The Curious Case of Satoshi Ishii

By Tony Loiseleur and Taro Irei Nov 8, 2010
Satoshi Ishii (top) vs. Katsuyori Shibata: Taro Irei |

Giorgio Petrosyan finessed his way to a championship for the second year in a row at the 2010 K-1 World MAX Finals on Monday. To recapture the strap, the Armenian-Italian kickboxer decisioned the likes of Albert Kraus, Mike Zambidis, and Yoshihiro Sato, while Sato himself steadily made his way through Michal Glogowski and Gago Drago before meeting Petrosyan in an emotional final before the hometown crowd at the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena. All things considered, the event was a sight to behold and an exciting end to the 2010 MAX season.

But, tucked between bouts that featured Petrosyan's deft footwork and deadly accuracy, Zambidis' relentless berserker bull-rushes, and Yuichiro Nagashima's curious cosplaying, there was something that didn't quite fit in with the rest of the card -- a fight that left fighters and even fans confused and agitated over its presence.

Kicking off the evening's main card was an open-weight bout between 2008 Beijing Olympic judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii and middleweight pro-wrestling convert Katsuyori Shibata.

“I really don't understand why Ishii, as a Dream heavyweight, is fighting at a MAX event,” said an indignant Nagashima during the pre-fight presser, claiming that there was negative buzz about the event on the internet thanks to Ishii’s inclusion. “If he really wants to fight in K-1, I'd be more than happy to fight him under K-1 rules at Dynamite.”

The evening's crowd was also audibly critical. In a matter of three-and-a-half minutes, Ishii easily took Shibata to the canvas, where he used his 44-pound weight advantage to hold the pro-wrestler down before finishing him with a sinew-popping kimura from knee-on-belly position.

Despite being merely 30 seconds longer than your typical K-1 round, some members of the Japanese audience heckled Ishii and Shibata. There were scattered but steady cat-calls and one (male) audience member could be heard yelling, “Come on, ladies!” and “That's so hot!” while Ishii maintained an otherwise inert side mount.

One attendee even yelled, “This is a K-1 event! Your fight was boring! Don't ever come back again!” when Ishii took to the microphone afterward.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be out of here soon,” Ishii replied to the man.

Between the snarky comments and the enthusiasm which the fight drained from the arena, it’s safe to say that it was not well-received.

Strangely, this was a fight that was probably meant to pull television viewers on the tape-delayed and edited Tokyo Broadcasting System telecast.

Before Sato went on to become one of Monday's finalists, he stated at the pre-fight presser that he “[supposed] Ishii's name is more valuable than MAX’s” as the reason why he and his kickboxing brethren had to share the spotlight with the Olympic judoka. Sato’s implication here is that Ishii was put on the card at the behest of FEG’s television partner, TBS, rather than being slotted by FEG brass themselves. Why would they anyway, seeing as MAX was designed to be a lightweight (154-pound and under) kickboxing event?

Whether true or not -- let alone whether successful in garnering TV ratings -- the bout was an unwelcome flop in the eyes of the local audience, prompting FEG president Sadaharu Tanikawa to apologize for it, as well as for the confusion resulting from changing Ishii's opponent from Sengoku veteran Antz Nansen to Shibata at the 11th hour.

This apology came only after Ishii's own exasperating post-fight interview with local media, in which he reiterated his desire to head stateside, but this time for more than just training and exhibition bouts.

“I got a call to compete from a promotion in the States,” said Ishii. “I'll probably head back the day after tomorrow and resume training for a fight around New Year's Eve. I can't say where I'll be fighting, but I do have someone I want to fight in mind, and that’s Tito Ortiz.”

When asked if his return stateside would nix the Dynamite plans announced last week by FEG’s Tanigawa and Dream event producer Keiichi Sasahara, Ishii claimed that FEG’s handling of the dropout of his original opponent in Nansen, coupled with insults from Tanigawa about Ishii’s hair, have pushed him to reconsider fighting in Japan on New Year's Eve.

As such, there are two problems emerging from this debacle.

First, Ishii is a young fighter who still commands an inordinate amount of attention in Japan -- particularly from TBS, who have their own plans for him. This is further exacerbated by Ishii being Japan's most recent Olympic judo gold medalist, a distinction which still holds weight and authority in the local populace.

However, as with all things, that fame has a half-life, and can only be abused so much. His decision to go stateside -- while potentially a ploy to pull a larger purse from FEG for Dynamite 2010 -- can't be encouraging news to TBS, who hope to use Ishii for subsequent FEG broadcasts. TBS may not have the patience to wait for Ishii if he does want to return to the States, nor the patience to involve themselves in a contract war between him and FEG.

Secondly, while mixing MMA and kickboxing is nothing new to FEG cards (see: Dynamite), Ishii's inclusion to the MAX Finals appeared to be too much of a stretch for even the local audience. The show was, and always has been, intended as the penultimate event for the company's 70 kilogram kickboxers. It is their day to shine and no one else's, and everyone knows this.

If any lesson is to be drawn from tonight's experience, it's that despite the stereotype of the “quiet, respectful Japanese audience,” even their patience has a limit. Reaching that limit is a telling indication of where Ishii is in his young career, and where he may be headed with his current trajectory. Despite TBS’ television push for the Olympian, there will eventually come a point when Ishii will overstay his welcome and turn from kakutogi’s anointed golden goose to just another maligned outsider.

Ishii, for all his athletic ability and accomplishments, can only impose on the patience of the hometown crowd so much before everyone decides to tell him “don't ever come back again.”
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