PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Led by a Japanese pro wrestler-turned-politician, about 20 mixed martial artists from around the world — including a former NFL lineman — arrived in North Korea on Thursday to put on a series of exhibition matches this weekend.
The exhibition will be the first major sports event with marquee foreigners in Pyongyang since former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman and a team of former NBA players put on a basketball game in January that was widely criticized in the United States.
Japanese lawmaker Kanji "Antonio" Inoki says he hopes the event will open a door of sports diplomacy with North Korea.
Inoki is a savvy, charismatic showman and one of the only members of Japan's parliament who supports 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.
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. Ali was among the guest attendees.
"World peace through sports exchanges has been my lifelong mission," Inoki, wearing his trademark red scarf, told a news conference after he and the wrestlers arrived.
The event comes as relations between Japan and North Korea have begun to thaw slightly following an agreement by the North to re-open an investigation into the fates of dozens of Japanese who are believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s.
Japan has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. Though it has recently lifted some unilateral sanctions allowing more exchanges, it still enforces U.N. sanctions over the North's nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs.
Bob "The Beast" Sapp, who briefly played American pro football before switching to mixed martial arts and gaining celebrity status in Japan, is leading the foreigners in the exhibition, to be held in a 15,000-seat arena in Pyongyang on Saturday and Sunday.
"It's just such an unusual experience to get to come here," he said. "It's a real culture shock."
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.
"Pro wrestling has returned to Pyongyang and the world is watching," said Jang Ung, a member of the IOC who is co-chairman of the North Korean organizing committee for the weekend event.
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 said 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.
He said was familiar with the criticism that Rodman received for coming to North Korea. Rodman called his game in Pyongyang, which he opened by serenading Kim with the birthday song, "historic." But he 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, who arrived with boxes full of cookies with his likeness on them to distribute to children, said he will steer as far away from controversy and politics as he can.