‘It’s like a WrestleMania or Super Bowl’: The can’t-miss annual combat sports event in Japan

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Bob Sapp crouched down on the ramp with his team behind him — torches brimming with fire on either side. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound former NFL lineman exploded his torso upright, sending his green robe off him into the waiting arms of a coach.

It was Dec. 31, 2003, and the Nagoya Dome in Japan was packed with 43,560 people for the K-1 Premium Dynamite combat sports event. Stevie Wonder, the legendary musician, played “The Star-Spangled Banner” on harmonica as Sapp and opponent Chad “Akebono” Rowan walked to the ring. Mike Tyson was on broadcast commentary via satellite from Aloha Stadium in Hawaii.

More than 54 million viewers tuned in to catch the scenes on Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), making Sapp vs. Akebono the most-watched bout in Japan since Muhammad Ali took on fabled pro wrestler and fighter Antonio Inoki in 1976, a bout that greatly influenced what would end up being MMA.

“It was so amazing,” Sapp told ESPN. “Can you imagine walking in an arena and there’s so many people that you felt as though you were in a sauna? That kind of hot steam just from the body heat and everyone talking and the energy. When the [music] went off, you could feel the vibrations rattling all the way through your bones from the clapping and cheering.”

Sapp, who played offensive guard at the University of Washington and was drafted in the third round in 1997 by the Chicago Bears, was a pop-culture phenom in Japan, parlaying his professional wrestling, MMA and kickboxing career into movies and television commercials. Akebono, the 6-foot-8, 514-pound native of Hawai’i, was the first non-Japanese-born competitor to reach sumo’s highest rank of Yokozuna.

Neither Sapp nor Akebono was an accomplished striker, but nearly 12 times the amount of viewers watched them compete in a kickboxing match than any UFC or Floyd Mayweather-led main event. Sapp won by TKO at 2:58 of the first round to a thunderous ovation, but the result was an afterthought.

That kind of combat sports spectacle — a super-sized NFL veteran throwing hands with an even larger former sumo champion — can be found in only one place on one day of the year: New Year’s Eve in Japan.

The tradition began in 2000 as an alternative viewing experience to Japan’s famed Red and White Song Battle, a music contest between teams made up of the most popular artists in Japan, voted on by judges and viewers at home. It is the country’s most-watched show of the year.

Over the last 22 years, the annual Dec. 31 combat event has featured Inoki slapping 108 people in the face; a UFC pioneer competing against an opponent who outweighed him by more than 300 pounds; influencers fighting long before Jake Paul became a sensation; a 7-foot-2 Korean kickboxer; and some of the best fighters to ever put on a pair of gloves, including Mayweather himself.

This year, the marvel will continue with a collaboration between Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation and Bellator MMA (Saturday, 8 p.m. E.T. on Showtime), pitting some of the best fighters from each promotion against one another at the fabled Saitama Super Arena. The card Saturday is headlined by Bellator star AJ McKee taking on Rizin lightweight champion Roberto “Satoshi” de Souza. The best fighter in Bellator history, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, fights Rizin featherweight champion Kleber Koike Erbst. Plus, Bellator’s Gadzhi Rabadanov, with all-time great Khabib Nurmagomedov in his corner, faces Rizin’s Koji Takeda.

On the undercard is a nod to New Year’s Eve’s past: an MMA fight featuring former sumo wrestler Tsuyoshi Sudario against kickboxing knockout artist Junior Tafa, who will have combat legend Mark Hunt in his corner. Hunt fought four times on the Japanese year-end show, against a who’s who of legends from the 2000s: Wanderlei Silva, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Fedor Emelianenko and Melvin Manhoef.

“It’s like a WrestleMania or Super Bowl,” Eric “Butterbean” Esch said of Japan’s annual Dec. 31 event. “It’s like the fight card you want to be on that nobody hardly gets to be on.

“To be on it, it’s almost a privilege and honor.”

Before Sapp was slated to face Akebono, his opponent was supposed to be Tyson. Scott Coker, now the Bellator president, was working for K-1 and trying to make a deal with Tyson’s then-rep Stephen Espinoza, now the head of Showtime Sports.

Both sides agreed to a deal in principle for Sapp to fight Tyson in a kickboxing match at K-1 Premium Dynamite on Dec. 31, 2003. But Tyson could not obtain a visa to enter Japan due to his rape conviction a decade earlier. So, Kazuyoshi Ishii, K-1’s promoter, devised a backup plan. He’d have Tyson do commentary for the Sapp vs. Akebono match to set up a future bout with Sapp. Since Tyson couldn’t come to Japan, Ishii’s team instructed Coker to book the boxing knockout artist a flight to Hawaii to better coordinate with the difference in time zones. Tyson would be part of the commentary team for the New Year’s Eve event, live via satellite from Aloha Stadium.

Tyson arrived in Honolulu with no issues, but, according to Coker, he didn’t bring any luggage with him, just the clothes on his back: a plain white tank top, jean shorts and sneakers. Coker said he called the K-1 office and explained the situation, that Tyson would be on national television in Japan in three days in front of millions of viewers and needed the proper attire. K-1 executives told Coker to take Tyson shopping.

“The next day we go to Al Moana Shopping Center,” Coker said. “Of course, Mike goes to Versace, buys all these suits, buys all these shirts, buys like tennis shoes, underwear, tank tops, socks. And so he’s set, right? He goes out and does the fight and he looks great. I think the bill was something between 15 and 20 grand.”

Tyson’s commentary gig went off without a hitch. Sapp told the camera after knocking out Akebono that Tyson was “next.” The following morning, Jan. 1, 2004, Coker got a call from the hotel manager hosting Tyson and the commentary team. He was told he needed to come to Tyson’s room immediately.

“I was like, ‘Uh oh, did he break it up? Was he mad about something?’” Coker said. “I just didn’t know. So, I come over there and every piece of clothing that we bought him, he left there. He left in his Bruce Lee tank top and jean shorts and that was it. So, at my house today, in my closet, I have all the rest of Mike’s clothes in there.

“And they’re still in the original Versace bag.”

About an hour-long bullet-train ride southwest from Nagoya, on the same night as Sapp vs. Akebono, there was another major combat sports card in Kobe. Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003, made up of MMA and kickboxing matches with some pro wrestling sprinkled in, featured the likes of MMA heavyweight legends Emelianenko, Josh Barnett and Alistair Overeem, along with future luminaries like Lyoto Machida and Rich Franklin.

The real action occurred after the main event when Inoki, the wildly famous retired fighter, pro-wrestler-turned-promoter and politician, decided he wanted to slap 108 people in the face to ring in the New Year. The number 108 has special significance in Japan; a bell is chimed 108 times in Buddhist temples on Dec. 31 to end the old year and start anew.

Slaps from Inoki have special meaning, too.

“My father always told me since Inoki-san was a huge figure in Japan, a big name … if he slaps your face, you’re gonna have success in life,” said Machida, a Brazilian-born fighter whose father’s side of the family is from Japan. “Since I was a child, I heard that from my uncle, from my father. Because they’re Japanese. And I believe that, because he slapped my face and a few years later, I became a [UFC] champion.”

Like Machida, many believed that an open-handed wallop from the larger-than-life man would transfer his fighting spirit to the recipient — including many of the 25,000 people in attendance at Kobe Wing Stadium. Nearly all wanted the privilege of getting slapped by Inoki.

“Everyone is just freaking out and trying to get a part of this,” Barnett said. “The barricades get knocked over. The security guards can’t really keep anybody back. Everyone is pressing around the ring. It’s such a [scene] that as I’m in there, I’m looking at these people and it’s looking like Dawn of the Dead.”

With the help of Barnett, Machida, fighter/pro wrestler Kazuyuki Fujita and others, civility was maintained. Inoki was able to complete his goal and slap the faces of 108 people, who ended up in a single-file line from the entranceway to the middle of the ring where Inoki stood.

In hindsight, 2003 was likely the apex of a combat sports boom in Japan. Sapp vs. Akebono became the only programming to draw more viewers on New Year’s Eve than the Red and White Song Battle. Inoki put on a massive show in Kobe. And Pride FC packed Saitama Super Arena with 39,716 people for a card headlined by Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Kazushi Sakuraba. Also on the card were fights involving Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Royce Gracie and Don Frye.

Between the three cards, more than 100,000 people attended combat sports events in Japan on Dec. 31, 2003, and tens of millions more watched at home. All three events were on regular network television in Japan. By comparison, the UFC ran five events in 2003 and drew more than 10,000 fans for only two of them. Japan, during that period, was the combat sports hub. “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show, which propelled the UFC to mainstream success, wouldn’t start until 2005.

“The UFC was weak at that time,” said Josh Thomson, the former Strikeforce lightweight champion and UFC veteran, who fought on New Year’s Eve in 2010 against Tatsuya Kawajiri. “Pride was the biggest organization. [Fans] weren’t sitting around going, ‘Oh, there’s UFC this weekend.’ They were sitting around going, ‘Pride is this weekend.’”

The production value added to the experience. From the ceremonial drums to start shows, to lasers, extravagant lighting and pyrotechnics, to musical performances playing fighters to the ring, to the unique, high-pitched ring announcing in both English and Japanese by Lenne Hardt, there was nothing else like it in combat sports at the time and even now.

“It’s the same way the Super Bowl is sought after and fans [are drawn] to the energy and electricity of the Super Bowl,” said former UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, who fought Shinya Aoki on the Dynamite show Dec. 31, 2008. “It doesn’t draw just fight fans, it gets people who don’t even watch fighting to [tune in] from their living room couches.”

This year will be the first New Year’s Eve combat sports card following the death of Inoki on Oct. 1. Sakakibara said Rizin has something special planned for Saturday to honor one of the most recognizable figures in the history of Japan.

“I’ve had many mentors to make me who I am today,” Sakakibara said. “But in terms of coming up with the content, making the content, telling the story, making the storyline, it wasn’t Master Ishii from K-1, it’s not Coker, it’s not [WWE’s] Vince McMahon, it’s not [UFC’s] Dana White. I learned the most from Antonio Inoki.

“Antonio Inoki is the person who made me who I am today. Deep inside, I am definitely devastated that he has passed. I feel obligated to put something together to honor him and give back and respect to what he has contributed to our industry.”

Royce Gracie had already done all there was to do in mixed martial arts. He won the first UFC one-night tournament in 1993 and two other UFC tournaments. From the submission legend Ken Shamrock to All-American wrestler Dan Severn and 235-pound Hawaiian brawler Kimo Leopoldo, he disposed of everyone the promotion put in front of him.

But in 2004, Gracie — MMA’s pioneer of pioneers — took on his biggest challenge. Literally.

At K-1 Premium Dynamite on New Year’s Eve, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu master was booked against Akebono. Gracie estimated he weighed about 180 pounds then; Akebono, the former sumo champ, was around the 500-pound mark. At that time in Japan — and sometimes even now — weight classes weren’t strictly abided by.

Gracie said some people around him thought he was “crazy” for taking the fight. But he and his family came up with a novel idea for sparring: tying two heavyweight fighters together to form a single foe.

“I would get two 200-pound guys or 250-pound guys,” Gracie said. “The two of them — imagine you and I together. I would hug you. I’d put my left hand around your waist; you’d put your right hand around my waist. My brother will tie a belt around us, and we become one.

“Sometimes, my brother Royler would jump on top of the two guys to add more weight. Use your imagination.”

Of course, the Gracie family always marketed their version of jiu-jitsu with the idea that a smaller man could topple a much bigger one in a fight if he used their techniques. And so it was on Dec. 31, 2004, Gracie defeated Akebono with an omoplata shoulder lock submission at just 2:13 of the first round.

Unorthodox fights like that have been common in Japan, especially on New Year’s Eve, going back to the days of Ali vs. Inoki. In 2003, the 378-pound “Butterbean,” a heavy-handed American boxer, took on 155-pound mat specialist Genki Sudo at Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye. Sudo, a famous fighter who gained acclaim in music, movies and politics, won with a heel hook in the second round.

In the co-main event of Gracie vs. Akebono in 2004, Sapp took on kickboxing star Jerome LeBanner in a four-round bout with two rounds under MMA rules and two rounds under K-1 kickboxing rules. One of the mainstays of New Year’s Eve during that period was 7-foot-2, 350-pound South Korean kickboxer Hong-man Choi, who had fought against Emelianenko, the best heavyweight of the generation, and Mirko Cro Cop, a Croatian heavyweight hammer with brutal kicks.

Ken Kaneko and Nigerian-born brothers Bobby and Andy Ologun were celebrities in Japan during the 2000s as entertainers. All three competed on New Year’s Eve events multiple times. The Ologuns were almost a Japanese precursor to Jake and Logan Paul, “influencers” who crossed over into the fight game and carried their popularity with them.

“This is entertainment and this is far from being just about fisticuffs and fighting and all this stuff,” Sapp said. “You have to be entertaining. The Japanese learned that storyline and hammered that in, almost a mix between WWE and real fighting.

“Jake Paul has come along and they’ve started to make their version of that.”

There was also the mixing of professional fighters with athletes from other sports, which Inoki was particularly fond of doing. Hidehiko Yoshida, a Japanese Olympic judo champion, fought four times on New Year’s Eve, including in 2004 against American Olympic wrestling hero Rulon Gardner. New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) star Yuji Nagata has two MMA fights on his record, knockout losses to Cro Cop and Emelianenko on New Year’s Eve in 2001 and 2003, respectively. Shinsuke Nakamura, a headliner for New Japan Pro-Wrestling who is now in WWE, fought twice on New Year’s Eve cards.

“You have to deliver to the non-fight fans in order to get those ratings,” Sakakibara said. “So that’s when these irregular matchups happen, something that people will talk about. Something that non-fight fans will notice. … We need the general public to react to what we’re doing.”

Those fights have been de-emphasized in recent years. Rizin vs. Bellator on Saturday will be a streaming pay-per-view and not on network television like previous New Year’s Eve cards, so the idea is to appeal more to the hardcore fans with high-level fighters up and down the card in compelling matchups.

While Rizin has yet to put together as many unorthodox bouts as the Pride and K-1 days, there have been a few. Gabi Garcia, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound Brazilian jiu-jitsu women’s champion, fought three times on Dec. 31 cards, twice against pro wrestlers. Baruto, a 400-pound former sumo wrestler, has two New Year’s Eve appearances for Rizin, and YouTuber Atsushi “Shibatar” Saito had back-to-back armbar wins in 2020 and 2021.

The most fascinating matchup in recent years happened in 2018. Mayweather came to Saitama Super Arena and fought then-20-year-old kickboxing star Tenshin Nasukawa, a youthful fighter about 20 pounds lighter, in an exhibition boxing match. Nasukawa landed early, which only worked to make Mayweather mad. The undefeated boxing icon came back to smoke Nasukawa with combinations for a TKO win at 2:20 of the first round. Nasukawa was seen crying on camera afterward.

“It was a different opportunity for me to go to Japan for my first exhibition fight,” Mayweather said. “To be part of the tradition of the country and perform there, too, was exciting. The people were so nice and it was a lot of fun.”

The outside-the-ring stories from New Year’s Eve in Japan are as numerous as the ones about the fights.

Former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez said he had difficulty finding a sauna when he fought there in 2006, because many facilities in the country prohibit people with tattoos due to their connection to organized crime. Former Strikeforce and Bellator champion Gegard Mousasi said a friend who accompanied him to the fights in 2008 was beaten up by women with baseball bats in Roppongi during a late-night celebration gone wrong. Alvarez said he was given gifts by almost every Japanese fan who asked him for an autograph or photo, including rare memorabilia from Dragon Ball Z — a world-famous Japanese anime series.

The fighters on this year’s card have a chance to make their own memories. McKee’s father, Antonio, fought Aoki on New Year’s Eve in 2012 under the Dream banner, and the younger McKee said it was meaningful to him that Bellator tabbed him to compete on Saturday against de Souza. McKee, who wanted to be on the show in 2019 when Bellator went over, is particularly excited to use Japan’s ruleset, which allows kicks and knees to the head of grounded opponents, unlike the regulations in North America.

“I’m geared up for it,” said the 27-year-old McKee, Bellator’s top young star. “Since the Pride days, I’ve been watching the Japanese and how they put on their shows — soccer kicks and all the knees to the head and stuff.

“This is gonna be a different type of fight. It’s just a different style. It’s more barbaric. It’s the side of fighting that people don’t get to see out of me. They haven’t seen AJ fully unleashed.”

Bob Sapp-Mania hasn’t been fully unleashed for nearly two decades, but Sapp did have a rematch with Akebono for Rizin in 2015, 12 years after the biggest fight in Japanese history. He never did get to face Tyson, though there were discussions yet again about that potential contest in 2020 when Tyson ended up meeting Roy Jones Jr. in an exhibition. Sapp didn’t get to meet Stevie Wonder, either, because Sapp couldn’t leave his changing area without being mobbed by fans. That was just how it was for him in the early-to-mid aughts, which included him landing a role in “The Longest Yard” with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock.

“I’d be in a restaurant [in Japan back then] and about 3,000 or 5,000 people would gather around the restaurant and the restaurant would close down just so I could eat,” Sapp said. “And they would start tapping on the glass and screaming my name. The restaurant would start shaking.”

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Sapp vs. Akebono. The idea of Sapp fighting Tyson may be revisited to give the Red and White Song Battle a run for its money yet again. Wonder can come, too, with his harmonica. Coker could bring the Versace suits.

Sure, all of that seems implausible. But we’re talking about Japanese combat sports on New Year’s Eve. Anything can happen.

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