Japan’s Big Plans for New Year’s Eve

By Jake Rossen Dec 1, 2010
How desperate is Japan’s fight scene right now? In addition to repeated reports of foreign fighters getting slow or no-paid, events being postponed or cancelled, and big stars either fading or retired, there’s mounting evidence that promoters are increasingly becoming dependent on the success of one show; FEG, which houses K-1, is rumored to be chasing mostly-retired Sumo Chad “Akebono” Rowan for a New Year’s Eve fight with Kazushi Sakuraba. This is the kind of thing P.T. Barnum would have a moral objection to.

The micro issue in Japan is that Pride is no longer around to drive competitive matchmaking, salaries, or employment -- and without that pageantry, few fight fans in Japan are getting excited about the content of Dream, Deep, Sengoku or Shooto. MMA is a fringe sport in the country that once hosted fights compelling to a mainstream audience: that was thanks to pro wrestlers, Judo players, and actors. But in the wake of Pride’s Yakuza scandal, networks aren’t falling over themselves to strike up relationships with promotions. There’s not much of a pay-per-view market, and live shows aren’t so spectacular that they can fill up 40,000 seat arenas.

It’s no coincidence that Japan’s slip from the international scene coincides with the sport’s popularity growth in the States over the past three years. Many of Japan’s favored athletes --Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Filipovic, Fedor Emelianenko -- were able to get competitive salaries here; those that stayed (like Sakuraba) are operating in decline.

In business, a lack of consumer demand usually means scaling back operations. In the case of the UFC’s pre-Zuffa blackout period of the 1990s, it meant running only a handful of shows a year with low-watt undercards. But FEG continues to pursue the big-budget plans. If Akebono were a Band-Aid until other funding comes in, that’s fine. But Japanese promotions don’t tend to be long-term planners.
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