By Zach Arnold | February 19, 2012
This is such an oddly intriguing show for a lot of reasons, both in-and-out of the cage. There’s so many variables at play here. I could bring up a million different angles to analyze but we’ll take five basic storylines heading into the event here and look at how everything is playing out right now.
On Sunday, I saw the first cable/satellite barker ad for the PPV event. The narrator’s voice is strangely subdued and what’s not mentioned is that the telecast will apparently be four hours long. Your guess is as good as mine.
1. Will the crowd for this show represent a floor or a ceiling for UFC & Dentsu?
I am of two thoughts here.
First, the positive take and one that UFC argues. They run a good show, they get a few backers, and then through repetition hope that some rich people who aren’t yakuza buy into what they are doing.
Second, the negative take and more realistic viewpoint. The Japanese MMA industry on a mainstream level is dead. There are no major Japanese stars being created now. Kid Yamamoto, Gomi, and the rest are a dying breed. Once they are gone, the replacements have nowhere near the same name value. That’s the great irony about UFC’s predicament here. They want to build something up in Japan but the local promoters that they weren’t friendly with basically torched the business to the ground.
If Dentsu is able to get UFC onto television, perhaps they have a shot — albeit a small shot. The UFC product is not tailored for Japanese cultural wants or needs. There aren’t major Japanese players right now in the divisions sans Hatsu Hioki and Hioki’s not a major star in his home country. The plan was to broker some time on TV Tokyo, the smallest of the over-the-air networks in Japan, and then try to parlay that onto a bigger network like Tokyo Broadcasting System or Fuji TV. The major problem with that strategy is that UFC is not a Japanese company and the TV suits have no desire to touch MMA right now because the police are on the warpath against the gangs. We know the history of black money in the Japanese fight game. It resembles Mexico in many regards.
2. Will this be a WWE/non-traditional audience for UFC Japan or will it draw traditional MMA fans?
When WWE drew 13,000 at Yokohama Arena a decade ago, the Japanese promotions freaked out. Was Vince going to steal their fans? The answer ended up being a fat ‘no.’ The fans the WWE shows in Japan attract are not the traditional wrestling fans. They’re concert-goers. They aren’t the bread-and-butter fans that used to read the weekly magazines or watch Samurai TV/GAORA to watch New Japan, NOAH, All Japan.
If UFC is to be successful long-term in Japan, they need to do something that WWE utterly failed to do when they bought the assets to WCW — win over the old MMA fans. UFC needs to win over the PRIDE fans and get them into the fold. This belief that the PRIDE fans just went away and never will come back is a misguided train of thought. Those PRIDE fans are on the sidelines. K-1 couldn’t win them over with their substandard product. UFC has the money & resources to make it work… if they want to and don’t use a Vince-like “you’re going to like what I want you to like” mentality.
3. UFC Japanese guys vs. ‘normal’ Japanese fighters who are draws
Throughout UFC’s history, both under SEG & Zuffa, there’s been a strange dichotomy in regards to the kinds of Japanese fighters UFC attracts & thinks are the right fit versus actually booking Japanese fighters that are the major draws.
Go back to when UFC got Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. Kohsaka was a middle-of-the-pack draw in RINGS. Kiyoshi Tamura & Akira Maeda were the aces, with Yoshihisa Yamamoto (of all people) just underneath. Kohsaka became a somebody in the States, then went back to Japan and promptly had a 30-minute draw with Tamura at Tokyo Bay NK Hall. After that fight, his big notch was Fedor and the stoppage. Fedor, of course, took care of business in the rematch.
Kaoru Uno still, to this day, is viewed by UFC as this major legend in Japan. There’s a difference between being a pioneer and being a legend. Uno was never a big draw in Japan but he was always treated with a lot more respect by foreign promoters than native ones on a major scale.
Yushin Okami is a no-namer back home. Nobody knows about him except when he occasionally hangs out with guys like Shinsuke Nakamura from New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He’s not considered a big star at all. He has the record to show the folks back home that he’s the real deal but since he didn’t become a star in Japan first, they don’t care. This point, ultimately, is what makes or breaks UFC Japanese fighters versus traditional Japanese draws.
Kid Yamamoto is by far the biggest Japanese draw UFC has ever booked and he’s been in a royal slump. He’s fighting to keep his career alive now. He also got damaged with the marijuana party story in Shukan Gendai, an outfit that we’ve seen be very friendly to the interests of K-1 in the past.
Yoshihiro Akiyama is the best shot they have of maintaining a high-level name as a star but they put him into a very difficult spot against Jake Shields. If Shields wins but does so in boring fashion, this will be a crowd-killer.
4. How will Japanese promoters react in the aftermath of the first show?
When I said the over/under number for the first UFC Japan show would be 10,000, I used that as a benchmark because that’s a good determination as to what the mindset will be of the locals in regards to whether or not they start panicking.
If UFC pulls in over 12,000, I guarantee you the panic will be starting. If Dentsu even papers the crowd and gets 15,000, the pressure cooker will be boiling. If the show draws in the 8,000-9,000 range as Shu Hirata says it has so far… the locals will be laughing.
You can spin 9,000 as a Ryogoku Kokugikan-level number & as a half-house at Budokan or Yokohama Arena. Remember, Japan is more about image than it is about substance when it comes to making impressions in the fight game.
You might look at the difference of a few thousand people and go, “What’s the big deal?” Again, politics is everything over there. Nikkan Sports is backing the show, so that media outlet will be secure. Yahoo Japan will give UFC a fair shake as well. However, the rest of the major media outlets are the wild card. Dentsu has plenty of sway but there will be several major media outlets that will either ignore the UFC show or go out of their way to bury Dana White hard like they did when he was portrayed as the evil gaijin corporate raider after the PRIDE sale.
A nice, big number here at UFC Japan shuts a lot of people up. A solid number changes nothing. A low number gives a chance for schadenfreude and spin.
5. With no more television support, is MMA sustainable on a large scale in the country?
It’s not. This is why Dentsu backing UFC is so critical. A multi-year deal to promote shows in the country means nothing unless Dentsu, which has plenty of juice, can convince sponsors to back them to get the events on TV. If an outlet like TV Tokyo, which historically has plenty of pay-to-play examples for buying programming time, is taking a pass on the UFC… that spells trouble. WOWOW doesn’t cut it. You need a major broadcast TV network backing you or else you are going nowhere on a big scale in Japan.
What makes the situation much more difficult for UFC long term in Japan is that there are no new major players entering the local Japanese fight scene. All the cockroaches that damaged the scene are still around, making promises left and right that they’ll make a comeback. The scene dramatically needs fresh blood in order to flush out the bad guys and right now that’s not happening. Until the current cast of characters is eliminated, the TV networks will have plenty of incentive to not give an MMA promotion a major television deal because of political & police pressure to not ‘reward’ the major gangs who often are heavily involved in the sport.