By Zach Arnold | March 5, 2008
When K-1 mouthpiece Sadaharu Tanigawa announced that K-1 and DSE officials would work together in ‘a large coalition’ to produce a modified version of PRIDE, you could see the old PRIDE marks suddenly appear on Sherdog and MMA Fighting message boards. When Nobuyuki Sakakibara sold the PRIDE assets to Lorenzo Fertitta, it was as if Sakakibara also sold Fertitta the rights to the PRIDE online trolls as well. PRIDE was dead and the trolls had suddenly vanished.
Unfortunately, the trolls are back and with a vengeance based on the news regarding the new DREAM promotion. Check out the message boards now — the old PRIDE vs. UFC flame wars are suddenly back in full force.
There’s no question that the DREAM project is a big story to pay attention to. There are a lot of positive and negatives that will come with the rise and/or fall of this league. For all intents and purposes, this is Japan’s last great hope for trying to restore glory and return to the salad days of the MMA boom that was thriving a few years ago in the country.
The story of the new DREAM project and the people backing it is remarkable in many ways. The Godfather of K-1, Kazuyoshi Ishii, is controlling some strings while sitting in a jail cell. Ishii’s muscle man, Seiya Kawamata, is supposedly back in the fold and running the show. Kawamata is the admitted yakuza-fixer that helped Shukan Gendai’s negative campaign against DSE that led to public pressure of Fuji TV to cancel PRIDE programming on their network. Many of the DSE staffers who lost their jobs thanks to Kawamata are now working alongside him. In the background somewhere, perhaps, is the ghost of Nobuyuki Sakakibara, who is being sued by PRIDE FC Worldwide Holdings LLC for allegedly violating three separate contractual agreements made in the PRIDE asset sale deal. Sakakibara, however, is reportedly preoccupied these days trying to get a soccer club in Okinawa off the ground.
How did we get to this point with the creation of DREAM?
Sadaharu Tanigawa, who took over the reigns of power when Ishii was caught up in the corporate tax evasion scandal, has had a rough time as leader of K-1. Television ratings for big company shows have gradually taken a nosedive in the wrong direction. Tanigawa, at this point, is reduced to being a mouthpiece for K-1 and a managing type boss. Without strong television ratings, the economic model of K-1 is useless in many ways. The company is not focused on live-show promoting and simply cared about getting big rights fees for major fight shows. Under Tanigawa’s watch, ratings have declined and there has been a negative effect on the company’s drawing power. HEROs, which was supposed to be K-1’s big alternative to PRIDE, turned out to be an unfocused mess. There was no coherent booking strategy whatsoever and K-1 failed to establish an emotional connection with the fans to make HEROs successful. In turn, HEROs found itself on life support after K-1 reportedly had trouble acquiring sponsors to get the various MMA shows on Tokyo Broadcasting Network. The last HEROs show, from October of 2007 in South Korea, aired in a late-night time slot on TBS.
With the death of PRIDE and K-1 struggling to grab a share of the Japanese MMA market, DSE staffers and K-1 aligned together under the auspices of the Ishii-Kawamata connection. The idea on paper is simple – take K-1’s brand power on Japanese television and combine it with DSE-style live-show promoting capabilities. Combine this with DSE-style repetitive GP tournaments and K-1’s PR machine and hope that you can create a modified version of PRIDE, with K-1 essentially running the purse strings.
The first DREAM event takes place on March 15th at Saitama Super Arena, using the standard PRIDE GP format with smaller weight-class fighters and Mirko Cro Cop in some sort of ‘bonus’ match on the card. The initial hope is that nostalgia for the old PRIDE product will drive hardcore fans into supporting the promotion initially — at least enough to help K-1 eventually use its PR machine to push the new brand into the public conscious and make it a mainstream deal. If there is one aspect of the Japanese marketplace that makes it unique compared to America, it’s that the fans love nostalgic acts and are willing to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. K-1 will capitalize on the nostalgia that hardcore MMA fans had for PRIDE the same way DSE capitalized on fans who had nostalgia for the U-System (UWF, UWF-International) in the 1990s. In that regard, DREAM should have a safety cushion for the first few shows in terms of drawing sell-outs at the live gate.
The big question for DREAM is whether or not a product predicated on smaller fighters will sell long-term with the Japanese MMA fans.
It’s a legitimate question to ask given that the history of Japanese pro-wrestling marketing has consisted of famous matchmakers like Riki Choshu who solidly believe that you simply can’t market lighter-weight fighters as ‘aces’ long-term. At a time when Jushin Liger, Ultimo Dragon, The Great Sasuke, and many other pro-wrestling Jr. Heavyweights came through the doors of New Japan and wowed fans with their great in-ring style, ultimately those stars never were pushed at the top of cards because of the perception that the mainstream Japanese fans wanted to see the heavyweights, for better or for worse. For the most part, Choshu ended up being correct.
For PRIDE fans nostalgic of Bushido events and the lighter-weight fighters being on top of cards, let the Bushido event series be a business lesson to everyone. Despite PRIDE’s heavy pushing of Takanori Gomi as the ‘ace’ of Bushido, the majority of Bushido events didn’t come close to selling out at the live gates. Bushido events were often relegated and treated as ’second class’ PRIDE events in the eyes of Fuji TV and amongst Japanese media writers. Gomi never proved that he could be a solid main-eventer in terms of drawing power.
Which brings us to the Shin’ya Aoki vs. JZ Calvan fight coming up on the 15th. For the hardcore MMA fans online, the fight is practically a wet dream for them. Given that this fight will take place on the DREAM debut show, it will likely make a favorable impression on fans. However, if you had to market this match alone on its own merits to the Japanese mainstream public without having the angle of DREAM making its debut, it would likely be a dog in terms of attracting fan interest. We are a week away from the event taking place and there is practically no media coverage whatsoever for either Aoki or Calvan. Even if the fight turns out great and one of the two fighters puts on a good performance, it’s unlikely that either man will come out of the bout as a mega-star in the eyes of the Japanese public. That could be a recurring problem for the new promotion in terms of making stars with fighters from lighter-weight classes.
There is an enormous amount at stake with the success or failure of the new DREAM project. In essence, this is K-1’s version of a hail mary. If the project cannot attract big television ratings, then it will be a big black eye on the company and could significantly weaken their television deals with both TBS and Fuji TV. If DREAM does succeed and pull in solid ratings, then Ishii’s consolidation play will be hyped up as a brilliant move. The storyline of Ishii the criminal being able to take down his arch rival and then use said rival’s employees to control the entire Japanese fight industry would make Napoleon blush.
In order for Ishii’s mad science project to become successful, he is going to have to rely on others to help book good fights and strong gaijin stars. One matchmaking item that PRIDE was much better at than K-1 was booking strong gaijin fighters in top card positions. I was talking with the inimitable Jordan Breen of Sherdog about K-1’s history of booking gaijin in HEROs and he summed up K-1’s philosophy in one sentence: along with the freak shows, they like to book random Lithuanians and BJJ guys with little MMA crossover experience. If K-1’s strange gaijin booking habits can be erased by some of the booking habits that DSE used during PRIDE’s heyday, then the DREAM project should be able to generate some classic Japanese ace vs. gaijin ace match-ups.
However, for all of the possible potential that the DREAM project has, there are some serious roadblocks in the way that could easily halt any success that is achieved.
Despite the fact that nostalgia sells really well as a short-term play in Japan, there is also a possible element of buyer’s remorse at stake amongst the PRIDE hardcore fans. K-1’s version of PRIDE, HEROs, failed to capture the imagination of those hardcore fans who used to treat going to PRIDE events as if it was a pilgrimage. As nostalgic as some fans are for the days of PRIDE, some of those fans have moved on and won’t come back. Think about what happened when WWE bought out the assets of WCW from Time Warner. A huge chunk of the WCW fans never embraced or cared for Vince McMahon’s style of pro-wrestling. It’s possible that despite K-1 attempting an image makeover to recreate a mini-PRIDE, there will be some old PRIDE fans who see through the charade and won’t accept K-1’s new creation.
And who can blame them? PRIDE fans got burned when the company collapsed due to a yakuza scandal. A lot of the same cast of characters that were involved in the yakuza scandal are still around in the MMA business. They haven’t left. If stupidity is repeating the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result each time, then there’s a good chance that history could repeat itself with the rise and fall of DREAM.
Are fans willing to get burned again?
With so many famous power-brokers now under one tent, it’s impossible to see a scenario where this project doesn’t fall-apart in the long-run. The Japanese fight industry is famous for scandals, backstabbing, and heavy volatility. Someone’s bound to screw something up. When the grandmaster is sitting behind bars and his ‘muscle’ is an admitted yakuza fixer and they are aligning with staff from a company tarnished over the last two years by yakuza allegations, well…
Short-term, DREAM could be a wildly successful Japanese MMA play. Long-term, however, this company could be MMA’s version of a hedge fund. You can win big and you can lose big as well.