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« | Home | »

My personal outlook on the Japanese MMA scene

By Zach Arnold | December 21, 2007

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Warning: This is a very long post.

For the last couple of months, I’ve stayed relatively quiet in terms of talking about the Japanese MMA scene and how things are lining up. For starters, I’m bored with a lot of it. Secondly, I don’t see a lot of positives right now.

Here is my breakdown of how the political landscape in Japan is shaping up and what you should be paying close attention to.

The power brokers and matchmakers

Dave Meltzer recently wrote an article on Yahoo profiling the tradition of MMA on NYE in Japan. There were a few bloggers who were shocked, stunned, surprise, or whatever adjective you want to use to learn about how Fedor ended up working for the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003 event (instead of the PRIDE event that same night).

If you read through out our site archives (which contains a ton of information from start to finish about how the yakuza scandal occurred), you probably already know the story. Start reading by using these links (here, here, here, and here).

However, let me give you a more detailed account of what exactly happened (based on my personal knowledge and years of talking to people inside the Japanese MMA business).

Antonio Inoki had ran a disastrous event called “Legends” on 8/8/02 at the Tokyo Dome for Nippon TV. Akira Fukuzawa, long-time All Japan Pro-Wrestling play-by-play man, did the PBP call for the event. (This is the event where Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira destroyed Sanae Kikuta and Kikuta ended up doing a stretcher job.) It was a disastrous event because the main event was Naoya Ogawa vs. Matt Ghaffari. The show did terrible numbers at the gate and was a black mark for Inoki. Inoki’s power source, old-time Japanese entertainment business mogul Tatsuo Kawamura, was the backer of this project and every other project known to man since then for The Big Chin. Kawamura owns one of Japan’s largest entertainment companies, K-Dash, and Ogawa has always been closely tied to Kawamura.

You have to understand what the power structure of the Japanese MMA business was in 2002. You had K-1 and PRIDE working together. As we’ve learned in the last couple of years, the power structures of the two groups were as follows: K-1 had Kazuyoshi Ishii as the boss, with Ken Imai and Nobuaki Kakuda in secondary roles along with admitted yakuza-fixer Seiya Kawamata and Daisuke Teraguchi, who helped out with foreign business. PRIDE’s backers consisted of Hiromichi Momose (the guy at the early PRIDE events in black glasses and a ballcap who always marked out for fighters at ringside after the fights were over), along with underlings of Naoto Morishita and Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Nobuhiko Takada has always been a front man (a spokesperson) rather than someone with major power in the group. Momose followed Takada after the end of UWF-International and the start of PRIDE in 1997 under the KRS banner. The power base for PRIDE was in Nagoya, which is where Morishita and Sakakibara came from.

Mixed in with all of this were the major agents. Motoko Uchida, who was Akira Maeda’s secretary when he ran the RINGS promotion, ended up being a power broker for the Brazilian Top Team in Japan. The rumor (for a long time in Japan) was that Uchida was backed heavily by Tatsuo Kawamura (the same guy backing Inoki and supposedly Kawamata). Koichi “Booker K” Kawasaki was the power broker for Chute Boxe Academy in Japan. Australian-born Miro Mijatovic was the super-agent to be, as he was really the most powerful gaijin agent at the time in Japan (managing both Fedor and Mirko Cro Cop, along with fighters in Fedor’s camp). Mijatovic had made his living in Japan for many years as a contract lawyer and had deals in place with star athletes like famous swimmer Ian Thorpe for business in Japan. Mijatovic worked alongside Bas Boon, who is very close to Golden Glory. Mr. Kokubo, the man who is behind J-ROCK, is the backer of fighters like Hidehiko Yoshida, Kazuhiro Nakamura, etc. J-ROCK is now backing the new World Victory Road project.

The events that shook up the Japanese MMA scene forever

For those of you who have followed the PRIDE yakuza scandal since day one, none of this information is new. However, if you’re a newcomer, here is a synopsis of what took place.

K-1, PRIDE, and Inoki cooperated with each other on a big show (produced by K-1) called Dynamite on August 28th, 2002 at Kokuritsu (National) Stadium in Tokyo. The stadium was meant to be used for soccer, so the amount of production equipment and portable toilets needed to be installed to execute this show was monstrous. The show drew a huge crowd of over 70,000 (legitimately paid), even though 91,000 was the claimed attendance. After this event, things started to fall apart.

Since NYE of 2000, all the parties had been cooperating with each other for events (2000 was a SkyPerfecTV PPV at the Osaka Dome, 2001-2002 was at Saitama super Arena taped for Tokyo Broadcasting System). However, the factions started feuding with each other after two important incidents.

There had been rumors that K-1 was undergoing some tax problems. Kazuyoshi Ishii was paying out a lot of money to foreign fighters and had also desparately wanted to sign Mike Tyson. Ishii ended up getting busted in December of 2002 in a raid by the Tokyo tax bureau. There were allegations that a contract for Mike Tyson was forged in order to divert money, that fighters were being paid under the table, and that evidence of such acts were intentionally destroyed. Ishii ended up going to jail, along with a mysterious Bangladesh man who was arrested in another country and was sentenced for making phony contracts for Ishii. Ken Imai was rumored to be close to Ishii on business deals at the time, but he was never charged or convicted of any crimes. Imai ended up leaving the K-1 power structure.

Sadaharu Tanigawa, a former pro-wrestling and MMA writer, took over for Ishii. He created FEG as his umbrella group to run operations.

There was talk that the costs involved in the Dynamite show were so expensive that it ended up costing more than previously thought of. At the time, Sakakibara had his own production company (called Ubon) that helped out in matters. Morishita, the PRIDE boss, was preparing for an announcement in January of 2003 at the Hilton hotel in Tokyo to announce a Grand Prix tournament format. After Morishita talked about the format in a press conference, he was found dead in his hotel room (hanging in the shower).

Sakakibara told the press that Morishita was having problems with a mistress (Morishita was married) and that he would eventually take over PRIDE. An important question was raised (that would be mentioned over and over again for the next several years) — if Morishita had a stake in PRIDE ownership, wouldn’t his shares in the company (Dream Stage Entertainment) go to his widow?

The question was never answered. Hiromichi Momose ended up fading away from the background of PRIDE and Sakakibara became entrenched in the company. His main management allies included Sotaro Shinoda and Hiroyuki Kato, with Daisuke Sato (now formerly of Fuji TV) playing a major role as both a production wizard and image consultant. At this point, it was uncertain who was backing Sakakibara or if he was running on his own (Shukan Gendai would later claim that Sakakibara was backed by a former Osaka-based loan shark named Mr. I aka Mr. Ishizaka aka Kim Dok-Soo, an alleged yakuza of Korean blood).

Once Sakakibara took over the PRIDE operation, all of his various companies became connected to the project (Ubon for production, plus a ticket distribution company as Akira Maeda cryptically referred to several months ago in an online post). Things started to fall apart between K-1 and PRIDE, and the two powers would eventually go after each other with separate MMA events on NYE in 2003 (PRIDE with Fuji TV at Saitama Super Arena, K-1 with Tokyo Broadcasting System at the Osaka Dome). The odd people out of the equation were Inoki’s crew (Inoki, Kawamata, Kawamura). Eventually, Nippon TV got into the NYE MMA act and signed Kawamata to a multi-year deal where he would be the producer of Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye MMA events in Japan. Inoki’s image and likeness would be used for promoting, but Kawamata was the point man.

One of the high-profile matches that Kawamata wanted for the Inoki show was Yoshihiro Takayama vs. Mirko Cro Cop. Mirko was represented by Miro Mijatovic and it seemed inevitable that the match would get booked. However, a couple of weeks before the Inoki MMA event, Cro Cop backed out of the fight due to what he claimed was a back injury. Soon after Cro Cop backed out of the show, he left Mijatovic and signed with Ken Imai. A couple of days after the NYE MMA events, Cro Cop (through Imai) had a ‘letter’ published in Sankei Sports claiming that Mijatovic couldn’t book him vs. Fedor and that he wanted better representation. Sources close to Mijatovic believed that Imai acted as a wirepuller for Sakakibara and signed Mirko away from Mijatovic. A rumor would surface years later that Mirko Cro Cop was offered $300,000 USD for the jump, but neither Gendai nor Kanagawa police officials (more on this later in the article) would comment on the claim.

Instead of Takayama vs. Cro Cop, Takayama ended up appearing at the Inoki show as a TV commentator. Kawamata ended up booking Josh Barnett vs. Semmy Schilt and Fedor vs. Yuji Nagata (New Japan Pro-Wrestling). Sakakibara was furious that Fedor was booked for the Inoki event and claimed that it violated his PRIDE contract.

However, Mijatovic ended up booking Fedor for the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye event. How was this done? At the time of the booking, Fedor (along with his brother and other fighters) worked in PRIDE as representatives of the Russian Top Team. DSE’s deal with Mijatovic was for RTT talent. So, Vadim Finkelstein (and Apy Ectheld) ended up forming the Red Devil fight club. Fedor, his brother, and other Russian stars were now property of Red Devil and not with RTT any longer. Therefore, Mijatovic legally could make the booking of Fedor because he was no longer a member of RTT and DSE only had an arrangement with RTT.

Fedor ended up destroying Nagata on the Inoki show. The show, in terms of business, was a disaster. Mijatovic was not paid for the fighters he booked (through Bas Boon and Golden Glory) and ended up paying out of his own pocket. He claimed that Kawamata ripped him off and would soon file a lawsuit against him. After the disastrous Inoki event at Kobe Wing Stadium, Nippon TV terminated its contract with Kawamata. The network claimed that Kawamata didn’t live up to the terms of the deal, so Kawamata sued Nippon TV in court. Mijatovic filed a lawsuit against Kawamata in Tokyo District Court in order to obtain a lien on any winnings Kawamata earned in court against Nippon TV. The court ruled against Kawamata in his case against Nippon TV and Mijatovic ended up with no money (even though he won his separate lawsuit case in court and was deemed as a credible witness.)

Meanwhile, Kawamata was having his own troubles before and after the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye show. According to Kawamata in Shukan Gendai magazine, he was allegedly receiving threats from DSE yakuza for booking Fedor. After the Inoki show, Kawamata was summoned to a building in Shizuoka where he was threatened for blackmail money — by his own yakuza gang members, who turned on him and supposedly were friendly now to DSE. Kawamata ended up leaving Japan and there were some angry people.

According to Shukan Gendai, Mijatovic was summoned to a hotel room meeting where a gun was allegedly pointed to his head and was warned about crossing DSE. Mijatovic’s relationship with Red Devil started to deterioriate as Sakakibara and PRIDE started to get closer to Vadim and Fedor. Eventually, Mijatovic left the MMA business and focused his business activities on Japan’s lucrative love hotel sector (raising capital to buy properties and renovate depressed areas).

Kawamata’s revenge

Seiya Kawamata launched a multi-pronged attack against DSE. He filed a police complaint in 2005 with the Kanagawa Police, claiming that alleged yakuza members connected to DSE threatened him. He helped cooperate with Kodansha, the publisher of Shukan Gendai, for a multi-month negative campaign against DSE. The magazine campaign built up so much public pressure on Fuji TV (which was having a stockholder’s meeting to address Livedoor’s attempt at a hostile takeover of their company) that the network dropped DSE programming despite the large ratings it attracted.

The Kanagawa Police investigation into Kawamata’s claims went unresolved because they couldn’t track down Mr. I (aka Mr. Ishizaka aka Kim-Dok Soo), who rumoredly fled to South Korea at the time of the investigation.

With PRIDE finished and Kazuyoshi Ishii sitting in a jail cell, the MMA scene became weakened in Japan. Almost scorched earth, in fact. There are strong rumors now that Seiya Kawamata is back in Japan and is making some big political decisions impacting the NYE scene this year for MMA. (Hence why there seems to be cooperation between the Yarennoka and K-1 MMA events.)

Personally, a story I found fascinating is a report in Japan that Kawamata supposedly has a stake or interest in FC management, the supposed company backing and representing Brandon Vera. The story got no traction whatsoever in the US MMA blogosphere, which surprises me given that Kawamata is an admitted yakuza fixer.

It should be noted that the Yarennoka event will likely do lackluster business (since it is only on SkyPerfecTV PPV and not on free-to-air TV). Good benchmarks for the show (in my estimation) would be 30,000 PPV buys and 10,000 paid tickets sold. Anything over those benchmarks is gravy. My personal opinion is to expect some papering of tickets for the DSE event in Saitama. (Same for their Hustle afternoon event).

There is not much appeal at all for the Yarennoka event in Japan. It is scarily quiet this year in terms of NYE MMA activity, certainly by a longshot when compared to previous years. I personally have zero interest in the DSE event and very little interest in the K-1 event, which is personally shocking to me (I’m actually interested in watching the UFC 79 event).

The intriguing part about the DSE event on 12/31 is that more people in America may be watching the event on HDNet than people paying to see it in Japan on SkyPerfecTV. Completely unfathomable if you’ve been a fan of the NYE MMA events in Japan since 2000.

If you’re curious as to how HDNet got the rights for the DSE event, I can only come up with one guess (it is conjecture) as to how it happened. HDNet ended up making a deal with M-1 Global for the TV rights from SkyPerfecTV. In past dealings between PRIDE and Vadim Finkelstein (of M-1), the Russians were given the TV rights to PRIDE events and they turned around to distribute the footage in other TV markets. So, it’s totally not out of the question that the same deal happened here (Vadim and M-1 got the TV rights, M-1 Global flipped them around and made a deal with HDNet).

The direction of MMA in Japan for 2008

With Seiya Kawamata supposedly back in action in Japan, expect the unexpected. He likes to make big splashes and big moves, but it’s usually always short-term business. It will probably be a more interesting year in terms of politics than it will be in terms of fight quality.

Caleb at MMA Predictions unwittingly gave away the main event for the World Victory Road 3/5 Tokyo, Yoyogi National Stadium Gym I event (which is being negotiated as Hidehiko Yoshida vs. Roger Gracie).

I expect to see a ton of mid-range shows in Japan for 2008, with a very mixed success rate (2 out of every 3 shows will probably be money losers or minor failures). I don’t expect great things at all coming out of Japan and with UFC expanding its schedule for more shows, expect to see more Japanese talent make its way to foreign soil and to make a pitch to get into WEC.

Topics: All Topics, HDNet, Japan, K-1, M-1, MMA, Media, PRIDE, Zach Arnold | 22 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

22 Responses to “My personal outlook on the Japanese MMA scene”

  1. JapanMMA says:

    Very interesting read. I think you are right in your conclusion, but I think the lack of big organizations opens a market. I think it will be interesting to see what happens.

    The question will be around the TV deal. Thats what is holding Yarennoka back. It will be key for a new organization to succeed along the same lines as Pride.

  2. Oliver Copp says:

    Excellent article!

  3. Rob says:

    Great, insightful article, as always.

    Goes without saying, I love the site… but… “I don’t see a lot of positives right now.”

    Zach Arnold… negative? Shocking! :)

    Little interest in Sak V Funaki? For shame!

    Happy Holidays!

  4. tulseluper says:

    Thanks a lot Zach. An excellent read for those (like me!) who struggle to get a handle on the vagaries of the Japanese scene.

  5. Zach Arnold says:

    Little interest in Sak V Funaki? For shame!

    It’s tough for me because I’m a pro-wrestling guy. However, my last memory of Funaki was that dismal showing at Colosseum 2000 against Rickson.

    I like both Sakuraba and Funaki and I know K-1 is trying its hardest to promote it as a fight of the “U-System” guard (plus promoting it as the battle of Michinoku), but it is 2007…

  6. Jason Bennett says:

    Another fantastic piece Zach. Although I’ve followed these stories as much as possible, there were several points in there that I had not read before.

    Articles like this are proof the big boys in MMA media don’t have the guts to tackle the big issues. I know for a fact Josh Gross would never allow this article on Sherdog, “entirely speculation and hearsay – now how about them fights”.

    Fight Opinion – the only news source an MMA fan needs. Call me a Zach mark if you want, but I tend to prefer real news as opposed to puff pieces for criminals.

  7. mmatoronto says:

    Zach, its hard to stay simply a Japanese MMA fan when you write stuff like that…

    Great article, super detailed, more than I have ever heard or read about. Also not to damper your article in any ways, Yakuzas are awful. In Japan, tax evasion is a fact of life, everyone does it, and I mean everyone…just a different culture. Except the Yakuza is worst than anything I know (except perhaps Russia – funny eh?)

    I’m also very much looking forward to UFC79…How come the UFC is barely promoting it? Thats what I want to know.

  8. SamScaff says:

    How can you have “zero” interest in the Yarennoka event??? Why do you feel the need to trash a quality event (talent/matchup-wise)??

    Thats ludicrous. Is it because it is connected (tenuously at best) to DSE and/or Yakuza??

    Are you on such a moral high horse that you cant enjoy an event that has the #1 HW in the world as well as 6 out of the top 10 lightweights, and a couple of top 10 middleweights??

    Please explain why you feel the need to down-talk this event?? What is your personal vested interest in this? Are you mad because you pushed the DSE-Yakuza story when no one else would? And now they are back and youre raw about it? Thats what it sounds like to me. Sour grapes.

  9. Mike David (Euthyphro) says:

    Why do people take this so personally? I’ll never understand that.

  10. Chuck says:

    It’s funny, MMA business in Japan is going downhill, but pro wrestling in MMA is making a comeback (especially New Japan, and recently NOAH because of Kobashi’s comeback). Coincidence? Personally, I would love to see these events. Hopefully these companies can get a DVD distribution deal in the US, no?

  11. Zach Arnold says:

    How can you have “zero” interest in the Yarennoka event??? Why do you feel the need to trash a quality event (talent/matchup-wise)??

    It’s not that great of a card, but let me stress that I’m not here to be your personal grinch. If you enjoy it, more power to you. If you can watch it for free, even better.

    The main event is not really that appealing and the semi-main is really the only major drawing match on the show (Misaki vs. Akiyama), with all of the heat being on Akiyama. Misaki, to the casual Japanese public, is almost a nobody. Akiyama is the TV star, but without TV his value isn’t much here (because K-1 has shown that you can be a big TV star and still not draw well on the house show circuit).

  12. Oliver Copp says:

    The main event isn’t just not appealing – it’s a joke. They couldn’t have found a bigger (quite literally) tomato can for Fedor to face if they tried.

    There may be a few quality fights on the card but the main event is a disgrace. I agree with Bas that it shouldn’t go more than two or three minutes tops.

  13. dustin says:

    i find it hilarious that people still buy into the fedor myth…i used to love the guy but it seems him and his management are more concerned with maintaining a legacy rather than proving himself.

    thanks for a great article! wasnt able to follow the craziness that happened in japan there for the life of me, but now i get it…kinda…i think…

  14. SamScaff says:

    The Fedor myth??

    Thats funny. People forget that it was not Fedor’s fault that Pride disappeared. And to blindly criticize him for not signing with UFC is just ignorant. As for NYE, according to Monte Cox, Fedor fighting HMC was the only way that event could even happen. Furthermore, several top ranked fighters from Pride have not fought in the past year. Are their rankings myths too?

  15. Oliver Copp says:

    Just because they HAD to do the fight that doesn’t make it any better. This is Fedor-Zulinho II. I really don’t care for the reasons behind it – it just sucks.

  16. robthom says:

    Fedor has an established legacy and name value in Japan were it doesn’t matter if the competition is legit. He doesn’t need to take the heat against real comp to prove anything to anyone anymore. At least not right now. Coasting off his legacy in the celebrity driven Japanese fighting world is probley equally or more lucrative than the UFC, and much easier than risking his record for an often fickel American crowd. He may actually fight some legit guys under M1, there are still a few good HW’s spread out among the non-ufc orgs. This is only his first fight with a new org and because its a NYE fight its of course of the requisitely silly variety. I wish he could have been in UFC, but I can understand his decision and I see no reason to be upset by it.

    BTW, great article Zach.

  17. [...] Story about Yakuza Dealings – Today, 01:14 AM My personal outlook on the Japanese MMA scene | FightOpinion.com – Your Global Connection to the Fig… My personal outlook on the Japanese MMA scene By Zach Arnold | December 21, 2007 | Print This [...]

  18. Dave says:

    It sucks that Aoki vs Calvancante isn’t going to happen anymore. But come on, Yarennoka! is still a good card. It pales in comparison to the previous Shockwaves but when I’ve seen some claim that it’s as bad as UFC 78, that’s just ridiculous. You have 7 ranked fighters on the card and with the exception of Fedor who is fighting another freakshow fight on NYE, they all have decent/good/great opponents.

    Heavyweight bout: Fedor Emelianenko vs. Hong-Man Choi
    Middleweight bout: Kazuo Misaki vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama
    Lightweight bout: Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Luiz Azeredo
    Lightweight bout: Hayato Sakurai vs. Hidehiko Hasegawa
    Lightweight bout: Gilbert Melendez vs. Mitsuhiro Ishida
    Middleweight bout: Makoto Takimoto vs. Murilo Bustamante

    Fedor vs. Choi is a typical PRIDE-esque freakshow main event. Not something I’m thrilled about as a fan as I would have preferred to see Fedor vs. Barnett. But in Japan, freakshow fights do get ratings. That’s why PRIDE did them.

    Misaki and Akiyama is solid. How can Misaki not be a draw in Japan when he was the 2006 welterweight GP champ in PRIDE and also one of PRIDE’s top fighters in the welterweight division? I would find it hard to believe that the 2006 PRIDE welterweight GP champ would be considered a nobody with the casual Japanese audience. From both the perspective of a fan and from a marketing perspective, this is going to be a good fight.

    Kawajiri vs Azeredo: Not as big as Misaki vs Akiyama but Kawajiri is one of the top PRIDE lightweights and Azeredo isn’t a can or something. He has talent. The problem is that Azeredo doesn’t have name value. Should be a good fight though but I can see how it wouldn’t cater too much to the casual fan given that Azeredo isn’t a name fighter.

    Sakurai vs Hasegawa: Sakurai is a big name PRIDE lightweight second to only Gomi. Hasegawa is the DEEP welterweight champion but DEEP is a small organization in Japan so I can see how this would take away from the drawing power of this fight. But Mach is a draw and it’s not like he’s fighting a can. I don’t see how this fight or the Kawajiri vs Azeredo fight is any different from what you’d typically see in PRIDE really.

    Melendez vs Ishida: These are two top PRIDE lightweights. You have to admit that this is going to be a good fight. Though I would imagine that casual Japanese fans wouldn’t be into Melendez but Ishida is a known Japanese lightweight.

    Takimoto vs Bustamante: This fight has the lowest drawing power on the card and isn’t compelling. Would be nice to see Bustamante back in action but that’s about it.

  19. liger05 says:

    Zach do u think the New Japan dome show will do good numbers at the gate this year? I’m more of a puroresu guy and for the first time in years I am more excited about that show than any of the Dec 31st MMA shows in Japan.

  20. David M says:

    Good article Zach. Do you think Fedor-big Korean guy will get any tv ratings? I remember what you wrote about the big fucker having a resemblance to Giant Baba, but is that enough? How popular is Fedor in Japan? Is he as popular as Mirko used to be? Does he do tv ads?

  21. Gygax says:

    Zach, I heard rumor that K-1 was getting the Yarennoka event shown on TBS immediately following the K-1 Dynamite event. This was because Hong Man Choi was plcaed in the main event. Any truth to this or is it exclusively on SkyPerfect PPV only?

  22. [...] off, Zach Arnold from Fight Opinion put out an excellent (and very long) piece entitled “My personal outlook on the Japanese MMA scene” in which he takes a look back at some of the biggest developments this year in the Japanese MMA [...]

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