Taking Stock of Sengoku’s Lament

By Tony Loiseleur Feb 1, 2011

MMA fans woke up to a startling surprise from Sengoku Raiden Championship’s official website Tuesday morning. Filed under the news section of their site, SRC promoter World Victory Road had posted a long treatise criticizing an interview with SRC featherweight champion Hatsu Hioki by Manabu Takashima in the March 2011 issue of Gong Kakutogi, one of Japan’s most respected combat sports magazines.

The news came during an otherwise slow period for Japanese MMA. With no clear schedule for major events in the first quarter of 2011, stories from the region have primarily dealt with the impending UFC debut of Norifumi Yamamoto and the Octagon return of Michihiro Omigawa at UFC 126. Given no small degree of hand-wringing and speculation over the health and future of Japanese MMA of late, however, WVR’s sudden rebuke of Takashima and Gong magazine only added more fuel to that fire.

That a promoter would single out and attack what they found to be an unfavorable article was strange to begin with. As pointed out by FightOpinion.com’s Zach Arnold, resolution to grievances over coverage in Japan typically take place out of the public view. Even stranger was the fact that SRC used the article as a reason to put the brakes on April 23’s SRC 17 card at the Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo, citing that the unfavorable coverage from media had driven away longtime sponsor, Don Quijote.

According to SRC’s statement, their specific contention with Takashima boils down to one particular passage nestled within the article:

“When [Sengoku ‘Soul of Fight’] was over, it was a great event and everyone was happy with it. However, as a promotion, SRC had its problems that day. In truth, there were fights where bout agreements were signed on the day of the event. There were competitive fights, and there were fights that weren’t. There are examples in the past of promotions who found themselves in trouble, where fighters had to compensate for the shortcomings of the promotion. It is my belief that the media has shortcomings as well, but the time has come for us to reevaluate the relationship between promotions and top fighters. This doesn’t just go for SRC, but New Year’s Eve’s ‘Dynamite’ as well. There isn’t any time left to be irresponsible, because if we don't do something soon, the time [for Japanese MMA] to recover may not come.”

Having spoken to sources close to SRC who wish to remain anonymous, it seems the ordeal on SRC’s website is somewhat of an overblown non-issue, though WVR likely do not want it to seem that way. According to these same sources, WVR’s claims that Don Quijote may be leaving SRC are exaggerated. This point was corroborated by local combat sports journalist Keizo Takasaki on Twitter some hours after the WVR post appeared. While SRC is indeed postponing their April event, there’s no indication that it’s due to the departure of Don Quijote, nor is there any particular dissatisfaction from the retail giant with Takashima’s journalism.

This does not mean that WVR isn’t trying to insure itself in the event that Don Quijote actually does withdraw sponsorship in the future, however. In December 2009, similar rumors of the company leaving SRC abounded in the online space. Along similar lines, one source claims that Tuesday’s manufactured outrage comes in the hopes that Don Quijote President Takao Yasuda will see WVR’s statement as a proactive effort to mitigate what has been a negative and unsupportive press, thus mollifying Yasuda such that he will continue to support the promotion.

Yasuda, as the president of Don Quijote, is one of the world’s largest investors in MMA. As a major MMA fan and head of the 15th largest retailer in Japan -- the company netted just over 100 million dollars in 2010 -- it is absolutely imperative not just for WVR to keep Yasuda’s patronage, but for all of Japanese MMA to hope his heart stays in supporting the sport. Don Quijote is too big of a supporter to lose.

While the WVR statement attacks Takashima’s claims regarding late contract signings, it also addresses his “irresponsibility” for not writing more about Hioki’s epic, five-round title fight with Marlon Sandro on Dec 30. The outrage over his article seems fierce, but Takashima’s words above are not particularly inflammatory. If anything, Takashima’s quoted segment sounds more like a rallying cry for the MMA community of Japan, media included, to reevaluate the slump in which the local MMA industry has found itself. It’s a sentiment that should further encourage MMA supporters such as Yasuda to take a critical view of how their sport is conducted, rather than drive them away from it.

From WVR’s perspective however, Takashima’s criticisms may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. For all of WVR’s troubles promoting major MMA events in Japan -- some of which have been fantastic, if sorely underrated and under-appreciated -- SRC has failed to gain support from the public and the media. As honest an assessment as Takashima may have been making about the health of the industry in general, WVR officials have not responded kindly to it given their already rough history with the media.

Given my experience covering MMA in Japan, I can attest to Takashima being one of the most earnest and hardworking journalists in the sport. Having written for various publications, such as Kakutogi Tsushin -- the granddaddy of Japanese kickboxing and MMA magazines -- and Fight & Life, Takashima’s history chronicling the sport is as long as it is rich. Of particular note is Takashima’s enthusiasm for MMA beyond the borders of his home country, which naturally may color his reportage. He has and continues to be one of the few Japanese MMA journalists who by choice is well-acquainted with international MMA.

Though his most recent contribution may not be to WVR’s liking, Takashima is speaking from a position benefited by a rare, eclectic experience in the sport that few can rival. This commentary on the state of Japanese MMA and its idiosyncrasies is deeply informed by his history with international MMA. That alone is an attribute and a resource that few in MMA journalism can lay claim to.

However, much like this editorial, Takashima’s commentary is still one man’s account and opinion. That it should push a major promotion to publicly lash out at him is curious. That strangeness is only further compounded by claims that Takashima is causing irreparable damage to their sponsor relations and scheduling. No matter SRC’s antagonistic relationship with the media over the years, their assertion of one man’s culpability in harming the survival of their promotion should be viewed with some skepticism.

Requests to WVR for comment have as yet gone unanswered.
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