The Resurrection of Vale Tudo Japan

By Jordan Breen Oct 29, 2009
Oct. 11 marked the 12-year anniversary of the first Pride card, in which Rickson Gracie soundly submitted an overmatched Nobuhiko Takada at the Tokyo Dome. Despite its actual prosaic unfolding, the bout was the first in a string of major events that triggered the rise of mixed martial arts in Japan. However, those seeds were sown three years earlier when Rickson Gracie took Japan by storm.

Vale Tudo Japan Open 1994 was, if not a great MMA event, one of MMA's most crucial. To that point, MMA in Japan was at best, an authentic -- that is to say, not scripted -- derivation of shoot-style pro-wrestling. However, the instant rise and notoriety of the UFC in the west caught the eye of one concerned party in legendary pro-wrestler Satoru Sayama, the original "Tiger Mask" and father of what would become known as professional Shooto. Sayama's creation brought the world's most ballyhooed MMA fighter -- the best the legendary Gracie family had to offer -- to compete against not only Japan's top fighters but those from all over the world. It was the first major event in Japan to introduce striking on the ground and lay the groundwork for what would become the MMA we all know today.

While Sayama soon after drifted from the entity he helped found, Vale Tudo Japan's six annual installments produced some of the defining moments of the proto-MMA period: Rickson Gracie's back-to-back tournament wins; valiant Shooto champion Yuki Nakai losing sight in one eye courtesy of gouge-happy Dutchman Gerard Gordeau and, in the process, becoming the icon of pro Shooto; Royler Gracie crushing Shooto champion Noboru Asahi, forcing a drastic reimagining of the skills it took to compete for Japanese fighters; Enson Inoue's triumph over Randy Couture and defeat to Frank Shamrock; and the emergence of Japan's second generation MMA stars, including Rumina Sato, Hayato Sakurai, Caol Uno and Takanori Gomi.

On Friday, a decade from its last installment, leading Shooto promoter Sustain will resurrect Vale Tudo Japan with an eight-fight card at JCB Hall in Tokyo. To be quite honest, it is not an especially great card, especially given the occasion. But, in this case, it is not the "who" or "what" that make the return of Vale Tudo Japan so important but rather the when, where and why.

The rules for the card alone make the event important. While four of the bouts will be contested under standard pro Shooto rules, the final four will feature knees and stomps to the head of grounded opponents, as well as smaller gloves -- a considerable departure from the usual throw pillows that fighters wear in pro Shooto. Additionally, the Takeshi Inoue-Alexandre Franca Nogueira and Takanori Gomi-Tony Hervey fights are scheduled for five five-minute rounds.

Shooto brass have already stated that Vale Tudo Japan will serve as a test run, allowing them to see what rules they would like to include in pro Shooto going forward. However, more crucial than change itself is the fact that we're talking about pro Shooto, the most staunchly traditional, perhaps even parochial, entity in MMA. Up until earlier this year, pro Shooto still used a knockdown count, straight out of boxing, in addition to oversized, unwieldy gloves. No elbows of any kind. No knees to the head of grounded opponents. Frustratingly protectionist refereeing. Hell, until recently, pro Shooto held pioneering MMA promotion Pancrase in hostility because Pancrase started as a pro-wrestling promotion and featured worked bouts 16 years ago. Yet, in spite of this conservatism, the world of Shooto knows that the time for change is now.

Changes in rules and structure are becoming a familiar part of Japanese MMA, and with good reason. We're just days removed from Dream's white cage experiment and weeks away from Deep's first foray into the cage. In very recent history, regional events such as Heat have adopted the cage, while Greatest Common Multiple uses the unified rules for their events. Deep and Pancrase have both aligned their weight classes with those prescribed by the unified rules, while Sengoku became Japan's first promotion to institute five five-minute rounds for title fights.

Better still: Earlier this month, the Japanese Martial Arts Federation was founded under the auspices of Japan Wrestling Federation with four of Japan's top MMA entities -- Sengoku, Shooto, Pancrase and ZST -- uniting under the banner. Currently, there are discussions about standardizing rules, weight classes and other regulatory matters across these promotions, in addition to the desire to start drug-testing fighters in these promotions as their western counterparts are subject to in regulated areas. None too surprisingly, chairman Tomiaki Fukuda stressed that Japan must not fall behind western MMA in these regards.

In the wake of the kakutogi boom, the nexus of power in MMA is smack dab in the heart of Las Vegas. The UFC's market share only continues to expand over the globe; American MMA is the gold standard and resultantly, Japanese promotions have been forced once again to respond in kind, or be outmoded. However, it needs to be said that it is not a simple case of willing change into effect but rather a difficult process. It must be pointed out that the decisions for Dream and Deep to hold caged events were largely due to Japanese fighters beseeching their promoters to do so. It is not a request simply for novelty but for valuable experience: As western MMA comes to symbolize both authenticity and legitimacy to many elite Japanese fighters, being able to fight in the cage is becoming just as important to them as an ambitious salaryman bolstering his TOEIC score.

“Pequeno” Nogueira fought at
Vale Tudo Japan 1999. He fights
“Lion Takeshi” on Friday.
The stakes are even higher for pro Shooto. The atmosphere of being "true sport" is perhaps its most refreshing trait, but the world of Shooto has always remained relevant specifically because it was the first and, for a long time, the only place where fighters at lightweight and lighter could ply their trade. However, just as Pride Bushido and Hero's changed Shooto's role in the lightweight division, big money promotions introducing featherweight and bantamweight divisions has again turned pro Shooto from a showroom for elite fighters to a factory for talent. Now, Zuffa's imminent introduction of a 125-pound division is poised to force that change once again.

Unfortunately for Friday's card, the political landscape of 2009 is much different than that over a decade ago. In the late 90s, the proprietary organization as the dominant MMA business model was in an embryonic stage, so booking the likes of Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock and Dan Severn wasn't especially problematic. A decade later, viable promotions and exclusive contracts make bringing in elite fighters much more difficult. In fact, all the talk behind the scenes leading up to the event has focused on this very lamentable fact. In addition to Sustain's inability to come to terms with Joe Warren to fight Rumina Sato, several fighters -- most notably, pound-for-pound female stalwart Megumi Fujii -- were left off the card because Sustain couldn't secure suitable opponents for them in any international talent pool.

In fact, Friday's card is desperate, if not outright fatalistic. A vacant Shooto world title will be settled by Brazilian lightweight prospect Willamy "Chiquerim" Freire and Japanese gatekeeper Kenichiro Togashi. In the heyday of Shooto's 154-pound division, Togashi would struggle to get on a serious card. Former two-division world champion Mamoru Yamaguchi returns to MMA action after recent success in Shoot Boxing to take on Guam's Jesse Taitano. While Yamaguchi is rightfully a hefty favorite, a win does him virtually no good, as Shooto promoters have virtually no constructive way to use him: There is no allure in a fourth match with Shooto world champion Shinichi "BJ" Kojima, who bested him in their last two meetings, and he's likely to knock off any up-and-coming talent at 123 pounds.

Rumina Sato, Shooto's tragic hero, will meet unbeaten Team Quest wrassler Corey Grant in a bout that has all the makings of one of Sato's sentimental failures. After a year of inactivity, Tenkei Oda will take on Urijah Faber pupil Tito Jones, whose fleet and powerful boxing offers a horrible style matchup for Oda, who usually thrives on being the better man with his hands.

The most compelling fight on the card pits longtime featherweight ruler Alexandre Franca "Pequeno" Nogueira, who reigned as Shooto's 143-pound champion from 1999 to 2006, against current champion and poster boy "Lion Takeshi" Takeshi Inoue in a five-round non-title affair. Three years ago, the bout would have been enormously important. Today, Nogueira has fought just three times in four years and has been rendered obsolete as featherweight has blossomed into a great division. On the other hand, Inoue is still bizarrely packaged as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed star-in-the-making, just as he was in 2004, despite the fact he is going on 30 years old. The matchup has no actual upside: If Nogueira wins, one of Shooto's few remaining stars is embarrassed by a fighter with little standing in the current featherweight world; if Inoue wins, he has beaten a featherweight relic.

The main event between former Shooto and Pride champion Takanori Gomi and current KOTC titlist Tony Hervey is perhaps symbolic of the entire event. Stylistically, we could be treated to a blistering and wildly entertaining bout on the feet that may not need all of the scheduled 25 minutes, but the fight is in essence a send-off for Gomi. Gomi has stated that he would like his bout with Hervey to be his last fight in Japan for the foreseeable future, and that he would like to venture stateside. It is fitting that the bon voyage bout for "The Fireball Kid" should headline a card that at its core is a reaction to the mounting influence of western MMA in Japan.

Vale Tudo Japan 2009 on paper is not as good as fans hoped for after it was announced the series was being resurrected, nor is it as good as the promoters themselves had hoped for. However, the matchups themselves are not nearly as material as the thought and intent behind them. Just as they did in 1994, the figurative Black Ships have appeared again. Vale Tudo Japan is about the hope -- for fans, fighters and promoters alike -- that there is an MMA Treaty of Peace and Amity on the horizon.
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