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What’s old is new again in Japanese MMA

By Zach Arnold | February 21, 2011

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Over the weekend, I was interviewed by a writer about my career and about the history of the Japanese fight scene in the last three decades. (The transcript will be available in a couple of weeks.) A lot of memories came back to the surface, but one thing I often find myself doing in these kinds of interview situations is throwing out thoughts about the way Japan works and having the person on the other end of the line go, “Oh, so that’s how (such and such) works…” Whether I intend to or not, usually the interviewer’s (proverbial) light bulb turns on and they start connecting the dots.

From the collapse of the pro-wrestling industry there to the collapse of mainstream MMA organizations, there’s a lot of history to cover and a lot of big names who seemingly never want to go away and leave.

Before I talk about one individual in particular, I wanted to bring you up to speed on the latest that is happening in Japan regarding the Sumo match fixing scandal that has horribly deteriorated:

I guess the only comfort is that at least it’s not Bulgaria.

To put an exclamation point on matters, an NHK subsidiary will no longer publish a Sumo magazine. NHK, of course, the Government-operated Japanese channel. There will only be one ‘major’ Sumo magazine left. Which reminds me of some questions I was asked during my interview on Saturday about the collapse of the magazines in Japan for professional wrestling. Back in the 90s before the Internet became the dominant force that it is today, the primary means of information for fans was to pay $5 for Gong or Weekly Pro to look at the great pictures and articles. The promotions used the magazines as a platform to run angles and sell shows. The magazines at times even got into the event promoting business to put on co-promotional shows. Once the magazine platform started to die, it was bad news for wrestling. The magazine situation for MMA in Japan is certainly not as healthy now as it was, say, five years ago. Media has always been a critical component for the fight industry in Japan. When kami no puroresu was a growing publication, it’s editor was Noboru Yamaguchi. He was very close to PRIDE and Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Yamaguchi ended up being a figurehead for the Hustle wrestling promotion. When UFC did the PRIDE asset sale deal agreement, it was absurd to watch Hustle run wrestling angles out of the same offices that UFC counsel Jamie Pollack was trying to work in with Japanese staffers to start PRIDE events in the country.

Boldness is nothing new for Mr. Sakakibara. According to web site (you can go there if you read Japanese and buy their e-book report), Mr. Sakakibara’s name was mentioned in regards to a possible return to MMA. This news picked up interest last week in the English-reading MMA world because of these tweets (here and here) by Gryphon, which then got picked up on the Nightmare of Battle web site. I did not access the Miruhon e-book report nor have I commented on the story until today (because I did not get a chance to read the Miruhon report in question).

Things don’t look too hot right now for K-1, so I’m not surprised to see another splinter group being discussed. As far as this promotion having any hope of a strong television deal, you can forget about it. In fact, if Sakakibara returns to MMA on this kind of scale, it will remind me a lot of Eric Bischoff’s return to wrestling in TNA. (For those who don’t follow pro-wrestling, this would not be a positive analogy.)

I’ve always wondered what happened to the money that UFC sent for the asset sale agreement. I’ve been curious as to well to find out what the terms of settlement were when UFC tried to go to court for breach of contract against Sakakibara after he had signed a consulting agreement. Am I surprised at the thought of the man wanting to return to MMA? No. I learned not to be surprised by anything he does after I watched the man pay tribute to himself on the final PRIDE show ever in Japan in the masturbatory manner that he did.

Do I think he would be effective if he returned to the scene? Maybe, to an extent. In my opinion, he’s poison for any television executive to work with. The yakuza scandal stench is strong and the police in 2011 are not in any mood to deal with more scandals. The problem is that without a major television deal, he doesn’t have the cash to flaunt to fighters and money can buy you a lot of loyalty. However, that loyalty has an expiration date and so does, in my eyes, Sakakibara’s shelf-life in the fight business. I could be proven wrong about that, but unlikely so.

And yet, I think he could be a more impactful player in Japan than UFC can. I’m sure you’ve read this article today about how UFC sees the Japanese marketplace. The problem is this — what works in other Asian countries doesn’t work in Japan. Plus, given that it’s the Japanese fight industry, there’s no textbook on how to be successful. You either have to be enormous experience in the pro-wrestling industry there or else know people who ‘get it’ and get very lucky.

I’ve written this before and I’ll write it here again for reference. There are major strikes against UFC doing long-term consistent business in Japan that the promotion will unlikely be able to overcome.

  1. They are not a Japanese company. I don’t care how big UFC is worldwide, they are not nor will they ever be viewed as a Japanese company. This is a huge hurdle. Even if Zuffa was able to get a Japanese front man, it would be a challenge. Their front man happens to be a white guy. That’s a strike against the organization. I’m not racist, but I am telling you how things operate in the country. It’s very difficult for Zuffa to get a network TV deal on a big-money scale because they are not Japanese.
  2. They are not viewed as a Japanese product. By that I mean the following — they do not use a pro-wrestling ring. They do not use a PRIDE-style production set-up. The visuals are a legitimate strike against the company. Jordan Breen mocks online fans who say that MMA just ‘isn’t the same any more’ without PRIDE around and I think he misses the boat when he does so. I completely understand that fan mentality and it exists in Japan.
  3. UFC needs a major Japanese MMA promotion to produce stars. This sounds like a very obtuse idea, but I’ll point out what I’ve learned over many, many years with the fight scene in Japan. There’s two ways to cash in big in Japan with native athletes. The first method is that a Japanese promotion has to produce the anointed crop of uber-rookies and then those rookies are ‘sent overseas’ to conquer the foreigners so they can come back home to fight… for their home Japanese promotion. The second method is that the major Japanese promotion brings over foreigners and pays them a lot and hopes that they lose to the natives. This plays off of the fans’ psyche that Japan is the world stage and therefore if you want to be legitimate, you have to come to Japan. If you’re noticing already, both methods of producing Japanese stars are almost impossible for UFC to pull off. This is why WWE has not been able to make it in Japan despite making it everywhere else in the world, including vanquishing some popularity of Lucha Libre in vaunted Mexico.

The most that UFC should ever expect to do in Japan in terms of business is run occasional spot shows with a promotional company like Total Sports Asia (similar to what WWE did at Yokohama Arena in 2003) and hope for the best. However, if they think that they can draw consistently on the fumes of Yoshihiro Akiyama & Kid Yamamoto and on the back of Yushin Okami, they’re going to be in for a rude awakening. If UFC can manage to understand the history that I laid out here and keep expectations low, they will be OK. They just need to realize that they will never be #1 in Japan in MMA long-term — even in the horrible climate that the business currently is in right now in Japan.

Understand that I don’t say any of this with malice towards Zuffa. The idea of Sakakibara having as good, if not a better, chance to do things again in Japan instead of UFC is nauseating. So, when it comes to UFC talking about big plans for Japan versus actually executing them, reality may set in that the mountain’s a lot higher to climb and that the game may be rigged against them no matter how much money they spend.

Topics: Japan, Media, MMA, Zach Arnold | 14 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

14 Responses to “What’s old is new again in Japanese MMA”

  1. […] In addition to Herbertson’s report, I also suggest checking out Zach Arnold’s thoughts on Sakakibara’s rumored return. […]

  2. 45 Huddle says:

    My frame of mind on the UFC in Japan has typically been….

    They will fail (for basically the same reasons you stated above) and have little chance at success. I would be surprised if they got traction in that country.

    Which is also why I have thought Coker was crazy for wanting to run a show there. Notice how the April Grand Prix event still hasn’t been announced. I believe he said it would be by the end of last week.

  3. David Ditch says:

    “Transcript” is maybe a bit too generous for that interview…

    One wonders why Japan has had so few high-end MMA stars over the last decade. Even with their collapsing birthrate, there are still as many children to draw future athletes from as any number of reasonably successful countries. Martial Arts is a part of the culture in Japan, which really isn’t the case in the west. Plus, the talent is concentrated in fewer weight divisions.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      Even when PRIDE had the upper hand on the sport, what Japanese fighters did they create as champions? Considering both Regular and Grand Prix belts….

      HW – Fedor, Noguiera, Coleman, & Cro-Cop
      LHW – Silva, Henderson, & Rua
      MW – Henderson, Misaki
      LW – Gomi

      Misaki won his tournament after losing in the semi’s.

      So they created 2 champions out of 10 with one being basically a farce. And that’s when they held all the cards and could manipulate match making to give the Japanese an unfair advantage.

      So I would say the Japanese were never that great at the sport. At least not against international competition. Uno & Sakurai were once top of their division but once they fought good foreign fighters that became a farce. Samurai lost to Silva & Hughes. Uno lost to Pulver & Penn.

      Japanese fighters in MMA have always been inferior. It’s just more obvious in the North American system.

      • JRN says:

        Uno & Sakurai were once top of their division but once they fought good foreign fighters that became a farce.

        Huh? Sakurai beat a then-undefeated Frank Trigg (who was deemed, three fights later, a worthy challenger to Hughes’s UFC title), and Uno beat Dennis Hallman, Din Thomas (twice), and Yves Edwards. Not exactly a farce.

  4. PizzaChef says:

    Best way for non wrestling fans to explain Bischoff returning to wrestling with TNA:

    Funny, my anti-spam word is jobber.

  5. King Famous says:

    The japanese are not inferior fighters. To what and whom? The entire presentation of a japanese mma event and an american one are so different that you may be comparing two different sports.
    The reason mma stays in a cage for the most part in America is that it makes for a more clumsy fight – because if it was in a ring Dana White would not know how to produce it. That is what makes japanese mma special. They had a good run with it, and once the new stars start coming up there, the scene will return.
    Japan will see its day in the sun again. Sakakibara is not a bad guy — in fact he is a King Famous fan.
    But to say the japanese are inferior fighters? Have you visited japan recently? Some of the best fighters in the world live and train there everyday.

    • edub says:

      “The reason mma stays in a cage for the most part in America is that it makes for a more clumsy fight – because if it was in a ring Dana White would not know how to produce it.”

      The main reason why it gained traction in NA is was “2 guys step into a cage, one guy leave”….

      The reason its sustained popularity is because it gives more of a chance of an uninterrupted fight. A guy in a cage can’t just crawl through the ropes if he’s in trouble.

      • Booker says:

        A guy in a cage can’t just crawl through the ropes if he’s in trouble.

        Yeah, instead he can dry hump his opponent ’till end of the round.

  6. Phil says:

    An advantage that the UFC has is that they they do not have the same requirements for “success” as everyone else because they make so much money doing their other stuff.

    If they try to create a new PRIDE they will fail, just like everyone else who has gone down that path.

    If they can do enough to turn a small profit from the gate, or even just enough to get a nominal TV deal in Japan and have enough of a presence to keep the pipeline to Japanese fighters open they will succeed. They don’t need TBS or FUJI TV level money because they will make their profits from PPVs in the US.

  7. Chromium says:

    The sumo situation in Japan really reminds me of the old Italian adage: “for everything to stay the same, everything must change.”

    If sumo is to regain its credibility, repair its image, regain its place as the Japanese national sport, and avoid the conditions that led to match-fixing and illegal gambling, it will need to completely overhaul its feudal-style stable system and insistence on the sort of draconian restrictions on sponsorships and the right to keep one’s name that led to someone like Akebono going into MMA and embarrassing himself.

    This is no longer a sacred sport, that idea is in the shitter now.

    If they want to be able to recruit top talents, they can’t have a separation between the third and second divisions that amounts to an 18-fold amount of pay. It’s the difference between being able to support a wife and children in your own home and being forced to live in a stable sharing a room with a dozen other wrestlers.

    It’s little wonder that sumo wrestlers will try and avoid demotion at all costs.

    Let all sumo wrestlers wear fucking overcoats in the winder and not force them to have to prove their manliness by risking pneumonia. And let those in the fifth and sixth divisions get stipends so they’re glorified slaves.

    Give wrestlers in the third and fourth divisions proper salaries, living wages if you will, so there won’t be so much of a “heaven and hell” divide where wrestlers can go from being famous and respected professionals who can have a normal life with a family to being an indentured servant after going 7-8 in a single tournament.

    Expand the juryo division so that it’s at least as large as the top division if not a little larger, so it won’t be some so goddamn cut throat where they’re on the verge of a great fall in grace. Make it a properly sized second-tier division.

    Let sumo wrestler take endorsements to make ends meet or otherwise reap the fruits of their accomplishments. If they want to rule on the types of endorsements they can do, fine, it’s probably a bad idea to be endorsing love hotels or whatever, but if a sumo wrestler is endorsing an energy drink or something I don’t see the harm. If they want to reserve this right for people who manage to become sekitori, fine, as long as they don’t lose right this should they fall back down to a lower division.

    In short they need to modernize, and they need to get rid of the archaic restrictions that forced athletes who grew up in a modern world to resort to illicit schemes to survive in a system straight out of the feudal era.

    If any of this is stupidly inaccurate, someone please let me know.

  8. liger05 says:

    The fact that vince mcmahon and the WWE have never really cracked Japan tells u all u need to know. The wwe in the height of it powers could never gain real momentum in Japan. When new Japan and all Japan pro wrestling hit rock bottom wasn’t Japan ripe for vince to come in and take over? As been mentioned plenty of times before its a totally different market over there and we can’t forget that running shows means dealing with shady characters.

  9. Years ago, I openly expressed my desire that we give the UFC the benefit of the doubt running in Japan. A failed purchase of PRIDE and 6-7 different iterations of “We’re running Japan” and yeah, until I see the venue booked, I don’t believe it. I’m still utterly shocked that they ran Germany first (and did so twice, going to a smaller venue for the second event), but not shocked that Germany doesn’t even show up on the radar for 2011.


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