PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) – A Japanese pro-wrestler-turned-politician arrived in North Korea with a former NFL lineman and more than a dozen martial artists on Thursday for the first big sports event featuring well-known foreigners since Dennis Rodman's controversial basketball game earlier this year.
Japanese parliamentarian Kanji ``Antonio'' Inoki says he hopes the event will open a door of sports diplomacy with the North.
Bob ``The Beast'' Sapp, who briefly played American pro football before switching to mixed martial arts and gaining celebrity status in Japan, will lead the foreigners in the exhibition, to be held in a 15,000-seat arena in Pyongyang on Saturday and Sunday. It will also feature local martial artists and musical acts.
About 20 wrestlers and martial artists from around the world are expected to attend. Organizers say the International Pro-Wrestling Festival in Pyongyang will be broadcast online, aired on Japanese network television and shown on North Korean state-run TV.
Inoki is a savvy, charismatic showman – he always wears a bright red scarf in public – and one of the only members of Japan's parliament who supports and participates in exchanges of any kind with North Korea. He has visited North Korea nearly 30 times, but was suspended by parliament for a month after making an unauthorized trip to the North last year.
In the ring, the square-jawed, 6-foot-3 Inoki is remembered for fighting Muhammad Ali in Tokyo in 1976. In 1995, he fought American Ric Flair in the ``Collision in Korea,'' a two-day event held in Pyongyang's huge May Day Stadium that drew a reported 380,000 spectators. It was the biggest pay-per-view event in pro wrestling history. Ali was among the guest attendees.
Inoki's connection to North Korea dates to his mentor, a pro wrestler named Rikidozan who was possibly the best-known sports figure in postwar Japan. Rikidozan was Korean, and his name and exploits in the ring are still known in North Korea.
Though Inoki won't be fighting this time, Sapp told The Associated Press before arriving in Pyongyang that he was looking forward to putting on a good show for the North Korean audience.
Sapp – who is 6-foot-5 and weighs 350 pounds – played briefly as a lineman with the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings before becoming one of Japan's best-known mixed martial arts personalities.
The exhibition will be the biggest sports show with a marquee American since Rodman and a team of other ex-NBA players took to a Pyongyang basketball court in January. Rodman called that event ``historic,'' but was panned by members of the U.S. Congress, the NBA and human rights groups who said he had become a public relations tool for North Korea's government.
As soon as he got back to the United States, Rodman apologized publicly for his conduct and entered rehab.
Sapp said he will steer as far away from controversy and politics as he can.