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« | Home | »

The debate: Has the Satoshi Ishii experiment turned into something great or is it a train wreck?

By Zach Arnold | June 5, 2010

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Your ear might get ripped off Pancrase-style if you don’t listen to what Jordan Breen has to say here.

I’ll present to you the positive side of this argument from Jordan Breen:

“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.

Topics: Japan, MMA, Media, Sengoku, Zach Arnold | 16 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

16 Responses to “The debate: Has the Satoshi Ishii experiment turned into something great or is it a train wreck?”

  1. [...] an excellent analysis between Sherdog’s Jordan Breen and Fight Opinion’s Zach Arnold, discussing Japanese [...]

    • Coyote says:

      Sorry, Huddle but this time you don’t understand the article. Mega Lol.

      I think you have keep comenting all the post of this blog. Is your nature.

      Keep going men.

  2. 45 Huddle says:

    Dana White was right on Ishii. He publicly warned him about going to Japan and basically said they won’t handle his career properly.

  3. manapua says:

    Oahu is producing little to no MMA talent to speak of Haru Shimanishi has never produced at top flight fighter on the Hawaii level in over 10 years of being there. The whole thing makes little sense really.

  4. cutch says:

    Shu Hirata – Takeya Mizugaki & Yoshiyuki Yoshida’s manager

    What do you think can bring about these changes needed in Japan ?

    Unless going digital in 2012 makes a big difference in the Japanese TV market, Japanese MMA would never ever going to beat Zuffa because there is no such a thing as a big PPV market in Japan. People in Japan are not used to paying for television. It’s not customary. It’s not common.The only way to revive Japanese MMA, I believe, is to have a Japanese UFC or WEC champion.

    Look at MLB. its very popular in Japan now because there are Japanese stars that are doing well – like Ichiro and Matsui. But in the UFC or WEC, we still haven’t seen Ichiro or Matsui yet. Think of it this way: if GSP or Anderson Silva were Japanese, then they would be all over the Japanese TV by now and even an old lady in the deep woods of Yamagata prefecture would know what the UFC is. So fighters are the ones that can really change everything. Even only one Japanese champ might be able to change everything. We need Japanese Tiger Woods in the UFC then everything would fall into the places for the entire industry.

    I take it you know Shunsuke Nakamura Zach? The Japanese soccer captain. He played for Glasgow Celtic in Scotland and was very successful in what would be described as a B League, especially compared to leagues in England, Spain & Italy.

    He won player of the year for us and scored goals in the European Champions League and earned us a fortune from Japan, so much so that when he left we have signed a South Korean, Chinese and a Japanese player. It also made him more popular and perhaps well known and I highly doubt The Scottish League is on a better channel than the Japanese one. They would show Nakamura games live over there though and they were HUGE.

    The UFC might never be bigger than K1 in Japan but if Ishii or someone else was to get himself a UFC title fight and maybe even won, they would’nt become mega stars in japan?

  5. Zach Arnold says:

    Trust me — if Shu was managing Ishii, he’d be talking differently about managing him than the way he manages his fighters, and for good reason.

    With Ishii, you have to be able to make a decision on the guy after a couple of months of training and not signing with a promotion. What’s his learning curve, how much effort is he putting into this, what opponents should he be booked against to help build him up, etc.

    And from day one, the way Ishii has been handled has been a historically bad textbook case of what not to do.

  6. edub says:

    Zach are you saying he’s a failure because he didn’t take his skill set to K1 and get more money. It seems you care more that he didn’t cash in on his name value, and that would’ve meant (correct me if I’m wrong) taking some freakshow matches. Maybe a fight with Minowa, maybe a fight against Sakuraba or Melvin Manhoef.

    I simply don’t see the problem with what he’s doing if he is only interested in getting better. If he doesn’t care about cashing on name value in Japan why do you? And why do you care about someone who would turn him into a meal ticket??

  7. cutch says:

    The guy just want’s to slowly build his CAREER, Do you think Dream would have paid huge money and built him up slowly? Sure they may have given him Jose Conceco or something but then they would probably then give him Mousasi or something within three fights. The guy is in his early 20’s and is not some huge monster like Brock who can compete almost straight away due to his size.

    here’s more from that Shu interview and I think most Japanese fighters should be listening to him.

    Default Shu Hirata on the state of Japanese MMA

    So what needs to change about Japanese MMA to allow more Japanese fighters to survive in the West?

    The skill level of fighters, the training environment and even the respect MMA fighters get from the general public right now in North America is way ahead of Japan. I think overall effort is lacking. The promoter is not putting enough effort to promote shows. For example, there is not enough emphasis on getting sponsors and TV deals from overseas.

    I think fighters and gyms are not putting in enough effort to learn new training methods. There should be more fighters going to the states for training, and more trainers should be coming to the States to see and learn what the other MMA fighters and trainers are doing. Also, Japanese fighters should also put in a little more effort to learn about training, dieting, nutrition and everything else necessary for MMA. I think fighters and gyms should be more keen on bringing in their own sponsors. All of these things would ultimately bring more business to the world of the Japanese MMA but I don’t see that happening. It has been the same for the last ten years or so.

    What do you think can bring about these changes needed in Japan ?

    Unless going digital in 2012 makes a big difference in the Japanese TV market, Japanese MMA would never ever going to beat Zuffa because there is no such a thing as a big PPV market in Japan. People in Japan are not used to paying for television. It’s not customary. It’s not common.The only way to revive Japanese MMA, I believe, is to have a Japanese UFC or WEC champion.

    Look at MLB. its very popular in Japan now because there are Japanese stars that are doing well – like Ichiro and Matsui. But in the UFC or WEC, we still haven’t seen Ichiro or Matsui yet. Think of it this way: if GSP or Anderson Silva were Japanese, then they would be all over the Japanese TV by now and even an old lady in the deep woods of Yamagata prefecture would know what the UFC is. So fighters are the ones that can really change everything. Even only one Japanese champ might be able to change everything. We need Japanese Tiger Woods in the UFC then everything would fall into the places for the entire industry.

    Is there anybody fighting now that you think could become this champion that Japan needs?

    I honestly think Yushin Okami and Takeya Mizuagki still have a chance to became the first Japanese champion in the Octagon. Besides them, I think fighters like Ikuo Usuda and Nobuhiro Obiya could be very competitive if they are willing to cut to 145 lbs. I’ve always believed that Hatsu Hioki could compete at the world’s top level at 145 lbs, as could Lion Takeshi.

    However, because of Japanese MMA politics some of those fighters won’t leave Japan and test their skill in the Octagon so I am actually already looking to the younger generation of athletes.

    I am now doing a heavy scout on high school judo or wrestling champions that are willing to begin MMA training here in the States and start a pro MMA career here in the States. I have to convince their parents as well but so far I am not having any difficulty explaining to kid’s parents that UFC / WEC is far better than fighting in Japanese MMA shows.

    Yes, times have changed. I can not mention his name here yet, but I am close to signing a 17-year old national high school judo champ that is willing to skip Japan as soon as possible and do MMA here in the States. This kid and his father are huge UFC fans so it took me five minutes to convince them.

  8. Jeremy (Not that Jeremy) says:

    Maybe his skill set and skill level just isn’t good enough to turn into an MMA career?

    The implication above is that K-1 would have “handled him differently” i.e. basically given him guys that he couldn’t fail to beat, or given him worked fights.

    I think that’s an insult to him as a moral person.

    If he does his best and it isn’t good enough, that’s one thing. If he accepts his inadequacy as the rightful state of the world and that the only thing he has to trade on is his name, and just cashes in, that’s another.

  9. rainrider says:

    > 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.

    No Japanese fans cared about MLB until Hideo Nomo made it to Dodgers’ starting rotation and nobody will after Ichiro retires. Obviously, what they’re lacking to promote UFC in Japan is 1. Japanese stars and 2. UFC events held in Japan. Without these 2, Zuffa won’t sell very well over there.

    Can Ishii be the MMA Ichiro and save his country from producing further permanent underdogs in the octagon? Not likely. I think he’s part of the problem, not the solution because he does not have wrestling and boxing. Judo sucks and never works. As proven 1000 times, Fighting in North American MMA without wrestling and boxing is a suicide.

  10. Chuck says:

    “Judo sucks and never works.”

    I think Karo Parisyan and Jon Jones along with their various suplexes and uchi matas would disagree with this statement. But I do agree that Judo isn’t as effective as wrestling in MMA.

    • Steve says:

      LOL at listing Jon Jones as a judo guy.

      He is using wrestling techniques, not judo techniques. Not every hip toss is a judo throw.

  11. manapua says:

    I just see no purpose of having him train at a place where there is very little MMA talent and almost zero to speak of at his weight. How much is he actually improving on his skillset. It would have made sense to send him to one of the U.S. supercamps from the very start instead of signing with Sengoku and sending him to a place that has fallen completely off the MMA talent map to train.

  12. [...] think could draw well when promoted long-term, but who knows? Ishii’s been off doing… whatever the hell he’s been doing… and you could not find a situation of a more highly-touted draw having horrible career [...]

  13. [...] year, Jordan Breen discussed Satoshi Ishii’s career trajectory and praised the way both he & his handlers were going about his development as a fighter. If [...]

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