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The brutal truth: Can Japan become a major player again in the MMA scene?

By Zach Arnold | January 2, 2014

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Unless there is a reversal in social policy towards dark money (the yakuza), the short answer is no.

Tuesday was the 10 year anniversary of the three major broadcast MMA shows in Japan that basically led to the eventual collapse of the industry. Why? Because the yakuza gangs that were fighting with each other went too far. It led to K-1’s yakuza fixer, Seiya Kawamata, cooperating with weekly magazine Shukan Gendai. You had Miro Mijatovic, super agent of Fedor & Mirko, threatened and eventually cooperating with the authorities who turned to Fuji TV and read them the riot act.

I had predicted in late 2005, when business was still booming for PRIDE, that they were toast. And I took enormous grief for that. But it happened. Fuji TV pulled the plug on the contract with PRIDE despite drawing 15 million-plus television viewers for shows. PRIDE ran a couple of shows in Japan, did well at Saitama Super Arena, but lost their ass financially and looked to flipped their assets. They used Ed Fishman, he of Las Vegas & Atlantic City gaming fame with Harrah’s, to get the UFC interested in buying the assets. The rest is history.

With PRIDE dead, K-1 was the only ballgame in town on national broadcast television. However, their plans melted away once their ratings declined. And K-1 is dead now, just like PRIDE.

I mention all of this because we are finding out, as time marches on, how rotten to the core these front operations really turned out to be. It’s not a surprise that they were rotten but it is a surprise that they were so predictable and so slow on the trigger to adapt. The reason they couldn’t adapt, of course, is because not one single person was controlling the action. In a new interview with Jeremy Wall’s MMA Chronicle site, Frank Shamrock dropped quite a bombshell. He claimed that Sony had a deal on the table with K-1. Such a business transaction would have kept K-1 afloat as a national player, for sure. Instead, Kazuyoshi Ishii & company dragged their feet and supposedly blew the deal.

Throw in the anti-yakuza banking laws in recent years that have been aggressively pushed and what you have is a Japanese combat sports scene that looks like the American scene in terms of high cost of entry and low possibility of success. This is why the scene in Japan is dead. Without the yakuza gangs financing operations, you can’t be a major player in terms of cash or ticket distribution.

The only person left running shows in Japan on New Year’s Eve is Antonio Inoki. His latest show in Tokyo at Ryogoku Kokugikan involved the same cast of characters he’s been parading around for a decade. The main event featured Satoshi Ishii pummeling Kazuyuki Fujita. A cameo by Fedor drew the only mass media attention in the newspapers. Why is Inoki still running shows? Two reasons: 1) he’s back in the saddle as a politician and 2) he’s still heavily backed by the North Korean government. There isn’t a dictator this man hasn’t tried to make a deal with or try to do a photo-op with in the press. If Inoki didn’t have this current support, he wouldn’t even be running events any longer. 10 years ago when there was the Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye event at Kobe Wing Stadium, he wasn’t even involved in the event operations. He was simply a face, a front man.

10 years after the hybrid events blew up television ratings and competed with heavy hitters on New Year’s Eve, the only combat sports programming left was on TV Tokyo and the boxing show drew a 5.1% rating. The unstoppable Kohaku (red & white) music program drew a 44.5% rating on NHK and Nippon TV drew an early rating of 19.8% and 17.2% later rating for their Downtown show. Tokyo Broadcasting System drew a 14.5% rating for their Kyokugen 2013 sports program.

The NYE MMA shows used to compete with these kinds of numbers.

I provide all of this as the background for the Press Row show I recorded with Jordan Breen at Sherdog. I thought it was one of the most interesting back-and-forths about MMA in a long time because the conversation was heavy on the history and melancholy on the future. There were so many great moments from the past NYE events that you almost have to have a checklist to run through to remember the moments. The UFC does a great job with their year-end PPVs but the one thing they don’t do well is transcend culture with their events. A UFC event is a UFC event. You either love it or you hate it. There’s no appealing to Grandma Tanaka. There’s no broadcast network appeal. The UFC is a cable and PPV product, its base is heavily male in the 18-34 year old demographic, and they will travel wherever the product goes. But there isn’t a gigantic ceiling nor is there a collapsing floor.

The Japanese events were all about mass market appeal and shattering ceilings no one had ever imagined possible. Everyone looked at the concept of Bob Sapp vs. Akebono with disdain except for the Japanese television audiences. They drew ratings that were comparable to the Antonio Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali hybrid match officiated by Judo Gene LeBell in 1976 at Nippon Budokan. You had freak fights like Hollywood Tadao Yasuda, broke from his pachinko gambling debts & losing his daughter’s support, versus Jerome Le Banner in an MMA fight. The UFC would never book a mass market product like this because they are a sport and have been fighting for their credibility since day one. In Japan, the fights were absurd but they were credibly absurd and that’s why they drew so well.

Will we see a period of Japanese fighting drawing big TV ratings on New Year’s Eve again? Right now, the safe answer is “no.” In addition to the crackdown on the yakuza gangs, you also have a situation where the pro-wrestling industry in the country is very different than the environment that created the Japanese MMA boom. You had Antonio Inoki, whose concept of fantasy fights was a key driver. You had UWF International, the “dojo pro-wrestling” group that was super popular. Today’s pro-wrestling environment? It’s an environment with one major promotion, New Japan, and that promotion used to be Antonio Inoki’s baby before it got sold twice. And the people in New Japan are anti-MMA to the extent that they would never send their stars to do MMA fights again. They’ll bring in a Kazushi Sakuraba or Katsuyori Shibata to do special matches but under the pro-wrestling tent. Without major pro-wrestling operations pushing the concept of the shooting style, you won’t have the backbone to create a new Japanese MMA boom in the country.

Which is why the scene right now is such a sad reminder of what things used to be and what things could have been if players like Ed Fishman & Sony had been able to get involved.

Topics: Japan, K-1, Media, MMA, PRIDE, Zach Arnold | 11 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

11 Responses to “The brutal truth: Can Japan become a major player again in the MMA scene?”

  1. Jeremy Wall says:

    Frank didn’t say Sony was there to buy K-1. He said K-1 had Sony “to the table”, which I assume meant as a sponsor. Here’s what he said:

    “And during that slowness their whole affiliation with the yakuza came out. But we had Sony to the table, we had a major studio ready to produce films and television content around K-1.”

    I thought the bigger news was that K-1 had a major studio ready to work with them before the bottom fell out.

    • Charles says:


      Seeing that you’re in a correcting mood, I have one for you.

      “Years ago everyone I met who knew what MMA was, was actually in the MMA business. I never met anyone locally that even knew what it was.”

      You have a poor memory. You,your former Fanshawe College classmate and I sat around watching a PRIDE FC event on The Fight Network in 2004 or 2005. I told you how the business could explode with the right vehicle. You kept denying it would happen. Elizabeth and I kept saying it would.

      It’s ok though. I still like your book you autographed and gave to me.

  2. truthspitter says:

    “A UFC event is a UFC event. You either love it or you hate it. There’s no appealing to Grandma Tanaka. There’s no broadcast network appeal. The UFC is a cable and PPV product, its base is heavily male in the 18-34 year old demographic, and they will travel wherever the product goes. But there isn’t a gigantic ceiling nor is there a collapsing floor.”

    UFC 168 was just last week
    you have amnesia

  3. Jeremy Wall says:

    Zach’s comment about appealing to Grandma Tanaka is actually right on the money. The Sapp-Akebono fight in 2003 did 56 million viewers because of all the Grandmas in Japan that tuned in. I remember asking Tadashi Tanaka what the appeal of Sapp was in Japan, and Tadashi told me it’s because “Sapp’s cute”. Grandmas liked cute Bob Sapp.

    But UFC in 2014 in America (or wherever) is a totally different thing, different audience, different expectations.

    And, no, Japanese MMA isn’t coming back anytime soon, not at that level. But it was fun while it lasted.

    • truthspitter says:

      what does that prove though?
      comparing a quite niche (at least in america) ppv product vs a japanese freak show (which japan just absolutely loves)

      broadcast vs ppv
      i dont get it…

      and another thing… who cares about having a \”grandma tanaka\” moment (young women might be the new \”grandma tanaka\” due to Rousey anyway)? she wont be purchasing the targeted products

      besides, well always be left wondering what UFC 168 would do on FOX, abc, cbs, and nbc. the only thing we do know is that this event had the WORLDWIDE promotional push from damn near everybody (even ESPN got in heavily on the act, the event was trending well at the top hours and hours after it ended. hell even at the start of nfl day in america it was STILL a hot topic)

      i came here because a small group of folks said it was a great site but the only good articles seem to be the ones about the commission problems

  4. liger05 says:

    If one would of said 10 years ago that in 2014 the only major promotion in Japan which would not only survive but also do good business would be New Japan pro-Wrestling people would of laughed.

    Now of course New Japan is a long way away from its heyday but still it’s quite a remarkable recovery from where it was when Inoki did his best to destroy the promotion within.

    As for Japanese MMA. I don’t know when or if we will ever see a promotion on the scale of Pride or K-1 again. As Zach mentioned without the gangsters it seems it’s not possible and have things changed with the talent? Are amateur wrestlers even interested in pursuing a MMA career nowadays or can New Japan take the best talent now like they used to?

    • Chortles says:

      In fairness, back in 2004 they would have been right to believe that the direction New Japan was taking was flat-out unsustainable, and even now as you alluded to it took years for New Japan to be rebuilt.

  5. rst says:

    The rise and fall of Pride/Japanese MMA kind of reminded me of the way Sony had the whole gaming console bussiness under their thumb and then pretty much lost it.
    There seems to be a circle of Hubris to the Japanese method to immediately take it for granted after achieving a resounding success.
    There were so many things that they just did obviously and annoyingly wrong first with the PS2 (although that would continue to be a success despite its faults, probably very much off of name brand) and then culminating with the PS3 where they finally just handed over half the market to ms.
    And you could also point to a lot of things they just did wrong beginning with the peak of Prides success until its collapse.

    I dont know shinola about the technical business end of things, I’m just surmising from a pop culture perspective.
    But the hubris is a circle, because after blowing it and being humbled Sony is bouncing back.
    MMA in Japan could still bounce back IMO, especially as zuffa continues to turn UFC into an xbox one.

  6. Mike Pascal says:

    Interesting read…I am completely blind to the jap mma scene…but seems to be true pretty much anywhere…unless you are the ufc you generally need some kind of funny money to put on a combat sports show

  7. […] capable of executing a clear vision; save for the spectacular Japanese league PRIDE FC that was backed by the yakuza and their dirty money, no one has done a better job of running an MMA promotion than casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank […]


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