By Zach Arnold | March 1, 2012
- Miro Mijatovic on the yakuza ownership war of PRIDE in November 2003
- Beginner’s searchable guide on cast of characters involved in PRIDE scandal
“As we took Mirko from K-1 into PRIDE, PRIDE for the first time made it onto normal [broadcast] TV on Fuji TV. The reason was PRIDE had been building up a good level of success in terms of having a very good live event and a very good showing of fans, a lot of hardcore fans but they hadn’t been able to make the jump from a hardcore fan base into national television. By bringing Mirko, who back in March 2003 (Saitama Super Arena) knocked out Bob Sapp and became the biggest property in the fight industry, Mirko was able to drag DSE or PRIDE onto national TV which is actually what happened. That’s why, you know, and you had the fights with Herring & Vovchanchyn and at that stage whe you got to the finals in November w/ Mirko/Nogueira, PRIDE had become a very significant competitor to the natural power base of K-1.
“So, as we were approaching New Year’s Eve which is the #1 ratings on Japanese television, also traditionally the big night for fight events as well… K-1 had traditionally been doing the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye event which was a mixture of K-1 fights & Mixed Martial Arts fights on New Year’s Eve with TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System). PRIDE and Fuji TV were undecided in November as to whether they were going to do an event on New Year’s Eve and go head-to-head with K-1.
“I suppose the big cause of all the problems or one of the big causes was that Nippon TV, which is a much bigger TV station than TBS, decided that they wanted to get into the fight game in a big way and that meant challenging TBS & K-1’s dominance in the sport. Now, they didn’t have a way to get in there because PRIDE was exclusive to Fuji. K-1 was very close to Fuji and TBS although because of the relationship with PRIDE and Fuji TV, you know, growing K-1 had become much less important to Fuji TV and in the beginning of November (2003), Nippon TV approached (Seiya) Kawamata who eventually did a deal with and myself to do an event on New Year’s Eve. Now, that was all based around ensuring that Mirko Cro Cop was headlining the event. I’d spoken to Mirko leading up to the November fight and immediately afterwards and I said, ‘Look, it’s in our interests to have three strong promotions and the more strong promotions there are, the better it is for the fighters. Obviously, your fight money goes up.’ Mirko agreed to fight because it was quite traditional for him to fight a pro-wrestler on New Year’s Eve. It wasn’t that tough a fight, he was going to get good money. Nippon TV offered Kawamata a contract for three years, 600 million yen for the first event on that night and off we went.
“So, we announced the first fight in the beginning of November which was Mirko versus (Yoshihiro) Takayama and we started to put an event together. We had less than 60 days to put an event on. We had zero fighters contracted. We had nothing except a contract to go out and do the fight. So, off we went and ran around and collected fighters.
“So, in the middle of November, Fuji TV and PRIDE decided that they were going to do an event as well on New Year’s Eve. That’s when the fun and games started. Fun and games being obviously they realized that with a fledgling promotion like Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye was, if they could destroy our main event which was Takayama and Cro Cop, the show would probably start to fall apart. So, towards the end of November, Mirko started to receive visits from a guy called Ken Imai (former right-hand man of K-1 Godfather Kazuyoshi Ishii), who worked closely with (Nobuyuki) Sakakibara and finally Mirko was paid $300,000 to fake a back injury and pull out of the event, which he eventually did in the middle of December. That was a pretty aggressive move as far as I concerned, since they had interfered with my relations with Mirko. I obviously knew a lot about what all the fighters were getting paid all over PRIDE and I knew that Fedor was fighting for around $10,000 a fight and was being totally ripped off by his manager at the time Pokogin (Russian Top Team) and also PRIDE as well. So, I shot off to Saint Petersburg and sat down with Vadim Finkelchtein, Apy Echteld, Fedor and his brother and after the course of two days we did a deal and I signed Fedor on a one-year contract for four fights at almost 20 times the money he was getting paid at the time. So, it wasn’t a difficult deal for Fedor to accept. When I came back to Japan and announced that Fedor was fighting on Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye, PRIDE reacted furiously. Sakakibara hit the airwaves and said he was going to sue me, he was going to sue Fedor, he was going to do this, do that, and the other. What he actually did was not go for legal actions because he had no legal rights to sue anybody. What he did was he started sending yakuza around so I started to get visits to my office from various yakuza dudes, you know, calls late into the night to arrange meetings to talk to these guys and things escalated from there.
“As the time got closer and closer, the threats started to get ratcheted up and eventually from around about the 20th of December, death threats started to happen. Kawamata was threatened when he came back to Japan for a press conference. They grabbed him, according to him, threatened to kill him. He, of course, reacted to that by jumping on the next plane out of the country again and … the threats started to come to me. In the next 10 days leading up from the 20th of December through the actual event itself, things got very, very hot. People, guys were turning up into my house, you know, 2 AM, 3 AM, big groups, three or four guys. I don’t know who they were but they certainly weren’t friends of mine, you know, and I took other measures. I moved my family away from where we were living and started to stay myself into hotels and other places as the event got closer and closer. The pressure kept on escalating right up to the actual night of the event in Kobe on the 31st. At that stage, you know… threats are threats and the fight industry’s full of guys who think they’re alpha males. People make a lot of threats in the heat of the moment. It’s just part of the game but when those guys have guns and have a history of carrying out threats, things are a little bit more nervous. What happened was we put on the event on the 31st… despite all the interruptions from PRIDE and some local yakuza groups in Kobe, the event went off fine. Fine means we had 40,000 people attend the event so we were actually the best-attended event on that specific night. We beat PRIDE and K-1 in terms of the paid attendance. Unfortunately, due to the absolute mess of not being able to announce fights in the lead up to the actual event itself… for example, whether Fedor was fighting or not, no one knew until the 31st because the promoter Kawamata had said, ‘he’s not going to fight’ due to the pressure he got from the yakuza. I was saying ‘he’s fighting’ and so you had mixed messages out to the audience. The result was and it wasn’t only that fight, all the other fighters we tried to put on we couldn’t make announces so the ratings results was horrible. We ended up with 4% ratings, the lowest ratings on the night, and the event just crumbled afterwards.
“New Year’s Eve, on New Year’s Eve the event goes on. New Year’s day, Kawamata again disappears. No one’s there. Fighters want to get paid. We had some cash at the time that Kawamata hadn’t grabbed and we were able to pay the Russian fighters and a few others. I dealt with a lot of people who remained unpaid. I was trying to handle arrangements as fighters were leaving the two days afterwards and then on the 3rd of January (2004), much to my great surprise, Sakakibara, Ishizaka, and four yakuza guys turn up to the hotel where I was staying, the Okura hotel in Kobe, and I was… how can you put it, shepherded into a meeting room and we had some pretty difficult discussions… discussions were pretty simple. I was told I had to sign over my rights to Fedor or I wasn’t going to leave Kobe alive. So, we had… a pretty difficult afternoon of discussions and negotiations. I was fairly confident they weren’t going to shoot me in the Okura hotel, that’s a bit difficult to deal with getting a body out of, especially a body of my size, out of the walls so I felt I had a bit of room to push back on and eventually I was able to… because they knew where I lived, they knew were my family as in Tokyo, I was able to then have the discussions moved to Tokyo which was on the 4th and the 5th and we sat in, you know, the same group of guys, we sat down and continued those discussions and eventually I agreed to sign my rights to Fedor across to PRIDE for zero value.
“I’ve seen guns before and these weren’t toy guns. They were loaded pistols and they… when they talked, number one first they show you that they’re armed, they’re dressed in suits but they showed you that they’re holstered and they’re armed. Eventually when I’m pushing back on what they were asking to do, one of the guys pulled out his gun, put it on the table… and we continued to talk and when I continued to push back, he picked the gun up and aimed it to my head and said, ‘You know what’s going to happen if you don’t sign?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, look, we’re in a hotel, it’s going to be pretty messy, so I understand that if you guys want me dead I’ll be dead and I’m sure you’re not going to shoot me here in the meeting room in the hotel. So, let’s continue talking.’ As long as I recognized the fact that there was a credible threat, the guys realized that they didn’t need to go any further than that at that stage. It was a very credible threat.”