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Antonio Inoki’s shadow war on NYE

By Zach Arnold | December 24, 2011

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Kazushi Sakuraba & Katsuyori Shibata talk about their upcoming tag team match

If the impending 2011 Inoki MMA/IGF card at Saitama Super Arena looks like a familiar friend to you, that’s because it is. The booking is reminiscent to the card produced by Inoki and promoted by PRIDE in 2000 at the Osaka Dome, where you had a mixture of MMA blending in with a pro-wrestling atmosphere. MMA fighters want to be pro-wrestlers just like the wrestlers want to be MMA fighters (if they could do so). The Osaka Dome show would launch the kakutougi boom in Japan, a dream period that Antonio Inoki had imagined was coming for decades. Lost in all the talk about UFC on Fox is that PRIDE’s deal with Fuji TV still remains, by far, the largest and most successful MMA/network partnership in the history of the business. Ari Emanuel may have brokered a sweeter cash deal for Zuffa with Fox paying out $90-$100M USD/year but Fuji TV brought a hell of a lot more to the table for PRIDE. We’re not just talking credibility with sponsorships but flat out world-class production values that blows away what we’re seeing right now with the standard UFC-produced show. Oh, and Fuji TV paid PRIDE an estimated $50M USD a year, helped Dream Stage amass top-level corporate sponsorship, and PRIDE in return brought in 15-25 million viewers per telecast. UFC has a long ways to go in that department and it’s doubtful they will ever reach that kind of consistent level of audience on broadcast television in the States.

The difference between 2000 and 2011 is the health of the overall fight industry in Japan. In 2000, Antonio Inoki was desperately trying to transition New Japan into a company where he could take the wrestlers and book them on high-level K-1 & PRIDE events. He saw a dying wrestling industry due to lack of television support. The days of being on network TV like New Japan was in the 1980s was over. When you’re on network TV at 2 AM in the morning, it’s an ‘image down’ and it’s a lot harder to make new stars. Americans use DVR/PVR and are mostly cable/satellite customers. In Japan, most people still rely on network TV and do not pay for television services. Given the trajectory of the wrestling business, Inoki tried his damnedest to make Naoya Ogawa & the late Shinya Hashimoto into cornerstone pieces for New Japan blurring the lines with MMA. When PRIDE was launched, it was based on former yakuza boss Hiromichi Momose backing Nobuhiko Takada and the old UWF crew. UWF died after Takada & Yoji Anjoh inter-promoted with New Japan.

What no one knew at the time was that matchmaker Riki Choshu killing off UWF and giving Takada a golden financial parachute would open the door for Momose and henchmen (Nobuyuki Sakakibara, an executive from Tokai TV — the Nagoya affiliate of Fuji TV, and Naoto Morishita) to kill off Japanese wrestling. PRIDE did just that — they started poaching the biggest names from the Japanese wrestling business. Inoki saw what was happening and decided that he would get his boys involved in the action by putting them on the cards that were getting on network TV. It led to a bizarre mixture of guys succeeding and failing. He wanted guys like Yuji Nagata to make it. Instead, they got high-kicked into oblivion while guys like Kazuyuki Fujita & ‘Hollywood’ Tadao Yasuda, who failed to get over as pro-wrestlers, suddenly got pushed to the moon because they beat guys in the MMA ring.

The MMA boom in Japan left pro-wrestling in a perilous position. Inoki made such a mess of New Japan that he did the unthinkable and sold the assets to Yukes. If he hadn’t sold New Japan, the company would have died. I said that ad nauseam at the time and no one believed me. When Yukes got the assets, they found out how many skeletons were in the closing and the process of cleaning up the mess left behind by Inoki took a while. Inoki got a sweetheart deal in that his likeness and he, himself, could be booked for a fee to promote anything and everything. Call it the George Foreman golden parachute, if you will. If there’s one thing Antonio Inoki always has known how to pull off it’s the concept of getting paid first to be a front man while letting everyone else do the work.

(This, ironically, is how we got the mess that was Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye on NYE 2003 at Kobe Wing Stadium. Inoki was simply the front man for admitted K-1 yakuza fixer Seiya Kawamata, who had plans of running his own promotion after things fell apart between K-1 & PRIDE. Inoki got his wrestlers booked and paid by Nippon TV on the show. Kawamata ended up walking away after the show when his yakuza stooges allegedly turned on him in support of PRIDE. The show turned out to be a ratings disaster. The event and the days thereafter became the centerpiece of what would result in the implosion of PRIDE and the Japanese MMA industry in general.)

As 2011 closes out, the Inoki MMA show finds itself going back to its 2000 roots but under totally different circumstances. The wrestling business in Japan is producing solid matches but no solid draws. Without a robust pro-wrestling industry to rely upon, the MMA business in Japan does not have stars to generate to run big shows. The symbiotic relationship between the health of wrestling and the health of MMA is as relevant now as it was in 2000. That link will never die, which is why all the talk about DREAM and other MMA promoters needing to bring Japan into the 21st Century is largely a worthless exercise.

Sting vs. Hiroshi Hase (1/4/1993 Tokyo Dome)

Hiroshi Hase & Keiji Mutoh vs. The Steiner Brothers (1/4/1994 Tokyo Dome)

Japan is all about history and tradition. In the 1990s, the biggest yearly show on the calendar was New Japan’s annual 1/4 Tokyo Dome event. The show drew 50,000+ year after year and it’s drawing power couldn’t get killed off even though New Japan got greedy and started running more than one Dome show a year later in the decade. When Inoki pulled off the PRIDE-backed Osaka Dome NYE show in 2000, the NYE date supplanted the 1/4 Tokyo Dome date as the biggest show of the year.

With network TV currently not as enthusiastic to support the NYE MMA shows, Inoki is doing everything he can to keep the show relevant. He’s going back to what he knows, which is blurring the lines between wrestling and MMA. When we look at the 2011 NYE card, this is Inoki’s attempt to not only save MMA on broadcast television but also to try to save the image of pro-wrestling as still being relevant. There is a New Japan event at the Tokyo Dome on 1/4 but it’s got horribly weak drawing power and little momentum headed into the show. The main event is Minoru Suzuki vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi. New Japan is desperately trying to push Tanahashi like he’s the Japanese version of Hulk Hogan with better workrate by not having him lose in title matches (similar to the run that Hashimoto had in the 90s that was largely boring). For as solid of cards as New Japan is booking, there is a big difference between solid wrestling and solid star-power. The company does not have star power right now. There’s a very good chance that the show will bomb at the Tokyo Dome and that it will no longer be feasible for the company to run the building.

In many respects, Antonio Inoki is not only trying to keep NYE relevant for MMA & wrestling on broadcast TV, he’s also dealing with a shadow war of the annual 1/4 Tokyo Dome show and just how far that deal has fallen.

There will never be another Antonio Inoki in a lot of respects. At age 68, he’s witnessed many of his contemporaries die. I can imagine it’s getting very tiresome for him to get asked by the media for comment on when another one of his old running mates in the business dies. This week alone was living proof of how Inoki has managed to blend the worlds of both his enemies and friends while getting everything he ever wanted in life. Umanosuke Ueda, his chief Japanese rival (who teamed with Tiger Jeet Singh) in the Showa Era, died at the age of 71. Inoki had a very famous nail board death match with Ueda that was anything but conventional. And before Ueda’s death, we had the death of Kim Jong Il (the North Korean dictator). Inoki has always had close ties to the North Korean scene, having relationships with both Kim Jong Il and his father. Inoki was in discussions to have a tribute show to the father next year (similar to the two-day 1995 Pyongyang Stadium shows).

In Japan, being associated with North Korea right now is a hot button topic (see: Zainichi.) Rikidozan, the Godfather of Japanese pro-wrestling during the Reconstruction period, was born in North Korea. Rikidozan’s family still maintains political ties to the current dictatorship in North Korea. Inoki, one way or another, has been able to use this as his angle to go back and forth between Japan and Pyongyang. Anyone else in Japan trying to pull this off would face intense media scrutiny. Inoki goes back and forth between the two countries… and few people mutter a word. In fact, Inoki was one of the first men in the world that the media rushed to for comment after Kim Jong Il’s death was announced on North Korean state television.

Inoki’s fascination with the world’s strongmen is quite a tribute to his own psychological profile. No one has been a bigger cult of personality in the modern Japanese fight game like Antonio Inoki. We are entering 2012 and Inoki is still able to comfortably get paid to be a front man for major events. When you’ve lived a life based on promoting yourself as a virtue & value in and out of the ring, you tend to sympathize with those who act or behave the same even if they are violent in nature. From politicians in Pakistan and the Philippines, to Idi Amin the Ugandan savage, to Saddam Hussein who Inoki ‘negotiated’ with over hostages and got swords plus Iraqi pro-wrestling shows in return for his efforts, to Kim Jong Il & family, to his current fondness of Vladimir Putin (and overall romanticization of Russian Communist politics which he based his late 1980s program around involving Salman Hashimikov), nobody knows how to talk & deal with political strongmen like the Cult of Personality himself, Mr. Inoki. It’s his best asset, his main asset, and the one asset he has in play that he thinks he can use to try to save a dying industry on New Year’s Eve in Japan.

Topics: DREAM, Japan, Media, MMA, PRIDE, Pro-Wrestling, Zach Arnold | 29 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

29 Responses to “Antonio Inoki’s shadow war on NYE”

  1. Sundog says:

    It’s sad to see how much of the mystique of the Japanese fight business and New Year’s Eve events have seemed to track with Inoki’s own rise and fall. They seemed so transcendent in the middle part of the decade, but like Inoki himself, they’ve lost their luster.

    I can’t wait for this year’s event, but between Inoki and Fedor, it feels a bit like a last hurrah.

  2. smoogy says:

    Wow, hate to sound like a FO astroturfer or something but that was illuminating. Inoki is such a fascinating person, not hard to see how people get drawn into his orbit

    Another interesting NYE development is the presence of a third event in addition to UFC 141 and DREAM… in Beijing. Top of the Forbidden City Championships (TFC-1) is reportedly sponsored by the Beijing municipal sport council and this will be their 11th event of the year. With Art of War having vanished TFC-1 is now the top Chinese show.

  3. Fightlinker says:

    What happened to art of war anyways? Did the sheiks pull out of that after buying a stake in the UFC? Or was that a different prince? So hard to keep all those guys straight

    • Alan Conceicao says:

      Yup. Art Of War was still getting press even after it had been dormant for an entire year. No one bothers to check these things when the story (MMA taking off in China! Bigger than soccer!) is so exciting.

  4. Tim B says:

    That was an excellent post, sir.

  5. Megatherium says:

    Hey smoogy, does Francisco Drinaldo wind up on TUF Brazil after his mysterious ailment put him out of the M1 card?

  6. Dave Ditch says:

    “(similar to the run that Hashimoto had in the 90s that was largely boring)”

    Hash’s reigns, especially the long ones, have aged quite well. They don’t have the grandeur of the Triple Crown bouts but they work just fine in the content of New Japan.

    Tanahashi on the other hand has the look and tries hard, but his matches come across as scripted and predictable rather than credible hard-fought title bouts. Hash’s trademark was dishing out a beating and being able to survive the same; Tanahashi’s trademark is killing time by going after the leg. He’s all sizzle and no steak; Hashimoto brought the beef (in more ways than one).

    Tanahashi could be fine in a Mutoh ‘entertainment/style’ role, not being the IWGP ace. That you give to someone the hardcore fans see as legit and who makes sense in the role of ‘best fighter’. Satisfy all aspects of the fanbase the way they did in the ’90s. Tanahashi-as-ace is all wrong, and I heartily agree that Tanahashi vs Suzuki is a terrible Dome main event. The card is relying on depth and drawing from other promotions, but without a must-see bout it’s hard to get over 15k.

    Zach, what does the Inoki/dictator thing have to do with his NYE show?

    • Zach Arnold says:

      Zach, what does the Inoki/dictator thing have to do with his NYE show?

      The whole business post-Rikidozan, on the New Japan/MMA side of the ledger, has been built around the Cult of Personality of Inoki. With Baba gone, Misawa gone, and many of his contemporaries now dead, Inoki is the last man standing in an industry that’s dying and he’s going back to the one thing that he’s always relied upon for success.

      The death of Kim Jong Il represents a lot of things to the Japanese people. It’s quite ironic that Inoki was one of the very first people asked to comment on the dictator’s death, given his personal history and also the history of the business going back to Rikidozan and the North Korean politics back then.

      With Inoki, you have to look at his personality, his psychology, and his ideology through the prism of decades, not years.

  7. Zach, great post and excellent read as always. I sincerely wish you’d write a book on this stuff, because I find the whole Japanese industry and its history the last three decades is fascinating.

    In addition to his political connections to the Kim Family Regime and Rikidozan’s North Korean lineage, isn’t Inoki himself ethnically Korean? I seem to remember reading that once somewhere and how it was one of those things that just wasn’t discussed in New Japan.

    • Megatherium says:

      I’ll be among the first to order that book. Zach is unique.

    • Adam Underhill says:

      It NEEDS to be done! You could self-publish it for sure, Zach!

    • Chromium says:

      isn’t Inoki himself ethnically Korean? I seem to remember reading that once somewhere and how it was one of those things that just wasn’t discussed in New Japan.

      That has been a rumor, but that’s been a rumor about any number of Japanese celebrities, and I’m pretty sure in the case of Inoki there is no truth to it.

  8. liger05 says:

    Great post Zach!!

    Whenever you think Inoki is a minor player he always manages to work himself back into position of ‘power’. He is the master of self promotion and getting himself over.

    It’s amazing to see how many people still don’t quite understand why Japan cannot be like the US where MMA and Pro-wrestling have no relation at all.

    If things had worked out slightly different and Inoki still had a working relationship with New Japan would Shinsuke Nakamura of been that guy who they would of tried to take from Pro-wrestling?

    Ed. — Perhaps, although Nakamura got branded an ‘Inoki’ guy by the regular NJ crew early and the resentment was there, that tension between the veterans and the guys Inoki gave his seal of approval to.

  9. 45 Huddle says:

    I have HDNet for the first time this New Years. So no internet stream for me. Plan on waking up at like 4am, start the DVR… Watch the opening presentation, and then fast forward everything but the MMA fights until I get there live. Hopefully I will see Ishii/Fedor live by that point.

    • Mr.roadblock says:

      What in the hell kind of DVR do you ave that you can’t program it to record in advance?

      Even VCRs could do that.

      Are you aiming a camcorder at the TV screen?

  10. liger05 says:

    I remember shinsuke being pushed and given the IWGP title really super early in his career and there was one year end interview he did when he was asked who he wanted in the following year and he said ‘Fedor & Cro Crop’.

    At this current time do pro-wrestlers or future pro wrestlers even look at MMA as an option in Japan? I mean for instance after the 2012 olympics say there is some guys from the Japanese wrestling or Judo team looking at future options is MMA a more attractive option than going to work for New Japan?

  11. Kalle says:

    The history is fascinating but honestly I wish pro wrestling would just die out completely. It’s theatre. Bad theatre. Real fighting can stand on it’s own, it shouldn’t need strongmen actors any more than any other sport and I’d rather not have the public confuse the two.

  12. liger05 says:

    The thing is in Japan Pro-wrestling and ‘real’ fighting are branches from the same tree and that will always be the case.

    If pro-wrestling was going to die in Japan it would of been when the MMA boom arrived, Giant Baba died (All Japan split) and Inoki did his best to kill New Japan Pro-wrestling with his crazy decision making.

    I don’t think the fans in Japan confuse Pro-wrestling & MMA. They obviously know the difference between the two its just the attitude towards pro-wrestling is not what u see in the US where pro-wrestling is seen as a joke,

    An MMA fighter/K-1 fighter in Japan can work a pro-wrestling show and a pro-wrestler can have an MMA fight and it doesnt cause uproar or fans shuddering at the thought while in the US this just could never happen.

    Just reading some of the MMA forums and seeing the thoughts of fans on Barnett still pro-wrestling or JLB pro-wrestling, or Sakuraba having a pro-wrestling match on NYE is laughable. These fans go crazy that on NYE in Japan there is an event which has MMA and pro-wrestling on the same card. It’s just total ignorance of how the fight scene in Japan works and refusing to accept its nothing like you see anywhere else.

  13. Kalle says:

    I’m not refusing to accept that Japan is different, I just don’t like pro wrestling at all. Pretend fighters rub me the wrong way, that’s the beginning and the end of it. When I watch it I feel like a hockey fan would feel if he watched choreographed ice skating with sticks. It cheapens the sport I love.

    • Zheroen says:

      “It’s still fake to me, dammit!”

    • Columbo says:

      So real fighters rub you the right way?

    • Steve4192 says:

      “Pretend fighters rub me the wrong way”

      Do action movie stars rub you the wrong way? They are ‘pretend fighters’ too. Jason Statham whoops a lot of ass on film, but to the best of my knowledge he has no fighting credentials. Why are wrestlers singled out for being ‘fake fighters’ but not movie stars?

      • Kalle says:

        Well, Jason Statham is a better actor for one thing. Never thought I’d praise his acting but there it is. He also gets better scripts. And better choreography. And bigger budget sets. Etc, etc.

        • cutch says:

          The Rock is a bigger movie star than Jason Stratham and he’s a Pro Wrestler. There is a good few Pro Wrestlers that could have made it big in acting, sometimes it’s just getting the right breaks.

          Speaking of The Rock, his first match in 7 years only did 160,000 buys domestic.

        • 45 Huddle says:

          160,000? I guess the current fans have no clue who he is.

          I don’t watch the WWE anymore, but about a week ago I just happened to look at who the champions were now. I was completely lost. Never even heard of over half of the guys. And they all look like generic with no unique look at all.

      • Alan Conceicao says:

        Nobody argues that action movies need to learn how to book or promote themselves based on MMA or vice versa.

  14. […] On Christmas Eve, I talked about Inoki’s shadow war on NYE and the annual 1/4 Tokyo Dome show that New Japan has produced for many years. While DREAM did not get Tokyo Broadcasting Support for the Saitama Super Arena event, you would have to classify the show as a win for Inoki’s vision of blending MMA & wrestling fights together. […]

  15. […] shows that the promotion has the potential to establish a following comparable to Pride, which drew 15-25 million viewers per […]

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