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It has been a rough decade for diehard MMA fans in Japan. Once the epicenter of the sport, major events in the world’s third-largest economy have become less and less frequent since Pride Fighting Championships was sold and dissolved in 2007. It’s hard to even come up with a comparison point in the context of American sports, where today’s fans have never had to witness a popular sport largely pack up and move to another continent.
It would be one thing if the severe decline of Japanese MMA was precipitated by a major decline in the popularity of the sport. However, Pride was still thriving at the point Fuji Network terminated its television contract with the organization. Television ratings and live event attendance were strong until Pride lost that deal due to scandal, and finances suffered from there. Major stars left, and at that point, the slow and inevitable decline began. Japanese MMA in recent years has largely been a footnote.
For fans hoping for more high-level MMA in Japan, 2019 has finally brought some promise. After years of running almost exclusively in Southeast Asia, One Championship finally came to Japan in 2019 and did so with lineups that suggest it is very serious about the market. One’s debut in March and then its two events from the famed Ryogoku Sumo Hall on Saturday and Sunday were the strongest cards the promotion has ever produced, and it’s not a particularly close competition against the previous events not run in Tokyo.
At the same time One Championship has finally fixed its gaze on the Japanese market, Rizin Fighting Federation has stepped up its collaboration with Scott Coker’s Bellator MMA promotion. Rizin and Bellator will work together twice before the end of the year, once on a joint show on Dec. 29 and then again on Rizin’s New Year’s Eve special. Rizin will look to recover momentum following the embarrassing knockout loss suffered by its top star Tenshin Nasukawa under exhibition boxing rules against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 2018.
While the lineups for the year-end shows aren’t set, the list of major stars fighting in Japan this year could include Demetrious Johnson, Fedor Emelianenko, Eddie Alvarez, Quinton Jackson, Kyoji Horiguchi, Shinya Aoki, Bibiano Fernandes and Josh Barnett. It’s not exactly a Pride grand prix yet -- although those eight would make for quite the unpredictable openweight tournament -- but it’s unquestionably a step up from what has been the standard in recent years.
The big question is whether the returns on the investment these companies are making in the Japanese market will be enough to make them decide to do more moving forward. Bellator and One have other options for major shows, while Rizin has shown a willingness to run both larger shows and smaller ones. None of these entities has suggested yet that they are committed to major, long-term financial investment in the Japanese market, even relative to what a player like the Professional Fighters League is doing in the United States.
The major challenge for all these companies, as it has always been in Japan, is to find a breakthrough Japanese star. National stars are important to the development of an individual sport in any country, but they are particularly important in Japan. Many of the country’s biggest sports have always revolved around Japanese athletes’ efforts to prove their ability relative to the best athletes from other countries.
Pride would not have started up if it were not for Nobuhiko Takada, and it would not have grown without Kazushi Sakuraba. Fighters like Hidehiko Yoshida and Naoya Ogawa weren’t the promotion’s best fighters, but they were pivotal drawing cards driving the promotion in later years. Later, K-1 Hero’s was driven by Sakuraba, Norifumi Yamamoto and the controversial Yoshihiro Akiyama.
Rizin at first was built as a showcase for former Pride stars, and in recent years, the focus has been on making stars out of the likes of Nasukawa and Horiguchi. Rizin is run by many of the same executives who go back to the Pride days, and they are well aware of the importance of creating Japanese superstars. If One is going to grow in Japan, it’s imperative that it finds some Japanese stars. A few Japanese fighters in supporting roles won’t do the trick. The dynamic of running an MMA show in Tokyo is different than Singapore or Malaysia.
If Japanese MMA can pick up a little steam this year and it leads into more major events in 2020 and beyond, it would be a welcome development for fans who remember when Japan was an MMA hotbed. Japan has often produced MMA events differently than the United States, and that different atmosphere is welcome in an MMA world where so many events feel the same. However, growth is by no means ensured and it will be a real challenge for these companies to start to regain what was long ago lost.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.