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Losing face: Enron-style Japanese fight scene scandals

By Zach Arnold | November 26, 2011

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It’s been a really bad, bad week if you are a fan of pro-wrestling or MMA in Japan. The bad news keeps getting exponentially worse and, in its own bizarre way, can be connected together in terms of cultural themes.

NOAH has had a terrible week. Mark “Bison” Smith, their top gaijin heavyweight ace, died in Puerto Rico. Finding reliable foreign wrestlers at this point in time is very difficult. On top of that, news just broke that former heavyweight champion Takeshi Rikio will have to retire due to myelopathy (herniated disc). He was somebody that the late Mitsuharu Misawa tried to make into a company ace. The experiment failed. Good heavyweights don’t grow on trees.

Pro-wrestling was the industry that built the native stars that led to the Japanese MMA boom. Without such stars, MMA would not have existed on as grand of a level as it did. Wrestling was the star factory that MMA promoters raided and bought off with cash. Once the MMA boom started to wane, promoters found they didn’t have stars left to poach because the wrestling scene was on the decline.

Today, wrestling promotions struggle to sell out Korakuen Hall (the legendary 2,000-seat venue). JCB Hall, which was supposed to be an upgraded version of Korakuen with 3,000-plus seats, is not often used by event promoters. Without television support and without major financial backing, Japanese promotions are struggling for dear life to survive.

Which brings us to K-1 and Sengoku/World Victory Road.

Without heavy television support financing their MMA shows, I always wondered how these promotions could book buildings like Ariake Colosseum, Yokohama Arena, Ryogoku Kokugikan, and Saitama Super Arena if a TV network wasn’t footing the bill. It’s not like calling up a pizza joint and ordering dinner. You need at least four months lead time, usually six months, and cash up front. Now, juxtapose these advanced building bookings with guys like Ray Sefo saying they were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Peter Aerts & Jerome Le Banner are now working Antonio Inoki cards, for goodness sakes. So is Bob Sapp. Bibiano Fernandes refused to go back to Japan until he got paid for previous fights. Nick Diaz’s camp claimed they had money issues with DREAM. The situation became so comical that DREAM shows had some guys under K-1 contracts and some under contracts to Real Entertainment, Mr. Kato’s company that owns the DREAM entity. So, RE guys were getting paid on time (most were) while K-1 guys weren’t getting paid at all? Remember how Alistair Overeem, after winning the World GP at Ariake Colosseum, was getting ready to focus his energy on becoming a star in Japan with the assistance of Yoshimoto Kogyo? Within two months of that declaration, he had decided to move all his energy to Strikeforce. He admitted (quietly) to ESPN at the time that he hadn’t gotten paid.

The bombshell of all bombshells was dropped by Shu Hirata on Mauro Ranallo’s radio show last October that Kazushi Sakuraba allegedly hasn’t been paid for any of his fights within the last two years. Around this same time period, you had reports from people like the esteemed Dave Walsh who said that K-1 was willing to book guys for their Chinese World GP event if they were willing to accept half of the previous money owed to them and write off the other half. The Chinese GP event never happened, by the way.

By this point, we’ve all figured out what has been happening. You have mid-to-big-sized buildings booked, guys fighting because they want and hope to get paid, and in the end few fighters allegedly getting paid at all other than lip service and threats. Those who do get paid don’t dare say anything to upset the apple cart. Those who didn’t get paid either don’t do anything about it (the statute of limitations in Japan for money disputes is two years) because they still want to keep getting booked or they don’t want to be threatened at gunpoint in hotel rooms. I mean, you can’t possibly make this up.

To say that there’s quite a difference between old school yakuza and new school yakuza that hang around today’s fight game is quite an understatement. Old school yakuza used to always take pride in paying foreigners and they paid top dollar. You got paid well, you socialized well, you were part of a culture. The new school yakuza? They would put a bullet in your head first and go to prison for life before paying off a debt they owe. The fight business always has attracted yakuza because of the social value of being connected to the business image-wise. Now? There’s not so much value, so you end up with shady characters hanging around the business who are itching for a confrontation or a ready-made scam to feast upon innocent people.

Which brings me to a development that you are starting to see in Japan that never used to exist when old school yakuza were in charge of things. Because of the actions of the new breed of yakuza (shoot first, consequences later), victims are starting to sue the bad guys now. You never used to sue the yakuza in court because you’d end up dead more than likely for your troubles. However, with violence & thievery escalating, people are running out of options. So, victims are taking a page out of the American playbook and going after the gangs in court. The yakuza does not want anything to do with the court system. They don’t deal with contracts; they deal with guns.

Miro Mijatovic, who is now out of the fight business, went to court to go after admitted yakuza-fixer Seiya Kawamata. It’s one thing for a native to go after a yakuza guy in court but when it’s a foreigner who’s filing the lawsuit, that’s the rarest of birds. Kawamata, of course, was a K-1 fixer whose word printed in various articles in Shukan Gendai’s negative campaign against PRIDE destroyed the organization. Taking an admitted yakuza fixer to court is a brave thing to do. Don’t believe me? A person who was instrumental to Miro’s lawsuit, Toshiro Igari, lost his life because he took on powerful people who didn’t want to do anything about corruption. He lost his life but in the process got the last laugh from beyond the grave when his book got published. In that book, he dealt with all the major scandals happening in regards to how the yakuza threaten both police & district attorneys in order to prevent charges from being filed in important corruption cases. Mr. Igari died in the Philippines right around the time the sport of Sumo was imploding due to a match fixing & betting scandal in which elements of the boryokudan were hanging around the scene.

With this as your back drop, I bring attention to a new scandal book that recently was published that you might be interested in (if you can read Japanese). The book claims that Kazuyuki Fujita, who had worked for Sengoku, went to court to battle with Sengoku over unpaid fight money (breach of contract). The claim? That his contract was a four or fight deal worth about 200 million yen ($2.6 million USD). The idea that he was asking and promised $500,000USD a fight is, on the surface, incredible. The book claims that Sengoku had their own arguments as to why the contract wasn’t honored and that there was a settlement.

The one thing you used to always be able to say about Japanese promoters & bookers in the fight game was that their word was their bond. If they made you an offer, the offer stood and you got paid. Today? There is no more ‘golden word’ in the business. That credibility has been destroyed. How do you ever get your good word back?

Appropriately, the section(s) of the book talking about FEG & Sengoku troubles is called “Kakutougi Crisis.” On the cover of the book, there’s a screaming font headline talking about the assault involving TARU beating up on Nobukazu Hirai and putting him in the hospital for good. This past week, TARU was arrested by the authorities after Hirai’s mother filed an official complaint. Hirai is still in the hospital months after the assault and reportedly suffers from permanent memory loss.

It seems a lot of people have lost their minds and their memories on how to behave honorably in the Japanese fight industry.


Updated UFC Japan 2012 (Saitama Super Arena, 2/27 10 AM local JST, 2/26 evening American time):

Despite the starting time issues, I still have the over/under at 10,000 for attendance because UFC will be a shiny new toy to watch. That said, I’m not overly confident and I would go with the ‘under.’ TV Tokyo, the smallest of the over-the-air broadcast TV networks in Japan, is now airing a “UFC World” program. If UFC does hit broadcast TV, it likely will be this channel and that would mean a very minimal impact in the country. The network has little-to-no penetration outside the Kanto region (Tokyo/Yokohama). Not in the same league as Fuji TV, Nippon TV, Tokyo Broadcasting, or TV-Asahi.

Michihiro Omigawa has been booked for UFC’s return to Brazil in January. He will not fight on the Japan 2012 card.

Topics: DREAM, Japan, Media, MMA, Sengoku, Yakuza, Zach Arnold | 19 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

19 Responses to “Losing face: Enron-style Japanese fight scene scandals”

  1. Simon says:

    Your articles are completely underrated. Why more people don’t read this stuff I’ll never understand. None of this shit would fly here in America, but seems that shit runs rampant in Japan. What did ever happen to Honor among the Japanese? Great stuff Zach.

  2. David m says:

    Well-summarized Zach. Hopefully the Yakuza get what they deserve. I am interested about what will happen with that lawsuit.

  3. Bryan says:

    Zach, regarding the UFC’s SSA show, how do you think it will be presented production-wise? Will it be the usual UFC approach of no ramp, minimal entrances, etc or more in line with the PRIDE-esque production, (opening ceremony, Leanne Hardt ring announcing, large screens)

  4. 45 Huddle says:

    So I decided to give Bellator another try after the really good Lightweight Title Fight last week.

    First fight had a horrible decision.

    Third fight didn’t start until almost 90 minutes in…. and the stoppage was one of the worst I have seen in a long time.

    • 45 Huddle says:

      And now the HW Tournament finals was ruled a new contest because of an intentional ball show on the ground that was ruled accidential.

      What a mess….

      • edub says:

        Yea, shitty. I too thought Nover did enough to take the last two round. However, he really should have thrown straight punches more. Held’s chin was on a platter when he came in. Phillipe shows flashes of skill and excitement, but then just goes back to second rate. It’s almost annoying.

        Also, I agree on the Pellegrino stoppage. The ref sits there and misses 3 or four back of the head shots, then stops it when Kurt is still working? C’mon man!

        Show just filled with trash all-around, including the ball kick main event.

    • Megatherium says:

      Too bad you didn’t catch the prelims. That was some good watchin’ right there.

      Wouldn’t support your anti-Bellator jihad though.

      • Jason Harris says:

        I like Bellator but I feel the way they run their shows is confusing. When they’re running cards every week, why stack 2 title fights in one card? Then put that up against a stacked UFC card?

        I do appreciate that they are trying to build their own talent rather than taking the Strikeforce/Affliction approach of Japanese stars and UFC castoffs.

  5. Zack says:

    Wow, the best and worst of FO.

    Best = Zach doing what he does best, and what no one else can come close to doing.

    Worst = 45 responding off topic in typical fashion. derp derp

  6. Darkmader says:

    Off topic but my god check out the Cotto-Margarito 24/7 – Episode 1. I would pay to see that. 2 shitty boxers that nobody cares about.

    Talk is on May 5th that they will fight but it won’t happen. They both can fight other ppl, and still draw a million buys.

    They will milk it for all it’s worth and in probably 2 years we will finally see may/pac. Both are probably out of their prime, but in the fight Mayweather will be defensive like always and counter punch.

    • Tommy Hackett says:

      I very much enjoyed the article Zach and this was the last thing I expected to read in response. Some people will complain about anything, I guess.

      Cotto/Margarito was a rematch of a 2008 fight of the year candidate & featured the most intense grudge in combative sports right now. The undercard was strong too, including a rematch of a 2011 fight of the year candidate.

      That 24/7 was the best ever.

      It was a great event that any real fan could enjoy, including a sold out MSG — I’m betting PPV buys are excellent as well.

  7. Chromium says:

    The Kanto region is still one-third of the country (and also the richest third).

    Let’s see if new-school MMA fans actually exist or not in Japan. Shu Hirata seemed to think that’s who would be most interested, but is there such a thing? Japanese fans who got heavily into MMA after the death of Pride and are down with UFC fighters who have no connection to Japan at all? (To be fair, the UFC did use all but one of their Japanese fighters under contract for this).

    Also, does New Japan no longer have a broadcast deal? I would have figured they’d be the hardest company to die, even without Inoki. Also, totally belated, but mad props to Inoki for giving paying gigs to some of the K-1 fighters left without a paycheck by FEG. He’s a man who seems to love combat sports on every level, real or fake, and is committed to giving back to kakutougi.

  8. […] through” in the traditional sense. With the Japanese fight scene in a complete shambles (Arnold, again, recently wrote a fascinating piece on this), the UFC sees it as an opportunity to re-educate the Japanese fanbase. Sakuraba became a star the […]

  9. white ninja says:

    Zach –

    I think the current Olympus scandal might be a better metaphor rather than Enron. Olympus has all the common elements of washing profits and losses in the public eye with the yakuza being the major benefactors – looks like a more sophisticated, but more boring version of what happened with Pride.. of course, Pride was owned by the Yamaguchi Gumi, while in Olympus the yakuza just made money off the public shareholders

    Inoki has a long history of events where fighters were not paid – and the boys behind Dream arent known for their promptness in paying the bills… so best advice to the fighters is to make sure you get paid in front from these dodgy Japanese promoters

    As for the UFC event – getting out of bed that early to watch Mark Hunt? LOL….

    • Chromium says:

      Hunt is a legit fan favorite in Japan. I’m not saying he’s a huge draw but there is definite nostalgia for the guy among Pride fans, losing streak or not. Hunt vs. Kongo is a good pick for this card imo (I would have gone with Hunt vs. Struve but that’s just me).


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