By Zach Arnold | November 26, 2011
It’s been a really bad, bad week if you are a fan of pro-wrestling or MMA in Japan. The bad news keeps getting exponentially worse and, in its own bizarre way, can be connected together in terms of cultural themes.
NOAH has had a terrible week. Mark “Bison” Smith, their top gaijin heavyweight ace, died in Puerto Rico. Finding reliable foreign wrestlers at this point in time is very difficult. On top of that, news just broke that former heavyweight champion Takeshi Rikio will have to retire due to myelopathy (herniated disc). He was somebody that the late Mitsuharu Misawa tried to make into a company ace. The experiment failed. Good heavyweights don’t grow on trees.
Pro-wrestling was the industry that built the native stars that led to the Japanese MMA boom. Without such stars, MMA would not have existed on as grand of a level as it did. Wrestling was the star factory that MMA promoters raided and bought off with cash. Once the MMA boom started to wane, promoters found they didn’t have stars left to poach because the wrestling scene was on the decline.
Today, wrestling promotions struggle to sell out Korakuen Hall (the legendary 2,000-seat venue). JCB Hall, which was supposed to be an upgraded version of Korakuen with 3,000-plus seats, is not often used by event promoters. Without television support and without major financial backing, Japanese promotions are struggling for dear life to survive.
Which brings us to K-1 and Sengoku/World Victory Road.
Without heavy television support financing their MMA shows, I always wondered how these promotions could book buildings like Ariake Colosseum, Yokohama Arena, Ryogoku Kokugikan, and Saitama Super Arena if a TV network wasn’t footing the bill. It’s not like calling up a pizza joint and ordering dinner. You need at least four months lead time, usually six months, and cash up front. Now, juxtapose these advanced building bookings with guys like Ray Sefo saying they were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Peter Aerts & Jerome Le Banner are now working Antonio Inoki cards, for goodness sakes. So is Bob Sapp. Bibiano Fernandes refused to go back to Japan until he got paid for previous fights. Nick Diaz’s camp claimed they had money issues with DREAM. The situation became so comical that DREAM shows had some guys under K-1 contracts and some under contracts to Real Entertainment, Mr. Kato’s company that owns the DREAM entity. So, RE guys were getting paid on time (most were) while K-1 guys weren’t getting paid at all? Remember how Alistair Overeem, after winning the World GP at Ariake Colosseum, was getting ready to focus his energy on becoming a star in Japan with the assistance of Yoshimoto Kogyo? Within two months of that declaration, he had decided to move all his energy to Strikeforce. He admitted (quietly) to ESPN at the time that he hadn’t gotten paid.
The bombshell of all bombshells was dropped by Shu Hirata on Mauro Ranallo’s radio show last October that Kazushi Sakuraba allegedly hasn’t been paid for any of his fights within the last two years. Around this same time period, you had reports from people like the esteemed Dave Walsh who said that K-1 was willing to book guys for their Chinese World GP event if they were willing to accept half of the previous money owed to them and write off the other half. The Chinese GP event never happened, by the way.
By this point, we’ve all figured out what has been happening. You have mid-to-big-sized buildings booked, guys fighting because they want and hope to get paid, and in the end few fighters allegedly getting paid at all other than lip service and threats. Those who do get paid don’t dare say anything to upset the apple cart. Those who didn’t get paid either don’t do anything about it (the statute of limitations in Japan for money disputes is two years) because they still want to keep getting booked or they don’t want to be threatened at gunpoint in hotel rooms. I mean, you can’t possibly make this up.
To say that there’s quite a difference between old school yakuza and new school yakuza that hang around today’s fight game is quite an understatement. Old school yakuza used to always take pride in paying foreigners and they paid top dollar. You got paid well, you socialized well, you were part of a culture. The new school yakuza? They would put a bullet in your head first and go to prison for life before paying off a debt they owe. The fight business always has attracted yakuza because of the social value of being connected to the business image-wise. Now? There’s not so much value, so you end up with shady characters hanging around the business who are itching for a confrontation or a ready-made scam to feast upon innocent people.
Which brings me to a development that you are starting to see in Japan that never used to exist when old school yakuza were in charge of things. Because of the actions of the new breed of yakuza (shoot first, consequences later), victims are starting to sue the bad guys now. You never used to sue the yakuza in court because you’d end up dead more than likely for your troubles. However, with violence & thievery escalating, people are running out of options. So, victims are taking a page out of the American playbook and going after the gangs in court. The yakuza does not want anything to do with the court system. They don’t deal with contracts; they deal with guns.
Miro Mijatovic, who is now out of the fight business, went to court to go after admitted yakuza-fixer Seiya Kawamata. It’s one thing for a native to go after a yakuza guy in court but when it’s a foreigner who’s filing the lawsuit, that’s the rarest of birds. Kawamata, of course, was a K-1 fixer whose word printed in various articles in Shukan Gendai’s negative campaign against PRIDE destroyed the organization. Taking an admitted yakuza fixer to court is a brave thing to do. Don’t believe me? A person who was instrumental to Miro’s lawsuit, Toshiro Igari, lost his life because he took on powerful people who didn’t want to do anything about corruption. He lost his life but in the process got the last laugh from beyond the grave when his book got published. In that book, he dealt with all the major scandals happening in regards to how the yakuza threaten both police & district attorneys in order to prevent charges from being filed in important corruption cases. Mr. Igari died in the Philippines right around the time the sport of Sumo was imploding due to a match fixing & betting scandal in which elements of the boryokudan were hanging around the scene.
With this as your back drop, I bring attention to a new scandal book that recently was published that you might be interested in (if you can read Japanese). The book claims that Kazuyuki Fujita, who had worked for Sengoku, went to court to battle with Sengoku over unpaid fight money (breach of contract). The claim? That his contract was a four or fight deal worth about 200 million yen ($2.6 million USD). The idea that he was asking and promised $500,000USD a fight is, on the surface, incredible. The book claims that Sengoku had their own arguments as to why the contract wasn’t honored and that there was a settlement.
The one thing you used to always be able to say about Japanese promoters & bookers in the fight game was that their word was their bond. If they made you an offer, the offer stood and you got paid. Today? There is no more ‘golden word’ in the business. That credibility has been destroyed. How do you ever get your good word back?
Appropriately, the section(s) of the book talking about FEG & Sengoku troubles is called “Kakutougi Crisis.” On the cover of the book, there’s a screaming font headline talking about the assault involving TARU beating up on Nobukazu Hirai and putting him in the hospital for good. This past week, TARU was arrested by the authorities after Hirai’s mother filed an official complaint. Hirai is still in the hospital months after the assault and reportedly suffers from permanent memory loss.
It seems a lot of people have lost their minds and their memories on how to behave honorably in the Japanese fight industry.
Updated UFC Japan 2012 (Saitama Super Arena, 2/27 10 AM local JST, 2/26 evening American time):
- UFC Lightweight title match: Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson
- Lightweights: Anthony Pettis vs. Joe Lauzon
- Welterweights: Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields
- Middleweights: Yushin Okami vs. Tim Boetsch
- Featherweights: Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palaszewski
- Heavyweights: Mark Hunt vs. Cheick Kongo
- Light Heavyweights: Rampage Jackson vs. Ryan Bader
Despite the starting time issues, I still have the over/under at 10,000 for attendance because UFC will be a shiny new toy to watch. That said, I’m not overly confident and I would go with the ‘under.’ TV Tokyo, the smallest of the over-the-air broadcast TV networks in Japan, is now airing a “UFC World” program. If UFC does hit broadcast TV, it likely will be this channel and that would mean a very minimal impact in the country. The network has little-to-no penetration outside the Kanto region (Tokyo/Yokohama). Not in the same league as Fuji TV, Nippon TV, Tokyo Broadcasting, or TV-Asahi.
Michihiro Omigawa has been booked for UFC’s return to Brazil in January. He will not fight on the Japan 2012 card.