Before we start, I’d like to take the time to give out a shoutout. Walking Fish Productions, an independent production company based in Melbourne, Australia, is in the process of creating a documentary called Big in Japan. In this film, three guys travel to Japan in an outrageous attempt to become famous. The documentary covers the rise in accessible fame, and the meaning and cost of achieving it.
Here’s a quick preview of it:
Along the way, the three guys meet a collection of gaijin tarento (famous foreigners). One of the people they meet is Bob Sapp, who is one of the most famous foreign talents in Japan today.
Americans may know him for his performance in the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard, where he played the role of gentle giant Switoski. However, his fame in Japan is far greater than one could imagine.
Sapp actually got his start as a football player. He had a successful collegiate career at Washington as a guard, where he won the Morris Trophy. Intrigued by his impressive talents, the Chicago Bears selected him with the 69th pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. He entered the NFL with a lot of promise and high expectations. Then-head coach Dave Wannstedt said this in the Bears media guide:
“He’s the type of guy who can play in this league for 10 years.”
Unfortunately for Sapp, that never worked out. In fact, far from it: he was cut by the Bears in his rookie season and was out of the league by 1998. Stricken by poverty, he started moving caskets at a funeral parlor to make money.
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In 2001, Sapp decided to become a professional wrestler. He made his debut in 2001 with the promotion NWA Wildside. WCW (World Championship Wrestling) hired him as a developmental wrestler soon after. Things finally appeared to be looking up for him. However, the WWF (now WWE) purchased WCW in 2001 and chose not to keep Sapp on.
The Japanese mixed martial arts promotion Pride took notice of the giant soon after his release. Fans immediately fell in love with Sapp’s aggression, size and charisma. He went on a tear in his first few matches, starting off his first 14 fights with a 10-3-1 record. After that, though, the losses started to pile up. He lost 13 fights in a row from the span of 2011 to 2016.
Sapp also had a lengthy kickboxing career, as well. Likewise to his MMA career, he started off hot with a 10-4 record. Since then, he has only won two of his last 15 fights.
His fights in both sports consisted of pure aggression, and very little in the way of technical skill. He was a mauler who used his brute strength to win matches. Once opponents found his weakness – endurance – they took advantage of that.
Regardless of his recent success (or lack, thereof) in combat sports, the Japanese market has fallen in love with Sapp. He is a marketing legend overseas; he’s been in loads of commercials, advertisements and TV shows. There have been Bob Sapp arcade games, Bob Sapp action figures, even Bob Sapp sex toys. He even made a music album that went viral. Why?
Well, being 6’5″ and 329 pounds certainly helps.
To the Japanese, Sapp is something larger than life – in size and in personality. He’s not just a man: he’s “The Beast”.
He discusses that in a trailer for Big in Japan:
“They no longer see me as a human being,” Sapp said, “they see me as the character of ‘the beast’.”
The Japanese love over-the-top, larger-than-life characters, as you’ll come to see in Big in Japan. You’ll see foreign talents like a cross-dressing Aussie and a Canadian J-Pop wannabe – people that would likely never make a dent in American pop culture – become cultural icons.
Can anyone become famous in Japan? You’ll just have to watch the documentary to find out.
– Jacob Infante is a National Editor for cover32 and also covers the Chicago Bears. He can be followed on Twitter @jacobinfante24.