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Searching for answers, a perspective on the Japanese MMA landscape by Tony Loiseleur

By Zach Arnold | May 26, 2011

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There’s a DREAM show on the 29th at Saitama Super Arena. It’s being configured to seat 7,000 spectators. I don’t know if there will be 7,000 fans (paid or papered) but I know a show will be happening. I’m not sure who will be fighting on the card, since that seems to be the one common storyline on this card. I guess we will see Rich Clementi fighting Shinya Aoki, but we won’t see Darren Uyenoyama. As for the card itself, there’s nothing wrong with the card if you head into the event with no expectations of star power or real importance on the overall global landscape of the MMA scene. As a stand-alone card, it’s kind of wacky and may be entertaining. Of course, you won’t see it on broadcast TV in Japan and delayed broadcasts are the norm elsewhere.

And then there’s whole debate about exactly how much money is really going to charity… to which Kevin Marshall responded, “Hey, be fair. There’s no way they can know ahead of time how much money the Yakuza’s taking.” He was joking…

Jokes aside about the current health of Japanese MMA, Jordan Breen had a timely interview with Tony Loiseleur of fame to talk about the upcoming DREAM card and where things stand. Although I don’t agree with everything Tony says about Japan (you will not be shocked by this), it is a great 35-minute interview that I would strongly recommend you go out of your way to listen to. Tony does have the grapefruits to piss in the proverbial punch bowl at Japanese MMA press conferences when it comes to asking real questions that the promoters just don’t want to hear. Sometimes he even asks questions at these pressers that makes me think Japanese bodyguards will drag him out of the room and hit him in the head with a baseball bat.

Mr. Breen asked Kid Named T about his current writing schedule in Japan and how things have changed since major-league Japanese MMA shows are simply not happening frequently. Has he felt the impact?

“No, not really. I mean, this might sound awful of me, but I think MMA still occurs regularly enough here, at least at the grassroots level that, for me, you know, every week-in, week-out it’s just about the same as usual. Of course, there aren’t as many big shows and you can’t fault, I suppose, the fact that, you know, we have a flagging economy around the world and the fact that people here just aren’t into, you know, big-time fights right now. So, I mean, thus there being a lot less to go to. But, I mean, just for me, still, like my life is still pretty much full of MMA sot it doesn’t really feel weird so much at all. I mean, there are moments that I kind of stop and say, ‘Man, you know, it’d be nice to have like a really big show to look forward to every month like in the past,’ but, you know… things are things and I just come to accept it, I suppose. It sound fatalistic but I suppose that’s just a byproduct of me living here.”

Tony wrote an article titled Question time – DREAM’s Fight for Japan, for Survival. The article drew a lot of attention for a lot of reasons. Here is how Tony described the mood during the interview with Mr. Sasahara.

JORDAN BREEN: “Talk a bit about the process of interviewing (Keiichi) Sasahara and sort of what were your impressions were as you talked to one of the more prominent people in DREAM, ahead of this card.”

TONY LOISELEUR: “To be completely honest, I was surprised that my request for an interview actually went through. I just get this impression that every single time that I show up at a press conference that they hold I’m not exactly a welcome party because I tend to ask questions that skew on the annoying for them and I suppose, you know, there is a reason for that. I can understand that, you know, my questions might not come off as proper when, you know, they’re trying to hold a press conference to pump up an event or to, you know, have weigh-ins for an upcoming event and I’m there asking them, you know, questions about business and stuff like that and I think that’s a byproduct of the fact that, you know, they are notoriously secretive and often don’t come out to the press and talk about these things. So, I think in a way they kind of saw that, you know what, we should maybe kind of throw this guy a bone and, you know, bring him in and we can talk to him a little bit and I think they knew exactly what we were going to talk about coming in. So, you know, as surprised as I was I’m pretty sure that, you know, this was something that was going to be coming some time and that, you know, persistence actually paid off. I actually got to sit down with him. I think what also really surprised me is just how open they were in kind of, you know, confirming all the things that basically fighters have been saying about them not being paid because… I suppose, how can you deny those things? But, um, you know… because of how secretive they’ve been in the past I was surprised that, you know, only now when I’m sitting right there in front of Sasahara and he is actually coming out and admitting these problems do exist… and it sounds like, you know, I’m just taken totally by surprise by everything here but I kind of was.

“I was surprised at how contrite he sounded. The thing with Sasahara is that he’s a very, he’s a consummate PR man, he’s someone who, you know, in press conferences is able to, just on a dime, deflect a lot of criticism or, you know, bad news, any kind of question that I have for him, he’s able to deftly dodge them and I respect his ability to do that. But, you know, sitting down in front of him, talking to him face-to-face I was really surprised how open and how apologetic he was about these things. He didn’t try to downplay any of it, he didn’t try to, you know, placate me and say, ‘no, no, no, these things are no problem,’ you know, he’s saying, ‘these problems are real.’

“But ultimately, in the end, what I found kind of redeeming was that he says there’s nothing we can do except to push forward, the only way that business can get better is if business can go forward. And, you know, call me a homer or whatnot but I kind of believe him when he says that, yeah, like that is the only option, the only way for business to get better is to keep pushing forward, is to keep doing business.”

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that Tony asks real questions at the Japanese MMA pressers and isn’t on the take from any promoter or agent. In Japan, we all know what the deal is there. Between the threats by promoters, agents, fighters, and the ghosts Kevin Marshall joked about, it’s a miracle Tony hasn’t taken a beating yet. His description of the herd mentality of the Japanese media is… charitable!

“It really comes down to, I suppose… how the Japanese media down here are basically perceived as enthusiast media and most of their news comes directly from promoters and from fighters. And so for them to, I guess potentially, you know, anger a promoter means that they get their access cut off and, at the moment, you know, even though major MMA is flagging DREAM still is the big show in terms of MMA. You don’t want to get their bad side and get potentially, you know, cut off, you know…

“I mean we already have I think just this past year I think or late last year or early this year we already have two major magazines going completely, you know, to the Internet, losing their print publications and that’s a major thing in Japan. Japan is still very much a print-based society. Newspaper are still big here. Magazines are still big here. You have two major magazines that have, you know, gone to the Internet because they just can’t support their print base, you know, far be it from them to try to alienate like a major promoter by talking about, you know, their financial difficulties.

“It’s interesting because, normally, whenever I bring up difficult questions at press conferences during like the collective Q & A sessions that they have at pressers and whatnot, my questions usually get interpreted by other, by Japanese media outlets as, ‘A foreigner from so-and-so’ or ‘a foreign journalist asked this question’ and, you know, has been basically countered by the promotion in this way. That kind of thing. And basically the kind of feel is that the questions I’ve asked were basically b.s. and that, you know, the promoter came up with direct story. And of course whether or not they believe that is something totally different but they have an obligation to print that because this is their community, to be alienated from that community would be a bad thing.

“One thing that I think you tend to learn inside of fighting, outside of fighting, just anywhere living in Japan is that community is a very, very powerful thing here. If you’re not part of that community, if you’re alienated from it, then you have no purpose, you have no identity. So, you know, it becomes then more than just a question of journalist ethics, it becomes then, you know, who am I if I’m not doing, you know, the thing that the whole group is doing, if I’m not going along with the crowd? And the leader of the pack is promotions like DREAM.”

Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

For a minute there, I thought he was talking about the American MMA media scene, just without the mafia pressure. Speaking of charity, there is something unique about the mood heading into this DREAM event as far as the overall theme being promoted.

JORDAN BREEN: “To that extent, is that why we get a charity card now? Do you think that there’s simply, not that this is happening for an altruistic reason but this is happening because, at this point in time, having a Mixed Martial Arts show that wasn’t a charity event would seem almost in anti-communal taste by Real Entertainment and FEG?”

TONY LOISELEUR: “You could look at it that way but I really do think that, you know, there is, you know, a bit of um… I suppose… magnanimity behind it, (charitable sentiment) behind it. I mean, it would be… for all the things that you could say that, you know, FEG or Real Entertainment are bad at and, you know, them not paying fighters, of them announcing fights late and basically ruining the chance of fighters to perform well in their ring, using a ring for example… you know, they are also human beings, I think, and you know to blindly, you know, say that these things didn’t happen and that they’re not in a position to influence at least a small community of people here in Japan, the kakutougi community in Japan to do more to try to help their fellow man, I think that’s a bit harsh and, yeah, I really do think that a part of them really wants to do this charity because it is the right thing to do.”

JORDAN BREEN: “It seems like it’s in particularly poor taste to criticize any charitable effort, so… I don’t want to seem as though I’m doing so but there is something incredibly bizarre and problematic about a company who has made headlines most prevalently for not paying fighters for having a charity event.”

TONY LOISELEUR: “But, again, I mean I completely see that from, you know, an intellectual and ethical standpoint that certainly holds up, but um… I suppose the reason why they have to do it is, like I mentioned earlier, it’s something that the community expects. Like it might be seen as crass not to try and do something to raise awareness and raise money for the Tohoku earthquake survivors and… for them to kind of stray from basically what all the other major companies are trying to do in terms of helping out Tohoku, you know, it just… that might be too alienating and, you know, who knows that might be the final black mark where people just don’t want anything to do with them any more.”

JORDAN BREEN: “Doesn’t it strike you as particularly chilling and difficult to say, well, in the intellectual and ethical way, that’s what you would want to do, that’s what would make sense. But in a functional way and what’s actually being done in practice, it’s something else. Isn’t that a bit dodgy when the intellectual and ethical way forward, the most logical way forward is being refuted?”

TONY LOISELEUR: “Of course, and it is chilling… I hate to say it, but I mean this is kind of the world that we live in, right? What else can I say other than it’s the only way? It is just how we have to go forward and I mean, you know, if the only way is to try to stage a charity event even at the risk of not being financially responsible is what you got to do, well… you know, there are worse things.”

The future

To put it bluntly, there is no major stream of cash right now in MMA. Without the backing of national broadcast TV networks, the exposure and money is gone. The yakuza scandal that devoured PRIDE has put a stain on the industry that will be take a while to rub out, if ever. The prognosis of where things stand in regards of a Japanese TV making a major investment in Mixed Martial Arts is grim. This weekend’s DREAM event is proof positive.

“I really don’t think that Mixed Martial Arts will be back on television in prime-time or live kind of way any time soon and I think this is just, you know, a sign of that. One thing I think that, you know, definitely is troubling about the fact that, it’s still not good even though I sound very accepting of this. Another thing that’s definitely not good about it is that this, you know, makes for um… it makes the lives of the fighters a little bit more difficult. In speaking with some of the fighters and some of the people behind these fighters, the fact that there is no television means that they make even less money than, you know, they would normally make because there’s no way to get sponsors to sponsor them. If there is no coverage, why would any one want to invest in Fighter A or Fighter B? And, you know, this being a charity event, most of the money I imagine is going to be going towards, you know, charity efforts and not the fighters. So, you know, it’s not just the promotion that’s making a sacrifice here in terms of money, it’s also the fighters themselves and it’s kind of a tough pill to swallow. It is what it is, I suppose.”

Topics: DREAM, Japan, K-1, Media, MMA, Zach Arnold | 20 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

20 Responses to “Searching for answers, a perspective on the Japanese MMA landscape by Tony Loiseleur”

  1. Groggy says:


  2. Chromium says:

    I believe there is probably still a market for hardcore fans in Japan. I am guessing the charity angle is a way to try and convince the remaining contingent of hardcore MMA fans in Japan to pay for a PPV. I don’t know how ethical that is, but from a business standpoint it is sounds plausible. Maybe they managed to get the arena to waive the venue fee even. Why they aren’t airing this live is mystifying though. In fact aren’t they delaying this a full three days? That’s insane if it’s true.

    • Mark says:

      They are going to have to go through years of building new stars and pray to God UFC doesn’t take them to get fans back. They have nobody who appeals on a mass level like PRIDE and K-1 had 10 years ago. Aoki isn’t Sakuraba, he’s never going to be a guy you can send out there to fight mediocre opponents and still sell out a big venue. They need to find and properly build new stars. It can be done, but the odds are against them with all the money in America in a total reversal of 10 years ago.

      I think one thing they should attempt, even though it will suck, is putting what money they have left into getting Kimbo. Maybe they can make him their new Bob Sapp that will get viewers and money in to start hiring top talent again. Of course the fights will be terrible, and to steal a line from Teddy Atlas, you’d have to match him up against corpses to ensure he wins. But it’s a better option for business than anything else they have.

      • Chromium says:

        I could see them going into the Flyweight class, since Zuffa hasn\’t shown a serious interest in Flyweights yet, and it may be quite some time before Flyweights are added to the UFC. Meanwhile the Japanese still have over half of the top ten Flyweights on Earth. Focusing on Flyweights through Welterweights means more exciting matches, a higher concentration of domestic talent, less payroll, and fewer foreigners (and foreigner champions) without excluding foreigners outright. What\’s more they could proclaim they have the best fighter on Earth at least in the Flyweight division.

        It would not appeal to casuals, but maybe they could do it live on PPV and appeal to hardcore MMA fans and hardcore sports fans. Price point it at 2000 yen (about $24.50), although that\’s a wild guess. I know that Japanese fans aren\’t used to PPVs, but PPVs do exist over there, and the charity hook is a good one. They could still say for the next event after DREAM.17 that ten percent of all revenue will go to the Japanese Red Cross and other disaster relief funds or something.

        You get a hearty dose of quality fights, slick production values, Japanese patriotism, and an eased conscience. I think it could be a plausible business model, but then again it would all depend on how hardcore the hardcore fans are. Also, again, they need to do this shit live, not a day or more after the fact.

        If they can make a profit, I\’m all for it, at least until they are caught up on their bills. If they cannot make a profit within two shows… I don\’t really think they should continue.

        • Steve4192 says:

          I think you greatly overestimate the Japanese fans’ affinity for the lighter weight classes. Even PRIDE, at their absolute peak, had trouble selling the Bushido series to the public. The attendance and ratings of Bushido were only a fraction of what they pulled for the shows featuring HWs and LHWs.

        • Chromium says:

          Well, and this is pure conjecture but, I would guess the landscape of Japanese MMA fandom has changed now, largely by attrition. The ones who are still fans are the die-hards, the hardcore fans. If they’re anything like Western fans they may be patriotic but they care more about the sporting aspect of it than the spectacle. This is why I think DREAM should play to their strengths. It’s an ironic about face but I think they still have the potential to re-invent themselves. At best they’re going to be a smaller scale promotion like the WEC was anyway.

  3. 45 Huddle says:

    I can see the logic behind it…. Run more shows and hopefully get enough money to pay back fighters and return to glory.

    Realistically, they are more likely to just owe more fighters money.

    • The Gaijin says:

      It’s a fight promotion being run like a ponzi scheme except instead of screwing investors they’re screwing fighters. This show will get them money to pay the guys they owe from two shows ago and a couple guys from the last show – and maybe they’ll pay the “big fish” of this show something to keep them coming back.

      Not to mention – I saw a quote from one of the promoters saying in essence that they still hadn’t determined how much of the revenue was going to charity yet. Shady.

    • Mark says:

      I agree. Playing catch-up never works. I’ve seen both pro wrestling promotions like ECW and MMA orgs like IFL believe they can rob Peter to pay Paul, as the header said, and they never, ever come out on top in doing so: they go under. It’s the same way a person would use his credit cards until they’re maxed out to pay other bills, but still have more bills to pay in addition to having massive credit debt.

      I’m interested in seeing Clementi/Aoki. That should put to rest the debate on if it’s Japanese rules or American wrestling that have lead to the defeat of so many Japanese fighters in America. And if both guys bring their A-Game, it could be one of the better fights of the year.

      • Steve4192 says:

        “I’m interested in seeing Clementi/Aoki. That should put to rest the debate on if it’s Japanese rules or American wrestling that have lead to the defeat of so many Japanese fighters in America”

        I don’t buy that.

        Clementi is journeyman who had a nice little run back in 2007-2008, but has gone 7-7 since beating Terry Etim at UFC 84. At his best, Clementi was a gatekeeper, and his best is fading into the rearview mirror. These days, he is a stepping stone for the same prospects who he used to protect the gate from back in 2007/08.

        Beating the 2011 version of Clementi is about the same as beating up the 2008 version of Todd Moore. It doesn’t prove anything we don’t already know about Aoki. Tobikan Judan should handle Clementi with relative ease.

        • edub says:

          I agree.

          Clementi is far from his prime, and if were being honest that was never top ten in the world.

          Aoki should be able to tap Clementi at some point, or control enough position on the ground to obtain a decision.

          The wrestlers everyone wants to see Aoki go against are guys like Maynard, Miller, Henderson, Wilcox, etc…

        • The Gaijin says:

          “Clementi is far from his prime, and if were being honest that was never top ten in the world.”

          Rich Clementi is getting no love here today folks…sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. :S

        • Mark says:

          Holy crap, I’m being misunderstood on an epic level. Let me be clearer.

          The point isn’t that Rich is seen as a top contender (he was never top 10 of anything at any point in his career, nor did I claim he was.) But he’s the first big (as in his size, not popularity or rankings wise) American wrestler Aoki has fought under DREAM rules since Alvarez (who’s a little different than the kind of LW wrestler associated with American MMA, anyway) so it is a test. Even more so that if Clementi wins, since he’s not a top level fighter but could easily win the fight with better wrestling and size, it will for once expose that the Japanese are never going to make a stand against American wrestlers as long as they aren’t stupid like Tyson against Gomi. And there will be no “Well, he just wasn’t used to the rules” excuses.

          And also, to be clear, I wasn’t saying I was looking forward to the fight because it’s going to be important beyond the reason I just gave. But like him or not, Clementi is a pretty entertaining fighter, and Aoki is going to be motivated, so even though the fight means nothing to the division, it should be worth checking out.

        • edub says:

          Ah, ok that makes sense.

          I know you didn’t say top ten or anything, but I was really misunderstanding what you meant.

          Also looking forward to that, and Imanari fighting.

  4. Dave says:

    On the K-1 front, K-1 finally announced a show… in a tiny, tiny arena and the idea behind it is that they will ONLY broadcast it on the internet, probably their YouTube channel.

    It’s Showtime announced they were moving in on Japan and K-1 has said if you work with them, you are no longer fighting for K-1, but K-1 doesn’t know if or when they’ll be able to run a real show again………………

    So it’s choose between someone that will pay, but pay less, or someone that will promise more but might never be able to deliver.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      And it’s the little guys for K-1. Like 135 lbs weight class.

      They have burned so many bridges with the foreign fighters that their only chance is to stick with mostly Japanese fighters who they can still take advantage of because those fighters have no other options.

      • Dave says:

        Yeah, exactly. It’s Showtime announced that they were perusing legal action against K-1, but let’s face it, international contract laws are difficult to navigate, they don’t expect to get paid by K-1 or to win any sort of settlement, but they do want to hurt the public image of K-1, which they are doing.

        K-1 is doing smaller guys because they are hoping beyond hope that this show will be as exciting as last year’s show and a television network will pick them up. They are also hoping to get their next big, marketable Japanese star, and their best bet is the lighter weight classes. Of course, part of the problem is their winner last year, Tetsuya Yamato was very publicly annihilated the month before by a Thai, Saenchai, then after the tournament got dismantled by one of the Urabe boys.

        This, this is a desperation move.

  5. 45 Huddle says:

    Dana White discussing a UFC Pension plan.

    Even if it’s not much money, if they can implement it in the future, it will close the door on a fighters union probably forever.

    I’ve always been a person who wanted to see only one major organization and a fighters union for the checks and balances. However, the UFC is doing all of the right moves in making that union nearly obscelete. There are still other fighter rights that need to be changed…. But for such a young sport, everything is moving in the right direction.

    • Mark says:

      The Union would be needed for when the gravy train ends. What happens when they don’t have all this money to throw around 8 years from now?

      Or even what happens if they make even more money and we get an issue like the NFL is going through where fighters think they deserve more?

      Everybody is happy, so what harm would a Union do now? Keep them there as insurance.

    • Chromium says:

      It’s one thing to discuss it, but implementing that is going to be a bitch and a half. These guys are paid on a per-fight basis, they don’t even have a monthly per-diem supplement (which would basically be a salary without calling it that).

      There’s a bunch of questions that would need to be answered on a pension. Like
      1) How long/how many fights would they have to participate in to get this pension? Would it be like 5 fights for “tier I” or something, 10 fights for “tier II” and 15+ fights for “tier III” or something?

      2) When would they receive it? At the age of 50 maybe?

      3) How would each fighter’s pension be calculated? Maybe for each fight they fought, they’d get one percentage point of what the biggest purse they ever had in a purse, every six months?

      The problem is that there will be hundreds and hundreds of fighters out there eventually even if they only limit it to dudes who managed to get five fights in the UFC. And even if they only paid a very small amount, much less than a living wage, it could add up to a tremendous amount of money. I think the UFC would have to become established as a long-time institution before this is even considered. Sure they’re making a ton of money today (much of which is still being used to pay off Station Casino’s debt as far as I know), but interest could still arc back downward.

      Eventually a pension plan would be excellent, something that would be impossible not to get behind, but this is a subject that needs to be revisited ten years from now, if they’re still at least as successful as they are today. Again, I’d like to see them start with a supplemental per-diem so that (almost) no one in Zuffa has to have a day job to supplement their income, and (almost) everyone can afford to train full time as a fighter.


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