By Zach Arnold | March 1, 2012
“I originally got involved in the fight game by being introduced by the Croatian Soccer Federation to a Croatian fighter who in 2002 was pretty big and that was Mirko Cro Cop, so my original involvement was to act as Mirko Cro Cop’s manager in, at that time, he was in K-1 so that’s where I started in about 2002 I think it was.
“The first time PRIDE had ever done a massive event, massive being Tokyo Dome, was in November of 2003 which had a double headline of (Wanderlei) Silva vs. Rampage (Jackson) and also Cro Cop vs. (Antonio Rodrigo) Nogueira for the interim heavyweight title.
“At the backstage, behind the scenes of that particular event, I was personally… usually there was plenty of yakuza around as customers of the shows, the guys that were picking up the ring side seats for 100,000Y, you know, a lot of those guys were yakuza and obviously customers of the event. The first time I’d actually seen that there was catually something going on behind the scenes was at that specific event where there was probably, I’d say, between 100-to-200 armed yakuza guys from two different groups basically looking like they were setting up battle lines and ready to start open warfare.
“The warfare was basically between two groups — one group was behind (Hiromichi) Momose, which is the guy that used to sit at PRIDE events with the black cap with “Young at Heart” stitched on it. So many people who watched PRIDE events would know who that is; and also the new owner or the owner who had taken over from (Naoto) Morishita who had, uh, let’s say died earlier in January of 2003. The new owner was a guy called Ishizaka (Kim Dok Soo) and his Osaka-based crew were having a major dispute with Momose’s crew and it came pretty close to shots being fired at that specific event. So, it was a pretty um… dangerous scene behind the scenes…
“80,000 people in Tokyo Dome and all the way behind including change rooms and the rest of it… you know, things had already gotten pretty hot by November of 2003. So, there was a battle for which yakuza group was actually going to take control of PRIDE.”
How the feud came to a conclusion
“That had started with Morishita’s death and it continued for the whole year and it culminated at that November event and what happened was that Ishizaka and his group basically had the numbers to take control or take full control of PRIDE. And from that time forward, you’d find that Momose does not play as much of a… you know how can I say, a prominent position at PRIDE events. Until that event, you’d see Momse sitting at ringside very regularly. Following the November 2003 event, you’ll find that you don’t see him much at all and he was pushed out.
“Look, the official… Naoto Morishita… he was the guy who basically resurrected or was the creator of the PRIDE concept. The original PRIDE events were run by KRS which was a company which was funnily event funded by a combination of Momose & Ishizaka, you know, who years later were to have a final war at that November 2003 event. The events were a massive financial failure and KRS basically was bleeding money.
“Morishita came in and was able to change around the dynamic or the cost of the events and built the PRIDE sort of brand as people began to know it. As we started, as we got into let’s say 2000 to 2003, Morishita was clean. He was a clean guy. He didn’t come from a yakuza background and neither were the shares in the company Dream Stage Entertainment owned by yakuza at those times. However, there was a reasonable level of funding for his shows coming from those groups and obviously in Japan when you do live events the yakuza have the rights, each of the yakuza in each local region, have what they call the rights to charge you a fee for putting on events within their territory. The best way to describe it in English is protection money. You know, if you don’t pay the guys, they will look to cause problems at the events.”
The end of Morishita’s reign of power and his death
“So, Morishita… because PRIDE was a product in 2001, 2002 which was not nationally televised, it was on Japanese PPV (SkyPerfecTV)… it generally was not a group that was making a lot of money. So, a lot of the income flow came from both yakuza supporting the events through straight-out loans or buying large chunks of the expensive tickets and the reason why they did that was 1) they liked fighting 2) there was a lot of money to be made on gambling on, you know, MMA fights in Japan at that specific time. So, for them, it was an interesting below-the-radar type event which produced reasonable money, reasonable cash and good ways to also wash (launder) money.
“So, Morishita was in debt or should I say Dream Strage Entertainment was into debt with guys like Ishizaka, not so much to Momose in the later days… and Morishita’s death in the Tokyo Hilton was pronounced a suicide by the police. But you also have to remember that the police… aren’t always that interested into going too deep into investigations of… yakuza-tainted, you know, deaths, it’s not really what they’re interested in especially if you don’t have a victim, let’s say victim who’s really pushing it. In this particular case, it’s pretty much standard yakuza operational-wise if they’re going to take someone out, they don’t just, you know, walk down the street and shoot them although they do that every day as well… but the smarter guys always operate on the basis of a suicide, connecting it to a sexual issue.
“For example, supposedly Morishita was with his mistress who also disappeared at that time. Reason why they do that is the wife doesn’t tend to make a lot of noise to the police about investigations, so once there’s a sexual [angle] to the scandal involved… there’s no one pushing hard to discover the facts, the wife doesn’t want to know. She’s angry that she’s found out that her husband’s having an affair or a supposed affair, so things get hushed up.
“So, the official finding was suicide. I’ve stayed in the Hilton myself in Tokyo many, many times and there’s not a lot of ways and a lot of places you can hang yourself from in those rooms. So… how it all happened… you know, as I said, the official cause remains a suicide. How that could have practically happened is a very different story and is a story that’s never really been told.
“What did happen was in usually these sorts of cases if you follow the money trail, Morishita’s shares (in DSE) which would have normally gone to his next of kin, in other words of his wife, ended up in the hands of Ishizaka and his front man Sakakibara.”
Influencing fight outcomes vs. match fixing in PRIDE
“When we say controlling fights, I suppose there’s a whole scope of what you can say controlling a fight is. I mean, at one end of the spectrum it’s basically fixing fights. At the other end of the spectrum which is what PRIDE did on a regular basis which was controlling or trying to influence the outcome of fights, whether that was through referees like (Yuji) Shimada doing his usual bits and pieces to make fights go the way the promoter wanted them to wherever it was, matchmaking fights where you knew the favored fighter was going to win which is not really any great mystery… Doing things like giving one fighter three or four months notice of the fight he’s going to have and the opponent gets to know a week or 10 days before or he’s actually baited-and-switched which was actually a very common occurrence in PRIDE.
“For example, Mirko Cro Cop may be fighting or for example was set to fight Heath Herring at one of his first debut fights. Poor ‘ol Heath thought he was fighting a wrestler and trained for fighting a wrestler for three months. 10 days before the fight, they switched it and said you’re fighting Mirko Cro Cop. Mirko actually had four months to prepare for the fight, Heath had 10 days, which was good for us because I was managing Mirko so no problem for me but tough luck for Heath and that was a very, very common way of influencing the fights.
“In terms of actually matchmaking the events… yes, the [yakuza] were involved. There were fights (that) they wanted to see but remember even these yakuza guys … so there were fights that those guys wanted to see and they also knew that big headline fights would also carry a lot of betting, just like in the US model…
“You know, gambling here is illegal… it has to be said which is why it’s one of the yakuza’s main forms of business, whether it’s in Sumo where there’s been a lot of scandals or whether it’s been in the fight industry and, you know, the meaning of yakuza actually comes from gambler in Japanese. That’s where the original business was, so, you know, 200 years later they haven’t given up on their main business. Gambling still remains one of their main lines of business.”