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UFC had 10 years after PRIDE’s death to make Floyd Mayweather-level money in Japan and blew it

By Zach Arnold | September 25, 2017

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There is no stronger cultural stereotype in Japan than that of a mercenary, invading foreigner taking over a business or institution that has no respect for core societal values.

The collapse of PRIDE in 2007 gave UFC a clear and present opportunity to take over the second most profitable Mixed Martial Arts market in the world. At its peak, PRIDE made around $50 million USD a year. Even if you conservatively downgraded estimated year-to-year revenue at $30 million USD, a ten-year market run could have produced $300 million USD.

UFC blew their chance at making hundreds of millions of dollars in Japan because they wanted to run Japan on their own terms and conditions.

The vacuum that exists in Japan for Mixed Martial Arts has never been greater. The verdict from Japanese fans to the current UFC product is a gigantic thumbs down.

What UFC could have done to win in Japan but refused to do

UFC made a smart deal with Dentsu, one of the major Japanese advertising/marketing players, to run several years worth of events. Whenever PRIDE ran major events on New Year’s Eve, they relied on the marketing muscle of Dentsu and other agencies in conjunction with Fuji TV to bring home the cash.

UFC 144 was held at Saitama Super Arena in the early hours of the morning. Because of the novelty appeal, UFC drew quite a large crowd — in the 20,000 range. How much of it was paid vs. papered is up to speculation.

It was a card with mostly foreign fighters but at least some names that the Japanese fans knew and cared about – Mark Hunt, Rampage Jackson, Yoshihiro Akiyama. For a one-shot deal, it worked OK. It produced enough momentum that UFC should have been able to build upon and progress into making Japan a sustainable big-show market.

Instead, UFC decided to treat the Japanese market as a pit stop. Perfunctory events at Saitama Super Arena in successive years with declining attendance. Two years ago, there was Josh Barnett vs. Roy Nelson. This year, it was Ovince St. Preux vs. Yushin Okami (replacing Mauricio Shogun).

Friday’s card at Saitama Super Arena featured one interesting Japanese prospect — Shuri Kondo. Kondo fits all the characteristics of what a successful PRIDE fighter would have been. A top professional wrestler. Charismatic. Tough. Aggressive. Cross-marketability. Finding Japanese fighters with these characteristics is currently a challenge.

Naturally, UFC booked her as the third fight on the Saitama Super Arena fight card despite the fact that she’s significantly more relevant than Takanori Gomi and Yushin Okami. Both men are beyond their expiration date and should have never been booked in the first place.

The complete lack and total development of Japanese fighters with true Japanese-style marketing is UFC’s fault. If UFC decides to sign Kondo to a long-term deal (which they should), then they will force her to give up professional wrestling. That would be a terrible decision. It is professional wrestling that has served as the most successful backbone to stardom for Japanese MMA fighters. UFC has no problem with Brock Lesnar going back and forth between WWE and UFC because of the PPV buy rates he attracts but they have a real problem with it when it comes to booking prospects who could make them a lot of money.

UFC failed completely to obtain a major Japanese television deal. Japanese fans want to support a Japanese company or, at the very least, a company that embraces some Japanese culture. After years of failing in Japan, WWE figured out that if they poached stars like Shinsuke Nakamura, Kana (Asuka), and KENTA (Hideo Itami) that they could run events in Japan a few times a year to promote the WWE Network. What do you know? It’s working. New Japan is still the dominant wrestling player in Japan but WWE recognizes it and understands its importance in the fight ecosystem.

UFC has turned into the vanilla ice cream of marketing. It’s the same damn matchmaking formula on every show. The same cage. The same advertisers. The commentators come and go but it’s the same televison production format. The only time UFC went bold was that ROMANEX-ugly mustard cage canvas for UFC 200.

The formula to win big in Japan has never changed.

UFC promoting a non-cage event? Sacrilegious? Hell, it would be a great marketing trick for Zuffa to make their Japanese shows feel special by promoting events in ring only for the Japanese.

None of this is hard to do. Given UFC’s talent pool and cash on hand, they should be swimming in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in Japanese shows. Instead, business for each successful Japanese UFC show has declined! This should have never happened. It’s a dark stain on UFC’s legacy. They wanted PRIDE out of business and bought the PRIDE assets to do it. They encountered hostility when they tried to run PRIDE with Dream Stage employees. That happens. UFC encountered individuals who were angry and pigeon-holed Zuffa into the white imperialist stereotype of gaijin who never intended on embracing cultural values but instead were vulture capitalist mercenaries.

That doesn’t mitigate the fact that UFC, under their own brand and auspices, had a responsibility to the Japanese market to keep Mixed Martial Arts alive in the country. When a market is worth hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue, you do what you have to do to make it work — not just for UFC’s bottom line but also for the health of the sport on a world stage. When the Japanese MMA market is red hot, the sport is a lot more interesting and a lot richer for fighters.

Topics: Japan, Media, MMA, PRIDE, UFC, Zach Arnold | 6 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

6 Responses to “UFC had 10 years after PRIDE’s death to make Floyd Mayweather-level money in Japan and blew it”

  1. Diaz's packed bowl says:

    They bought pride to remove the competition ’nuff said.

    They never planned to continue pride in any shape or form, hostile dream stage employees? Yeah, maybe they were mad at the ufc because they were being lied to and layed off by them.
    Ufc 144 was pretty big in japan, it sold out and they released it on a 5 disc bluray set!
    Your formula for success wasn’t there? not an issue, using a cage was not a problem neither was running the show in the morning. They should try and book gomi vs Penn retirement fight for the next show in Japan.

  2. Diaz's packed bowl says:

    All of world’s and specifically asia’s top promotions use the cage however.
    UFC
    CAGE WARRIORS
    ONE fc
    ROAD fc
    Pancrase
    Superfight

    Dream even used a cage for their last few shows.
    Japanese like to hold onto tradition but loath to be seen as antiquated.
    So really what choice do they have? The Japanese people are fine with the cage, pancrase and other smaller Japanese shows use it. If Japanese fighters want to fight elseworld they need to train in a cage. Unless they want to putz around in shooto, which is also using a cage.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Zach,

    While I can appreciate your passion, you are living in a fantasy world full of sour grapes.

    The UFC finished off what you loved, but they did not destroy it.

    The wounds that killed JMMA were self-inflicted, and you know that more than anybody.

    The UFC has done what they’ve done, for better or for worse, by following their same gameplan. All of the things that you listed are the OPPOSITE of what the UFC does.

    I would also point out, what Japanese promotions have been successful long-term in Japan? Is the complete lack of large-scale JMMA the UFC’s fault?

    On top of all that, all of the awesome JMMA stars that we loved have crashed and burned in the UFC, and they did not look good doing it.

    Look, I get it, I am the guy that said “Pride Never Dies”, but we can’t keep digging up these old memories and blaming the UFC because we don’t have it anymore. The UFC won, for whatever that is worth.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      Sour grapes?

      I was accused multiple times over multiple years of being on UFC’s payroll to take down PRIDE over their corruption scandals. People inside and outside the MMA industry legitimately believed this.

      I led the public battle in the English language media on PRIDE’s corruption. I love Japanese combat sports and what it represents but I never loved PRIDE management. I knew a lot of people involved in that organization. I stayed honest and true to my word.

      UFC did not finish off PRIDE. PRIDE killed itself. And former PRIDE employees and hanger-ons made violent threats toward UFC officials who tried to promote a 16-man Lightweight tournament under the PRIDE banner. I recognized this in the article.

      They were willing to promote a PRIDE-style product that appealed to the Japanese fans. The motive was there to do it. Once PRIDE died, the only major MMA company in the world was UFC. They were the only ones with the financial assets to do something in Japan. If Japan didn’t mean anything to them, they wouldn’t have come back in 2012 with the card they did.

      The big mystery and question is what happened to UFC’s heart and determination in successive years in Japan. The market was there on a silver platter. All they had to do was keep investing. Instead, they went cheap. They treated Japan as a pit stop. They didn’t go all-in for the second largest MMA market in the world. And nobody is supposed to ask why?

      • bully4me says:

        You said it yourself. Pride Killed Itself. The downfall started with the Yakuza. Pride LOST it’s TV deal and started losing money fast. The UFC DID want to run PRIDE as a separate entity when they purchased it. Even do crossover fights between the two promotions. Issue was Zuffa could NOT get any sort of TV deal. They tried, and tried, and tried. Finally they cut the cord and signed the fighters. How could the UFC has possibly made Pride a success with no TV deal, what were they suppose to do? Pride was tainted at that point, once that happens in Japanese business, your screwed. You point out that the UFC shouldn’t even put Tattooed fighters on the Japanese cards, If that is an issue for the Japanese Business owners do you truly believe they want anything they feel had anything to do with the Japanese Mob? NO WAY!!

        You’re facts are also tainted. Pointing out the UFC LOST nearly 300Mil. What you aren’t taking into consideration is the amount of money the UFC made over those years by having Pride Fighters on their cards. Especially at the start: Page vs Chuck for the Title, Randy vs Big Nog, Wandy vs Chuck, Shogun vs Griffin. Many of the Pride Stars were essential in the growth of the UFC post TUF1. If the UFC had not of attained those Big Names the UFC wouldn’t have grown nearly as big, would it have been worth 4 BILLION as of last summer when they sold? Probably not. Pride fighters were a huge part of the UFC’s incredible growth.

        It’s like the old saying ” Can’t have your cake and eat it too”

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