By Zach Arnold | November 5, 2015
Better late to the party than to be early and expose yourself as a fool. I’ve kept my mouth shut about the return of Nobuyuki Sakakibara, wondering if he had as much juice as some of his cheerleaders claims he has right now. In the fight business, you never know. The wild rumors of his money marks coming from the Middle East to pachinko money in Japan. What’s real and what’s not real?
Nature abhors a vacuum. Once PRIDE died, so did the national Mixed Martial Arts in Japan. Take away the alleged dark money, the professional wrestling icons, and TV support and you’re just an American-style independent promoter.
Since the death of PRIDE, Fuji TV has tanked in the ratings. They’re not a major player on New Year’s Eve. As Tadashi Tanaka correctly pointed out, Fuji TV has been airing a lot of South Korean programming that the Japanese public isn’t all that into. Mr. Tanaka quipped that people were wondering whether or not Korean money was involved in Fuji TV’s ownership. The irony of this is incredibly thick given that the Shukan Gendai negative campaign against PRIDE was built around the mysterious Mr. Ishizaka (“Mr. I”), a dark money figure with alleged ties to… South Korea.
The irony is even thicker when you consider that Spike TV, the network that ran a news program laying out the PRIDE yakuza scandal, is now going to work with Rizin through Scott Coker.
With Sakakibara’s return, the promise is that he’ll bring in pro-wrestling stars and big foreign names to juice up a dead Japanese scene. Given that Antonio Inoki is back in politics, someone had to fill his (small) role as the country’s only power broker. Throw in rumors of former K-1 boss Kazuyoshi Ishii perhaps interested in Rizing and the circus is back in town.
There are simply too many missing pieces of the puzzle to put the band back together again.
First, you need big-league professional wrestling stars. They don’t exist right now to do the crossover. Only a name like Shinsuke Nakamura could do it and I have serious doubts that New Japan would risk having their golden goose get humiliated like Yuji Nagata got buried against Mirko Cro Cop a decade ago. New Japan is the only pro-wrestling player in town. I don’t see the economics adding up for New Japan to prop up Sakakibara, especially given TV-Asahi’s ownership in the company.
There was talk of Kota Ibushi, but he’s got a herniated disc and I don’t see the natural cross-over fit. There was curious talk of Go Shiozaki, but Shiozaki is not a major name and he frankly has zero business leverage with any combat sports organization. After Misawa died, bad booking and development buried Shiozaki into a permanent glass ceiling situation.
That leaves you with Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Shinya Aoki and Aoki vs. Montanha Silva. The public may slightly care about the first fight but care less about the second fight.
Second, money. There are three plausible scenarios on the TV front: 1) Fuji TV is putting up a small amount of cash, 2) they’re doing a barter deal with Sakakibara, or 3) Sakakibara may be paying a small amount. Fuji TV is still scarred by what happened with PRIDE. There was talk about Rizin and the TV network ensuring protocols in place that Rizin would not do business with the dark side. Even with Fuji TV working again with Sakakibara, I cannot see the network in its current state risking a lot to chase a pipe dream like reviving MMA.
Three, big names. It takes a lot of cash to develop prospects over time to make them into household names in Japan. If you’re having to rely on Sakuraba or Akebono, it’s not enough to open the window for old fans to come back through let alone create new fans who are wondering what this MMA thing is. A decade is a long time to be away from the main stage.
The smarter play would have been to go through the pro-wrestling route and try to revive UWF, then turn-key it into an MMA project. By going through the PRIDE/DREAM route, you’re risking more money with fewer promoter-friendly parts to work with.
Even when Antonio Inoki was loading big New Japan cards in the 1970s and early 80s with foreigners like Ali, Hansen, Andre, and Dusty Rhodes, there was still an ability to sell some Japanese names on the cards who would turn out to be pretty serious draws (Fujinami, Sakaguchi, Choshu). There is no one available for Rizin who is Inoki-level, let alone Fujinami-level to build around.
If you are hoping to appeal to big-name sponsors for a NYE show, the preparations usually begin during late August to book big names so that by October you have something to pitch to ad agencies like Dentsu to bring in the big bucks. PRIDE paid $5 million bucks for Hidehiko Yoshida vs. Naoya Ogawa and that turned to be a monster fight in PRIDE’s history. We’re in early November and I don’t see the major names on tap that could attract 10 million viewers on NYE. At this point, 7 million viewers would be an accomplishment. Better to set the bar low than to raise expectation levels from the past.