Sunken Ships and Black Ships: Japanese MMA in '07

By Jordan Breen Dec 27, 2007
With another spectacular New Year's Eve barely in the books, Japan's MMA world hardly had time to catch its breath before scandal struck.

The first major MMA story of 2007 broke from across the Pacific almost immediately, when it was reported that Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures) had greased himself up before demolishing fighting folk hero Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) on Dec. 31 at K-1 Premium Dynamite!! An inquiry and expulsion immediately followed in a storyline that was shaped by big business and Korean-Japanese tensions. You could scarcely do better in terms of generating a hot-button topic for MMA.

And yet, what would transpire soon after made the story seem like ancient history overnight.

In the most general sense, it was a pretty damn good year in Japanese MMA. Promotions of almost every size and shape put on some crackling fights and sterling events. However, even in the face of new champs, breakout fights and some great scraps, it would be the wrong approach to acknowledge 2007 as a collage of fight memories. More than a picture book should be in order.

If there is a single moment to embody 2007 for Japanese MMA, it was March 27 at Roppongi Hills.

In the wake of the Shukan Gendai tabloid attack and the loss of a deal with Fuji TV, it was clear that Dream Stage Entertainment and PRIDE were in dire straits. The promotion kept turning out a great in-ring product, but it seemed as though the sand was falling faster and faster toward inevitability.

The months of uncertainty and speculation eventually came to a head. March 27 marked the milestone news conference that all but served as PRIDE's funeral as the Fertitta brothers, under the laughable guise of Pride Worldwide Holdings LLC, took over the brand.

The demise of PRIDE is another article (or series of articles) all together. The event wasn't a catalyst either. Rather, the news conference in Roppongi Hills was greatest in its symbolism, illustrating the changing face of global power in MMA.

MMA has been rapidly gaining ground all over the world in the past few years, but the explosion of the sport in North America has handed over a considerable amount of power to the West. Dream Stage Entertainment's problems would've reared their ugly head with or without the sport's expansion. However, PRIDE's last days and now the promotion's final resting place were largely influenced by the growing foreign power in MMA.

This relocation of power, the forces of internationalization and the responses to it are what truly shaped Japanese MMA in 2007.

At this point, I'm loath to turning this article into an evaluation of "kokusaika" and the Japanese ideas of internationalization. That would be a tad overambitious and reaching. However, the fact remains that the nucleus of Japanese MMA isn't quite as charged as it was circa the kakutougi boom, and foreign magnetism is pulling, pulling, pulling.

Internationalization was realized in a variety of different ways in '07. Prior to the PRIDE transfer, Dream Stage Entertainment embarked on Las Vegas for The Second Coming in February. The company delivered a top-notch card that, at least in terms of entertainment, pleased even the most cynical of palates. DSE was far more than a day late and a dollar short, though, to be trying to hotspot into the North American MMA market. No measure of success for its second stateside venture could've stopped the inevitable.

Now, in the wake of PRIDE, former DSE execs are giving things one final hurrah with Yarennoka! on New Year's Eve. However, the concept is reinforced by the fact that the event is being propped up by M-1 Global -- another upstart responsible for the relocation of promotional power in MMA.

Fight Entertainment Group didn't have to contend with the collapse of K-1, MAX, HERO'S or anything else this year, but it did concoct the epic failure that was K-1 Dynamite!! USA.

While FEG keeps chugging along in Japan, its ability to galvanize the public interest of Japan has diminished considerably. New faces have been average rather than awesome, and stars like Masato are waning while spectacles like Sapp have long since burned up.

FEG's television ratings are by no means dismal, but they're certainly stagnant. The company believed the necessary shot in the arm to its combat sports conglomerate was an American invasion that would "overthrow Dana White."

It would've been hard for Dynamite!! USA to have been anymore epically disastrous. A botched main event and absurd matchmaking largely overshadowed the few gems the card produced. Gracie-Sakuraba II has all but been erased from the canon already. A hollow attendance record is more a punch line than an achievement. In the end, it seems apropos for the debacle to be remembered most readily for a clueless local DJ whose ignorance to his audience greatly mirrored FEG's very own incompetence.

In what proved to be a sustained trend in 2007, smaller-scale promotions more effectively used aspects of internationalization.

Pancrase linked up with Bodog Fight for mixed results. The relationship was in some ways a superficial promotional tactic to show Pancrase's global identity, and when Pancrase sent some of its stronger fighters like Yuki Kondo (Pictures) and Izuru Takeuchi (Pictures) abroad, the results were fairly disappointing.

Yet, under the guise of the Bodog deal, Pancrase secured some strong foreign imports of its own that not only bolstered its cards but also gave fans the ability to see some solid up-and-coming talent like Thiago Silva (Pictures) and Jose Aldo fight abroad.

However, Pancrase's best move of 2007 was a decision it shared with fellow Japanese promotion DEEP. Pancrase has long been known for curiously positioned weight divisions, and DEEP has been reliant on a barrage of contract weights in the past. In 2008, though, both promotions will join an effort to bring MMA to a more global standard by switching to the weights prescribed in the unified rules. Even the most ardent supporters of the metric system can surely see the merit in such a revision.

Shooto officials and leading pro Shooto promoter Sustain aided a Shooto Japan crossover event in California in June. The Shooto Japan imports didn't exactly tear the house down, although Tenkei Fujimiya (Pictures) was most certainly "hometowned" against Bao Quach (Pictures).

But what's more important is that we got to see the normally segregated Japanese talent fight stateside competition in a necessary mixing of international waters. Moreover, international Shooto bodies are continuing to strengthen as European Shooto affiliates hosted several solid cards over the calendar year. Shooto Brazil has also been successfully resurrected, and Shooto execs and promoters are taking a hands-on approach to developing the sport in Australia, where a trio of Shooto Japan fighters recently competed.

Perhaps the greatest capitalization on the internationalization trend was that of Greatest Common Multiple and its aforementioned Cage Force series.

After forging the Worldwide Cage Network late last year to provide a network with promotions in the United States, England, Finland and Australia, GCM centered Cage Force's 2007 agenda around two tournaments. The tournaments -- one at 155 pounds and the other at 170 pounds -- culled both native Japanese talent as well as fighters from WWCN satellites with the intent of producing two fighters who could compete in the UFC in 2008.

The Cage Force series provided a full year of diverse, rock-solid shows that succeeded in showcasing some quality international talent. With a bit of an upset and a lot of intrigue, hot local prospect Yoshiyuki Yoshida (Pictures) and Russian special operative-turned-MMA fighter Artur Oumakhanov (Pictures) secured the tournament wins in December.

At this point, negotiations for either man to fight in the Octagon are not in play, but that's not particularly important. GCM's mission to find quality international talent and send it to the Octagon affirms Zuffa's current stranglehold on international MMA. It is also very indicative of how Japan is no longer the epicenter of MMA it once was.

GCM was seemingly one of the first promotions to realize this, and it was certainly the most effective in contributing to a globalizing sport with a new nexus.

None too surprisingly, this shift is also reflected in fighter activity. Where once Westerners strived to fight one day in Japan, fighting abroad has become more alluring for many Japanese competitors.

Yushin Okami (Pictures), who has emerged as one of the best 185-pound fighters in the world, has perhaps been the most enterprising. He now stands on the doorstep of a UFC title opportunity. In the new year, it figures that more will follow his lead.

PRIDE is gone. To say that HERO'S is whimsically produced would be putting it mildly, and there simply isn't capacity for a deep roster with the promotion's focus on both the tournament format and the necessity to constantly promote crossover stars.

The pedestrian paydays of pro Shooto, Pancrase, Deep and other viable small-stage promotions make them platforms for exposure and doors to opportunity, but talented fighters will struggle to be paid their market worth. Upstarts such as World Victory Road's Sengoku have shown no blueprint for any kind of sustainability and longevity.

Moreover, the expansion of promotions in terms of weight classes have given fighters at 145 pounds and below greater opportunities to make their living as prizefighters. With the emergence of promotions like the WEC and the ability to offer legitimate purses to some of MMA's more diminutive dynamos, many of Japan's smaller fighters may be on the move as well. Long relegated to either fighting far above their ideal weight or plying their trade for menial paydays, choice fighters from the lighter weights are already eyeing the paydays and prestige of international competition.

Hatsu Hioki (Pictures) set some precedent by heading to Canada to dethrone Mark Hominick (Pictures), and now another of Japan's best 145-pounders, Hiroyuki Takaya (Pictures), is set to debut in the WEC in February. Their footsteps will likely be traced many, many times in the future.

No, fighters are simply not going to vacate Japan. Rest assured, faces both new and old on the Japanese MMA scene will come out of the woodwork, looking to revitalize the spirit of 2002 with another kakutougi boom.

But with many Japanese fighters already traveling to places like Brazil, England, Australia, Finland, Lithuania and Guam in pursuit of fights, and the migration of capital and competition to the United States, it goes without saying that more fighters will be racking up frequent flyer miles.

The emergence of the North American MMA market and the globalization of MMA has resculpted Japan's role in the sport. No matter what awaits us on New Year's Eve, 2007 was the year of transition in which the international hands pushed and pulled the shape of Japanese MMA into a new form. The pomp and pageantry of supercards in Japan will assuredly still persist, and the time-tested small-stage standbys will still crank out quality cards. Others will try to engineer the strike of lightning to reenergize the market, and they will more than likely fail.

Despite a still crucial and dynamic scene, Japan is no longer the MMA Eden it was once perceived as. Now it will begin to serve as a satellite until the next market boom. And until then, Japan's fighters will have to become road warriors rather than homecourt ballers.
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