By Zach Arnold | September 5, 2011
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira let the cat out of the bag last week in at UFC Rio when he said that he was preparing to fight for UFC’s return to Japan in February. Today, Gong Kakutougi says that UFC Asia marketing director Mark Fischer will have a presser to make the announcement. A VTR (video) of Dana White making the announcement will be played.
This news comes on the same day that a Swedish media outlet is claiming that Alistair Overeem went to Las Vegas and signed an exclusive UFC contract that will have him focus 100% on MMA and no more kickboxing.
(Mr. Overeem denies the accuracy of the report.)
Back to the UFC/Japan story. According to GK, the list of Japanese names for the UFC Japan show: Yoshihiro Akiyama, Yushin Okami, Michihiro Omigawa, Takanori Gomi, Hatsu Hioki, Riki Fukuda, Takeya Mizugaki, and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto.
MMA Weekly claims that the show will happen on February 26th at… Saitama Super Arena. Gee, who could have ever seen that coming?
Take note of this one item from the MMA Weekly report:
Sources have indicated that Fischer is in contact with several Japanese promoters who have put on shows there before to help smooth the way for a UFC produced card.
While it’s unclear at this time whether or not Zuffa will actually work with a promoter to put on the show or not, Fischer has been in contact with at least a few as this process begins to bear fruit.
Well, look at who would fit that criteria. Guys like Akira Sakata (who promoted the last UFC Japan show at Tokyo Bay NK Hall in the late 90s) or the Sengoku crew which fabulously bombed every time out at SSA.
Unless UFC works out a deal with Total Sports Asia (the promotional company that worked with WWE in 2003), you’re talking about UFC having to deal with someone like Real Entertainment (which is involved in DREAM). Veterans like Miro Mijatovic might be a wild card, but I think it’s extremely doubtful you would see someone like him involved.
In other words, none of this appears to be what I call heavy-hitting on the surface.
Now, more than ever, is the time for you to listen to the interview I did with Jordan Breen a few months ago about this subject. Jordan appropriately labeled UFC running a show in Japan as a ‘vanity show’ and I agreed wholeheartedly with him. There are many reasons as to why it can be called as such, but you can listen to the interview for further details on that.
As for the roster GK says will be used for the Saitama Super Arena show… frankly, it looks no better than what DREAM has been able to come up with and is horribly lackluster. Akiyama is probably the best attraction of the group, with Kid slightly behind him. However, they are not major names any longer in the Japanese landscape. Okami is a no-namer there, Omigawa got crushed by Chad Mendes, Hioki fought Marlon Sandro in front of a couple of thousand fans last NYE weekend, Fukuda & Mizugaki are totally unknown in Japan, and Gomi was never a draw when he headlined Bushido events in the country.
I am not foolish. I remember what happened when WWE had the backing of Fuji TV and Total Sports Asia when they had their initial events at Yokohama Arena. There was widespread panic from the natives in Japan that WWE would soon take over the wrestling business. Despite backing from the biggest TV network there, WWE ended up fizzling. Their business has fizzled so much in Japan that their delayed PPV broadcasts draw very small numbers (this according to Dave Meltzer). UFC does not have a major promotional arm backing them in Japan and WOWOW is such a minor TV player in the grand scheme of things in the country. Unless someone like Nippon TV is willing to back the show in a big way, it’s really hard to see how this show in Japan will be a major success.
Can it be a moderate success? Perhaps 12,000-13,000 fans, which by today’s Japanese landscape would be a success for a one-off show. WWE claimed 19,000 for a RAW taping several years ago there, albeit with lower ticket prices. This is a perspective from just looking at UFC trying to run a show straight up with their cookie-cutter formula and not booking the show in a manner the Japanese are normally accustomed to. The only other potential factor in their favor right now is how strong the yen is compared to the dollar at the moment, so Zuffa may be able to wring out more cash than they normally would. With that said, I wouldn’t go to war at all in Japan with the roster that is being floated for this proposed Japanese event. Guys like Nogueira aren’t going to move the needle all that much any more over there. It would be fool’s gold to try to emulate what Zuffa did with UFC Rio and see if it works in Japan. The answer? It won’t.
UFC does not have a strong television deal in Japan, so to say that they’re going into a damaged market ‘cold’ would be an understatement. They also go into a place infamous for its foreigner tax on fighters (ask PRIDE fighters about that one). There’s going to be a lot of enemies on the ground looking to sabotage this show one way or another and these enemies aren’t cupcakes, either. A lot of dangerous, seedy hanger-ons will try to glom onto the event if they can’t sabotage it. If Zuffa didn’t learn that already from the brief Jamie Pollack era when they took over PRIDE, perhaps they need a refresher course while they’re at it.
A reminder for Zuffa — you know who used to pay for most of those infamous 100,000Y VIP seats at the PRIDE shows? I’ll give you a hint — first letter starts with y and last letter is a. Fill in the blank characters. This isn’t America where a bunch of marks or whales are going to pony up $1,200 for a front row ticket. The kind of people who will pony up that kind of cash in Japan aren’t necessarily going to be the kind of people you want seen at your show, especially by the police.
Our friend Dan Herbertson, last February, wrote about UFC’s interest in running in Japan. Take note of what he said about Akiyama, Gomi, and Kid Yamamoto. Apply what you know about their current status today and compare it to what he said seven months ago.
The one drawing card Zuffa has to use (on the non-Japanese side) is Georges St. Pierre. If he’s willing to fight four months after his bout with Nick Diaz, it would help bolster the show more than anything they will accomplish with their weak native roster. Rampage? That’s a dicier proposition. Alistair and Barnett? They’re nice compliments, but they aren’t ‘aces’ in terms of draws there. Perhaps if you paired them against each other, you would do some business. That would be a hell of an indictment and admission, though, on a vanity show to run a top of a card with that fight.
Bottom line — as I stated months ago, UFC desperately wanted to run a show at Saitama Super Arena in Japan and not all of those reasons had to do with business. This show, more than any other show Zuffa runs, is personal for the people involved. Whether it makes some money or loses some money, UFC wants to be able to run a show in the marketplace that used to house their main competitor on the world stage. If they get SSA, they’ll be delighted. If they settle for Yokohama Arena, I don’t think they’ll shed a tear either (since that’s where the first major UFC Japan show took place).
As for whether or not UFC’s return to Japan will appeal to hardcore Japanese MMA fans, I think the answer is going to be a very mixed one for Zuffa. A lot of the hardcore PRIDE fans are gone, finished, vanished. Much like when WWE put WCW out of business, those WCW fans didn’t transfer over to support to WWE. They simply stayed put on the sidelines or went away for good. UFC better realize that the kind of fan they will attract for thie show is more or less going to be a casual fan mixed in with a few hardcores but not the same mixture of fans that attended the major MMA events for all those years during the Japanese boom period.
The one thing I know for certain is that for the next six months, I’m going to have a lot of heartburn from UFC fans trying to explain to me why their roster of Japanese fighters are going to draw big in the country and how UFC’s standard formula is an automatic draw in Japan. Zuffa running a show in Japan is going to be more or less a joyride for Dana & company to try to stick it as much as possible to the ghost of PRIDE’s past. All about ego and less about business, more pleasure and personal than professional. Whether it draws as well as WWE did at Yokohama Arena on March 1st, 2003 or tanks like WWE did at Yokohama Arena in 1994 when they worked with Tenryu, it won’t matter to UFC in the big picture.
Let the spin begin.