By Zach Arnold | February 3, 2012
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.
- Japan Times: Can showbiz really sever yakuza ties?
- New York Times: Western Japan finds out the hard way what declaring war on the yakuza can bring in return
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.
- “Japanese people mad about Zuffa and the UFC.”
- “Yeah, exactly, Saturday morning, 10 o’clock, nobody come because of the USA time zone.”
- “UFC/Zuffa is not really respected in Japan because of the PRIDE incident. They promised to continue but never figured an agreement.”
- “Japanese taste is not really UFC taste.” He brought up how big the ring vs. cage issue is in Japan in terms of image both with the public and the TV executives. Cage fighting is associated with animal fighting you see in Okinawa (snakes, chicken)… aka cockfighting.
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):
- He brought up Kazuyoshi Ishii saying many years in court during his tax evasion scandal, under oath, that he had nothing to do with the fight business any more and now here he is wanting to promote K-1 under a new banner.
- Network TV executives don’t want anything to do with Ishii or Tanigawa.
- “So far, they’re done. They’re broke. Everybody crazy.”
- “Promotions come and go. Eventually, who’s going to survive? I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
“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.