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The Japanese scene is facing increasingly dangerous waters

By Zach Arnold | January 30, 2012

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When Fedor Emelianenko rocked Satoshi Ishii and sent him to the hospital, the initial worry was about a broken nose. In the post-fight chatter, the blood was discussed as a factor in changing Ishii’s psychology during the fight. For some fighters, seeing their own blood can spook them. What Satoshi Ishii didn’t know when he got rattled by Fedor is that it may have very well been his last fight ever.

Putting the cherry on top of the proverbial sundae, Japanese weekly publication Cyzo (which has been on a very good run this month for fight business stories) reports that doctors have told Ishii that he suffered a cerebral edema from the NYE beating. As a result, he was warned that any further blows to the head would cause some serious damage. As Cyzo put it, Ishii is facing a retirement crisis. There had been some discussion that he would face Ricardo Arona in late March in Brazil but that fight didn’t look to be in the cards. After this latest development, the MMA prospects for Ishii look to be bleak as well.

After the retirement of Hidehiko Yoshida, Satoshi Ishii was supposed to be the golden boy to become the new face, the new Japanese icon of an MMA scene that desparately needed a new hero from the Olympic judo world. Ishii, still a young man, had the advantage of being backed by K-Dash, the entertainment powerhouse company associated with Antonio Inoki and operated by Tatsuo Kawamura, a well-known entertainment player who just happened to go to school with the late Hiromichi Momose, the original Godfather of PRIDE.

Even with this management advantage, Ishii managed to screw his golden ticket to make serious cash in the fight game. He was never comfortable with the climate that was created for his presence in Japan. He showed up at press conferences and demonstrated goofy behavior. Rather than fans liking his quirky nature, he got booed and booed without mercy. He quickly became a pariah. Instead of being cheered as the next big thing, he was treated by the fans like a sworn and hated enemy. He fought a few squash matches and then managed to see his career implode on NYE 2010 against Jerome Le Banner. The fans cheered hard for Le Banner and booed Ishii without mercy for going to a decision.

Ishii promptly left Japan and sent many mixed signals. It was leaked in newspapers that he was going to become an American citizenship and that he had relocated to Los Angeles. He ended up getting married to a young Japanese girl and, nine months after marriage, promptly got divorced. He was supposed to fight on a Strikeforce card in Stockton but had visa troubles. He focused on training at Reign MMA (Mark Munoz’s gym) and Black House in Southern California with Ed Buckley. Then, out of nowhere, reports surfaced that Ishii was going to be at the Olympic judo tryouts in Orlando, Florida in hopes of representing the United States one day. Like everything else, that didn’t pan out. So, Ishii fought Paulo Filho soon in Brazil. That set up a fight offer against Fedor on NYE, taken at the very last minute. Predictably, Tokyo Broadcasting System said ‘no’ to covering the Inoki-themed NYE event, thus defeating the purpose of having Ishii on the card given that he was never a strong live-house gate attraction. Fedor pummeled Ishii in Saitama and may have short-circuited an MMA career that is full of would-have-been and could-have-been scenarios.

K-1’s disappearing act

For all the rumors and all the talk about K-1 making a come back in 2012, the truth is that there is no K-1 now. After Alistair Overeem won the 2010 GP tournament at Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo, Godfather Kazuyoshi Ishii found himself looking on the outside-in in regards to having any juice in the fight game.

With the death of K-1 and Barbizon taking control of the assets, many kickboxing greats that made a name for themselves in K-1 are either retiring or looking to move to different sports (boxing, MMA, so on and so forth). Badr Hari, the Golden Boy, has faced a lot of trouble outside of the ring. So, when he had his final kickboxing match over the weekend against Gokhan Saki, many in the Japanese press paid close attention and covered the fight given Mr. Hari’s name value still being relevant with Japanese fans.

The Legacy of Badr Hari: An all-time great and a disappointment

For Japanese fans of K-1, a network property that had been so hot for so many years, watching the exodus of Hari and many other top-level strikers is crushing. It wasn’t supposed to be this way when PRIDE croaked. The gamble Kazuyoshi Ishii made when PRIDE died was that he would be the only player with connections to network television. Therefore, if anyone wanted to get on network TV with an MMA property, they had to go through him. He would get a significant portion of the TV revenue from rights fees and the promoter would have to deal with the live gate on their own accord. As we saw with HERO’s and DREAM, this turned out to be a losing proposition. Guys like Shinya Aoki never became mainstream stars. Yes, the public didn’t necessarily buy into them as stars, but a lot of those problems were compounded by the fact that the media themselves didn’t see those guys on a level of an Alistair Overeem or Jerome Le Banner. With more and more K-1 fighters claiming they got stiffed on money, the image of K-1 took a tumble real fast.

Within five years of PRIDE’s death, K-1 also croaked. In 2012, the only ‘major’ show that will be taking place is UFC Japan at Saitama Super Arena with a card that is not necessarily the most optimal card for UFC appealing to a broad base of Japanese fight fans. With that said, the card looks a hell of a lot better than what UFC has offered for other showings so far in 2012.

UFC is not going to fill the vacuum that has been left behind by the carcasses of PRIDE & K-1 and that’s a real shame on a lot of levels. While there are plenty of smaller shows (like DEEP coming up at Tokyo Dome City Hall), the large-scale environment for a big Japanese show is toast right now. It’s terrible. The Japanese fight scene has had such a rich history of producing serious, mega-level events and to see what has happened is an utter disappointment. However, it’s been a disappointment that has been man-made by many crooks and egotistical bastards who became too clever for their own good. The major players made their beds and they have to lay in them. They just didn’t know that they were death beds, however.

Not all ‘sponsors’ are created equal

Nikkan Sports is the newspaper that is helping promote the UFC Japan 2012 event. They have been running more and more UFC articles in their paper. The response from their readership, so far, has largely been tepid & muted. That’s not to say that their readers don’t respond to stories involving gaijin fighters — Mayweather, Pacquiao, and plenty of boxers who fight in Vegas and elsewhere get good coverage in the paper and the readership does respond. UFC, right now, faces a difficult challenge in Japan because of just how much damage has been created by the clowns that burnt the national scene into the ground.

The rumored buyer of the UFC Japan 2012 sold show is Don Quijote, the discount chain store, and they are alleged to have gone through Dentsu (big ad agency) as their middle man. Dentsu has an excellent track record in the fight game, as they had K-1 & PRIDE as clients during the glory days on network television. Don Quijote’s chairman has been a long time backer of fighters and promotions in Japan. Unfortunately, their last big backing was a big loser — Sengoku. Sengoku had their offices with DQ. Sengoku, which was originally headed by former SEG UFC Japan backers and by Kokuho, the power broker behind J-ROCK which managed Hidehiko Yoshida & his stable of fighters, promised a more UFC-like technical approach to matchmaking as opposed to what DREAM was doing. In the end, Sengoku shows heavily bombed at the 10,000 seat Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. Once Don Quijote cut the cord on Sengoku, that was it for the promotion.

So, hopefully Don Quijote as a sponsor will be able to recover some of their losses by supporting the UFC Japan 2012 show. They’re going to need it.

A company backing a fighter or a promotion in Japan as a sponsor may have different meaning than what you think a sponsor is. In the Japanese fight game, a ‘sponsor’ is used as a term to describe a rich money mark who becomes a benefactor for a fighter. And, as you might guess, many ‘sponsors’ over the decades in Japan are associated with the yakuza. Typically, this means taking fighters out to dinner, paying bills, giving them side jobs, finding them… companionship… if you will, so on and so forth.

Ever since Rikidozan created the monster of pro-wrestling at the beginning of the Reconstruction period after World War II in Japan, the connection between the yakuza and the fight game was always strong. Being a ‘sponsor’ for a gangster was the fastest way to gain status and clout as a celebrity. While the wrestling & MMA scene in Japan has taken a brutal hit, there are still some individuals who see being associated with wrestlers and fighters as being a good status symbol.

Which leads us to this review that Cyzo recently published… The Cyzo review is talking about a new ‘taboo’ scandal book that was published discussing recent scandals in the Japanese pro-wrestling world. The lead item in the taboo book is a story about how NOAH, the promotion created by the late Mitsuharu Misawa, allegedly got swindled out of a lot of cash. Cyzo brings some business context to the story by talking about what the current fight scene looks like today versus what it was in the past. For example, they had a source claim that New Japan is only making about 1/3rd of the cash today as they did 10 years ago. 10 years ago, New Japan was still doing good and was helped out by the Inoki/MMA connection but was starting to hit a down swing because of just what a mess things had become with guys like Tadao Yasuda and Kazuyuki Fujita getting pushed because of their MMA success. Nevertheless, Cyzo dropped this surprising item — NOAH, a company without television support and struggling to draw big gates, is now in a similar ball park to New Japan in terms of revenues generated. You can look at this and say, “Hey, NOAH’s not dying,” or you can look at it and say, “without Yukes owning New Japan, my goodness, they would be a dead promotion walking.”

So, with that as the context, Cyzo summarizes the taboo book story about NOAH’s financial scandal. The story goes as follows:

There have been many financial scandals over the years in both the Japanese wrestling & MMA scenes but they almost always turn out to be uglier than you think they really are.

It should come as no surprise that once this taboo came out, the internal squabbles that have infected NOAH are now surfacing to the public in a big way. It’s still shocking because the Japanese way is to keep your mouth shut and not say anything even if you aren’t getting paid or aren’t getting a fair shake.

These two items at Kakutolog (here and here) detail what a mess the company has become. In short, Jun Akiyama is criticizing NOAH’s front office for some of the moves they’ve made. Over the last three years, 10 wrestlers have left and 3 of them are finished. A big mishap happened when NOAH booked Akitoshi Saito, the man who accidentally killed Misawa with a back-drop suplex in Hiroshima, along with Akiyama for a tag titles match in Osaka on January 23rd. This booking, made by Naomichi Marufuji, was done last November. In late December, Saito announced that he would become a freelancer. In early January, NOAH announced that Saito, Naoki Sano, and Masao Inoue were now free from the company.

(This means that they work for NOAH only if they get an offer bid to do a tour at a time.)

Akiyama was pissed that Saito, who he considers a main player in the company, was not kept on the regular roster and that he was booked in a title match as a freelancer. This prompted a discussion about the bad communication issues between Nakata (the boss) and Marufuji (the booker) over talent relations.

The irony in the comments is that Akiyama was supposed to be groomed to take over the company from Misawa but he didn’t want to take the leadership role even though ‘the gifted one’ was Misawa’s hand-picked guy to succeed him. Kenta Kobashi became a figurehead Vice President but he ended up with little to no power in the end, either.

With all the turmoil in place, NOAH management essentially pushed the reset button for matchmaking at their 1/23 Osaka Prefectural Gym show by having their major title belts change hands (Morishima beat Shiozaki to win the Heavyweight belt, Akiyama & Saito beat Giant Bernard & Karl Anderson to win the tag belts.) Morishima’s new title reign is supposed to put him in a position of having a ‘monster’ run… instead, all anyone can talk about in the press and on message boards is how things are falling apart for the promotion with the green mat.

Topics: DREAM, Japan, Media, MMA, Pro-Wrestling, UFC, Zach Arnold | 22 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

22 Responses to “The Japanese scene is facing increasingly dangerous waters”

  1. liger05 says:

    Damn. That Noah story is crazy.

  2. BuddyRowe says:

    That’s terrible news about Ishii. The injury may have happened against anybody, but somehow I feel like he was much too inexperienced to fight a guy like Fedor and got thrown to the lions. Everybody knew he was going to take head trauma in a fight he had almost no chance of winning. It’s a shame that it may end his athletic career.

  3. 45 Huddle says:

    Very informative article.

    DEEP, Pancrase, and Shooto aren’t even creating relevant talent lately. It’s so darn bleak for the Japanese MMA Scene.

  4. Mark says:

    I think by next year New Japan will pull a WWE and buy up All Japan and NOAH for cheap if they don’t go out of business naturally before then. Granted, it won’t have nearly the same impact the US mergers did, since Japan has been doing interpromotional dream matches for quite some time. But unless something drastic changes, NJPW is the only promotion who knows have to survive under the new landscape. Maybe they’ll get a mini-boom out of doing a NOAH invasion or something, but nothing close to the Takada in New Japan monster gates.

    • frankp316 says:

      There won’t be a mini boom by anyone in the Japanese wrestling or MMA business because none of them have a TV deal good enough to support that. They’re all in the Samurai TV ghetto. That’s infomercial level. There’s no money there. And there are successful companies on a smaller scale like DDT and regional companies like Osaka Pro that know their limitations. New Japan buying the competition would be a waste of money.

  5. Dave says:

    Well, I wouldn’t say that K-1 is actually dead yet. I think as a Japanese property it is absolutely done, as is FEG.

    Now, if the purported buyers even bother anymore with the K-1 brand is another thing entirely.

    • Well, I wouldn’t say that K-1 is actually dead yet. I think as a Japanese property it is absolutely done, as is FEG.

      It seems like the only difference here is between a corpse on a gurney and a corpse in a coffin at a funeral.

      • Dave says:

        Not really. FEG is dead, the company that had the rights to them before. They obviously did a poor job and right now there are a lot of talks over who will invest in what and when.

        If K-1 is going to continue, it’ll be based out of Hong Kong and be featured heavily in Europe with minimal footprint in Japan.

  6. […] to Putting the cherry on top of the proverbial sundae, Japanese weekly publication Cyzo (which has […]

  7. […] his latest post, Arnold discusses a litany of really shocking and sad topics, including but not limited to Satoshi Ishii receiving a cerebral edema at the hands of Fedor on New […]

  8. […] left Ishii flat on his back for several minutes at DREAM New Year 2011 may have ended his career. Fight Opinion has a summary of the details: When Fedor Emelianenko rocked Satoshi Ishii and sent him to the hospital, the initial worry was […]

  9. liger05 says:

    Its crazy. I remember when Noah filled the dome 2 years running while New Japan was pressing the self destruct button and in a downward spiral. Never would of I thought at that time that New Japan would be the one surviving in 2012.

  10. Valued Reader says:

    Thanks for the great coverage of the Japanese wrestling scene. I’d love to see more articles like these in the future. It is sad to see what has become of puroresu.

  11. […] knockouten gått bra för honom. Idag kom det fram information från den japanska sidan Cyzo (via FightOpinion) att Ishii har blivit drabbad av en hjärnödem, en sjuklig ökning av vattenhalten i […]

  12. Darkmader says:

    Either Saki has a bad chin, which I don’t think he has, or Hari is that good. Maybe roids has a part to play too as I’m not familiar with their drug test policy.

    It’s good that Hari is going to train with Naseem Richardson and get top notch training partners. I say throw him to the wolves right away in his 2nd fight and give him an undersized David Haye. I think Showtime/HBO wouldn’t buy the rights for the fight but it would make massive amounts of $$$$$$ overseas.

    BTW, Ghita has KO of the year so far and I don’t know if it will be broken. That was an amazing KTFO.

  13. […] left Ishii flat on his back for several minutes at DREAM New Year 2011 may have ended his career. Fight Opinion has a summary of the details: When Fedor Emelianenko rocked Satoshi Ishii and sent him to the hospital, the initial worry was […]

  14. RST says:

    “A company backing a fighter or a promotion in Japan as a sponsor may have different meaning than what you think a sponsor is.”

    Your description of the term “Sponsor” sounds like the way its used domestically in the prostitution business.

    I vaguely recall that Sharon stone told Deniro that she was looking for a “sponsor” in Casino, meaning a sugar daddy.

  15. […] The anti-yakuza measures by Tokyo Metro PD have further exacerbated social tensions in the country. NOAH got exposed in a taboo book & Cyzo for having a Bernie Madoff/New York Mets-type ‘black money’ […]

  16. […] When Cyzo first came out with information last January regarding a ‘black money’ scandal in NOAH involving a yakuza couple taking 50M yen from the widow of Mitsuharu Misawa, it created a ripple effect. NOAH, no longer on broadcast television (Nippon TV), basically saw their chances of getting back on network TV crushed. […]


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