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« | Home | »

A DREAM of returning to glory

By Zach Arnold | March 5, 2008

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When K-1 mouthpiece Sadaharu Tanigawa announced that K-1 and DSE officials would work together in ‘a large coalition’ to produce a modified version of PRIDE, you could see the old PRIDE marks suddenly appear on Sherdog and MMA Fighting message boards. When Nobuyuki Sakakibara sold the PRIDE assets to Lorenzo Fertitta, it was as if Sakakibara also sold Fertitta the rights to the PRIDE online trolls as well. PRIDE was dead and the trolls had suddenly vanished.

Unfortunately, the trolls are back and with a vengeance based on the news regarding the new DREAM promotion. Check out the message boards now — the old PRIDE vs. UFC flame wars are suddenly back in full force.

There’s no question that the DREAM project is a big story to pay attention to. There are a lot of positive and negatives that will come with the rise and/or fall of this league. For all intents and purposes, this is Japan’s last great hope for trying to restore glory and return to the salad days of the MMA boom that was thriving a few years ago in the country.

The story of the new DREAM project and the people backing it is remarkable in many ways. The Godfather of K-1, Kazuyoshi Ishii, is controlling some strings while sitting in a jail cell. Ishii’s muscle man, Seiya Kawamata, is supposedly back in the fold and running the show. Kawamata is the admitted yakuza-fixer that helped Shukan Gendai’s negative campaign against DSE that led to public pressure of Fuji TV to cancel PRIDE programming on their network. Many of the DSE staffers who lost their jobs thanks to Kawamata are now working alongside him. In the background somewhere, perhaps, is the ghost of Nobuyuki Sakakibara, who is being sued by PRIDE FC Worldwide Holdings LLC for allegedly violating three separate contractual agreements made in the PRIDE asset sale deal. Sakakibara, however, is reportedly preoccupied these days trying to get a soccer club in Okinawa off the ground.

How did we get to this point with the creation of DREAM?

Sadaharu Tanigawa, who took over the reigns of power when Ishii was caught up in the corporate tax evasion scandal, has had a rough time as leader of K-1. Television ratings for big company shows have gradually taken a nosedive in the wrong direction. Tanigawa, at this point, is reduced to being a mouthpiece for K-1 and a managing type boss. Without strong television ratings, the economic model of K-1 is useless in many ways. The company is not focused on live-show promoting and simply cared about getting big rights fees for major fight shows. Under Tanigawa’s watch, ratings have declined and there has been a negative effect on the company’s drawing power. HEROs, which was supposed to be K-1’s big alternative to PRIDE, turned out to be an unfocused mess. There was no coherent booking strategy whatsoever and K-1 failed to establish an emotional connection with the fans to make HEROs successful. In turn, HEROs found itself on life support after K-1 reportedly had trouble acquiring sponsors to get the various MMA shows on Tokyo Broadcasting Network. The last HEROs show, from October of 2007 in South Korea, aired in a late-night time slot on TBS.

With the death of PRIDE and K-1 struggling to grab a share of the Japanese MMA market, DSE staffers and K-1 aligned together under the auspices of the Ishii-Kawamata connection. The idea on paper is simple – take K-1’s brand power on Japanese television and combine it with DSE-style live-show promoting capabilities. Combine this with DSE-style repetitive GP tournaments and K-1’s PR machine and hope that you can create a modified version of PRIDE, with K-1 essentially running the purse strings.

The first DREAM event takes place on March 15th at Saitama Super Arena, using the standard PRIDE GP format with smaller weight-class fighters and Mirko Cro Cop in some sort of ‘bonus’ match on the card. The initial hope is that nostalgia for the old PRIDE product will drive hardcore fans into supporting the promotion initially — at least enough to help K-1 eventually use its PR machine to push the new brand into the public conscious and make it a mainstream deal. If there is one aspect of the Japanese marketplace that makes it unique compared to America, it’s that the fans love nostalgic acts and are willing to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. K-1 will capitalize on the nostalgia that hardcore MMA fans had for PRIDE the same way DSE capitalized on fans who had nostalgia for the U-System (UWF, UWF-International) in the 1990s. In that regard, DREAM should have a safety cushion for the first few shows in terms of drawing sell-outs at the live gate.

The big question for DREAM is whether or not a product predicated on smaller fighters will sell long-term with the Japanese MMA fans.

It’s a legitimate question to ask given that the history of Japanese pro-wrestling marketing has consisted of famous matchmakers like Riki Choshu who solidly believe that you simply can’t market lighter-weight fighters as ‘aces’ long-term. At a time when Jushin Liger, Ultimo Dragon, The Great Sasuke, and many other pro-wrestling Jr. Heavyweights came through the doors of New Japan and wowed fans with their great in-ring style, ultimately those stars never were pushed at the top of cards because of the perception that the mainstream Japanese fans wanted to see the heavyweights, for better or for worse. For the most part, Choshu ended up being correct.

For PRIDE fans nostalgic of Bushido events and the lighter-weight fighters being on top of cards, let the Bushido event series be a business lesson to everyone. Despite PRIDE’s heavy pushing of Takanori Gomi as the ‘ace’ of Bushido, the majority of Bushido events didn’t come close to selling out at the live gates. Bushido events were often relegated and treated as ‘second class’ PRIDE events in the eyes of Fuji TV and amongst Japanese media writers. Gomi never proved that he could be a solid main-eventer in terms of drawing power.

Which brings us to the Shin’ya Aoki vs. JZ Calvan fight coming up on the 15th. For the hardcore MMA fans online, the fight is practically a wet dream for them. Given that this fight will take place on the DREAM debut show, it will likely make a favorable impression on fans. However, if you had to market this match alone on its own merits to the Japanese mainstream public without having the angle of DREAM making its debut, it would likely be a dog in terms of attracting fan interest. We are a week away from the event taking place and there is practically no media coverage whatsoever for either Aoki or Calvan. Even if the fight turns out great and one of the two fighters puts on a good performance, it’s unlikely that either man will come out of the bout as a mega-star in the eyes of the Japanese public. That could be a recurring problem for the new promotion in terms of making stars with fighters from lighter-weight classes.

There is an enormous amount at stake with the success or failure of the new DREAM project. In essence, this is K-1’s version of a hail mary. If the project cannot attract big television ratings, then it will be a big black eye on the company and could significantly weaken their television deals with both TBS and Fuji TV. If DREAM does succeed and pull in solid ratings, then Ishii’s consolidation play will be hyped up as a brilliant move. The storyline of Ishii the criminal being able to take down his arch rival and then use said rival’s employees to control the entire Japanese fight industry would make Napoleon blush.

In order for Ishii’s mad science project to become successful, he is going to have to rely on others to help book good fights and strong gaijin stars. One matchmaking item that PRIDE was much better at than K-1 was booking strong gaijin fighters in top card positions. I was talking with the inimitable Jordan Breen of Sherdog about K-1’s history of booking gaijin in HEROs and he summed up K-1’s philosophy in one sentence: along with the freak shows, they like to book random Lithuanians and BJJ guys with little MMA crossover experience. If K-1’s strange gaijin booking habits can be erased by some of the booking habits that DSE used during PRIDE’s heyday, then the DREAM project should be able to generate some classic Japanese ace vs. gaijin ace match-ups.

However, for all of the possible potential that the DREAM project has, there are some serious roadblocks in the way that could easily halt any success that is achieved.

Despite the fact that nostalgia sells really well as a short-term play in Japan, there is also a possible element of buyer’s remorse at stake amongst the PRIDE hardcore fans. K-1’s version of PRIDE, HEROs, failed to capture the imagination of those hardcore fans who used to treat going to PRIDE events as if it was a pilgrimage. As nostalgic as some fans are for the days of PRIDE, some of those fans have moved on and won’t come back. Think about what happened when WWE bought out the assets of WCW from Time Warner. A huge chunk of the WCW fans never embraced or cared for Vince McMahon’s style of pro-wrestling. It’s possible that despite K-1 attempting an image makeover to recreate a mini-PRIDE, there will be some old PRIDE fans who see through the charade and won’t accept K-1’s new creation.

And who can blame them? PRIDE fans got burned when the company collapsed due to a yakuza scandal. A lot of the same cast of characters that were involved in the yakuza scandal are still around in the MMA business. They haven’t left. If stupidity is repeating the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result each time, then there’s a good chance that history could repeat itself with the rise and fall of DREAM.

Are fans willing to get burned again?

With so many famous power-brokers now under one tent, it’s impossible to see a scenario where this project doesn’t fall-apart in the long-run. The Japanese fight industry is famous for scandals, backstabbing, and heavy volatility. Someone’s bound to screw something up. When the grandmaster is sitting behind bars and his ‘muscle’ is an admitted yakuza fixer and they are aligning with staff from a company tarnished over the last two years by yakuza allegations, well…

Short-term, DREAM could be a wildly successful Japanese MMA play. Long-term, however, this company could be MMA’s version of a hedge fund. You can win big and you can lose big as well.

Topics: DREAM, HERO's, Japan, K-1, Media, MMA, PRIDE, Zach Arnold | 35 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

35 Responses to “A DREAM of returning to glory”

  1. ilostmydog says:

    Well, with 9 days before the event and only four matches officially announced, it certainly feels as if Pride is back. :p

    One thing I never liked about HERO’S were the edited broadcasts. I much preferred watching the live PRIDE shows. It’s such a downer to watch a HERO’S (or even MAX) show and see them clip a fight so that you only see the last round. DREAM is going to have that too, but hopefully I can find the Korean broadcast.

  2. white ninja says:

    as far as the general japanese public is concerned

    dream = bushido = heros

    dream will get a lot of otaku wearing their pride t-shirts (yarrenoka LOL) trekking up to saitama, but ratings will suck, because the fight boom is over in japan

    with the Pride scandal, japanese fans have gotten sick of –

    – roided fighters
    – biased refs and decisions
    – yakuza fixers
    – shameful matchmaking

    its all a bit “dasai” or “shoppai”

  3. sonzai says:

    I have one Japanese friend who was a “hardcore”, but since PRIDE’s end, he’s not cared so much. He was very “meh” about Yarennoka! and he’s just as “meh” about DREAM.

  4. sebastian says:

    It would be interesting to see HDNet get a TV deal like the koreans used to have for Pride, were they just run the show from beginning to end, so we could dodge the two-hour-edited-version crap.

  5. Ultimo_Santa says:

    – roided fighters

    Like Sean Sherk, Tim Sylvia, etc. Except they were actually caught in the UFC…people just ASSUME Pride fighters were on steroids, because they weren’t tested.

    – biased refs and decisions

    I won’t even get into Cecil Peoples as a judge, because that’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

    But let’s look at some recent decisions: Kongo knees CroCop in the balls several times – gets a warning. Fair enough. CONTINUES to knee him in the balls, and doesn’t get a point taken away.

    Brock Lesnar hits Frank Mir in the head, gets no warning, is forced to stand up and lose his position, and also gets a point taken away.

    Biased? I don’t know. Inconsistent and unprofessional? Hells yeah.

    – yakuza fixers

    yakuza FUNDED…but fixing fights? Do you have proof, or just speculation (like the steroid allegations)?

    – shameful matchmaking

    Former UFC Champion vs. 1-0 pro wrestler? Billed as the main even OVER the Heavyweight title fight? If that happened in Pride, UFC fanboys would have a field day.

    There seems to be a lot of disgruntled UFC loyalists who are getting bent out of shape since the Lesnar-Mir fight, and how is was promoted (with WWE footage, etc.).

    It seems like their basis for arguing that UFC > PRIDE is that in the good old US of A, Dana White would NEVER stoop to the booking tactics of dirty Yakuza-owned Pride, over there in corrupt little Japan.

    Now we know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that Dana White doesn’t care about rankings, even fights, or finding out who the best is in any weight division. He cares about what every promoter in the world cares about: putting asses in seats, and getting PPV buys.

    So face it, America. Your shit stinks too. Deal with it.

  6. PizzaChef says:

    I think most PRIDE marks won’t care as long as the show and event runs well. Even though with Kawamata back in the fold is very troubling. But like I said, PRIDE fans won’t care and ignore things unless things start to fall apart again. The marks and most others I’m seeing, online at least desperately need a good alternative to the UFC, they see DREAM as that group. I even see it as that as well. I’m HOPING that DREAM will be successful despite the troubling facts. I won’t ignore them, but I’m just a pessimist trying to be optimistic for once in his life, lol.

    I think the problem with Gomi and stuff is that they threw in the Bushido name and tried to brand it which never made sense in my view. It’s like WWE having RAW and Smackdown as two different brands and favouring one over the other. I believe that if PRIDE didn’t made Bushido, things would be different for the better.

  7. cyphron says:

    Like Sean Sherk, Tim Sylvia, etc. Except they were actually caught in the UFC…people just ASSUME Pride fighters were on steroids, because they weren’t tested.

    If you’re not caught, you never took it right?

    Pride fans will never, ever, ever, ever be able to connect the dots. They’re so in love with a product that they will let anything slide and will defend that product to the exclusion of reason. The UFC is not perfect, but at least they are a sport, regulated by a commission and run by independent, impartial judges and referees. The Japanese still cannot wrap their head around MMA as a sport at all. Until that happens, MMA in Japan is doomed.

  8. Gabe says:

    “The UFC is not perfect, but at least they are a sport, regulated by a commission and run by independent, impartial judges and referees. The Japanese still cannot wrap their head around MMA as a sport at all. Until that happens, MMA in Japan is doomed.”

    UFC is definitely more legit as far as being a regulated sport is concerned. However, I’ll take Japan’s larger than life, over the top, spectacle of an MMA show over UFC every day of the week. It’s all a matter of opinion.

  9. Anonymous says:

    It’s amazing to me how you can trash an organization that is trying to put on some amazing fights.

    You realize that 5 of the 6 top lightweights are fighting at Dream.1 and yet you somehow try to spin it as if this were the wrost thing that could ever happen to MMA.

    I love your site, but when talking about Japanese MMA you really tend to go overboard.

    P.S. Last time I wrote a detremental response to a similar article you deleted it. Hope you don’t delete this one as well.

  10. I don’t think pushing for regulation, or even fairness in the Japanese fight scene is really worth the trouble at this juncture. The entire fight culture in Japan, as something of an offshoot of puroresu, developed hand in hand with some criminal elements of Japanese society.

    That didn’t really happen in North America, so you have different standards, which I think are at the root of the PRIDE/DREAM-UFC debate. The point being, you’d have to basically reinvent the wheel to change the Japanese fight scene from the bottom up, since the money to promote big fights is largely in the hands of a few sordid individuals.

    So some of this criticism needs to be targeted at Japanese officials in government and business that are in the pockets of the mafia, and some of this same criticism should be leveled at those officials not paid off by the yakuza that still refuse to address it or its influence. The MMA business is just one of many industries in Japan that is affected on a day-to-day basis by organized crime.

    I think you have to start at the beginning: destroy the mafia and make it known that the mafia is, in all respects, regardless of history, an illegitimate and illegal institution whose members will be pursued and jailed. The trickle-down effects might take years to reach the fight scene, but if you’re looking for American-style regulation, that’s what’ll take.

  11. PizzaChef says:

    Hey Anonymous…Or the guy who uses the name even though he is not part of the actual Anonymous group.

    He said it’s a good fight and a MMA hardcore’s wet dream. He said he wonders how the Japanese would view it or if they would care cause they’re not heavyweights or even light heavyweights.

    Don’t put words in his mouth.

  12. Ultimo_Santa says:

    “If you’re not caught, you never took it right?”

    Innocent until proven guilty, my man. Remember when that used to apply in the United States?

    I know that in Bush’s America it’s ‘Torture first, ask questions later’ but in this case I’ll just use facts, if it’s all the same to you.

    “Pride fans will never, ever, ever, ever be able to connect the dots.”

    My dots are connecting like a muthafukka.

    “They’re so in love with a product that they will let anything slide and will defend that product to the exclusion of reason.”

    I defend excitement. That’s what MMA is about.

    “The UFC is not perfect”

    No shit.

    “but at least they are a sport, regulated by a commission”

    The commission blows and we all know it. Don’t pretend that just because America has one and Japan doesn’t it’s automatically a good thing.

    Any governing body that prevents consenting adults from engaging in a sport is insane and unnecessary. It’s on par with congress getting involved with steroids in baseball – why can’t the sport just govern itself?

    “and run by independent, impartial judges and referees.”

    Impartial? Hmm…interesting word.

    “The Japanese still cannot wrap their head around MMA as a sport at all. Until that happens, MMA in Japan is doomed.”

    Doomed? that’s a big gloomy word.

  13. cyphron says:

    LOL. As long as Japan never test for steroid, I guess everyone is cleared.

  14. Great article Zach.

    For most MMA fans, all they really care about is the end product – the show. But in the end, MMA is still a business. And every business will always fail based on leadership and perception of its management.

    If the past is a preview to the future, this new PRIDE CLONE is destined to fail once again, especially when you consider the familiar names involved with the promotion.

  15. Chris says:

    Ultimo_Santa, I’ll pray for you.

  16. sprewellrimz says:

    I was there for Yarennoka and Aoki was very popular. He’s kind of a cult figure and I suspect he’ll be the loudest cheered fighter behind Cro Cop at the event.

  17. Rictor says:

    It’s fine that Zach writes about the “under the curtain” aspects of mma in Japan. But let’s be honest. Almost every sport in the world is connected more or less with dirty business, steroids etc. It’s almost impossible to get rid of it.

  18. Zack says:

    ^^^ Lies!! Curling is still a pristine sport.

  19. ilostmydog says:

    ^^^^Clearly you have never been to a curling bonspiel before.

  20. ilostmydog says:

    BTW, Melendez is out. He’s defending his Strikeforce belt on the 29th against Cristiano Marcello instead.

  21. Zack says:

    “^^^^Clearly you have never been to a curling bonspiel before.”

    Touche!! At least badminton is still pure.

  22. ilostmydog says:

    You got me there. Badminton is still pretty pure, although I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those guys tested positive for a boatload of stimulants.

  23. Chuck says:

    ^^^^Badmitton pure you say? And exactly what country or countries makes those little birdies? Exactly my point! Down with sweat shops! Even though sweat shops pay better than tilling and farming in those countries. And if impoverished and homeless children didn’t work in sweat shops, then they would have to sell their bodies to perverted foreigners as prostitutes. Oh man, ALL HAIL SWEAT SHOPS! Just give the employees a bathroom break or two…

  24. Zack says:

    Unlike the rookies in MMA, most badminton pros know how to time their cycles.

  25. 45 Huddle says:

    Melendez fighting a guy who is 4-2? This is why top athletes fighting an organization other then the UFC/WEC/EliteXC/DREAMS is basically a joke. They have no competition….

    I really enjoyed this article. It was very good.

    On a side note, I always laughed at the dumb Pride fanboys who thought Takanori Gomi or Fedor Emelianenko were huge stars in Japan.

  26. The Gaijin says:

    Who ever said Gomi was huge in Japan?

    I think Fedor is popular due to his dominance of everyone that ever “existed” on the Japanese mma scene, but I don’t think too many people thought he was some monster gaijin draw.

    You need to quit sourcing Sherdog forums, especially when you’re trying to make yourself look intelligent.

  27. 45 Huddle says:

    I’m glad you haven’t lost your ability of being angry….

    Not just the Sherdog forums. I saw posts like that on more credible forums such as the UG as well….

    I think some people just thought that every champion or fighter we thought was big here in the states was some type of superstar in Japan.

  28. ilostmydog says:

    I heard that there is a street in Tokyo named after Takanori Gomi, and that the walls of all the buildings there are covered with posters of his face! That’s how famous he is!

  29. The Gaijin says:

    I don’t see where I’m being “angry” for asking you where you’re getting your info from.

    “dumb PRIDE fanboys” are just that – so is any surprise to think they’re completely delusional? I think we’re all glad for you that you had the foresight to think at a level of intelligence a few iotas higher than 15 year olds who love Fist of the North Star!

  30. IceMuncher says:

    “I think Fedor is popular due to his dominance of everyone that ever “existed” on the Japanese mma scene, but I don’t think too many people thought he was some monster gaijin draw.”

    Even the comments made on the M-1-related articles here on Fightopinion had the occasional person claiming that Fedor is a huge international draw, that M-1 would be able to overtake the international MMA markets with his starpower, and last but not least that his fight with Couture would break PPV records.

    “You need to quit sourcing Sherdog forums, especially when you’re trying to make yourself look intelligent”

    “I think we’re all glad for you that you had the foresight to think at a level of intelligence a few iotas higher than 15 year olds who love Fist of the North Star!”

    Those statements sound pretty mean-spirited to me. First an unwarranted, back-handed personal attack because he said “On a side note, I always laughed at the dumb Pride fanboys who thought Takanori Gomi or Fedor Emelianenko were huge stars in Japan”.

    Then you follow it up with a flat-out insult when he made a post which said “I’m glad you haven’t lost your ability of being angry….” (which you haven’t, obviously) and rationally explained his earlier claim about the ‘pride fanboys’.

  31. The Gaijin says:

    That’s a “flat out insult”?

    Wow…people have gotten touchy in the time I’ve been gone.

    “Sourcing Sherdog forums (or any other mma forum on the internet for that matter)”

    Geez…I can go on there and read off a bunch of posts that I can laugh off as ridiculous. (Wow – idiots on Sherdog ARE idiots!!) And then I point out why I think it’s just another unnecessary swipe on his part and I’m being mean?

    Go join a knitting circle if you’re gonna be a sally.

    And I’d LOVE to see what credible poster said Fedor vs. Couture would “break PPV records”, if it even exists.

  32. Dave2 says:

    Takanori Gomi is not a top draw like Sakuraba, Funaki and all those guys but he still has a following. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t make 20 million Yen a fight. This isn’t like in the UFC where boring fighters like Tim Sylvia can get paid $100,000-$200,000. Tell me, why else would WVR plop down that much money for him in Japan?

  33. Sergio says:

    “Takanori Gomi is not a top draw like Sakuraba, Funaki and all those guys but he still has a following.”

    Speaking of Saku, where does he stand in this whole Dream situation?

    It’s been over 2 years since his fight with Shamrock and he’s fought people his own size his then.

    It’s starting to get old.

  34. Eric says:

    I’m a PRIDE mark! Only because it was a better show to watch though 😉

    I also like fighters such as Big Nog, Rampage and The Spider 😉


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