By Zach Arnold | March 26, 2012
On March 27th, it will be the 5th anniversary of the transactional change between Dream Stage Entertainment & Zuffa over the assets of PRIDE. The elaborate press conference in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo was heralded as a chance to finally see ‘the Super Bowl of MMA’ between UFC & PRIDE. Of course, that never happened. When the sale went down, PRIDE marketed a Lightweight tournament featuring UFC & PRIDE names for a May ‘07 event at Saitama Super Arena. That never happened.
What did happen was a rather pathetic ending for PRIDE. Their final show was in April of ‘07 at Saitama Super Arena and Nobuyuki Sakakibara, the front man for PRIDE, used the occasion and the show as his final goodbye. In addition to having graphics all over the arena with his face on them, he had the fighters on the card come out and talk about what a great man he was and how sad they were to see PRIDE die. It was a pathetic, but fitting spectacle for a man of such character.
Soon after the sale took place, Zuffa hired Spectrum Gaming to run the background check on DSE for ‘due diligence.’ Yes, they did ‘due diligence’ after the transaction instead of before it. I wonder why. This resulted in a legal battle between the two parties over the asset sale agreement. The initial report was that $70M USD was paid but most insiders believe the final total was in the $10-13M USD range.
After PRIDE died, K-1 had the whole Japanese market to themselves. Kato & Shinoda, the right hand men & production power w/ Sakakibara in PRIDE, created DREAM. Of course, as a play on words, the parent company of DREAM is Real Entertainment. Sakakibara & his henchman Noboru Yamaguchi, famously of Kami no Puroresu magazine, continued on with Hustle pro-wrestling. When UFC relocated point man Jamie Pollack to Japan to take over the PRIDE operations, it was the Hustle crew that directed Japanese media to take photographs at said offices while running goofy pro-wrestling angles involving men like Kintaro Kanemura. UFC was completely oblivious to this happening despite the fact that all the major sports newspapers were running items on the angles.
Within a few months of Mr. Pollack’s arrival in Japan, the disgruntled DSE employees made their allegiance clear and ended up with DREAM. What a shocker. UFC was left with no choice but to lay off everyone and post a notice at the office to have the desks cleaned out immediately. This gave the media a chance to portray UFC as the cold-hearted foreign raiders that came to destroy PRIDE, made false promises about keeping things afloat, but then bailed out when no one was looking.
Of course, we saw how well this narrative played out when UFC ran at Saitama Super Arena last month. They won the battle but the media continues the image war against them by selectively not covering UFC despite the Japanese fight fans being desperate for some sort of product to support.
K-1, with DREAM as a tag partner, tried to fill the vacuum due to PRIDE’s death. K-1’s grand plan was to control the TV pipeline. If you wanted to be on TV, you had to play business by K-1’s rules. K-1 split the TV rights fees with you in exchange for you handling 100% of the risk for promoting the live house – the insurance, the salaries, the gate, the building & production rentals. DREAM initially did OK but eventually tanked on Tokyo Broadcasting System.
K-1, meanwhile, suffered declining numbers as well. Their relationship with Fuji TV was not as solid as it used to be and Tokyo Broadcasting System was their main partner. Some fighters were complaining about not getting paid. Alistair Overeem won the World GP 2010 tournament at Ariake Colosseum. He had signed up with talent agency Yoshimoto to make a big run in Japan. Within two months of that proclaimation, his ties with Japan were done. He made a shift to Strikeforce after he revealed that he, too, got stiffed on money.
Overeem’s last Japan fight was against Todd “TRT” Duffee and he vanquished him in 19 seconds on New Year’s Eve. The NYE event all but put K-1 out of financial commission. It was their last gasp.
A year later, DREAM would put on a New Year’s Eve event with Antonio Inoki as the front man. Satoshi Ishii was the sacrificial lamb to Fedor. The end result? Despite Fedor’s career cratering in the States with big losses, he went back to Japan and immediately became the #1 name again in MMA circles. Recently, he taped a game show series featuring names like Bob Sapp, Vader, Wakakirin, and “Hollywood” Tadao Yasuda. Fedor, of course, got put over. Despite all the peaks & valleys in his post-PRIDE MMA career, Fedor is still the King of Japanese MMA on a national scale in that country.
So, what has happened to all the major players that were involved in the fight scene since the collapse of PRIDE? Let’s take a look at some of the key players and where they stand now.
Nobuyuki Sakakibara would soon leave after PRIDE’s death and Hustle’s demise to go from Tokyo to… Okinawa. This is the equivalent of a New York City power broker going to Mobile, Alabama. I have nothing against the fine folks in Okinawa or Alabama, but when you’re a big city player you don’t naturally make a move to such a vastly different location. Any how, Sakakibara got himself a soccer team and has tried to make it into the bigger leagues of Japanese soccer. Last year, Tadashi Tanaka reported that there was discussion of Sakakibara resurfacing in Tokyo and getting the band back together again with Kato & company. Since New Year’s Eve, DREAM has gone dormant. Real Entertainment is now a de facto booking agency for Kato’s guys (Aoki in Bellator, Kawajiri in One FC). Despite month-long claims that DREAM would announce future show plans, there has been silence.
Kazuyoshi Ishii, who saw everything fall apart and his grand TV pipeline plan fail miserably with K-1 in the post-PRIDE era, is desperately trying to make things work with K-1 but under different circumstances. Ishii, who has aged considerably in the last few years since his prison stint for corporate tax evasion, recently worked as a referee for K-1 Koshien (high schooler) fights at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. This was an unfathomable image to ever consider given how Ishii had made his bones by being connected with Soka Gakkai and with other entertainment power brokers. He’s reduced now to being a referee for young kids fighting. Ishii’s new tact with K-1 Koshien is that prize money will be award in the name of scholarships to top young fighters and that the event will be a platform to promote positive social values. A street-fighter, hard-living charmer is now suddenly professing to be straight & narrow.
Seiya Kawamata, the admitted K-1 yakuza fixer, is on the sidelines but keeps reportedly telling everyone that he’ll get back into the fight game. Kawamata was the central face for Shukan Gendai’s negative campaign against PRIDE. Kawamata reportedly wants back in as an event promoter and on a large scale. The problem for him is that he always has wanted the limelight and couldn’t accept being a behind-the-scenes shadow player. In today’s Japanese climate where the police are waging an all-out war (albeit with limited powers & tools at their disposal), Kawamata is in no position to get back on television ever again. He had his one shot with the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003 event on Nippon TV from Kobe Wing Stadium and blew it.
Ken Imai, the former right-hand man of Kazuyoshi Ishii — who turned on Ishii when the corporate tax evasion scandal hit and became Sakakibara’s right hand man in landing Mirko Cro Cop from agent Miro Mijatovic — is basically powerless now. He was supposed to be the ‘book smart’ guy to Ishii’s ’street smart’ charm and it worked very well for many years in K-1. However, once PRIDE died and Mirko’s career didn’t pan out so well in the UFC, Imai lost his power source.
- Miro Mijatovic: The yakuza’s contract to kill him & PRIDE’s execution
- Miro Mijatovic: Fedor, Mirko, and PRIDE yakuza’s loaded pistols
- Miro Mijatovic on the yakuza ownership war of PRIDE in November 2003
- Beginner’s searchable guide on cast of characters involved in PRIDE scandal
Miro Mijatovic, the man who was the super-agent behind Fedor & Mirko Cro Cop before PRIDE went to war with him, is out of the fight game and is making money in various businesses including the hotel industry. Despite having a Tokyo civil court clear his name and validate his credibility as a honorable witness in relation to what happened with the PRIDE & Kawamata cases, Miro has been fighting to clear his name after he was destroyed in the Japanese press as a crazy foreigner. Five years later after the PRIDE transaction, he’s still fighting a lot of his old battles and those in the press who tried to destroy him were in shock when the Spike TV interview series came out. There has been a self-imposed wall of silence by many of the major sports writers in Japan who covered PRIDE during this time period, as they do not want to talk about the yakuza or steroid (testosterone) issues whatsoever. The mentality has never changed in the media.
Remember Chris Benoit going on a rampage and killing his family? You hardly ever saw the word ’steroid’ used at all in the Japanese press when covering the story. Jushin Liger, who had booked Benoit to win the Super J Cup ‘94 tournament, practically went into silence mode when the death occurred. It was almost as if Liger had never heard of the guy.
I bring this story up for example because the media mentality of what happened during the PRIDE implosion is the same mentality that has always existed and will never change. Last week, NOAH had to finally address their own yakuza scandal regarding a yakuza couple that was swindling senior citizens Bernie Madoff-style in order to finance their pro-wrestling joy ride. Only a handful of newspapers touched the story and even fewer MMA/pro-wrestling Japanese bloggers said a word about it.
When I talk about the climate of fear and a climate of dishonesty as far as the press goes in Japan, I am speaking from experience. I know what it’s like to be double-crossed. I know how the writers are going to behave before they even make a move. They are so predictable. Not one article has been written in Japanese about Rampage’s testosterone comments or the whole testosterone issue in MMA since this thing blew up. I’m not just talking about newspapers, either — I’m also talking about ‘new age’ Japanese bloggers & reporters who had a track record of translating what was said on this very site into Japanese on their sites now refusing to talk about the two kinds of scandals (yakuza & drugs) that can bring down the industry. They’re cowards who don’t have any sort of accountability.
So, let’s talk about the yakuza in 2012 as far as the fight game is concerned.
UFC drew well at Saitama Super Arena because they have a multi-year show agreement with Dentsu, one of the world’s largest ad agencies. They brought all the muscle to the table. UFC sure wishes Dentsu was active in every country they run in because their life would be a whole lot easier. UFC doesn’t have to get their hands dirty since they aren’t a local Japanese operation.
So, what about PRIDE & NOAH? The police in Japan have a line of demarcation between being a yakuza front company versus being a company that ends up cooperating or working with another company that’s connected to the yakuza. In the case of PRIDE, the police clearly saw PRIDE as a front company where the money was being cycled in and out to the owner who was labeled as “Mr. I” (Ishizaka aka Kim Dok-Soo). In the NOAH scandal, you had a yakuza couple that played the classic ’sponsor’ role but this time where they got the money was outed and it was a sleazy senior citizen scam. In addition, the couple had scammed Misawa’s widow out of a loan — yet another classic yakuza scam.
Understand that when it comes to big arenas for fight promotions, the yakuza has always been their version of Ticketmaster. Yes, there’s Lawson and e-plus, but when it comes to moving blocks of thousands or tens of thousands of tickets, you deal with the gangs. First off, you have to deal with them anyways in paying protection money based on which location you’re running your show at. The police are trying to crack down on this heavily but only with moderate success. This factor is why you see so many promotions run the Kanto region only now for shows (Tokyo, Yokohama) instead of Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe, Hiroshima, Sapporo. Outside of Tokyo, you are dealing with protection rackets. Promoters are so ingrained to view paying protection money as a ‘mandated tax.’ So, after you pay the protection money, you’re dealing with gangs that might want to come to the show to either be seen on TV (celebrity/recruiting factor) or they want to show up for a good time and to gamble on fights. So, you run a place that has 16,000 seats, you may cut a deal with the gangs for a 50/50 split of receipts for 6,000 or more tickets. The gangs then take those tickets and they go to various outlets/stores and they cut deals through coercion with said stores for a cut of the action.
Then there’s the dummy company factor. Many production companies in Japan are ran by the gangs. It’s easy cash to make and to also launder money. Hey, here’s a million bucks for that sound stage, thanks for being my friend here and helping me on the show. Plenty of ‘fan service’ (merchandising) outlets are also yakuza-owned or operated. By using dummy companies, you can easily skim & launder cash in and out quickly.
I bring up all these factors because they have as much meaning in Japan in 2012 for running a fight business as they did in 2007 or the 80s or even the mid-50s. The fact that you have gangs threatening cops by saying that they will turn Japan ‘into Mexico’ as far as violence goes should tell you everything to need to know about what the stakes are right now. Throw in the fact that younger yakuza recruits are more willing to pick a fight for the sake of violence and you have a terribly combustible mix of cash, drugs, guns, money, and weak mealy-mouthed social leaders who have been mentally & physically coerced into submission but are now trying to fight back.
As one Japanese writer recently stated to me, this could easily be a lost decade if not more to come for the national fight scene in Japan. For certain, there will be yakuza stooges who come in to run a few shows to launder cash and throw themselves a party. However, the police are adamantly telling TV networks to no longer do business with companies connected to the yakuza. With more and more police officers being hired by the networks as lead security investigators, the squeeze is coming.
Nobody knows what is going to happen in Japan, which is why there is such abject panic & nobody with a real plan of attack five years later after the death of PRIDE.