Inside Shooto’s Scandal, Legacy and Future

A petition to reveal the organization's finances has shaken up the world of Shooto. | Taro Irei/Sherdog.com

Since its inception in 1985, Shooto has provided a comprehensive and sporting account of mixed martial arts. However, that reputation and legacy are now part of a heated backroom debate encircling the world of Shooto.

Recently, former Shooto world champion Noboru Asahi has led the charge in shaking up the Shooto regime. A recent petition from Asahi -- signed and supported by various Shooto fighters and gym leaders -- inquires into the financial operations of the Japanese Shooto Association, the International Shooto Commission and the role of one of its principal members, Taro Wakabayashi, in those affairs. According to Asahi, the necessity of this petition arose over concerns of Wakabayashi’s unofficial autocratic control over the association and its non-public finances.

With a multi-tiered amateur and professional system in place, both in Japan and worldwide, Shooto has long prided itself on building fighters from the ground up. It is a sentiment inherent in the two kanji characters that comprise the Shooto name itself, meaning “learn combat.”

Its overseers, fighters and fans view Shooto not as a promotion but as its own sport. Shooto is thus governed by regional associations and an overseeing international commission comprised of Shooto pioneers and officials who operate its amateur circuit, license amateur and professional fighters and cooperate with independent promoters to hold sanctioned Shooto events. Its goal is to provide professional transparency in the name of sport.

The driven and opinionated Asahi has rallied support to bring major changes to Shooto and its governing body. Leader of the Tokyo Yellow Mans gym and trainer of both UFC alum Yoshiyuki Yoshida and Shooto veteran Hiroshi Nakamura, Asahi has been an active proponent in Japan’s Shooto community despite not being an official part of it for the past seven years.

Asahi was removed from the Japanese Shooto Association (JSA) in August 2003, owing to what he claims were his strong opinions that Shooto needed to co-promote with fellow grassroots promotions such as Pancrase and Deep; Shooto had a longstanding rivalry with the former until 2009, due to its origins in professional wrestling and questions about the legitimacy of some of Pancrase’s early bouts. Until recently, the JSA maintained that any licensed Shootor who competed in Pancrase would have his licensed revoked, while Pancrase forced competitors who trained out of official Shooto facilities to use pseudonyms for their gyms in official Pancrase press material.

Familiar with Shooto politics, Asahi has now stepped forward to challenge Wakabayashi and investigate Shooto’s balance books.

“I’ve been outside of the association for almost eight years, but I’m standing up now because others in Shooto have been coming to me for years, telling me about problems and asking for help,” he said. “They tell me that I’m the only one who can talk to Wakabayashi about this.”

The petition’s chief allegation is financial fraud on Wakabayashi’s part. Until January, Wakabayashi’s official position in the Shooto Association was as “chairman for the spread of the [Shooto] amateur system.” It is not an executive position by design, nor a position designed to handle Shooto’s finances. However, Shooto gym leaders that have participated in association meetings distinguish Wakabayashi as being in charge of all facets of Shooto’s operations, including the management of Shooto’s money.

“In attempting to justify the conversion of association funds into private property, Wakabayashi shut out the voices of those around him,” claimed Shooting Gym Hakkei’s Yoshihiko Watanabe. “We have requested, mainly through Asahi, that Wakabayashi explain these matters to us, but Wakabayashi has remained silent from beginning to end. We’ve thus dismissed him from the association.”

In 1992, a 27-year-old Wakabayashi left his job at Japanese advertising company Dentsu Tec to become a staff member of Akira Maeda’s Rings Fighting Network and, later, K-1 in its infancy. In 1994, he entered the world of Shooto as a matchmaker and went on to become the driving force behind its comprehensive amateur system, as well as serving as a referee and a judge.

Sherdog.com’s requests for comment from Wakabayashi have gone unanswered, as have attempts by Shooto’s officials to contact him. However, one of his close friends, Shooto legend and former 154-pound world champion Yuki Nakai, has continued to speak on his behalf.

“First of all, the assumption that Wakabayashi was diverting funds for his personal use is still currently unproven,” Nakai said.

According to Nakai, based upon consultation with Japan’s national tax office, the Japanese Shooto Association is not a formal and legally recognized corporate body by the Japanese government. As a result, it has no legally recognized bylaws or corporate statutes, thus leaving financial liability and rights to its nominal leader. By default, that leader for the past decade has been Wakabayashi, his title as amateur Shooto chief notwithstanding.

Thus, whether or not Wakabayashi appropriated funds from Shooto earnings, Nakai says the national tax office is only concerned with the proper reporting of revenue such that it can collect its taxes, regardless of who claims that revenue.

“The national tax office requires whoever received money to report their business earnings within the next five years. There’s a possibility this may have already been done,” says Nakai.

Though the law is unconcerned with where the money goes so long as it collects its taxes, the notion that Wakabayashi may have mishandled Shooto’s funds remains a point of contention for the Shooto community. Further, if Wakabayashi could legally mask Shooto’s financial activity unchallenged it also highlights another controversial matter: what is alleged to be his complete authority over what is, in theory, a community enterprise. This point was a hot topic amongst Japan’s tight-knit community of Shootors in the Kanto region.

Kanto is home to several prefectures and the capital city of Tokyo, where much of Japanese government, industry and modern culture are focused, MMA included. The petition thus reflects a heavy Kanto-based contingent of Shootors and gym leaders, such as Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, Takanori Gomi, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Shinichi "B.J." Kojima, Shuichiro Katsumura and “Wicky” Akiyo Nishiura.

Perhaps most profound, the petition also holds the signature of Shooto’s greatest icon and resident hero, Rumina Sato. Another famous Shootor, former Shooto 168-pound world champion Sakurai, was outspoken in his opinion of the Wakabayashi-era Shooto association.

“The association members were awful, and they were unable to clearly show how the money flowed. It was also terrible that the association head [Wakabayashi] used the money without clearly showing how or why he did it,” said Sakurai.

“When Shooto parted ways with Satoru Sayama, veteran Shootors created a new system with Wakabayashi as its chief planner,” said another former Shooto world champion, Gutsman gym leader Naoki Sakurada. “As the Shooto association grew, however, it never developed official protocols and Wakabayashi managed Shooto with complete authority for almost 10 years. A community of discontented Shooto members grew as a result.”

In compiling signatures for the petition, Asahi traveled throughout Japan from August to December 2010. Collecting signatures in the Kanto region from a discontented Shooto community was simple enough, but while he found many outside that agreed with the petition, collecting their signatures was far more difficult.

“It was difficult for people outside of the Kanto region to sign because it’s harder for them to realize what’s going on here. They’re not always well-informed living outside of Kanto,” Asahi explains. “Some people outside of Kanto told me they believe in what we’re doing here, but that they didn’t want to sign for fear of getting in trouble. For many of them, Wakabayashi is like god.”

Flanked by Sato and Watanabe on Dec. 23, Asahi and company personally presented the petition to open Shooto’s finances to Wakabayashi at the East Japan Amateur Shooto Opening Tournament in Tokyo. A video posted to YouTube by a spectator documents the event and shows Wakabayashi responding to Asahi with a middle finger. The subsequent fallout may have resulted in Wakabayashi being removed from his position and relieved of duty on Dec. 28.

While information regarding Shooto’s finances over the years was not made available even after Wakabayashi’s removal, Asahi and company were able to discover how much money the association bank account contained in a Jan. 10 emergency association meeting.

A fan-shot video captured the Dec. 23
confrontation between Asahi and
“The only people who can check the association bank account are Wakabayashi and Nakai. The account is under Wakabayashi’s name as ‘Taro Wakabayashi: Shooto Association.’ At the last association meeting, when we asked Nakai how much money we have, he told us 200,000 yen (approximately $2,400). This was just after the East Japan Amateur Tournament, which should have brought in an additional 500,000 yen (approximately $6,000),” said Asahi.

As co-founder and co-owner of Japan’s most prolific chain of Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools, Paraestra, Asahi claims Nakai and Wakabayashi’s long-term affiliation as business partners enables Nakai access to Wakabayashi’s business documents -- documents that Asahi and company have been pushing to be made public. Once Nakai divulged the amount of money in Shooto’s account, Asahi and the petitioners were taken aback, as the total was far less than they
had expected.

“By our estimates, Shooto should profit at least 2,000,000 yen ($24,000) a year. There’s a lot of money that cannot be accounted for since a lot of it comes in as cash. Where did it all go?” Asahi asked.

In the wake of Wakabayashi’s dismissal, then-Association president Nakai apologized to the Shooto community for not having examined Wakabayashi’s actions more closely, offering his resignation at the Jan. 10 meeting. Though showing a willingness to help, Nakai also relinquished responsibility to Asahi and company for further investigation into Shooto’s finances. However, according to Asahi, Nakai is not helping the investigation as much as he could.

“We told him that we were going to the national tax office to inquire further, and he strangely responds, ‘Thank you very much,’” said Asahi, incredulous. “I don’t understand why. The point is for him to help us because he’s the only other person besides Wakabayashi that can. After we heard this, Watanabe and I asked each other, ‘What can we possibly do now?’”

“It is the opinion of one of the attorneys [Wakabayashi] consulted that, as far as the association [legally] stands at the moment, there is no compelling reason to open up its records to a third party. It’s perhaps better to look toward the law for some kind of resolution,” said Nakai.

While there is no pressure outside of the Shooto community compelling Wakabayashi to turn over his records, responsibility will fall to Paraestra and Nakai at the next association meeting, according to Asahi. Should Nakai unwilling or unable to produce those records, however, there is not much else the community can do, outside of removing or blocking all Paraestra personnel from the association. Unless the national tax office intervenes with its own investigation, the association’s financial history may never be known.

“Nobody knows where the money went, and nobody is saying anything. Wakabayashi isn’t standing up for himself, and the tax office has no idea [about it] because no one is sure if he paid taxes,” said Enson Inoue, another former Shooto world champion.

In the midst of this turmoil, the JSA has had its cabinet dissolved, making way for a newly elected association to take effect in April. According to Asahi, the creation of the new association will serve as the first time members will be voted in by the Shooto community, rather than arbitrarily selected and appointed by Wakabayashi.

“Transparency is the most important thing to the people that signed this petition,” said Asahi. “I’ve seen and been involved in other sports, and transparency and accurate accounting are absolutely integral to operation. If everything remains as vague as it has been over the years, Shooto cannot survive. We’re doing this for the benefit of Shooto’s future.”

It is a sentiment and goal with which Nakai agrees.

“Bringing transparency to the operation, taxation and financial reporting of the association is a natural and right thing to do. Even though we do not collect participation fees from the official Shooto gyms, we still collect participation fees from amateur Shooto applicants, and thus have betrayed their collective trust. There really is no excuse for that,” said Nakai. “I think we were all too involved in the operation of Shooto as a sport. Last June, when I was asked to become the association president, I thought it would be the perfect chance to finally achieve these goals, but just as we were about to make progress, these issues came up.”

In spite of the allegations, Wakabayashi is a difficult figure for many in the Shooto community because of his overwhelming success in fostering Shooto’s much-celebrated amateur system across all 47 Japanese prefectures and beyond.

“Even though his title was simply chairman for the spread of the amateur system, he almost single-handedly managed the operation and business affairs of amateur Shooto,” Nakai said.

Traveling 365 days a year to every corner of Japan to coordinate amateur tournaments, Wakabayashi was a one-man army that mobilized generations of young Japanese to pursue amateur Shooto in the hopes of one day becoming licensed professional fighters and, eventually, stars in the world’s largest promotions. Last October, the 45-year-old workaholic Wakabayashi, exhausted and overburdened, suffered a stroke. Wakabayashi was temporarily relieved of refereeing and coordinating responsibilities in order to undergo rehabilitation, which continues to this day. The stroke may have been a sign that, despite his best intentions, the days of Wakabayashi’s hand paving Shooto’s path alone were over. No longer could his health take it, nor could those in the Shooto community.

“We believe that Wakabayashi’s actions count as criminal activity. However, we haven’t thoroughly pursued the matter to its end because we feel some forgiveness for him,” said Watanabe.

Regardless of his fate, Wakabayashi contributed a great deal to cementing the foundation of one of Japan’s most important MMA institutions, one which has survived the cycles of prosper and debt that have toppled so many promotions. It is not a fact lost upon his contemporaries.

In addition to voting in a new association for April, Asahi and the current provisional association are taking this opportunity to further evolve Shooto and guarantee its place in MMA for years to come.

“We’ve come to a point where we must rethink our organizational structure and procedures. I think this is a chance to grow further and to receive recognition from the legal and social worlds,” said Sakurada.

“From now on, I believe that the association and Shooto must look to raise fighters toward the goal of competing with UFC and world-ranked fighters,” said Watanabe. “These past few years, it has been Wakabayashi and those who followed him that have dictated how the sport of Shooto is conducted. The result is that Shooto has become isolated from world trends, becoming a Japan-only kind of combat sport.”

T. Irei

Noboru Asahi traveled Japan for five
months collecting Shootors' signatures.
One of the primary targets in Shooto’s look to the future is its rule set, a constant bone of contention within the Shooto community. For example, it was not until 2009 that pro Shooto abolished its knockdown count, seen as a particularly archaic bit of legislation. The provisional association -- currently comprised of Asahi, Watanabe, Sakurada, Alive’s Yochi Suzuki, K’z Factory’s Kazuhiro Kusayanagi, Chokushinkai’s Junji Ikoma, Paraestra’s Takashi Ochi and Purebred Omiya’s Hisao Ikeda -- is looking to gather different MMA rule sets from around the globe for evaluation as the next evolution in Shooto’s rules.

In a Jan. 30 blog post on the official Shooto News blog, temporary Association president Yoichi Suzuki outlined some coming changes for the Association.

In particular, there will be an expanded role for official Shooto gym leaders as Association members, as well as eligibility to be voted into the offices of Association president, vice president, and auditor for two-year terms. The goal is to ensure official Shooto gyms will have a voice in the conduct of Shooto and its Association.

In the realm of amateur Shooto, the operation of the various amateur tournaments will proceed as they have in previous years, but registration fees will be coordinated by the new Association board to be voted in at the end of March, and handled initially by regional amateur event promoters for the months prior.

Hayato Sakurai is personally campaigning to reform the amateur system by adding a greater range of competitive classes to its current dual class amateur and professional ranks, which feature two levels of amateur competition, classes D and C, and two levels of pro competition, classes B and A. Further, “Mach” hopes to see the banning of headgear, as well as the application of Vaseline for cut prevention -- a practice still largely unemployed in Japan -- and the allowance of ground-and-pound in all bouts.

Asahi’s own proposal is one that will significantly change the look and feel of Shooto while preserving its intent, if ratified and approved by the new association.

“I want to introduce the Unified Rules of MMA and a cage to Shooto. I’m only one man, but now my voice can finally be heard and we can discuss it,” Asahi said with a grin. “Japan is fairly isolated, so we don’t realize how behind we are. I’m someone that has always said that we need to use the unified rules and a cage because we’re behind. Until now, the only person to understand this was Watanabe because we both have had fighters [Yoshida and Takeya Mizugaki] in Zuffa promotions. We’ve seen how they perform there, but no one else has that same experience.”

Asahi posits that adopting the unified rules will help further a global standard of MMA, as well as answer the desire of many young Japanese fighters to acquire cage experience in preparation for someday fighting in the UFC -- a promotion Asahi compares to Major League Baseball in relation to Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.

“If they go abroad and lose, it’s for a reason. How can we survive in a system we’re not brought up in? Japanese people today don’t understand that the UFC is the best league in the world now. We need to catch up. All the best fighters are there, and they’re getting paid,” Asahi said, citing recent UFC acquisitions like Yamamoto and Michihiro Omigawa as evidence that Japan’s best are going stateside rather than sticking around in their homeland.

The hope is for future changes to secure Shooto’s place in Japanese MMA’s future now, while Japanese MMA is seeing much turmoil. It is fitting that leading Shooto promoter Sustain has titled its 2011 event series “Shootor’s Legacy.”

“We may not be able to make a promotion here that can compete with the UFC anymore, but we can at least make great fighters that can compete there successfully,” said a hopeful Asahi. “It doesn’t really work the other way around. You don’t see [Alex Rodriguez] coming from the MLB to play in Japanese baseball. The best are in the UFC now, so why not create our best fighters here and send them over to the United States? Someday, we’ll have an MMA version of Ichiro [Suzuki] or [soccer player Shinji] Kagawa.”

Interpretation assistance by Mizuka Koike and Go Yamamoto.
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