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Alarm bells & panic meters are active for UFC Japan 2012

By Zach Arnold | February 3, 2012

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Nine years ago, WWE ran a major event under the Total Sports Asia banner at Yokohama Arena. It was part of a two-day series at the 16,000-seat building which had hosted some pretty notable fight cards over the last generation in the Japanese wrestling & MMA world. WWE shocked the Japanese industry by drawing 13,000 for the opening show. The initial success of WWE at Yokohama Arena caused the major fight promotions (New Japan, All Japan, NOAH, PRIDE, K-1) to panic because a foreign entity was invading their home turf. Eventually, WWE came back to Japan for several shows. Each time they arrived, the attendance for said shows largely decreased. The promotion drew 4,800 at Nippon Budokan, one of the worst wrestling gates in memory. Last November, WWE drew 6,200 at Yokohama Arena. WWE’s declining attendance had little to do with what the strength of the major promoters was in Japan. The novelty wore off for the fans initially interested and rival promoters no longer paid much attention.

The strength of promotions like New Japan a decade ago as compared to today is night and day. New Japan was recently sold this week by Yukes to Bushiroad, a card game making company led by a showman of a president who is a huge old-school wrestling fan. He sponsored New Japan’s G-1 tournament last year and is a sponsor for WWE programming in Japan. When the new owner of New Japan addressed the media this week, he noted that WWE and UFC are his rivals in the fight game. K-1 was not mentioned. NOAH was not mentioned. It is important to note that New Japan’s recognition of UFC as a threat to them is how New Japan viewed WWE a decade ago.

What makes the UFC Japan 2012 odyssey so different is that there is no exceptionally strong player left in the Japanese fight game. The ownership that just bought New Japan has deep pockets and, I suppose, could cause trouble in the future for Zuffa. However, there is no Kazuyoshi Ishii. There is no PRIDE to contend with. There is no major Japanese player with heavy juice to compete. The only enemy UFC has in Japan are the gangs (yakuza) and they are taking a hit from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police. Outside of TV networks, the major source of cash in the Japanese fight game is the gangs. After what happened with the collapse of PRIDE, TV networks do not want their fingerprints involved in a serious financial manner with promoters.

MMA Junkie, citing a source on background, claims that over 15,000 tickets have been sold for UFC Japan 2012 at Saitama Super Arena. If true, that is a pure success — even if the show proves to be a one-off. The disadvantage UFC has for future Japanese shows is a complete and total lack of Japanese star talent. It is an achilles heel but it is not their fault. That’s the fault of the crooked promoters and backers who destroyed the MMA landscape in Japan through bad business practices. Not having a strong feeder system in Japan is a killer. During the PRIDE boom, their feeder system was largely professional wrestling. Once pro-wrestling got damaged, PRIDE started running out of native stars to build cards around. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Last November, I commented that the UFC Japan 2012 card was a Bushido-level card. I was not talking about fight quality but rather how many fans the card would attract on the merits. In only a couple of short months, a lot of our attitudes about how good the card is have changed given some of the dreadful cards that have been booked lately by UFC.

On top of that, that start time. That’s unbelievable. Will that be a reason if the show happens to bomb? Or will it be because “the Japanese fans need to get with the program?” Of all the countries Vince McMahon has conquered with WWE, Japan is one of the very few big markets he has failed to make it work in. In a couple of days, he’s got back-to-back shows at Yokohama Arena that will be extremely telling. Little to no advertising, no Japanese-tailored matchmaking, and not a lot of promotional work. Just like UFC will be doing, WWE uses Kyodo for their ticket sales along with Lawson.

A lot has happened in the last couple of months. K-1 has effectively died. The NYE show promoted by DREAM was not a success story. Satoshi Ishii’s career is likely over due to a cerebral edema. New Japan got sold by Yukes and in the process was revealed to be a money-losing proposition for the company. New Japan was practically sold in a fire-sale fashion. The anti-yakuza measures by Tokyo Metro PD have further exacerbated social tensions in the country. NOAH got exposed in a taboo book & Cyzo for having a Bernie Madoff/New York Mets-type ‘black money’ scandal.

A lot of bad news for the natives has turned out to be good news for Zuffa.

I am not upset at Dana White for having his vanity show and planting the UFC flag on Japanese soil. I’m amused by it. I’m even mildly impressed that he was able to get a sold show deal for it. No risk, all reward for him. A fun joy ride. I believe Shu Hirata when he said that Dentsu is involved in this as a sold show. Shu is as plugged in of an insider as you can get. He’s always been an honest broker.

(More on this at the end of the article.)

I am upset, however, at the people on the ground in Japan who created this environment. This should have never happened. Fighters who thought they had good-paying jobs are now on the sidelines. Fewer athletes from other sports want to take a plunge into the Japanese fight game because the money is vanishing. The crooks who made their money are standing on the sidelines, impotently trying to figure out what to do next. The circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Japanese fight game have been well-documented by yours truly on this site since Christmas of 2005. There was a reason why I was so passionate about the scandal that finished PRIDE off. I saw it coming before most others did. It was preventable. Of course, as you learn very quickly in this industry, everyone thinks they are invincible. PRIDE was making $50M USD/year at its peak with Fuji TV. They were drawing 15-to-20M viewers for non-NYE events. All it took to destroy PRIDE was a weekly magazine’s negative campaign about who was running the show.

One of the great mistakes that Japanese promotions, largely due to yakuza connections, make is how to export their product. New Japan, during their peak period in the early 90s, had a chance through Hiro Matsuda’s Ring Warriors project, to package TV Asahi-produced NJ shows into an English-language format for Eurosport. The powers-that-be in Japan in the end pulled the plug on what could have changed the course of Japanese wrestling history. It was that kind of short-sightedness that we saw on display with K-1 & PRIDE. The names may change but the behavior is always the same.

New Japan is the only major player left in Japan and they are watching the UFC Japan 2012 circus come to Saitama Super Arena. UFC will get all the accolades for the show being successful… but the real winner here is Dentsu.

(If you believe that they are the power broker here as the middleman like Shu says, which I do. It’s hard to see anyone else with any sort of power to pull off what’s happening here.)

Dentsu is the ad agency that handled the advertising campaigns for the big K-1 & PRIDE shows when they were having serious success on Fuji TV. Don Quijote, whose chairman is a huge fight fan and has been a sponsor for all promotions big & small in Japan, is the rumored buyer of the UFC Japan sold show. Dentsu is the middleman. Drawing 15,000+ without any legitimate television deal in the current economic climate that Japan is facing is an enormous accomplishment. I cannot stress to you how much of an undertaking this is. For all the pain & damage Don Quijote suffered for the miserable Sengoku promotion, they will likely get the last laugh here with the UFC Japan show.

To put this into context, let me quote back to the November article I wrote about the show:

I still am sticking with 10,000 as the over/under for attendance to this show, but I don’t know how much will be papered and how much will be paid.

To me, 10,000 was a generous estimate at the time given how I took historical evidence into calculation. 12,000 would have been classified as ‘good.’ 15,000? That’s Yokohama Arena-level. This fight card (for people like us) is a solid card. However, I cannot state vehemently enough that this is a card that is over-performing and exceeding rational expectations. It’s not a fight card that fits the traditional Japanese booking model. I still stand by my contention that UFC would have drawn a lot more eyeballs with a PRIDE-flavored theme card. They would have. Still, everyone involved in the UFC Japan 2012 project has to be popping champagne corks over the fact that a card headlined by Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson could do legitimately way more business in Japan than it ever could in the States.

15,000… that’s a number that will scare New Japan. There’s a reason why new ownership of New Japan declared UFC as a main rival. Nine years ago, New Japan declared war on WWE. NJ didn’t actually do much to stop WWE but image-wise it looked good. Almost a decade later, I fully expect to see New Japan publicly declare war on UFC. New Japan’s new owner is a huge wrestling fan and talks like someone very smart about the fight business. He has a lot of cash. However, he is not Dentsu and a declaration of war against UFC will require a lot of things to fall into place in order to be successful. If you’re into insider baseball on the Japanese front… it will be interesting to see which media outlets go all-in for UFC and which ones treat them as foreigners invading their turf. We know Nikkan Sports is backing UFC hard but there are plenty of outlets (like Tokyo Sports) where there will be a legitimate political battle taking place.

It was entertaining to see the DREAM & UFC Japan Twitter accounts follow each other this week with an exchange of pleasantries for the upcoming show. DREAM is no longer a player that can stop UFC from running occasionally in Japan. The UFC’s biggest impediment into making major in-roads in Japan is the corruption & climate that has been created by the incompetent idiots that ran everything into the ground. I still am bearish about UFC getting a substantial network TV deal in Japan because the product doesn’t have much in common with the Japanese culture. At this point, however, I don’t think Zuffa cares one bit. If they can run cards in Japan every 18-24 months with no risk (i.e. yakuza stooges crashing the show), then everything is good.

As for the Japanese bastards that have destroyed what was once a proud industry, their names will be called out soon enough and for good reason.

A different viewpoint

Eddie Goldman has an incredibly fascinating interview with Tadashi Tanaka of Miruhon.net. Tadashi says that ticket sales for the UFC Japan show aren’t super and that it isn’t a sold show, which contradicts everything we’ve heard from Shu and other sources on the UFC side.

These different viewpoints on the UFC Japan show are so wildly different, someone is going to come off looking real bad here.

Tadashi talked a lot about the demise of PRIDE and said that one big reason for the organization’s troubles is oversaturation of TV product. He says that UFC is facing the same problem right now. “Too much is too much in killing the business.”

As for why DREAM has been a failure as a major player: “Lack of TV, lack of money, simple. TBS deal no more. How to survive without TV? Without TV, you can’t continue as a major company.”

He noted that if DREAM and Sengoku had an interpromotional series of matches that the Sengoku fighters would have won because they were higher quality. Tadashi says that the reason Sengoku died is because the No. 2 man in the company “made a bad deal behind the curtain.” The arrest of a former Don Quijiote executive was mentioned in relation.

As far as the future of K-1 (according to Tadashi):

“Don’t get me wrong, MMA never dies in Japan.”

The best quote of the interview was when Eddie asked Tadashi about who exactly UFC paid to buy the PRIDE assets. (Sakakibara? The dreaded Mr. I aka Ishizaka aka Kim Dok-Soo?)

“Who knows? Who knows? On the surface, on the paper, you can say anything you want.”

That about sums up the Japanese fight landscape in one quote.

Topics: Japan, MMA, Media, UFC, Zach Arnold | 35 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

35 Responses to “Alarm bells & panic meters are active for UFC Japan 2012”

  1. fd2 says:

    “I still stand by my contention that UFC would have drawn a lot more eyeballs with a PRIDE-flavored theme card. They would have.”

    That may well be the case, but what good does it do for the UFC to draw more eyeballs with a one-off show that bears little resemblance to their normal product? THAT would be a “vanity show”, changing their product to say “See? We can do a big PRIDE-style card just as well as PRIDE and draw fans!” This isn’t a vanity show – it’s saying “We’re going to put on a normal, good quality UFC card in Japan, and see if the UFC product can draw a good live gate there.” The answer appears to be yes.

    • CAINtheBULL says:

      “I still stand by my contention that UFC would have drawn a lot more eyeballs with a PRIDE-flavored theme card. They would have.”

      UFC is not a cover band.

      That’s like telling the Stones they should put on a show like the Beatles because they were successful.

      • Mark says:

        It’s closer to how The Rolling Stones and all British Invasion bands would play up their association to the Beatles to get people to think of them in similar light to make them curious and then check them out.

        Nobody is saying go do an exact replica of a PRIDE show in a ring with Sakuraba and Ogawa on the card. But if you draw more parallels to PRIDE the first time (and only the first time) maybe you’ll get some old fans in. But those old fans are damn sure staying home for Henderson/Edgar, not because it won’t be a good fight, but because they don’t know who they are and so far UFC hasn’t given them much reason to care.

        • CAINtheBULL says:

          How do you know that? Are they tracking who is buying the tickets? You are making a ton of assumptions.

        • Mark says:

          Common sense.

          UFC not popular in Japan = Japanese MMA fans don’t care about Frankie Edgar. They barely care about #1 Japanese star Aoki, so is this really a stretch?

    • Megatherium says:

      The Rolling Stones were more the anti-Beatles than Beatles lite.

      I think what Zach wants is more of a Dave Clark Five approach.

      Ed. — Huh?

      • Mark says:

        Of course.

        But all British Invasion bands had their record companies out there pitching them as “Hey kids, if you like The Beatles here’s some new guys from England you’ll enjoy!” And that went for The Stones as well. Of course they did play up their bad boys image, but to get their foot in the door, like everybody, they tried to draw initial comparisons to John, Paul, George & Ringo.

        • Megatherium says:

          That was the basic tactic with the British invasion bands alright. But what set the Rolling Stones apart was Andrew Loog Oldhams’ skillful ability to the position the band in sharp contrast to the fresh faced Liverpudlians, a process already underway in 1963.

          After all the Stones were no poster boys and weren’t going to win that battle, even with Gerry and The Pacemakers.

  2. edub says:

    The UFC did a good job selling tickets (if the Junkie report is correct). If they hit 18, I’ll be very curious to see what they do in a second show.

  3. Chromium says:

    I’m wondering what the ticket prices are. If Dentsu is the broker they may actually be cheaper than stateside UFC PPV tickets, where halfway decent seats start at around $200.

    Anyway, the undercard is solid as hell and is the best in quite some time. UFC.com is also listing the show as having an 8-match main card, which would make the the 10 AM start time make sense with just 3-4 prelims. I am guessing a 4-hour main card and Edgar vs. Bendo might not necessarily be the final match, just the final match on U.S. PPV. Honestly this is a hella weird show. Quite solid though.

    Also, minor point, but Ryo Chonnan vehemently denied that Satoshi Ishii had a brain edema, saying that people who start rumors like that “should just die.” I would really rather not see Ishii’s career end tragically like that, so I hope Chonnan is right here.

  4. frankp316 says:

    Look, anyone who believes that there were really 15,000 tickets sold is dreaming in Technicolor. At least half and probably closer to 3/4 will be comped. But the truth will never be known. The only thing that surprises me is that anyone believes this baloney.

    • Light23 says:

      “Zuffa could never succeed in Japan. They don’t understand the market. It’s a different product”.

      *Zuffa promotes a lower level PPV as a successful show in Japan*

      “BALONEY!!! LIES!!! AAAAAARRRRRRRGH”

    • 45 Huddle says:

      Zuffa typically doesn’t lie about ticket sales and gates. They might be off in an estimate here or there, but this isn’t the WWE.

      • frankp316 says:

        Who said Zuffa is lying? They were guaranteed a full house by Dentsu. They bought the tickets and will proceed to paper the joint. So 15,000 tickets were sold but not to paying customers. Is it lying? More like PR spin. BTW, Japanese companies constantly lie about the gate and everyone knows that but nobody cares. One company (Pro Wrestling WAVE) did get caught a few years ago and they promised to behave.

        • AfroSamurai says:

          Does anybody else feel like the Dentsu broker being paid by Zuffa to supply the arena with people has a real heavy conspiracy feel to it?

          Or is that just how people feel about Japan (Always some kind of conspiracy.

    • Brett says:

      Meltzer reported a few weeks ago in the observer that 144 had sold 11,800 tickets at that point and were still selling at a steady pace. So I tend to believe the 15,000 ticket figure since Meltzers has been very accurate with ticket sales.

  5. AfroSamurai says:

    Zach good article as always here at FO however i do have a couple comments…

    UFC may not have any Japanese stars but they definitely still have stars of Pride that are actively fighting. Wandy, Hendo, Josh Barnett and with Overeem i don’t know why these people couldn’t put asses in seats.

    Second thing is how do you figure it was “no risk all reward” i think it was a big risk going over there and just happened to come out with a W

    • AfroSamurai says:

      oops reply fail :(

    • Phil says:

      If the card was sold to someone they are getting an amount of money whether 1 ticket is sold or 20,000. That means there was no financial risk to zuffa, they made their money just by showing up.

    • Mark says:

      Barnett is contracted to Strikeforce until the Grand Prix is over, and may have something in his contract giving Inoki exclusive rights to him in Japan.

      Henderson wasn’t a draw in Japan, and not having fought there in 6 years doesn’t help him any.

      Overeem will be saved for the US shows since they’re still trying to build him here.

      But Wanderlei definitely should have been on this show since he was one of PRIDE’s biggest foreign fighters.

      • AfroSamurai says:

        When only a year from now so still possible also if AO loses i could def see him fighting somebody in Japan

  6. 45 Huddle says:

    What has been amazing is how well the UFC has sold Diaz/Condit. This is probably their best press push for a fight in a long time. And putting GSP really into the narrative and also having him sell the fight has worked perfectly.

    As for the UFC Japan card…. I have a theory on the good ticket numbers. I don’t think the UFC is a huge property over there…. But there is a lot of demand for MMA from the hardcores who aren’t getting anything lately. That could be the driving force for the ticket sales…. And might make Japan a decent location 1 or 2 times per year.

    • Light23 says:

      That’s what I figured. If you’re a diehard fan, then you know and appreciate that the UFC is the world class destination for fighters. There is no MMA on that level in Japan, and who knows if/when the UFC will ever come back, so you might as well go.

    • Mark says:

      UFC is not popular in Japan. They’re on a premium cable channel that is like Japan’s equivalent of Showtime only less popular since cable isn’t anywhere near the level it is in America. They do have hardcore fans, but they’re like the American fans of DREAM.

      And it’s not as easy as saying “If you like MMA, you have to like UFC because they’re #1.” The Japanese don’t know who most UFC fighters are outside of the really big names or guys who fought in Japan. The same way when PRIDE fighters were ranked higher than UFC fighters, UFC fans wouldn’t have rushed out to go see a PRIDE show in their city because they had never heard of most of the fighters. They could have had people on message boards saying “You need to go see the Cro Cop fight because he’s ranked higher than Tim Sylvia” and it wouldn’t matter.

      • Steve4192 says:

        “The same way when PRIDE fighters were ranked higher than UFC fighters, UFC fans wouldn’t have rushed out to go see a PRIDE show in their city because they had never heard of most of the fighters”

        That is flat-out untrue.

        Pride did VERY well at the gate in both of their North American shows. There weren’t enough ‘hard core’ fans to help them drive PPV sales, but there were more than enough for them to do big numbers at the gate.

        The hard core MMA fans in Japan are no different. They are familiar with the UFC product the same way that the hard core fans in North America were familiar with the Pride product. There aren’t enough of them to pop a big network rating, but there are certainly enough to fill a reasonably sized arena once or twice a year.

        • 45 Huddle says:

          Exactly. There those hardcores might be enough for what the UFC needs out of Japan.

          For years I have predicted that the UFC would completely fail if they went to Japan. I was thinking less then 5,000 fans type of failure. And even when they event, I thought it was going to fail.

          I’m obviously wrong already. Not sure if it will be a big enough success to warrant more trips over there, but so far so good.

        • frankp316 says:

          The UFC’s TV contract in Japan is on the same level as the average Japanese pro wrestling zombie fed. So nobody is watching. And they certainly don’t have enough history for Japanese fans to care about them without broadcast network prime time exposure. This show won’t get them that exposure. The networks aren’t interested in MMA anyway and they know the full house is a sham. Actually because of the start time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dentsu is unable to unload all the tickets. It’s not worth it for the UFC to go there again unless the full house is guaranteed as it is here.

        • The Gaijin says:

          Hahaha. Ok. You couldn’t be further off on your take on the Japanese scene.

        • Mark says:

          That is flat-out untrue.

          Pride did VERY well at the gate in both of their North American shows. There weren’t enough ‘hard core’ fans to help them drive PPV sales, but there were more than enough for them to do big numbers at the gate.

          You misunderstood me, so maybe I didn’t explain myself properly.

          I am not referring to the Real Deal and Second Coming shows, I am referring to a hypothetical show pre-MMA boom of 2006. Just like the MMA-boom of Japan is long gone, you’ve got to compare their business to the hypothetical to be accurate. And they aren’t as crazy for MMA as Americans were in ‘06 by any means.

          Let’s say that PRIDE show in Vegas that was planned for 2003 happened and they held a main event of Cro Cop versus Nogueira for a shot at Fedor. The message board posters would be raving about how amazing that fight could be, how important it is to see who fights Fedor, and how PRIDE’s top 3 heavyweights crap all over any UFC heavyweight fighter.

          That would mean nothing to the average UFC-only fan. They never saw a PRIDE fight, and the only guys they would possibly know would be ex-UFC fighters like Coleman, Frye and Barnett, among others. But say “Cro Cop, Nogueira, Wanderlei, Sakuraba and Ninja Rua are going to be on the show” and it wouldn’t matter. They want to see their guys like Couture, Liddell, Tito and Hughes even if internet opinion was they’re second rate to PRIDE.

          So that means hyping up Edgar as the world’s #1 Lightweight means nothing to the average Japanese fan because he is unknown to them. Maybe it will one day, maybe UFC can sell out the Tokyo Dome they’ll be so popular. But not now. They’ve got a long way to go to become known.

          Plus, I thought the PRIDE shows were all casino comps and they had to force people to go to those shows, right Zuffaites? :)

        • Mark says:

          The UFC’s TV contract in Japan is on the same level as the average Japanese pro wrestling zombie fed. So nobody is watching.

          Even though they’ve got awful timeslots, UFC’s awful timeslot is on a premium cable channel and pro wrestling is on basic cable. It’s like comparing Showtime to FX, but both stations being way less popular since most Japanese citizens don’t have cable. Cable is really only widely common in North America.

  7. Zach Arnold says:

    For those who don’t know who Dentsu is, google them. They are a very powerful ad agency/entertainment machine. Think of them like William Morris Group.

    They have enormous experience in the fight game. The fact that UFC got them to buy into them is a huge accomplishment.

    I hear that Dentsu wants to get UFC on network TV but that it’s not going the way they planned because the TV networks want nothing to do with the fight game due to the yakuza war going on. That said, Dentsu pulling off 5-digit attendance with no strong TV deal is an unbelievable accomplishment here. They deserve all the accolades for pulling this off.

    Of course, for them UFC is a turnkey deal. They are buying a show and then promoting it. Still, if there is one non-yakuza entity in Japan that could create a Japanese MMA powerhouse, Dentsu could be it. But then again I don’t think they would want the headaches.

  8. [...] he has a real business plan or idea of how to run the business. Also see in the linked article ‘Alarm bells & panic meters are active for UFC Japan 2012’ an interesting [...]

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