By Zach Arnold | January 2, 2014
Unless there is a reversal in social policy towards dark money (the yakuza), the short answer is no.
Tuesday was the 10 year anniversary of the three major broadcast MMA shows in Japan that basically led to the eventual collapse of the industry. Why? Because the yakuza gangs that were fighting with each other went too far. It led to K-1’s yakuza fixer, Seiya Kawamata, cooperating with weekly magazine Shukan Gendai. You had Miro Mijatovic, super agent of Fedor & Mirko, threatened and eventually cooperating with the authorities who turned to Fuji TV and read them the riot act.
I had predicted in late 2005, when business was still booming for PRIDE, that they were toast. And I took enormous grief for that. But it happened. Fuji TV pulled the plug on the contract with PRIDE despite drawing 15 million-plus television viewers for shows. PRIDE ran a couple of shows in Japan, did well at Saitama Super Arena, but lost their ass financially and looked to flipped their assets. They used Ed Fishman, he of Las Vegas & Atlantic City gaming fame with Harrah’s, to get the UFC interested in buying the assets. The rest is history.
With PRIDE dead, K-1 was the only ballgame in town on national broadcast television. However, their plans melted away once their ratings declined. And K-1 is dead now, just like PRIDE.
I mention all of this because we are finding out, as time marches on, how rotten to the core these front operations really turned out to be. It’s not a surprise that they were rotten but it is a surprise that they were so predictable and so slow on the trigger to adapt. The reason they couldn’t adapt, of course, is because not one single person was controlling the action. In a new interview with Jeremy Wall’s MMA Chronicle site, Frank Shamrock dropped quite a bombshell. He claimed that Sony had a deal on the table with K-1. Such a business transaction would have kept K-1 afloat as a national player, for sure. Instead, Kazuyoshi Ishii & company dragged their feet and supposedly blew the deal.
Throw in the anti-yakuza banking laws in recent years that have been aggressively pushed and what you have is a Japanese combat sports scene that looks like the American scene in terms of high cost of entry and low possibility of success. This is why the scene in Japan is dead. Without the yakuza gangs financing operations, you can’t be a major player in terms of cash or ticket distribution.
The only person left running shows in Japan on New Year’s Eve is Antonio Inoki. His latest show in Tokyo at Ryogoku Kokugikan involved the same cast of characters he’s been parading around for a decade. The main event featured Satoshi Ishii pummeling Kazuyuki Fujita. A cameo by Fedor drew the only mass media attention in the newspapers. Why is Inoki still running shows? Two reasons: 1) he’s back in the saddle as a politician and 2) he’s still heavily backed by the North Korean government. There isn’t a dictator this man hasn’t tried to make a deal with or try to do a photo-op with in the press. If Inoki didn’t have this current support, he wouldn’t even be running events any longer. 10 years ago when there was the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye event at Kobe Wing Stadium, he wasn’t even involved in the event operations. He was simply a face, a front man.
10 years after the hybrid events blew up television ratings and competed with heavy hitters on New Year’s Eve, the only combat sports programming left was on TV Tokyo and the boxing show drew a 5.1% rating. The unstoppable Kohaku (red & white) music program drew a 44.5% rating on NHK and Nippon TV drew an early rating of 19.8% and 17.2% later rating for their Downtown show. Tokyo Broadcasting System drew a 14.5% rating for their Kyokugen 2013 sports program.
The NYE MMA shows used to compete with these kinds of numbers.
I provide all of this as the background for the Press Row show I recorded with Jordan Breen at Sherdog. I thought it was one of the most interesting back-and-forths about MMA in a long time because the conversation was heavy on the history and melancholy on the future. There were so many great moments from the past NYE events that you almost have to have a checklist to run through to remember the moments. The UFC does a great job with their year-end PPVs but the one thing they don’t do well is transcend culture with their events. A UFC event is a UFC event. You either love it or you hate it. There’s no appealing to Grandma Tanaka. There’s no broadcast network appeal. The UFC is a cable and PPV product, its base is heavily male in the 18-34 year old demographic, and they will travel wherever the product goes. But there isn’t a gigantic ceiling nor is there a collapsing floor.
The Japanese events were all about mass market appeal and shattering ceilings no one had ever imagined possible. Everyone looked at the concept of Bob Sapp vs. Akebono with disdain except for the Japanese television audiences. They drew ratings that were comparable to the Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali hybrid match officiated by Judo Gene LeBell in 1976 at Nippon Budokan. You had freak fights like Hollywood Tadao Yasuda, broke from his pachinko gambling debts & losing his daughter’s support, versus Jerome Le Banner in an MMA fight. The UFC would never book a mass market product like this because they are a sport and have been fighting for their credibility since day one. In Japan, the fights were absurd but they were credibly absurd and that’s why they drew so well.
Will we see a period of Japanese fighting drawing big TV ratings on New Year’s Eve again? Right now, the safe answer is “no.” In addition to the crackdown on the yakuza gangs, you also have a situation where the pro-wrestling industry in the country is very different than the environment that created the Japanese MMA boom. You had Antonio Inoki, whose concept of fantasy fights was a key driver. You had UWF International, the “dojo pro-wrestling” group that was super popular. Today’s pro-wrestling environment? It’s an environment with one major promotion, New Japan, and that promotion used to be Antonio Inoki’s baby before it got sold twice. And the people in New Japan are anti-MMA to the extent that they would never send their stars to do MMA fights again. They’ll bring in a Kazushi Sakuraba or Katsuyori Shibata to do special matches but under the pro-wrestling tent. Without major pro-wrestling operations pushing the concept of the shooting style, you won’t have the backbone to create a new Japanese MMA boom in the country.
Which is why the scene right now is such a sad reminder of what things used to be and what things could have been if players like Ed Fishman & Sony had been able to get involved.