By Zach Arnold | February 21, 2011
Over the weekend, I was interviewed by a writer about my career and about the history of the Japanese fight scene in the last three decades. (The transcript will be available in a couple of weeks.) A lot of memories came back to the surface, but one thing I often find myself doing in these kinds of interview situations is throwing out thoughts about the way Japan works and having the person on the other end of the line go, “Oh, so that’s how (such and such) works…” Whether I intend to or not, usually the interviewer’s (proverbial) light bulb turns on and they start connecting the dots.
From the collapse of the pro-wrestling industry there to the collapse of mainstream MMA organizations, there’s a lot of history to cover and a lot of big names who seemingly never want to go away and leave.
Before I talk about one individual in particular, I wanted to bring you up to speed on the latest that is happening in Japan regarding the Sumo match fixing scandal that has horribly deteriorated:
- The Japan Times: Three former sumo wrestlers, one mom charged with gambling
- Yomiuri Shimbun: Sumo reform panel reports plan to JSA
- Mainichi Daily News: Only half of wrestlers in bout-fixing probe submit working mobile phones
- Yomiuri Shimbun: Never again business as usual
- Mainichi Daily News: Yokozuna Hakuho’s attendant questioned by investigative panel
- Yomiuri Shimbun: Sumo bout-riggers deserve tough penalties
- The Australian: Sumo’s fall proves no sport is indestructible
- Newsweek: Japan’s big fat Sumo scandal
- Yomiuri Shimbun: Six months needed to analyze text messages on foreign-made cell phones
- Mainichi Daily News: Revenge of Shukan Gendai — magazine demands compensation from Sumo Association
I guess the only comfort is that at least it’s not Bulgaria.
To put an exclamation point on matters, an NHK subsidiary will no longer publish a Sumo magazine. NHK, of course, the Government-operated Japanese channel. There will only be one ‘major’ Sumo magazine left. Which reminds me of some questions I was asked during my interview on Saturday about the collapse of the magazines in Japan for professional wrestling. Back in the 90s before the Internet became the dominant force that it is today, the primary means of information for fans was to pay $5 for Gong or Weekly Pro to look at the great pictures and articles. The promotions used the magazines as a platform to run angles and sell shows. The magazines at times even got into the event promoting business to put on co-promotional shows. Once the magazine platform started to die, it was bad news for wrestling. The magazine situation for MMA in Japan is certainly not as healthy now as it was, say, five years ago. Media has always been a critical component for the fight industry in Japan. When kami no puroresu was a growing publication, it’s editor was Noboru Yamaguchi. He was very close to PRIDE and Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Yamaguchi ended up being a figurehead for the Hustle wrestling promotion. When UFC did the PRIDE asset sale deal agreement, it was absurd to watch Hustle run wrestling angles out of the same offices that UFC counsel Jamie Pollack was trying to work in with Japanese staffers to start PRIDE events in the country.
Boldness is nothing new for Mr. Sakakibara. According to web site Miruhon.net (you can go there if you read Japanese and buy their e-book report), Mr. Sakakibara’s name was mentioned in regards to a possible return to MMA. This news picked up interest last week in the English-reading MMA world because of these tweets (here and here) by Gryphon, which then got picked up on the Nightmare of Battle web site. I did not access the Miruhon e-book report nor have I commented on the story until today (because I did not get a chance to read the Miruhon report in question).
Things don’t look too hot right now for K-1, so I’m not surprised to see another splinter group being discussed. As far as this promotion having any hope of a strong television deal, you can forget about it. In fact, if Sakakibara returns to MMA on this kind of scale, it will remind me a lot of Eric Bischoff’s return to wrestling in TNA. (For those who don’t follow pro-wrestling, this would not be a positive analogy.)
I’ve always wondered what happened to the money that UFC sent for the asset sale agreement. I’ve been curious as to well to find out what the terms of settlement were when UFC tried to go to court for breach of contract against Sakakibara after he had signed a consulting agreement. Am I surprised at the thought of the man wanting to return to MMA? No. I learned not to be surprised by anything he does after I watched the man pay tribute to himself on the final PRIDE show ever in Japan in the masturbatory manner that he did.
Do I think he would be effective if he returned to the scene? Maybe, to an extent. In my opinion, he’s poison for any television executive to work with. The yakuza scandal stench is strong and the police in 2011 are not in any mood to deal with more scandals. The problem is that without a major television deal, he doesn’t have the cash to flaunt to fighters and money can buy you a lot of loyalty. However, that loyalty has an expiration date and so does, in my eyes, Sakakibara’s shelf-life in the fight business. I could be proven wrong about that, but unlikely so.
And yet, I think he could be a more impactful player in Japan than UFC can. I’m sure you’ve read this article today about how UFC sees the Japanese marketplace. The problem is this — what works in other Asian countries doesn’t work in Japan. Plus, given that it’s the Japanese fight industry, there’s no textbook on how to be successful. You either have to be enormous experience in the pro-wrestling industry there or else know people who ‘get it’ and get very lucky.
I’ve written this before and I’ll write it here again for reference. There are major strikes against UFC doing long-term consistent business in Japan that the promotion will unlikely be able to overcome.
- They are not a Japanese company. I don’t care how big UFC is worldwide, they are not nor will they ever be viewed as a Japanese company. This is a huge hurdle. Even if Zuffa was able to get a Japanese front man, it would be a challenge. Their front man happens to be a white guy. That’s a strike against the organization. I’m not racist, but I am telling you how things operate in the country. It’s very difficult for Zuffa to get a network TV deal on a big-money scale because they are not Japanese.
- They are not viewed as a Japanese product. By that I mean the following — they do not use a pro-wrestling ring. They do not use a PRIDE-style production set-up. The visuals are a legitimate strike against the company. Jordan Breen mocks online fans who say that MMA just ‘isn’t the same any more’ without PRIDE around and I think he misses the boat when he does so. I completely understand that fan mentality and it exists in Japan.
- UFC needs a major Japanese MMA promotion to produce stars. This sounds like a very obtuse idea, but I’ll point out what I’ve learned over many, many years with the fight scene in Japan. There’s two ways to cash in big in Japan with native athletes. The first method is that a Japanese promotion has to produce the anointed crop of uber-rookies and then those rookies are ’sent overseas’ to conquer the foreigners so they can come back home to fight… for their home Japanese promotion. The second method is that the major Japanese promotion brings over foreigners and pays them a lot and hopes that they lose to the natives. This plays off of the fans’ psyche that Japan is the world stage and therefore if you want to be legitimate, you have to come to Japan. If you’re noticing already, both methods of producing Japanese stars are almost impossible for UFC to pull off. This is why WWE has not been able to make it in Japan despite making it everywhere else in the world, including vanquishing some popularity of Lucha Libre in vaunted Mexico.
The most that UFC should ever expect to do in Japan in terms of business is run occasional spot shows with a promotional company like Total Sports Asia (similar to what WWE did at Yokohama Arena in 2003) and hope for the best. However, if they think that they can draw consistently on the fumes of Yoshihiro Akiyama & Kid Yamamoto and on the back of Yushin Okami, they’re going to be in for a rude awakening. If UFC can manage to understand the history that I laid out here and keep expectations low, they will be OK. They just need to realize that they will never be #1 in Japan in MMA long-term — even in the horrible climate that the business currently is in right now in Japan.
Understand that I don’t say any of this with malice towards Zuffa. The idea of Sakakibara having as good, if not a better, chance to do things again in Japan instead of UFC is nauseating. So, when it comes to UFC talking about big plans for Japan versus actually executing them, reality may set in that the mountain’s a lot higher to climb and that the game may be rigged against them no matter how much money they spend.