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Without Overeem, Lesnar, Nogueira & other top names, who can draw big for UFC Japan?

By Zach Arnold | September 8, 2011

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I wanted to get to this radio discussion about UFC’s return to Japan. On the majority of MMA radio programs I’ve listened to in the last couple of days, I would say that the majority of them spent five minutes or less talking about UFC’s booking of Saitama Super Arena. UFC, purposely or inadvertently, ended up pushing that story to the backburner by announcing Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem for December 30th. What’s interesting about that fight is not only the timing but also the location. Will that fight happen in Abu Dhabi? I’m sure Brock would love that travel plan! More importantly, it basically ices out two guys who UFC could have used for the 2/26 Saitama event.

On Wednesday, all hell broke loose with Nick Diaz going AWOL. If UFC wants to keep Diaz around, he would be an interesting fit for the Saitama show because he is known by the DREAM fans. The promotion also announced Frank Mir vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for their next Toronto show coming up in December. That eliminates Nogueira from fighting on the Japanese card, something that he said he had wanted to do. However, he also wanted to fight Mir again.

With Lesnar, Mir, Nogueira, and Overeem not available for Saitama, it puts UFC in a difficult position in regards to who they can book from their roster to pop a big house at SSA. Here is Jordan Breen’s take on how the show may play out:

“I don’t think it’s going to be any kind of major success. We had Zach Arnold from Fight Opinion on Press Row a few weeks back and we discussed this idea… it’s an interesting move but the way Zach Arnold and I painted it was largely a vanity show. This is about the neuroses of Dana White, Lorenzo Fertitta, and everyone else really wanting to stick it to this idea that they couldn’t make it in Japan, that it’s sort of this alien world that they’re just not welcome in. They want to colonize it in a way that they’d colonized everything with the UFC. So, we’ll see if they can fill up Saitama Super Arena. I wouldn’t be shocked if they actually changed venues to some extent. Obviously they have to be in the Kanto region around Tokyo & Yokohama to really cash in on the volume of people and the MMA heartland there. However, filling up 20,000 seats is tough and unless they want to flip to the Saitama Super Arena community hall which is like a couple of thousands people which would be an ignominious and sad show for them, I don’t know how well it’s going to go.

“And the other thing I mentioned is Japan, like any other place, has hardcore MMA fans. I mean, they’re going to be able to sell some tickets but the question is what kind of larger impact is it going to have? Because I would say, in a way, this could be like the anti-UFC Rio in as much as even if it sold well and even if it did a decent gate, I don’t know how much the impact is as, again, for reasons that Zach Arnold and I really poured over in that Press Row segment. There’s a lot of things with the UFC product that doesn’t lend itself well to Japan. Obviously, they want this to be a Trojan horse type effort but I just don’t know how well it’s going to go. I mean, you even look at the most basic set-ups. They do this press conference in Shinjuku to announce this and Zuffa’s Asian foremost guy is still Mark Fischer. Japanese people don’t see this as a Japanese company. A Japanese figurehead for this role might even be a good way to do that and that’s something they haven’t even been able to do. So, I’m skeptical about the actual success of the card on the whole.

“But, as far as actual card quality, I imagine it will look similar to the Australian & European cards, very similar to the Australian card. Obviously, there will be more Japanese guys. I don’t know if you’ll get a Japanese guy in every fight similar to the dynamic you had at UFC Rio, but I do think you’ll get a bit more of that. I do think you’ll end up in a place where, you know, you might even get at UFC Rio where there are some late replacements or they’re trying to sign new talent. You might even get some underwhelming Japanese guys in there to try to just bump up the card. On top of that, consider that you look at local cards in Japan or some of Sengoku’s more richly attended cards, a lot of cards in Japan are driven by individual fighters who might be able to sell 500, 600, 700, maybe a couple of thousand tickets themselves and you’d think it would be stars but it’s often not. There’s often popular local guys who, through their gym, through their community efforts, [sell tickets.]”

Mike Tyson at the Tokyo Dome vs. UFC at Saitama Super Arena

At that point in the discussion, it led to Jordan bringing up the ridiculous 10 AM start time for the show. I’ve called it an insulting gesture towards the Japanese fans and I wholeheartedly stand by that comment. Jordan noted that the Mike Tyson/Buster Douglas fight from the Tokyo Dome started at 9 AM Japanese time so that it could air in the States on a Saturday night. His assertion is accurate. However, the comparison of Mike Tyson’s fight at the Tokyo Dome compared to UFC’s run at Saitama Super Arena is like comparing apples to oranges.

For starters, Mike Tyson was the biggest fight attraction to come to Japan since Muhammad Ali fought Antonio Inoki in 1976 at Nippon Budokan. Tyson was the scariest man on the planet and Nintendo had him in their Punchout game. Nobody on UFC’s roster is remotely close to having the star power of Mike Tyson and nobody in MMA currently is on Tyson’s 1990 popularity level.

For all the talk about what a success the Tyson fight with Buster Douglas was, keep in mind that the Tokyo Dome was about half-filled for the bout. This, despite the fact that the fight industry was blistering hot at the time for business and the Tokyo Dome was still a relatively new building to promote big events in. Starting in ’89, New Japan and All Japan had some heavy shows there. Hulk Hogan vs. Gen’ichiro Tenryu in December of 1991 at the Tokyo Dome drew a huge crowd (even if Megane Super had comped a bunch through tickets given in eyeglass packages). Hogan was nowhere near Tyson’s level of popularity in Japan and yet outdrew him at the Dome.

Furthermore, the strength of the Japanese media in 1990-1991 versus today is like night and day. The magazine industry was booming along with the newspapers and Tyson’s fight aired live on Japanese TV. UFC heads into a market in 2012 where the fight magazine industry is holding on by a thread while the newspaper industry is still doing well but has cooled off in covering MMA on a significant level after PRIDE’s demise and the contraction of K-1.

Matchmaking options

Which leads us to the question of what UFC will do in terms of booking for the Saitama event. If UFC treats this event like they have for UK & Australia events, they’re going to be in for a rude awakening on a large scale. This is the kind of show where they need multiple fights on the level of Kazushi Sakuraba vs. BJ Penn in order to grab the attention of the public.

Jordan hinted on his radio show that if the UFC Japan show isn’t going to draw well in the first place, then it’s better favor fight quality over booking former PRIDE legends in the top spots.

“As for Hatsu Hioki, him challenging for the (UFC Featherweight) title is not beyond the scope of comparison. Obviously, the Mark Hominick example is a good one. And Chad Mendes, even though he’s kind of, you know, Johnny-on-the-spot waiting for his title shot, UFC didn’t come away particularly impressed with what he did against Rani Yahya. If Hatsu Hioki was really able to blow away George Roop, I wouldn’t be shocked to see them go forward with a headliner similar to that.

“It it ends up being something like Jose Aldo/Hioki, it would be a good thing for like a Fox card or even the FX kind of range because basically what you’re doing is you’re taking a developing star, a guy who has real chops to be a legitimate MMA superstar based on his appeal, his charisma, his incredible fighting style and despite the fact that he doesn’t really draw quite yet. Aldo is still having to be anchored to larger champions and people that draw eyeballs anyway. It’s going to be a process and that’s process isn’t going to be over by February, so I think that might be a nice note to hit and obviously Hatsu Hioki/Jose Aldo, if they were able to build to it, I think would represent the most interesting and significant Featherweight fight that you’d probably have in MMA so far. Very, very exciting thing to look forward to and if you’re a Japanese MMA fan or someone who would make the trip for that card, you should be crossing your fingers and hoping for it because, otherwise, whatever main event you end up with might be Nogueira/Cro Cop, something nostalgic but not something of the highest relevance of necessarily the highest excitement. Whereas something like Hioki/Aldo could actually maybe provide that.”

Scarily, Mirko is the biggest drawing card they have left (outside of Josh Barnett) for the Saitama show the way things stand pending the matchmaking on other UFC cards. DREAM & K-1 often booked guys like Katsuyori Shibata to fill up the cards against the Satoshi Ishiis of the world to try to generate some buzz. Jordan’s not too optimistic on this as a good matchmaking idea.

“I don’t think people realize like how big the divide is at times between just like, like a dude like (Katsuyori) Shibata who can come in and throw some [haymakers] and even get offense going sometimes in fights, against dudes that can actually fight. Like, for instance, if I asked you like who was going to win, James Head or Katsuyori Shibata, you’d probably say James Head and you’d be right, by the way. And then, think about like how James Head got beat within an inch of his life by Nick Ring, a guy that is kind of seen like a pacifist cuddly grappler at 185 pounds. Nick Ring like beat this dude within an inch of his life and humiliated him in the Octagon. Like what would happen to a guy like Shibata against someone who could actually fight in the UFC? It would be open season in the most of brutal ways if he didn’t go unconscious within 30 seconds.

“And I do expect to see some Japan-on-Japan fights because I think they will be mindful of not wanting to architect a card where just every Japanese dude gets wiped out. So, I do think there will be… I don’t think it will be like top-to-bottom just like wipeouts or anything like that, but I do think you’ll see a decent amount of Japan-on-Japan and guys getting slightly favorable match-ups. I think they will be mindful of what would happen if just Japanese dudes went like 0-10 on the card or something like that.”

Our friend Dan Herbertson was floating names like Eiji Mitsuoka out today for the UFC Japan show. That would be disastrous on a business level if they filled up fights with guys like him because that’s Pancrase-level business right there waiting to happen. I made an appearance on Mauro Ranallo’s radio show on Tuesday afternoon to quickly give my thoughts on how things may play out for this event.

Topics: Japan, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 34 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

34 Responses to “Without Overeem, Lesnar, Nogueira & other top names, who can draw big for UFC Japan?”

  1. Rich says:

    Mark Hunt for UFC Japan maybe? Could certainly help bolster the card although obviously not a headline.

    I think I might be more interested in how they’re going to do the poster. Western or Japanese? Might tell you a lot.

  2. 45 Huddle says:

    Quinton Jackson??

    Aldo/Florian vs. Hioki??

    Cro Cop, Akiyama, Gomi, Okami, & a few others to help the card along.

    It’s never going to be big…. but it could end up being respectable.

    It’s the 2nd PPV of the month of February, so it’s not going to be a big PPV seller….

  3. david m says:

    Two words: BOBU SAPPU!!!!!

    Sapp vs Lesnar in an open weight bought 🙂

    Saku vs Matt Hughes

    I guess they could make a high money offer to Yoshida, but really what is in it for the UFC? To get guys who appeal to the Japanese means killing their buyrate. This is a terrible idea.

    I personally think a ‘Best of Alexander Otsuka’ tape would draw well on ppv, but I don’t know how a live audience would react to it.

    Japan is tapped out; is Okami really the best Japanese fighter now? What happened to the judo kid? Is he out of mma entirely?

    • 45 Huddle says:


      Made me think….

      What about Royce Gracie or Renzo Gracie?

      Wasn’t one of the early Pride shows a Gracie vs. Japan theme?

      Royce, Renzo, & Roger vs. 3 Japanese fighters…. Put that on the undercard but a way to sell to the Japanese Public…

      Am I reaching??

      • 45 Huddle says:

        And Satoshi Ishii wouldn’t hurt….

        • david m says:

          Ishii is the guy I meant before. What happened to him? Is he still alive? Why isn’t he fighting?

          Yoshida can still draw I bet; they should do him against Chael; Sonnen could insult Japan and we could get a national honor situation.

          Kid Yamamoto used to be a draw, before he sucked.

          I don’t know much about Japanese MMA (I didn’t even know it still existed!), but my gut tells me nobody there gives a fuck about the Gracies.

  4. ergface says:

    I don’t understand why Dana & co are wasting time & resources with this. I know Arnold and co could end up being wrong but all signs do seem to point to a mediocre outcome. If it is about ‘dipping toes’ personally I would love to see them rolling the dice on Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America. If Cain wins on Fox, or if their battle merits a rematch, they might have a golden opportunity to expand onto Spanish language television on the level of a Fox.

    • cutch says:

      Are’nt they already on free to air TV in Mexico etc? Japan has a much better economy as well

    • RST says:

      Read an old article the other day were dana said the yakuza was a major roadblock to doing Japan at the time when they were still trying to ressurect pride.

      And then he went on to say that Mexico was a similar problem with the drug cartels and I’d assume just the general corruption of the government and everything else in that country.

  5. Zach Arnold says:

    david m said:

    Ishii is the guy I meant before. What happened to him? Is he still alive? Why isn’t he fighting?

    Yoshida can still draw I bet; they should do him against Chael; Sonnen could insult Japan and we could get a national honor situation.

    Kid Yamamoto used to be a draw, before he sucked.

    I don’t know much about Japanese MMA (I didn’t even know it still existed!), but my gut tells me nobody there gives a fuck about the Gracies.

    The last time Ishii fought in Japan (at Dynamite), the fans booed him out of the country. They cheered Jerome Le Banner hard despite Le Banner getting worked.

    Ishii retired from MMA, got divorced, said he would try to qualify for the Olympics in Orlando, and then unretired from MMA and spent time training at Kings MMA in So. Cal in preparation for an upcoming fight in Brazil.

    Sonnen is a no-name in Japan.

    Hidehiko Yoshida retired due to health issues.

  6. RST says:

    As mentioned above, plenty of the old pride guys:


    Ken Shamrock?

    Cro Cop, Herring.



    I wonder if jackson could still get a pop over there.



    • RST says:

      But hasn’t it been pretty well established that the Japanese dont care for the cage?

      I wonder if thats gonna be as hard of a sell as anybody they put on the card.

  7. cutch says:

    Would Japan vs Asian fighters draw on the undercard? If they want to become a rugular touring company over there, regional titles would be a must, just like in Europe.

    Pity they are contracted to Showtime as Barnett Vs Big Foot (probable GP final) would make a great co headliner along with a Hioki title fight.

  8. nottheface says:

    I know the UFC wouldn’t touch him but could Asashoryu draw or have the fight fixing scandals tarnished him as well. A Japanese friend of mine thought the only a Ishii vs Asashoryu followed by Ishii vs Roger Gracie could possibly resurrect Satoshi’s career.

  9. RST says:

    How about miller?

    He’d have a little more then 2 months after Bisping on 12/3.

    He could get Japanese breakdancers to dance during his walk out again.

    And a Japanese Rapper!

    And if Diaz is still around a Diaz/miller match could be a headliner.

    And if they could choose guys who already do, or encourage the guys they choose to come out with theatrical flossy walkouts, that would be appreciated and help to at least leave an impression that could make a second japan show even more successful.

  10. Chris27 says:

    listening to you on bloodyelbow, honestly you are maybe the most boring person I’ve ever listened to.

    So bland.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      I often say that whenever I read one of your replies on my site.

      My job isn’t to show up a radio host. I go with the flow of the questioner. My style varies with every interviewer.

      • Chris27 says:


        I didnt say anything about what you said on teh show, I simply said you sounded boring, and no it wasnt the flow of the show, you just sound like a boring guy.

        Showing up the host? I just said you sound boring as fuck, you have no personality, stick to writing, I’d much rather read something you said rather then listen to you say it.

        I’m no that familiar with you but from what I gather it seems like you want the UFC to fail, I just get that feeling reading your work. Always something negative about them.

        • edub says:

          So basically you don’t know much about MMA (which was already relevant from your posts that carry little intelligence), and you decided to make your misguided rants about a person who far exceeds your IQ level public.

          Congratulations, you’re an idiot and a dick.

  11. Darkmader says:

    After listening to Metlzer/Alverez on F4’s audio show where they talked about Allistar vs Lesnar a few things standed out. — BTW sign up for site and listen to Zach Arnold with Bryan (you can hit the archives). That was one of the best audio I’ve heard in years.

    One big this was this. They debated on if Brock would show up on the Fox show after JDS/Cain fight is over to promote the next fight. Meltzer said it might be tricky because he’s famous for not doing appearances. Sounds kind of like Diaz too, but I guess if you’re the highest PPV draw you can do what you want. Brock doing TUF was for the money and people on the forum said that Brock has balls for taking the fight????? That’s not the case. If he loses, his stock is down big time and we have a new star but if he wins, he gets a chance at the belt. They can’t feed him Kongo/Rothwell/Struve at this point as Melzer said with the PPV buys he’ll make a good 2.5 million.

    If he’s unmotivated, and word on the street is that he won’t be 100% for the fight but he’s a worker and will try to build up the fight. If Lesnar can’t take him down in the first round it might be game over and he’ll retire then. I thought he should fight Mir, which would probably be a win, but it seems that Dana and company said fuck it and Dec 30th we’re going to get a big buy rate.

    Lesnar denied promotions all the time but Diaz misses 2 events and he’s out of the event. Diaz is a head case, we all know that, but come on, Diaz has 490843209432x more charisma than Condit.

    It’s almost like WWE. They have the wellness policy and will suspend people but of course your Cena’s and the big stars they just turn a blind eye.

    I really really would recommend you hitting f4weekly and listen to Dave/Bryan. They are 100% correct when they talk about how MMA is just like pro wrestling.

    I think 45huddle gets shit for saying the same thing but if you listen to them breaking it down it’s scary how pro wrestling and MMA is the exact same. The only difference is that MMA isn’t worked. Or at least now days.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      There is certainly a fine line bewteen entertainment and sport in MMA.

      When you go the pure sport route, you get Bellator, which is a completely bland company that doesn’t deliver on the fights people want to see.

      Zuffa walks the line very well 95% of the time. When they don’t, it becomes blatantly obvious….

  12. spacedog says:

    I’d think Wandy and Cro-Cop could both get a pop in Japan. Setting them up to actually be in a position to win would be nice as well. Throw in Saku v. Huges or maybe BJ or even Diaz. Maybe Roger G. v. Ishi or another Japanese LHW to keep the tradition alive. Stack it up with a few more Japanese fighters just to have their names on the poster, guys like Gomi, Nak, Gono. And have Barnett headline the whole thing. He could fight HH for a scrub fight or maybe a legit UFC HW if Zuffa planned on keeping him around. Or maybe headline it with Barnet/Fedor.

    • Zach Arnold says:

      The biggest roadblock for the success of this show is the psychology of the people involved in producing the card.

      They have the money to buy who they want to. They can book the fights they want to. It’s all about how they view Japan, what their viewpoint of Japanese MMA is, and whether they respect or care about the Japanese culture.

      I suspect this UFC Japan show will end up being one of those shows where we have countless discussions about what they could do and play fantasy booker and, in the end, end up with a mediocre-to-average card at best.

      I talked about this on the radio today. Check it out.

  13. smoogy says:

    I don’t think the people trying to cobble up a theoretical Royal Sampler of a card with as many “complimentary” pieces as they can think of really get the problem here.

    • frankp316 says:

      That’s this whole thing in a nutshell. The bottom line is the fight business is dead in Japan. Nothing that the UFC puts together for this show will draw flies. It’s over. Short of Megumi Fujii vs Yuka Tsuji, the fans there don’t give a damn anymore. And I know the UFC ain’t doing that. But they should because it would draw. You need to wrap your head around the reality that there is no MMA on network TV in Japan and most shows half fill Korakuen Hall even papered. If no one can’t fill that joint, the UFC can’t fill SSA without major league paper. I like the idea of hiring a Japanese figurehead but they’d have to find someone with clean hands. Good luck with that. BTW, Bob Sapp just did some nonsense in Germany. He can draw flies to his figurative rotted corpse. I like the names Dan came up with. It just shows how bad things are. I nominate Minowaman for the UFC main event. It makes as much sense as anything else I have seen.

      • spacedog says:

        How about Wandy v. Minowaman. Lol.

        Actually, you make good points but I just don’t care. I’m kinda excited that the UFC is going to run in Japan again, haters be damned.

      • smoogy says:

        If the goal was to resonate with a mainstream audience, their best bet would honestly be a Super Hulk type tournament with Herschel Walker, Kimbo Slice, Batista, Kurt Angle and whatever other random big guys with quasi-fame want to throw in.

  14. 45 Huddle says:

    BJ Penn vs. Nick Diaz is now on.

    I see some people mad about it…. Josh Gross is even saying the UFC is scripting it like WWE (he sure doesn’t ever want to get credentialled)….

    I think Diaz’s punishment fit the crime…. He lost his title shot. But what’s the point of punishing him more?

    Penn vs. Diaz should be a fun fight…. I can’t stand either of them, so at least one guy will get a loss….

    • Fluyid says:

      I’m certainly not mad about it or anything close to that, but I’m one of those guys who starts feeling uneasy (for lack of a better word) when my sense of justice is pinged. That, of course, is on me.

  15. david m says:

    Diaz fighting someone he likes/respects in BJ Penn is a double fail. We don’t get to see Diaz flip off GSP in the middle of their fight, and we have to see Diaz fight without his swagger because he doesn’t actually want to kill BJ. This sucks. Dana blew it.

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