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Fight Opinion Weekly: Japan’s second-class fight scene

By Zach Arnold | February 18, 2007

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By Zach Arnold
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It seems like a distant memory. In December of 2005, PRIDE announced the most-expensive fight in the history of MMA with Hidehiko Yoshida vs. Naoya Ogawa. At a price tag of nearly $5 million USD, it blew away anything else happening at the time in the industry’s landscape. It was such a hot rumor that when Yomiuri Hochi first reported the rumor before PRIDE ever made an official announcement, it led to DSE punishing Yomiuri in terms of media access.

Today, you’re very unlikely to see a fight in Japan with $5 million USD on the line. What seemed to be attainable 15 months ago is no longer a realistic proposition in Japan, a country that is now relegated to second-tier status globally for major-league MMA activity.

In the time span of two years, Japan has gone from an international first-class fight industry powerhouse to a secondary market that features a lot of notable, yet smaller scale shows in a hostile business climate that looks more untenable to do major-league business in each and every day that passes by. So much so, that Japanese police are recruiting boxers to stop yakuza gangs from fighting with each other.

With a professional wrestling industry that is already crippled and fighting for survival, Japan cannot afford to see its MMA market depleted and destroyed. However, that is exactly what is happening right now in that country. A country that often projects a first-class world image is finding itself battling to fight out-of-control gang wars that are every bit the symbols of third-world corruption. As the veil of secrecy regarding the Japanese fight game continues to get more publicly exposed (via the court system, the media, and other outlets), the uglier the picture truly looks.

The yakuza has always had its hands deep in the entertainment and sports world in Japan. It’s very hard to avoid yakuza interference if you are a clean or dirty promoter. The various gangs (Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai, Inagawa-kai, Kokusui-kai, etc.) have always been known to fight turf wars in nasty fashion, threatening businesses old and new to cooperate with them by paying ‘protection money’ or face the consequences. In that sense, it’s easy to understand why the Japanese fight industry has always had shady elements to it. The response from Japanese fans and fighters to the gang problem? Turn their heads and ignore the situation at hand. No need to cause heat and fight the powerful gangs.

For a long time, there wasn’t much of a reason for people inside the Japanese fight industry to get into wars with the gangs. During the golden era of professional wrestling in the 1990s, everyone was making money hand-over-fist. New Japan was selling out Tokyo Dome events with $7 million USD gates. All Japan was steadily selling out Nippon Budokan and drawing solid ratings on Nippon TV. RINGS, Pancrase, and UWF-International were all doing good business. When the good times were rolling, there was no need for people to clean up their acts. Money talked and bull**** walked. The gangs were considered nothing more than a occupational hazard that could be bought and paid for. A tolerated nuisance. Almost like paying a licensing fee in order to run a show. No different than running a show in an American state and paying a state commission 5% of the gate to run in that area, right?

In 2007, it’s the Japanese gangs (that were tolerated and negotiated with in the past by fight promoters, workers, and agents) that have managed to gradually destroy a fight industry that was prosperous and booming as recently as three years ago. Turf wars, murders, loan sharking, and many other unsavory characteristics associated with the yakuza have crept up in public view for consumption in relation to the fight game. As with other business activities in Japan, the various yakuza groups have attempted to take sides in the fight industry. A turf-war with real life consequences, expanding into Japan’s capital of Tokyo for all the world to see. Turf wars make things very uncomfortable for certain fight promoters. Multiple murders (as demonstrated last week) and suicides (including Kokusui-kai boss Kazuyoshi Kudo) aren’t making life very comfortable for people involved in the fight game who are connected to the yakuza. It’s all troubling signs for Japanese fight fans, wondering if the yakuza will start to publicly show their faces more strongly at fight events to prove a point. As noted by yakuza-fixer Seiya Kawamata, yakuza big-shots like to be seen and heard at major Japanese fighting events.

If history is an indicator of future events to come, the MMA industry in Japan is in for a train wreck. We’ve seen pro-wrestling promoters like FMW boss Shoichi Arai found dead (he hung himself in order for his family to cash in a life-insurance policy he bought to pay off some $3 million USD in debts he owed to the yakuza) and the Matsunaga Brothers (who ran and owned the All Japan Women’s promotion) crumble after nearly being $30 million USD in debt (resulting one of the older brothers jumping off of a building and committing suicide). We’ve seen wrestlers who have died young and had financial troubles (i.e. Shin’ya Hashimoto), along with those who had financial difficulties and were sought out by the yakuza (i.e. Ashura Hara, Tadao Yasuda, etc.) for gambling debts. So much so, the yakuza wanted to make examples out of them publicly in situations for humiliating payback. In a fight industry where the boys (the fighters) work with the yakuza bosses as the preferred method of doing business, we often see violent conflicts that result in some very sad stories.

As with many of the tragedies that have impacted the Japanese pro-wrestling business, we are starting to see warning signs of similar events coming up in the Japanese MMA industry. In addition to the K-1 corporate tax evasion scandal that rocked the company in 2002, PRIDE was rocked by the death of its former boss (Naoto Morishita) in 2003. The circumstances in which Nobuyuki Sakakibara and DSE took over PRIDE from Morishita’s family remained a mystery that fight fans to this day cannot figure out. Scandals have increasingly become a way of life in the Japanese fight industry — a not-so-positive-one at that.

The gang problem can no longer be swept under the rug by the major fight promoters in Japan. Something is going to have to give between the promoters and the gangs. Who will fight for survival and who will submit into oblivion? A fight industry that’s true image was well-hidden by past success has been revealed to be nothing short of barbaric, corrupt, and the worst crime of all in the eyes of double-standard-embracing fans – inefficient.

In the twisted logic that is often commonplace globally with fight fans, being associated with organized crime or committing criminal acts is not often taken very seriously. It’s often looked at secondarily. Who cares if the money I’m paying to watch fights is going to a group associated with terrorist acts? As long as the drug that is fighting is provided, that’s all the fans care about. So, what is the real crime that gets fight fans so angry and riled up? Corruption itself doesn’t strike enough of an emotional reaction. It’s the double-standard of being corrupt and inefficient with providing the major fights and big shows that is what the fans will judge promoters and fighters harshly by. Being corrupt isn’t very popular when you can’t provide them the drug that they all want to have on a consistent basis.

After the disastrous Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003 event at Kobe Wing Stadium, the fallout between the major fight promoters was fast and swift. It was the scandal that kept on giving and ultimately may be looked at in history as the show that altered the entire Japanese fight industry permanently (and in a bad way). Start in 2004 and continuing forward today, there have been layers upon layers added to the scandal that have been revealed in magazines like Shukan Gendai and in court documents that have exposed allegations of complete and total gang warfare amongst promoters, agents, and television networks. Some of the names were publicly-known figures, while others were behind-the-scenes power brokers that fans had no knowledge of. It was insider hardball at its most active. Once the fallout started in 2004, I found the complicated story to be extraordinarily intriguing and troubling. Intriguing because we finally started to learn just how nasty and intricate business was in the Japanese fight industry. Troubling because I could sense that it could lead to big damage and a possible collapse of the industry itself. K-1 was rocked by a corporate tax evasion scandal involving Kazuyoshi Ishii in late 2002 that still has reprecussions to this day. However, the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye scandal was not a mere tax evasion case. It painted a picture of a Japanese fight industry beyond dysfunction and corruption. Allegations of death and extortion threats that you could only imagine in Hollywood movies was supposedly happening in real life. There’s a famous quote that fits this scenario: You may not be looking for war, but war is looking for you.

As an admitted-yakuza fixer like Seiya Kawamata started talking… and talking… and talking about anything and everything related to the yakuza’s involvement in the Japanese fight industry, I started to wonder if casual fight fans would catch on to what was being said and how it was being handled. Surely a scandal that could effect the ability of multiple promoters to be able to book big-league MMA fights for fans would be cause for concern, right? Instead, I found casual fans to be (and still are to this day) extraordinarily dismissive of the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye scandal that continues to transform the Japanese fight business. There were a few observers in the fight game who caught onto what was happening in Japan in late 2005, but any public discussion of this scandal was quickly dismissed as useless and unimportant by the majority of fans. The idea of saying that the Japanese fight business was in trouble in 2005 when PRIDE signed Hidehiko Yoshida and Naoya Ogawa to a $5 million USD fight was considered crazy, laughable, and credibility-breaking. Hey, the big-money fights were still happening, right? No one was going to stop the $50-million-USD-a-year PRIDE machine! Who cares about corruption? It’s always part of the business. Live with it. You’re a scandal-mongerer. You don’t know what you are talking about. The most common response was, “I don’t care if the mafia is involved, as long as I get to see more shows then who cares what happens behind the scenes.”

After Shukan Gendai’s negative multi-month campaign on PRIDE was launched, a lot of people felt the heat. The biggest target was Fuji TV, which was paying PRIDE handsomely for each show produced and aired on golden-time (prime-time) TV. The peak of the Shukan Gendai campaign hit right before PRIDE’s 5/5/2006 Osaka Dome event, which many fans started to wonder if it was going to be the last event that the TV network would ever air. It was during this time that Kazushi Sakuraba showed up in HERO’s ring, with Gendai claiming that Sakuraba echoed concerns about PRIDE to others. It was PRIDE boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara who threatened legal action against Shukan Gendai (no official word was ever released regarding a result from a criminal complaint) right before the Osaka Dome show. PRIDE was losing the media war with Shukan Gendai and it was starting to effect their bottom line. Shukan Gendai’s claims that PRIDE was a yakuza dummy company (as opposed to a legitimate company with owners) caused negative PR damage. Fight fans had been conditioned to tolerate yakuza involvement in the fight industry, but a fight organization as an actual dummy company (a front)? PRIDE fans were worried about Gendai’s negative campaign and the effect it would have on the company’s ability to produce a product. As long as the promotion could continue to produce fights, the fans would show up to the events.

A respected person in the pro-wrestling industry asked me an interesting question about Japan during the time of this scandal. Who needs each other more – the yakuza needing promoters & fighters or the promoters & fighters needing the yakuza? On the surface, the question made perfect sense. Do promoters and fighters have the business sense to run a legitimate operation or do they need dirty money and resources to back their operations up? Or does the yakuza need promoters and fighters in order to make money in a symbiotic relationship? The answer to the question would soon be revealed.

Fuji TV, the TV network that gave PRIDE big money to produce shows for prime-time television, pulled the plug on their deal in June of 2006. PRIDE put on a brave face publicly, stating that Fuji TV only accounted to about 15% of total company revenues. However, those who know Japanese pro-wrestling history understand that without critical television support, things would fade very fast. It was the same network (Fuji TV) that cancelled the All Japan Women’s TV show, resulting in AJW shriveling up in the face of mounting debt. All Japan Pro-Wrestling in the mid-1990s saw their television show cut from one hour to 30 minutes and placed in a later time-slot. It led to the eventual decline of the company (and in 2000, a mass exodus of workers leaving to form a new company called NOAH). Pro-wrestling history indicated what could and would happen to PRIDE without television support. Suddenly, the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye scandal that fight fans dismissed as a nuisance became a centerpiece of the destruction of Japan’s top fight organization.

The Japanese fight marketplace faces a critical, theoretical choice. With a broken-down promoting system involving archaic yakuza-built-in promotion mechanisms in place, who will step up and challenge the gangs? Who will step up and say, “Let’s be a global company. Let’s be clean and legitimate. Let’s expand out business into other countries without worry and with knowledge.”

The track record of yakuza companies (outside of illegal activities like drug trafficking, smuggling humans, etc.) in legitimate business outside of Japan and in foreign countries is not especially strong. In the case of the Japanese fight industry expanding outside their home territory, it’s incredibly weak. There were many promotions that could have expanded operations into North America or Europe full-time in the 1990s and early 2000s, but nationalistic tendencies and lack of legitimate business knowledge (due to gang influence) stopped these groups dead in their tracks.

Can (and will) the various Japanese fight promoters get their act together in time to rebuild, reform, and reconstruct a Japanese fight industry that is rotting at the core? The answer may determine the permanent fate of Japan’s global role in the fight world.

Topics: All Topics, Fight Opinion Weekly, Japan, K-1, MMA, Media, PRIDE, Zach Arnold | 4 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

4 Responses to “Fight Opinion Weekly: Japan’s second-class fight scene”

  1. [...] You can check out the entire article here. [...]

  2. [...] Here’s your laugh track of the day – Ed Fishman says if PRIDE won’t sell, he’s start his own MMA company. Here’s another knee-slapper from the article: Dream Stage Entertainment CEO Sakakibara is believed to be the majority owner of the PRIDE brand and its assets. Let’s introduce Loretta Hunt to this and this to gauge the Japanese scene right now. [...]

  3. [...] yakuza boss affiliated with a group aligned to Yamaguchi-gumi. My first reaction to this story was to flashback to the article I wrote on February 18th about what is happening in Japan right now. Yakuza-related problems are starting [...]