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Rizin signs Sapp vs. Akebono rematch for its debut

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It was anything but a classic fight, but on Dec. 31, 2003, Bob Sapp and Akebono put on a spectacle that nothing since has ever come close to equaling in Japanese culture. On Friday, a rematch was announced for a show exactly a dozen years later.

The two giants fought under kickboxing rules as part of what turned out to be the biggest New Year's Eve fight night during the period it became a television tradition in Japan, battling before 30,000 fans at the Nagoya Dome. The Sapp vs. Akebono fight won the night for K-1, when three different networks were airing live fights, with shows that combined MMA, kickboxing, weird mixed rules fights and even pro wrestling all on the same stage.

On Friday night in Japan, on a Fuji Network prime time show, Nobuhiko Takada, the pro wrestling legend who is the public face of the new Rizin promotion, announced the rumored rematch as official. The Fuji Network will be carrying Rizin on New Year's Eve, a television show that will combine matches from shows on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31, at the Saitama Super Arena. Spike TV in the U.S. will be airing a similar show at 10 a.m. on Dec. 31, promoted as "Breakfast with Fedor," since the return of Fedor Emelianenko will be the main event. Emelianenko's opponent has not been announced, but in Japan, there were talks of trying to get a famous sumo or pro wrestler to face him.

Ron Kruck on AXS TV's Inside MMA had originally reported the Sapp vs. Akebono fight for the Rizin debut weekend.

Sapp, a college football star at the University of Washington, had an undistinguished NFL career. He was an offensive lineman who played in one game in 1997, with the Minnesota Vikings. He had become all the rage in Japan through the promotion of Kazuyoshi Ishii, the K-1 mastermind promoter. At 6-foot-4 and 360 pounds of muscle, he became a cultural phenomenon, appearing in more television commercials than anyone in the country during that era. For a few year period Sapp was easily the most famous American in Japan.

Pride had put him in matches against four pro wrestlers, as well as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and at the time he had compiled a 4-1 record. The Nogueira loss, via armbar, in a crazy match at Tokyo National Stadium before 71,000 fans, was one of the most famous matches in Japanese MMA history.

He was also 4-3 as a kickboxer, but two of those losses were via disqualification. Strangely, two of the wins were over Ernesto Hoost, generally considered the greatest heavyweight kickboxer of all-time, both via stoppage.

Akebono, born Chad Rowan, was a 6-foot-8, 485 pound sumo legend, and one of the biggest names in the history of that sport. A former high school basketball center in Waimanalo, Hawaii, at the age of 23, he became the first non-Japanese Yokozuna in sumo. That was a huge cultural and sporting accomplishment at the time. He brought interest in sumo to a high point in the early 90s. His battles with Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana led to ratings records in that sport. Akebono was still at his peak going 80-14 and winning two of the six major tournaments in 2000 when he retired due to an injury.

The fight itself, won by Sapp at 2:58 of the first round via knockout, was more impressive for its publicity than any of its action. To say it captured the imagination of the public in Japan would be an understatement. On New Year's Eve, going head-to-head with two major MMA events on network television as well as a concert that is almost a Super Bowl like television event in that culture, 54 million of the 127 million people in Japan viewed that fight. The bout got worldwide publicity, covered all over the U.S. on news stations and major newspapers covering the battle between a former sumo champion and NFL lineman.

Akebono, now 46, was a great sumo, but not a fighter. He would fight under MMA rules on the next three New Year's Eve shows, losing to Royce Gracie via quick submission, Bobby Ologun, a popular Japanese television comedian who fought on major TV events, and the 7-foot-3, 400-pound former pro wrestler Paulo "Giant" Silva. He ended up going 0-4 in MMA and 1-8 in kickboxing, with his only career win coming against Nobuaki Kakuda, a referee who worked in the front office for K-1.

He then went into pro wrestling in Japan in 2005, with mixed success. He mostly headlined for smaller promotions, but once faced Brock Lesnar in a major singles match when Lesnar was the champion with New Japan Pro Wrestling, just prior to his signing with UFC. He was champion with All Japan Pro Wrestling, a once-major promotion that had fallen on hard times, and left the promotion in November amidst rumors he was going to be part of the Rizin debut weekend. 

Rumors of a Sapp vs. Akebono rematch based on the business success of the first fight have been around for years, but the closest was in pro wrestling on January 4, 2013, at the Tokyo Dome, when the two were on opposite sides of an eight-man match.

Sapp, now 42, saw his stardom in Japan run its course after a few years, but has come back regularly over the years for pro wrestling appearances.

He ended up losing 13 of his last 14 kickboxing matches between 2005 and 2013, nine in the first round. In MMA, he had a similar fate, losing 15 of his last 16 recorded fights between 2009 and 2013, with every loss coming in the first round. He was known for going down the first time a punch came, or sometimes, it seemed, even earlier than that.