Politics of Promoting on New Year’s Eve in Japan

By Tim Leidecker Nov 29, 2007
When Sherdog.com first broke the news of Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) possibly facing Hong Man Choi (Pictures) on New Year's Eve, hardcore fight fans questioned why the supposedly best heavyweight on the planet had to face yet another "freak show."

To understand why the fight was booked, you have to look far beyond the notion of an undisputed champion going toe to toe with a deserving challenger.

First, you need to know that New Year's Eve is a very special day for the Japanese people -- from both cultural and social points of view. It is not only saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming the new but also a holiday traditionally spent at home, which makes it the day TV stations score the highest ratings of the year.

The "Kôhaku Uta Gassen" ("Red and White Song Battle"), an annual music show airing on Japan's public broadcaster NHK, produced ratings as high as 70 to 80 percent in the 1980s. Even today more than 40 percent switch on NHK on New Year's Eve, which means it is probably watched by at least 50 million people. Think Super Bowl, except the most popular music artists are going at it instead of the best football players.

What does this have to do with Fedor and Hong Man Choi (Pictures)?

In 2000, Japanese pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki started putting on martial arts shows to compete with the Red and White Song Battle. Although the inaugural show was still held under pro wrestling rules, the three events that followed were more or less straightforward MMA shows -- K-1 fighters against members of the Inoki pro wrestling army.

As the relationship between Inoki and co-promoters Dream Stage Entertainment and Fight Entertainment Group soured and as Inoki lost influence within Japanese martial arts circles with his Bom-Ba-Ye events, PRIDE and K-1 began hosting their own New Year's Eve shows in 2003.

During the "NYE Wars" that followed the next three years, both promotions did very well audience-wise. In 2004, the peak year for MMA in Japan, PRIDE and K-1 combined for a market share of more than 34 percent. That means nearly 50 million people in Japan tuned into MMA programming on New Year's Eve 2004.

Because Japanese MMA originated in pro wrestling, entertainment comes first when booking fights, especially on Dec. 31. This is why hardcore fight fans don't always get the fight that has the most meaning from a sporting perspective. More often the battle that is made has the most appeal to the casual viewer.

For example, Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) faced 400-pound behemoth Zuluzinho in 2005 instead of tested Russian Sergei Kharitonov (Pictures) and then fought former K-1 champion Mark Hunt (Pictures) in 2006 instead of top contender Josh Barnett (Pictures). The same reasoning applies to why he'll face someone like Choi this year instead of a more seasoned MMA vet like Jeff Monson (Pictures) or Pedro Rizzo (Pictures).

However, Fedor's meeting with the 7-foot-2 Techno Goliath is not 100 percent certain either. Though FEG, which holds the contractual rights to the colossal Korean, has announced its cooperation with the Yarennoka! event that is supposed to stage the big fight, a number of factors influence the passing of one of FEG's major stars to a rival promotion.

First and foremost is the fact that Choi has another fight scheduled on Dec. 8 against Jerome LeBanner (Pictures). Should he win the battle against the 34-year-old Frenchman, this single-bout affair becomes a tournament with up to two more three-round, three-minute fights against the best kickboxers in the world.

The effects of Choi's participation in the K-1 World Grand Prix Final, the most prestigious and most competitive kickboxing tournament in the history of the sport, are varied.

He is not the favorite, but he is among the more promising tournament entrants at a bookmaker value of 8:1. Choi is also one of only two participants to hold a win over two-time defending champion Semmy Schilt (Pictures).

Should Choi pull off the coup and take home K-1's golden championship belt, the chances of him fighting at the Yarennoka! event are slim to none -- and slim has just left the building. Such a scenario would require FEG to loan Choi to its former fiercest rival for that rival's first attempt to regain a foothold on the Japanese market. A fight between Choi and Fedor in that case would be too risky; a probable loss for Choi would mean a huge devaluation of the K-1 Grand Prix, even if it's kickboxing and the Fedor fight is MMA.

Additionally, K-1 has always had its newly crowned champ fight on its own New Year's Eve show, and FEG would certainly not make an exception for Choi. In a nutshell: If the Korean takes home the gold on Dec. 8, he is headed to Osaka to fight at Dynamite!! instead of to Saitama for Yarennoka! on New Year's Eve.

Although an injury would rule out the 27-year-old giant from both events, an unhurt early exit creates the best chance for his fight with Fedor to take place. In this scenario K-1 has more to gain from the fight than to lose. If Choi pulls off the win, then K-1 will have the only fighter under contract to really beat the Russian Emperor. If he loses, then Fedor will have beaten a K-1 fighter whose primary career is kickboxing.

Now to M-1 Global's options should the fight with Choi fall through for one reason or another.

Josh Barnett (Pictures) is the obvious choice as an opponent. The 30-year-old former UFC heavyweight champion will already be in Japan in December to work the Dec. 20 IGF pro wrestling show and to participate in a catch wrestling match two days later against Hikaru Sato (Pictures) in Pancrase.

However, since the clash between Barnett and the Russian superstar is already 18 months in the making -- Barnett openly challenged Fedor after submitting his brother Aleksander in May 2006 -- M-1 Global would more likely save this potential mega-fight for its North American debut in February 2008. While Barnett has a decent following in Japan, his marketability and his fighting skills could provide M-1's breakthrough in the United States.

There have also been strong rumors in the past couple of days of an encounter between Fedor and Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures). The Olympic judo gold medalist has participated in all previous Shockwave events, even headlining the 2005 edition. Bringing the 38-year-old world-class ground fighter back into the fold would mean a gigantic political and financial feat for the promoter.

For Yoshida to realign himself with a group that recently fell on its face could put his public reputation or even his position as commentator at Fuji TV on the line. Plus, a battle with Fedor would certainly not come cheap: Yoshida shared a $5 million purse with Naoya Ogawa (Pictures), and he is unlikely to settle for less money against a more dangerous opponent. Putting this fight together would show just how deep the pockets of Vadim Finkelchtein & Co. really are.

Last but not least, the aforementioned Mark Hunt (Pictures) resurfaced this past week at a Hustle pro wrestling show and expressed his desire to participate in the Yarennoka! event. Hunt faced Emelianenko on New Year's Eve 2006 and, to the surprise of many experts, gave the Russian a real run for his money.

Should fights with Choi, Barnett or Yoshida fail to materialize, a rematch with the "Samoan Monster" may be the backup plan.
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