By Zach Arnold | February 26, 2012
One of the best events in the history of the organization? Might be prisoner of the moment talk, but the afterglow from UFC Japan 2012 is pretty damn strong.
The post-show headlines in Japanese media outlets (ranked by emphasis):
- Takanori Gomi’s big win.
- Kid Yamamoto’s devastating loss & career crisis.
- Yoshihiro Akiyama loses to Jake Shields. Will he stay in UFC?
- Rampage struggles.
It should be noted that Japanese media coverage of the event was exclusively sports media & not entertainment media. This is different trend/protocol from what kinds of media attended PRIDE & K-1 events. There were some rather notable Japanese sports media outlets that were, in fact, silent or barely acknowledged the show. Politics…
The card UFC booked for this event was solid on paper for a traditional UFC show. I believed that. I also believed that the UFC should have tailored the card more for traditional Japanese tastes. The ending result for UFC Japan 2012 is that the card the promotion booked outperformed all of our expectations, both in terms of fight quality and at the live gate. Ben Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar was everything… and then some. Five rounds of pure guts & glory.
You can debate the merits about how the live gate was accomplished (how many paid vs. papered, who bought what tickets, so on and so forth). What you can’t argue is that this was a crowd that wanted to be at the show and watch it at a very early time of the morning. The fans at Saitama Super Arena were smart, polite, and well-timed in expression their reaction to the right spots. In classic fashion, some fans right on camera started chanting “USA! USA!” It was as perfect symbolism as you could get in capturing the spirit of the fight fans that I have loved for so long in Japan.
The configuration used by UFC at Saitama Super Arena was called ‘main arena – center stage.’ Capacity around 22,000. DREAM often uses this configuration but their audiences are smaller than UFC.
Reality vs. symbolism
UFC’s show at Saitama Super Arena all but neutered the image of DREAM in Japan. Not only did they draw a more vibrant audience, they did it right on the home turf. DREAM is a shell of PRIDE but I can’t imagine right now that they are very happy with the way things played out here. On a symbolic front, UFC raised their flag and no one took it off the flag pole.
UFC Japan proved that you could produce a show with great quality but also results that can be damaging long-term for advancement in the country. This was a fight card that featured a little bit of everything. Between the FX broadcast and the US PPV telecast, you had six hours to digest 11-12 fights. Nothing could be better.
However, to say that there wasn’t damage done would be an understatement. This is where business comes into play.
The losses by Kid Yamamoto, Yushin Okami, Yoshihiro Akiyama, and Rampage Jackson all represented different kinds of symbolism. The cumulative effect is that today’s UFC Japan show felt more like the last gasp of PRIDE & K-1’s spirit more than anything else.
There was Kid Yamamoto, a man who drew 30 million viewers on network television after fighting Masato on NYE on broadcast TV, fighting early on the card and getting a nice but not entirely robust reaction from the fans. Watching him lose to Vaughan Lee in the fashion that he did was gutting. Yamamoto later told the press that he got too cute and made a mistake by laying on top of Lee when he should have stayed standing up. Nonetheless, the loss was brutal to watch and the fans were stunned. It was pure agony. Yamamoto was a symbol of one of the big draws Japan produced many years ago. Now, his career is effectively crippled.
Yushin Okami, the closest Japanese title contender in the UFC, lost to Tim Boetsch in shell-shocking fashion. After two rounds of domination, Boetsch put it all together in the early part of round three and finished Okami. This loss really hurt because Okami had been wanting to show himself in a big way on his home soil. Instead, the man who won in other countries lost on his own turf. In a real-sport sense, Okami was the most important Japanese fighter on the card. He was never popular in Japan and mostly an unknown, which makes this loss even more excruciating.
Yoshihiro Akiyama, who was the biggest Japanese name on the UFC Japan card, was never fully embraced by the fans. At the weigh-ins, he got a mixed response. At Saitama Super Arena, he was cheered but the reaction was not uproarious (only in spots). He fought Jake Shields and lost by decision, something that you would expect to happen. Akiyama was by far the most important name UFC had on the roster in order to try to secure a broadcast television deal. He came into his fight against Shields on a losing streak and didn’t manage to stop it from continuing. After the show, Dana White talked about Akiyama needing to sit down with management as to whether or not his Zuffa tenure should continue.
Rampage Jackson, who missed weight by six pounds for his fight against Ryan Bader, claimed that he injured his knee and was told that he probably shouldn’t have fought on the UFC Japan card. That doesn’t change the fact that Rampage begged to fight on the Japan show instead of the UFC Chicago broadcast on Fox. Rampage’s gas tank was on empty by the time the fight with Bader was over. He looked terrible in front of the fans that he wanted to fight in front of the most. It was a depressing outcome.
The score card
The audience at UFC Japan was definitely sympathetic to the ghost of PRIDE past, but they did treat the event like a sporting event more than an entertainment spectacle like the NYE MMA events.
Hatsu Hioki, when disciplined, housed Bart Palaszewski. He admitted after the fight that he needs more experience against higher-level competition before he gets a title shot with Jose Aldo. Dana White agrees with him. Hioki is now the rising Japanese star under the Zuffa banner. The question is whether or not he will become a big star in Japan if he gains success from fights that take place on foreign soil. Without a strong broadcast television deal, it’s difficult for the fans to see his future fights unless they have WOWOW.
Takanori Gomi had a near-career-death experience with Eiji Mitsuoka and yet managed to get the win. The screeching from female fans during Gomi’s difficult spots in the fight was a little disconcerting. He got exactly the pop you would expect after the win. However, he’s not winning a title in the UFC no matter how much lip service is performed.
The overall mentality of the fans coming out of the UFC Japan event is of two mindsets.
First, the Japanese fans love the fact that UFC came to them with a show. Japanese fight fans are very loyal & passionate & smart. However, they expect the best talent in the world to come to them. They aren’t going to go out and search for it outside of Japan. If you are the best in the world, you go to Japan and prove it. Call it selfish if you want, but this mentality has existed for decades in the country. This is why so many fighters love going to Japan and respect the country so much. Demanding, but excellent fans.
Second, there’s reality that will set in soon. The UFC is the major leagues of MMA and Japan doesn’t even have an equivalent or rival to the UFC. At this point, DREAM isn’t even in the ball game. The best sports comparison I can make is Major League Baseball to Japanese professional baseball. MLB is king, but Japan still produces great talent like Yu Darvish that MLB covets. MLB has games in Japan but it doesn’t mean that it has any effect on whether or not Japanese baseball is hot or if it tanks. That’s the predicament right now for the MMA landscape in Japan.
This was a great show for the UFC. They should be proud for what they accomplished. However, what’s good for UFC isn’t going to trickle down to the Japanese MMA scene. I got called out on this on Saturday night.
“JMMA isn’t getting any worse.”
“Unable to evolve and accept something new?”
UFC is not Japanese MMA. That’s the point. The UFC is the UFC. It’s like the Miami Heat going to Spokane, Washington to play in front of fans of Gonzaga’s college basketball team. Apples to oranges.
If there is one aspect to UFC’s success that you hope trickles down into the Japanese scene, it’s that we get fresh blood on the management side. The scene needs new players who can put capital into a promotion and start running shows again on an active & big scale. The problem is that the only players around now are still the same cockroaches who scorched the territory in the first place. They’re not leaving, either, by the way. If you’ve got a lot of money and want to get into MMA, why on earth do you want to get into a business with so many black money sleazebags who will immediately try to destroy you and threaten your family? If you’re rich and want fun, there’s a million other things you can do with your life.
The best scenario right now for the Japanese MMA scene is on a smaller level with Shooto, Pancrase, DEEP, and other promotions creating young talent that can go overseas to compete. However, this doesn’t address the huge power vacuum for MMA on a national scale in the country. As long as the police are telling TV executives to stay away from anyone in the fight business that’s connected to the gangs, it’s very difficult to see progress any time soon.
This isn’t about the Japanese fans ‘evolving’ and accepting UFC as their own product. I’m sure there will be new UFC fans in Japan who watch the product and like it but will want their own major league of MMA. Who can blame them? Nothing the UFC does in Japan can address this problem because UFC isn’t a Japanese promotion. They’re not going to run shows like PRIDE did every other month in the country.
The irony here for UFC is that they really need a strong national player to pop up in Japan to help create new stars that have mass market appeal in Japan. Now that the legends are fading away, new names need to be developed. The problem is that as long as DREAM or other promoters continue to flail around, guys like Hatsu Hioki won’t become household names in Japan. UFC needs a Japanese promotion to build up Japanese stars. Without this development in the coming years, UFC will come back to Japan with mostly gaijin vs. gaijin fights and the shelf life for that will result in smaller & smaller returns on investment.
The challenges ahead for UFC
Sponsorship and television.
First, sponsorship. Other than a couple of random signs on the cage, there was not a Japanese sponsorship presence at the UFC event. Consider that Dentsu & Softbank are working with UFC and this becomes an even more concerning item of interest. They are big boys who can normally bring sponsors to the table but couldn’t this time around. It’s very difficult to attract sponsors without a major broadcast television deal, but even DREAM is able to recruit lower-level sponsors like HEIWA. When PRIDE lost their Fuji TV deal, their sponsorship money ran dry fast. When K-1 struggled towards the end, they had bizarre sponsorship deals for Fashion TV. In other words, the blue chip sponsorship demand in Japan has vanished. It will take a lot of hard work in order to convince companies to sponsor anything fight-related in the country because of a) the yakuza/police wars and b) the mindset that it’s not a good return on investment to sponsor a fight promoter now.
On the broadcast television front, UFC did some good things but they also suffered some very bad luck. The show looked great. The fans were A+ all the way. The fight quality was rock solid. However, UFC is still not a Japanese company. They are a gaijin-heavy operation. Their aces are gaijins. Even with Kid Yamamoto & Takanori Gomi on the card, Dentsu couldn’t help UFC muster any sort of great TV deal. UFC Japan is on TV Tokyo from 3:15 to 4:45 AM JST w/ the sponsors being Don Quijote & UFC Undisputed 3. Ouch.
UFC needed the Japanese fighters to show up strong in order to have a remote chance of making it onto television with a solid deal. It didn’t happen. UFC needed to be able to show that they could attract blue-chip Japanese sponsors in order to convince TV suits that they might be palatable to make a deal with. That didn’t happen, either. Dentsu & Softbank are great muscle to have in your corner, so if they can’t come through for you then it’s hard to see what the path is for UFC to make it onto broadcast television in Japan in a substantive manner.
Remember, UFC was able to get onto broadcast television in Mexico and Brazil. Brazil is a great market for them because so many people watch the fights. In Japan, the door is closed and even a great showing at UFC Japan didn’t likely open the door very much. A lot of the reasons as to why they can’t advance business-wise in the country are not their fault & we shouldn’t blame them. Many of the problems created are due to the culture of corruption that has rotted the core of acceptability for MMA with respectable television & business leaders in the country.
Great show. Great fans. Good for UFC’s business. No impact on improving the dilapidated & corrupt MMA business on a large scale in the country. Many challenges ahead for UFC in the years to come to make the inroads to be a consistently major player in the country… but they accomplished a lot more with the Saitama Super Arena show than could have been expected.