand Prix.

The K-1 Spectacle

K-1 matches are staged in a conventional boxing ring with a referee, but they're more viewer-friendly, lasting only 3-5 rounds and emphasizing the kind of kinetic foot kicks and spectacular knockouts that fans crave. The sport also has a wide crossover audience, appealing to fans of boxing, pro wrestling and traditional martial arts, as well as to people who just enjoy the spectacle. "I've got a fan base in Japan that runs from 4-year-old girls to 99-year-old women," Sapp says.

This is not just an idle boast. Although Sapp doesn't speak Japanese, he is routinely mobbed in Japan, once by a group of 80- to 90-year-old women, another time by a pack of shrieking, clamoring schoolgirls. So what accounts for Sapp's ability to cause near Beatle-like mania? Part of the answer may lie in his pure unconventionality. While most K-1 fighters are agile and tightly muscled, Sapp is a behemoth of muscle and flesh who attacks with bulldozer power and determination. Once, he knocked out an opponent in 11 seconds. Sapp also thinks fans identify with him because he stepped into the K-1 arena with a minimum of technical training. "Imagine taking someone off the streets and throwing him into the ring with Mike Tyson and then watching that person win," he says.

Finally, Sapp believes fans appreciate his flair for comedy. While most of his opponents consider themselves strictly fighters, Sapp views himself as an entertainer first and a fighter second. He has appeared on countless Japanese TV talk and variety shows, draped in feather boas and dancing to Madonna tunes. "With The Beast, you have this big, scary, loudmouth guy," Sapp says. "But when I'm out of the ring and on television, I think the audience can see that I'm having fun clowning around." Still, such celebrity can be both blessing and curse, what Sapp describes as a prison paradise. "It's paradise because I have great fun and happy fans and access to beautiful women," he says. "It's prison because I usually have to confine myself to my hotel room so I don't cause a mob."

To describe Sapp as a celebrity may be an understatement. He has grown into a marketing powerhouse, a one-man franchise. A store in Tokyo carries only merchandise that bears his name, likeness or image. He's done more than a thousand interviews, 200 TV appearances and has appeared on the cover of Time Asia. He has pitched everything from Panasonic televisions to cell phones, ice cream bars, fabric softener and instant noodles. His face is posted on mouse pads and children's lunch boxes. He has recorded a CD and a video and is now a spokesperson for the NFL (sweet revenge!) and Northwest Airlines, as well as a commentator for The Super Bowl. "This is all within 10 months," Sapp notes proudly. When all is said and done, he'll probably make in excess of $3 million for the year.

While Sapp insists he will stick out his contract with K-1, it's also clear that he's laying the groundwork for an eventual return to the States. He bought a home in Seattle and is now fielding offers that are pouring in from Hollywood. "I've been reading scripts and taking meetings, the whole routine," Sapp says. "Hollywood is definitely what I'm looking toward for the future." The Rock stands forewarned.


A Yen for Muscle

Bob Sapp's Everyman name belies what are extraordinary genetics for both strength and muscle-building. His dimensions are usually reserved for the most massive NFL lineman, but the arrangement of his mass is nothing like theirs, even though he used to block for a living, too. While not as ripped as a contest-shape bodybuilder, Sapp sports hulking traps that connect a tree-trunk neck with arms branching out into thick knots of muscle. Massive shoulders and legs capable of delivering lethal kicks in the K-1 ring are cinched into a giant X by a waist surprisingly tight for someone so freakin' huge.

Sapp may have been born monstrous, but he can live large off of kickboxing because he rages through workouts like Godzilla in search of a skyscraper to topple. Although he spends most days learning how to throw kicks and defend against the same, Sapp lifts only once a week. Good thing, too, since it must take that long to recover from a workout that probably registers on Japan's high-tech seismographs. He squats heavy; moves to equally heavy bench presses, culminating with a three-rep-max finale; and then segues to deadlifts, wrapping up with 800-pound doubles and triples. From there, it's on to high-rep squats and push-ups using only the weight of his body. Reps, believe it or not, are chosen according to the random selection of playing cards. Here's the deal from The Beast himself on how he eats and trains to stay in fighting shape.

M&F Is weight training a big part of your physical preparation?

SAPP Yes, but I don't really look like a bodybuilder. The weights I do are designed to make me look ... kind of like a big, buffed-out basketball player. So I do a lot of your basic bodyweight squats, push-ups and, of course, bench presses. But I also do a lot of exercise ball sit-ups and crunches and, of course, a lot of running.

M&F Do you do any strongman-type stuff?

SAPP I do some kettle-bell lifts and stuff like that, but it's mixed in with endurance training. And then it's back to training and honing my skills in the ring, which is what I missed in football. [Back then] I'd usually go lift weights, but this time I mix weightlifting and running with practicing my sport, which is fighting and kickboxing. I train for hours on end with that.

M&F Tell us about using playing cards to decide on rep schemes.

SAPP Yeah, the card trick is basically for when I do push-ups and body squats. For the push-ups, I use the face value on the card, and for bodyweight squats, I double the face value. So if I draw a 10 of hearts, I do 10 push-ups. If I'm doing squats, it would be 20.

M&F What if you get the joker?

SAPP The joker I think is 30.

M&F What are your maxes in the squat, bench and deadlift?

SAPP I can tell you what they were in college football. I was near a 600-pound bench press and at about a 750-, 800-pound squat. Those are pretty high numbers for a football athlete. They're not great numbers for a powerlifter [of my size].

M&F If you devoted yourself to strength training, do you think you'd be in the same league with the Mark Henry's of the world?

SAPP Yes, I could definitely be one of the strongest men in the world if I really dedicated myself to it. But right now, it pays just to be in shape and learning how to fight as well as mixing in the strength stuff and conditioning.

M&F Regarding diet, you must have to eat like a horse.

SAPP I have to eat a ton of calories, so I'm always looking for things to help me gain weight and then keep it on. And that's not only to keep on the size but also to keep up my energy levels. In Japan, I eat a ton of sushi mixed in with steak.

M&F How many calories are we talking about here?

SAPP I don't count calories. Strike that: What I do count are liquid calories. I try to take in 400 grams of liquid protein a day. If I can drink that much protein powder, I know I can get the rest of my daily caloric intake from regular food.

M&F So you're drinking three or four shakes a day?

SAPP Exactly. Sometimes even five [shakes] and then eating my meals. During the first month, it's hard to [drink them] because you're stuffed. But after a month, you can drink your shakes and it feels like you're drinking water, so you can continually eat.

M&F You've worked with [strength coach and diet guru] Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale, right?

SAPP Yes. I use his [MD+] supplements. You can't do what I'm doing and not take protein and creatine and multivitamins and things like that. It's impossible for you to really get the nutritional value you need from eating everyday foods. You'd need to be eating all day long.