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By Zach Arnold | June 5, 2010
Your ear might get ripped off Pancrase-style if you don’t listen to what Jordan Breen has to say here.
“Satoshi Ishii has done something really interesting that very few Japanese guys get the chance, let alone actually forward with, and he’s left Japan, he’s training at HMC out in Hawaii and basically he’s just fighting like an MMA prospect. Just fighting every couple of weeks. When you compare and contrast that to how most Japanese athletes are handled, especially cross-over guys who won Olympic medals, it’s a bit crazy really. It’s almost like MMA’s kind of like a sport. You know, just this guy who has some potential just going, he’s training somewhere, he’s fighting as much as he wants. It’s kind of like the way that MMA’s supposed to be almost. And he’s probably going to win as a result of it. Right now, he’s not facing world-beaters. You know, he’s had an exhibition fight in Hawaii, he just had a fight down in [New Zealand] that he won via armbar.
The point is that Ishii now can train at his own rate. He’s outside the media scope of Japan. No promotions are forcing things upon him. He’s just getting to train and develop at his own rate and do his thing. That’s great. We can only hope that MMA, as we continue to globalize, offers these opportunities to more guys. There’s an Olympic gold medalist wrestler or judoka from Japan who want to learn how to fight MMA properly, they don’t have to be put into you know fights for half a million dollars immediately where they’re going to have their competitive edge dulled by the fact that they’re facing guys with 10 times more experience. So, good for Satoshi Ishii. And good for his handlers for recognizing that this is probably the best way to develop an actual fighter.”
Now, let me present to you the flip side of the argument and explain why Ishii’s career is like watching a dog chase its own tail in a circle repeatedly.
Since the day Ishii decided to become an MMA fighter, he’s always indicated what a big fight fan he has been and why he wanted to fight. You fight mainly for two reasons — because you love it and/or because there’s money to be made.
On the love factor, Ishii is fighting outside of Japan and is on a very odd schedule. He’s fighting largely no-name guys who don’t do anything to improve his image in Japan or elsewhere. He’s in this situation where, image-wise, he’s fighting guys where if he wins he doesn’t gain much and if he loses it comes off as if he’s tarnishing his name value further.
And that’s the problem with the Satoshi Ishii experiment. With natural MMA prospects, you can separate the love-of-the-game and business factors. With Satoshi Ishii, you can’t because they will always be intertwined. His whole selling point for getting into the business in the first place is because of his Olympic background, so you have to be really careful with how you start. Once he turned pro, he started doing press conferences and the negative charisma was just overflowing. The media turned on him and looked at him as a goof. And he indeed was a goof who goofed up very badly when he chose Sengoku over K-1. It was one of the most asinine business decisions he could have ever made. At the time he made that choice, I remember talking to agents in Japan who handle fighters who were just shaking their heads at how badly things were being managed for him. Then, when he had surgery last year, people started questioning what kind of skill level he had in the first place. There were plenty of whispers that his training sessions weren’t going well at all and that he was a very slow learner.
If you are managing Ishii’s business affairs, you owe it to him to be honest and to do the right thing. Your margin for error with someone like him who can be your meal ticket is very small. If you bring someone like him into MMA, you have to be able to make a snap judgment after a couple of months of training and be able to figure out, OK, can this guy actually improve or is it going to take too long or is he just what he is and do we need to cash out and get as much as we can before the public thinks he’s a fraud and then go back to salvaging him afterwards and rebuild his image? In this case, his management team should have done the deal with K-1 and played it smart. Instead, he ended up with a lousy deal and is in this awkward position.
Fast-forward to Sengoku’s disastrous New Year’s Eve show attempts at Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo. Even if the show had taken place, it was on the TV Tokyo platform — a channel that a lot of Japan doesn’t pick up. So, the fight would have done OK in the ratings but not like it did on the K-1 & TBS platform. People raved about the high quarter-hour numbers he pulled for that fight against Hidehiko Yoshida, but it really cemented the fact that he and his management team made a terrible choice in picking Takahiro Kokuho over the tried-and-true K-1 brand. An alliance between K-1 and Ishii for all of his fights would have made him a significant amount of money.
Now, Ishii is stuck. He lost to Yoshida and got no rub from the fight. He’s stuck with one fight left on his contract and will likely fight Kazuyuki Fujita. Kazuyuki Fujita!
I give Jordan credit for the argument he’s trying to make, but that argument works for the Yushin Okamis of the world. It doesn’t work for the Satoshi Ishiis of the world. Satoshi Ishii was handed a golden lottery ticket and in Japan, you have to cash that out fast and do it big. The country is fad-crazy and not everyone can have the same kind of run that Kazushi Sakuraba did. Ishii needed to sign with the right promotion and make the most money he could immediately. Instead, he signed with a promotion that had no track record or television deal. It hurt his image. It was one of those “if only he made the right deal” kind of moments. Much like with the UFC in the States, K-1’s branding power matters in Japan. Satoshi Ishii means something under the K-1 umbrella, particularly on NYE. He means nothing under other promotional banners.
Which leads us to where Ishii is now. He’s trying to get better and win some fights, but he’s not. He lost on Friday by disqualification. Jordan talked about the idea of Ishii fighting overseas and trying to get better. Jordan also remarked that there isn’t media following Ishii around. Well, that’s the whole point of using foreign excursions in the fight game as far as building yourself up in Japan. You pay the media to cover you and your fights and it goes from there (or the magazines have their American representatives do it for them). The concept of a foreign excursion is boilerplate in Japan and has worked forever. So, not having any media following Ishii around makes people wonder in Japan, “What the hell is wrong with this guy? Does he even know what he is doing?”
Essentially, what Ishii and his handlers are doing now is hurting his prospects of drawing bigger money in Japan again. K-1 could decide to be nice to him and give him some cash and promote him, but he won’t be the superstar that he could have been if handled properly in the first place. The longer he stays away from Japan, the less the fans there will care about him. Which brings us to the only plan of action that Ishii could try to make work, which is somehow improve enough to where he can compete in the UFC. Competing in Strikeforce is 100% meaningless to the Japanese fans. However, competing in UFC is about 90% meaning to the Japanese fight fans.
The template of the conquering Japanese hero taking over a foreign promotion or winning big foreign fights has always existed, but in order for it to work the Japanese public has to look at the hero as fighting for a promotion or organization that they care about. When Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki left Japanese baseball to go play in MLB, the public was angry because it damaged Japanese baseball but at the same time it gave Japanese baseball players credibility with those men being successful in the States. The relationship and viewpoint of Japanese baseball and MLB in Japan is good. Plus, the Japanese players have their games broadcasted on major Japanese television networks. It means something.
Fighting in the UFC means little-to-nothing to the Japanese fight fans. UFC has a nothingburger of a television deal on WOWOW. Just like with WWE being the #1 wrestling company in the world, UFC being the #1 MMA company in the world isn’t making big waves in Japan because the Japanese public isn’t interested. UFC doesn’t use Japanese style production values, they don’t use a ring, they don’t book cards Japanese-style, they use the Unified rules, and so on and so forth. Plus, for those who know what UFC is, the image of UFC is that of foreigners who killed PRIDE and promised to their face that they would run in Japan but didn’t do it.
(Nevermind the fact that we know how that got sabotaged and how it wasn’t UFC’s fault, but the public doesn’t know or care about the details.)
So, when you hear the comparison of Ishii becoming a big star in Japan by perhaps fighting in the UFC, it doesn’t hold water. He still has to fight one more time for Sengoku… and then what? Fight a bunch of nobodies “for the love of it” and not make the money that he could have?
Jordan’s viewpoint is that Ishii is treating this as if he’s an athlete in an actual sport and that’s fine, but the fight business is not like other sports. When entering the fight game, Ishii had to accept and understand the fact that he was going to be fighting for money and that he had one chance to really cash his lottery ticket. Instead, he made the wrong business move (one of the more boneheaded decisions of all time for big-league Japanese prospects entering the fight business there) and suddenly, people realized, he’s not very good and he needed to take a foreign excursion to get better… except his progress is slow, his image in Japan is mixed, and with the media not covering his moves and having a promotion fully back him his value is decreasing back home.
To quote Jordan from up above:
When you compare and contrast that to how most Japanese athletes are handled, especially cross-over guys who won Olympic medals, it’s a bit crazy really.
And there’s a reason most Japanese athletes are handled the way they are — to make money and to be able to retire rich and be famous. Ishii was given a golden gift and he blew it. Now, trying to build him up and give it a second run is going to be difficult to pull off. Jordan praised his handlers for what they’re doing now, but Ishii’s stuck. If he fights one more time for Sengoku and then signs with K-1, then there’s a very good chance that he’ll make a pay day but much smaller than it could have been in the past and unless they book him against jaybrones he has a good shot of losing. If he had signed with K-1 in the first place, they could have protected his image and built him up slowly but with a Japanese-style of booking. If Ishii tries his hand at making it big in the UFC, that likely won’t happen and he’ll really be sitting there wondering what his tenure in MMA was all about.
For as much as some purists would like to say that you should be in the sport because you love it and because you want to be the best, there are plenty of athletes who are in sports because it’s their only way to make money. For Satoshi Ishii, the love-for-the-game and cash-that-lottery-ticket factors were always intertwined and can’t be separated. It’s hard to see how the road he is on now is going to make him the same kind of money had his handlers played it right when he first started.