By Zach Arnold | February 12, 2008
On the eve of what appears to be Mirko Cro Cop showing up in Tokyo for the K-1/DSE joint press-conference in Japan to announce their new promotion, I thought that I would take a brief respite here and put on my historian cap to talk about a certain individual.
To understand the various scandals and seismic behind-the-scenes events that have taken place in the Japanese MMA industry this decade, it is important to focus on an individual who somehow manages to skate under the radar time-in and time-out. This person deserves major scrutiny for his actions in the MMA business.
It’s time to play connect-the-dots with Ken Imai.
Ken Imai worked closely with Kazuyoshi Ishii in the golden era of K-1. Imai was very much involved in both business affairs (contracts) and with foreign organization of events. In many ways, Imai was a critical force in Ishii’s inner circle. When the K-1 corporate tax scandal hit full steam in late 2002, Imai managed to avoid any heat for the prickly situation in regards to phony contracts (including a bizarre fake Mike Tyson contract made by a Bangladesh man for Ishii) and destruction of evidence related to the tax evasion charges.
While Ishii became the fall guy in the corporate tax evasion scandal, Imai became a power broker and wirepuller for DSE — mainly for Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Before the major NYE MMA wars in 2003, Imai managed to get to Mirko Cro Cop and get him away from power agent Miro Mijatovic (who had control of both Fedor & Mirko at the same time). In essence, Imai became a wirepuller for Sakakibara & DSE rather than being a simple agent.
Since becoming Mirko’s agent, Ken Imai’s gimmick in the business has been that he is ‘the only one who can control Mirko.’ When the good times were rolling during DSE’s gravy train years (2004-early 2006), Imai had a great relationship with DSE. However, when DSE started falling apart due to losing their Fuji TV contract after the yakuza scandal, things became tenuous for Imai. Because of his past history with K-1, there was speculation in Japanese MMA circles that a lot of heat existed between the two parties.
With Imai having nowhere to go after DSE started bleeding cash, he took Mirko to UFC. As Mirko has struggled in UFC, so has Imai’s career as a power broker. Imai was pinning his hopes managing other fighters. However, Mirko still was his most powerful drawing card. Strangely enough, Dana White granted permission to Mirko (and Imai) to do a wrestling spot for the Hustle promotion on NYE 2007 in Saitama. Hustle, of course, was Sakakibara’s baby and has a public figurehead now in Noboru Yamaguchi (magazine editor of Kami no Puroresu fame who is close to Sakakibara). So, UFC granting Mirko permission to do a spot in a Hustle wrestling match sounded weird because of the politics involved with the Japanese.
After Mirko’s pro-wrestling appearance, rumors started circulating on the Internet that there might be some differences between UFC and Mirko’s camp regarding his return fight to the company. With Cro Cop all but admitting that he is heading back to Japan, it will be interesting to see how UFC legally pursues the matter.
Make no mistake about it — Ken Imai is the wirepuller in Mirko’s Japanese dealings. Imai has managed to slide under the radar publicly for being close to so many scandal-tainted MMA power brokers in Japan this decade.
Here’s some friendly advice for Zuffa management if they are angry about Mirko’s trek back to Japan and the mess they got themselves into with Nobuyuki Sakakibara…
FOCUS ON KEN IMAI.
It is Imai’s name that has been closest to those involved in big scandals in the Japanese fight scene. That’s a fact. Shine the spotlight on Imai. Make him answer pointed, detailed questions and be relentless while doing it.
For someone who flies under the radar so much, Ken Imai is sure connected to a lot of interesting power brokers.