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Originally published Wednesday, February 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

What about Bob (Sapp)?

Broke and broken up, Bob Sapp decided to remove himself from the outside world. He hung black blankets over the windows of his Atlanta home...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Bob Sapp and Strikeforce

Mixed-martial arts: A term invented to cover a fight format that accommodates a number of disciplines. Judo, wrestling, giu-gitsu and muay thai are among the many techniques.

Strikeforce: One of the country's larger mixed-martial arts promotions. It held the first mixed-martial arts event in California where a crowd of more than 18,000 attended.

Fight card: 14 bouts — four amateur fights, 10 professional. Bob "The Beast" Sapp faces Jan "The Giant" Nortje.

Date: Feb. 23. Doors open at 7 p.m., fights begin at 8 p.m.

Site: Tacoma Dome.

Tickets: $35, $75 and $150. Available at Tacoma Dome box office and Ticketmaster locations.

KIRKLAND -- Broke and broken up, Bob Sapp decided to remove himself from the outside world. He hung black blankets over the windows of his Atlanta home, living inside his darkened cocoon.

He refused to answer the door when friends knocked. Eventually they began leaving food on his doorstep, knowing that Sapp was too depressed to cook and worried that he was too depressed to live.

His NFL career had washed out and Sapp was spent.

A standout offensive lineman at the University of Washington, he slipped to the third round and the Chicago Bears in the 1997 draft. He hung around for four seasons with Chicago, Minnesota, Baltimore and Oakland. He served a suspension for alleged steroid use, played in exactly one league game, and was released for good by the Raiders in 2000.

"It was very, very bad," Sapp says, sitting on the couch in the living room of his Kirkland home Tuesday. "Finally some of my friends were telling me, 'Dude you're down to about $3,000 to your name. You got to do something.' "

Slowly, with the encouragement of professional wrestlers Jesse Ventura and Ken Patera, Sapp fought through his depression. He made an audition video for the various pro wrestling circuits in a public gym near Minneapolis.

In terms of marketability think Shaquille O'Neal-times-100.

In 2001, he got a job with World Championship Wrestling and eventually took a trip to Japan that changed, maybe even saved, his life. Sapp expected to be in Tokyo about a week, wrestle in a few matches and return home. He stayed for four years and became a marketing miracle.

He went from being Bob Sapp the NFL bust to Bob "The Beast" Sapp, one of the most popular sports figures in Japan.

A 380-pound Ichiro. A one-man brand.

"I expected to go over there, do some pro wrestling and then come back," Sapp says. "Then this happened, like 'Boom.' And then there was no stopping The Beast. I never expected anything like this."

Sapp is a natural. A 6-foot-4 giant of a man, he has an expressive face that loves the camera and a personality that wows the crowds. He is a ham and a hammer, an athlete who knows how to sell himself and his game.

He can wrestle. He can fight. And he can turn on crowds that have swollen to as many as 70,000.

He has won world championships as a K-1 fighter, a discipline that is a hybrid of kick-boxing, karate, tae kwon do and wrestling, and Japanese fans still can't get enough of him.

"Over there it's become like a prisoner paradise for me," says Sapp, who needs bodyguards when he walks the Tokyo streets.

The fruits of his success are displayed in the bedrooms of his two-story home in Kirkland. Three of those bedrooms are filled with Sapp products, tributes to his entrepreneurial genius.

In one bedroom he has the Bob Sapp slot machine. Instead of fruits, however, if three "Sapps" appear in a row, you win and a video pops on the screen, showing a cartoon of "The Beast" tearing meat off a bone, devouring fruits and vegetables and bellowing that deep, menacing laugh.

He says he sold 400,000 of these slots.

In another bedroom, Sapp has dozens of sales items on display, like a miniature museum. It's a showroom for gimmickry.

There is the G-Shock Bob Sapp watch, the Zippo Bob "The Beast" Sapp lighter and the alarm clock with the clock face buried in the belly of a sculpture of "The Beast."

There are bigger-than-life-sized Sapp cutouts and "The Beast" masks and stuffed dolls.

Sapp, 33, has action figures and "The Beast" computer hardware that teaches reading and writing in Japanese. There are pins, mugs, bobbleheads.

And then there were the food products. Bob Sapp Noodles. Bob "The Beast" Sapp Apple Crunch cereal. Bob Sapp Easter Eggs. Bob Sapp caramel corn. He could comfortably survive eating only products with his name on them.

Like Forrest Gump, Sapp has perfect timing. He finishes one project and it leads to another and another and another. One marketing idea gets parlayed into 10 more.

He is the host of a Japanese TV show that is similar to Candid Camera and he is negotiating with Spike TV to do a similar show in the U.S. His rap CD, "Sapp Time," rose as high as 18 on the Japanese pop charts.

His life is an eclectic whirlwind of wrestling, mixed martial arts, movie making and television deals.

"It's solid hard-core work," Sapp says. "It's real, real, real tough."

He has a comic book where he transforms from a child to a super hero whenever he sees someone being rude. When the person apologizes, the super hero becomes a little boy again.

"When someone says, 'Sorry, sorry, sorry,' that like my kryptonite," Sapp says.

His movie credits include, "The Longest Yard" and "Elektra." An animated Sapp has appeared in the wildly popular cartoon "Dragon Ball Z." Sapp could retire tomorrow, move to Hollywood and make a living as a new, improved Randall "Tex" Cobb.

Sapp endorses approximately 400 products, including his own line of sex toys. He says he has saved more than $10 million and there seems to be no end to his revenue streams.

"You name it, I've done it," Sapp says. "I've gotten to live so many people's dreams. People dream of playing in the NFL, of having a hit CD, of being in Hollywood movies, or being a pro wrestler, or playing college football. They dream of being able to travel the world. I've done all that. They say success is the best revenge, so I guess I've gotten my revenge on the NFL."

Sapp got his ultimate revenge at an exhibition game between the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Bucs in Tokyo in 2003. When he was drafted by the Bears he was given a $340,000 signing bonus. After that he never made more than the league minimum.

But at this exhibition game, Japanese promoters used him, not Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp, on every promotional billboard. At news conferences reporters were directed by the league to stop asking questions about Bob Sapp to Warren Sapp.

"They were on my turf now," Sapp says. "And I was all over the place."

He says the game's promoters paid him $400,000 just to toss the coin before the kickoff.

"The revenge was complete," he says with that large laugh.

A week from Saturday, he will fight his first mixed martial arts bout in his adopted Northwest, facing 6-foot-11, 350-pound Jan "The Giant" Nortje at the Tacoma Dome.

"This is my first M.M.A. cage match in the United States," Sapp says. "And to be able to fight it back here in Washington, that's huge."

Sapp is happy now. His house is big and bright and his laughter comes easily and often.

He knows how fortunate he is. He appreciates the good that can happen when hard work intersects with good luck.

Sapp has risen out of his depression to this odd, exalted place in sports that just seven years ago, he never knew existed.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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