“We didn't have the internet to tell us what things were possible. So I never even knew that voice acting was something you could go into,” he tells The National during an appearance at Middle East Film and Comic Con earlier this month. “In fact, I was kind of dumb, I always just assumed that voices came on the show and never even thought about the fact that actors were doing it.”
It wasn’t until after Sabat’s voice changed and became deeper when he was 11 or 12 that he realised voice acting was something he could do if he wanted to.
“l always had a super deep voice and people kept telling me to get into something. Luckily ever since I was young, I really liked sounds,” he says. “I liked synthesisers and keyboards and microphones, so it sort of fit with what I enjoyed doing anyway. So becoming a voice actor was something I kind of fell into.”
Unlike many others, Sabat considers himself very lucky because his first voice acting gig was one that changed his life. In 1998, he was offered a part to work on an imported Japanese show called Dragon Ball Z providing the English dubbing for the character Yamcha, before also taking on the voice roles of other characters such as the anti-heroes, Piccolo and Vegeta.
Together, the characters form part of a team known as the Z Fighters, who defend the universe from powerful enemies — and, at times, themselves. Yamcha, Piccolo and Vegeta all begin as antagonists, who make their ways over to the good side — with character arcs masterfully navigated by Sabat's gruff intonation. Marked by lengthy and dramatic battles, Dragon Ball Z would go on to become one of the most internationally recognised animes of its time.
“It is really strange to get the best role as your first role. And it was very, very strange. What's funny is that I really wasn't that great at it when we started. I really wasn't. It's just been working at it for 20-plus years, that really helped me a lot,” he says.
But back then, he didn’t realise how popular the anime would go on to become, or the impact it would have on pop culture, with so many people becoming fans of the franchise. Although, it was also a role that almost did not happen.
In 1995, a group called Funimation (now known as Crunchyroll), which specialises in dubbing and distributing East Asian content, had acquired the license for distributing Dragon Ball to the US market. However, due to low ratings, it was quickly cancelled.
The next year, it picked up the show’s sequel series Dragon Ball Z, which told a different story than Dragon Ball for US syndication, and found much more success. Funimation later decided to bring back Dragon Ball, but with new dubbing that also included Sabat’s voice.
"I really just didn't know what significance it had in America, because at the time, it really didn't. At the time, Dragon Ball had been playing but only the first couple of seasons. It just kept looping and looping and looping and looping," he says.
“People really weren't even watching it that much. And then suddenly, we were cast on our ability to read and to basically mimic those voices as best we could. I didn't really understand the importance of what we were doing for a very long time.”
He describes how it wasn’t until anime conventions and events such as San Diego Comic Con that he began to understand the magnitude of the Dragon Ball franchise, which has been watched in more than 80 countries and spanned several spin-off shows, films and video games.
“It's fascinating to me that so many people all over the world watch it. And that's one thing I learned about Dragon Ball over the years is that no matter where the show went, regardless of what dub it had, it did really well everywhere. There was some magic attached to it,” he says.
He also says how impressed he is with the Middle East region's dedication to the show, because he didn’t realise that there was such a strong fanbase — expressing particular surprise that they grew up listening to his voices.
“It’s very interesting to be here in the Middle East because I never expected that they were even watching the American version here, which is kind of cool,” he says. “We also go to the UK and Australia, but we don't get to go to France or anything like that, because they have their own French dub.”
Although he may be most known for his voice work on the Dragon Ball franchise, Sabat has also found success as voice characters with other hit anime characters such as All Might in My Hero Academia, Roronoa Zoro in One Piece and Daisuke Jigen in Lupin the Third. On IMDb, he is credited with having more than 450 voice acting roles.
Sabat is also the the owner and founder of OkraTron 5000, an audio production facility in Texas that offers services such as voice acting workshops and dubbing. While it is an industry he is grateful for, he admits there have been many changes since he first got involved.
"When I first started, people didn't record themselves at home. There was some technology there but not really you had to really know how to record yourself. You had to go to buy special equipment and it was very expensive, but now you can buy better quality microphones than we recorded a Dragon Ball Z on in the beginning," he says.
However, he is proud that voice acting has evolved into something that has been taken much more seriously in the past few decades with more people interested in the field.
"It certainly changed a lot since I first started. Back when I was first getting into it, I guess there were a lot more kind of chance moments. There were a lot more like 'hey, you got a good voice, you got Moxie kid. You should get into voice acting' but these days, it's definitely changed because so many people are interested in it. It's become a notable profession."