DUN…DUN…DUN-DUN. The tribal call of Nobuhiko Takada’s Taiko drums bang as the giant big screen flashes and fans roar. Spotlights trace Saitama Super Arena, flash-pots explode, and flamethrowers spit at the ceiling. DUN… DUN…DUN-DUN. The camera zooms around the cavernous hall as Bas Rutten mingles with Stephen Quadros. One by one, the fighters from around the world are introduced by the loony screams of Lenne Hardt. This was PRIDE Fighting Championships.
Talk to a diehard MMA fan about PRIDE—now five years removed—and these memories are the surest way to bring the declaration that, “They don’t make ‘em like that any more.”
The UFC would disagree, and they’re betting that MMA is still alive and kicking in the Land of the Rising Sun. In September, the industry-leading promotion announced UFC 144 would take place in Japan—the first time the Octagon has traveled to the country in 11 years. And it’s coming back to the hallowed grounds of Saitama Super Arena.
“Japan is the spiritual home of martial arts—the Japanese have taught us many aspects of how to compete in hand-to-hand combat with respect and honor,” says UFC executive Lorenzo Fertitta. “Japan also has a proud history of modern mixed martial arts, and I am excited to bring the UFC back here.”
For many, the Japanese promotion symbolizes a time of promise equal to the current march of global expansion brought by its longtime American rival. The UFC airs in 130 countries, and this year, they begin a seven-year broadcast deal with FOX that bolsters a lucrative pay-per-view business. More top-10 talent resides in one place than ever before. And yet, some fans just can’t move on from the PRIDE days. For all the change in the air, it’s as if MMA died five years ago. It’s a symbol of all that’s been lost—the marriage of theatre and pain.
“Back when I was fighting here, I had so much energy,” says Rampage Jackson, who fights Ryan Bader in UFC 144’s co-main event. “I just wanted to put on a good show for the fans because of all the energy they give. In America, you’re under so much pressure to win at all costs because the fans talk shit to you if you lose, even if it’s a good, exciting fight. In Japan, it’s just a different energy.”
Of course, the now-defunct promotion is also a signpost on the well-traveled road of mismanagement in the fight business. Not long after UFC parent company Zuffa LLC purchased PRIDE parent company Dream Stage Entertainment (DSE) with the intention of relaunching the event and paving the way for a Super Bowl of MMA between PRIDE and UFC fighters, they found a company hemorrhaging cash by the fistful and floundering under the weight of a tabloid scandal that exposed the Japanese company’s ties to the Yakuza (Japanese mafia). Efforts to mount another event were blocked by employees who refused to work under the new owners and competitors, resentful of a foreign intruder. By 2008, the messy buyout would find its way to the courts, as Zuffa and PRIDE’s former president accused each other of fraud. Soon, fans around the world would come to a somber conclusion: PRIDE was dead.
“You can’t just go into Japan and start doing your own thing,” says Mike Kogan, a manager with longstanding ties to the Japanese fight scene. “The Japanese are a very conservative culture on the surface. Otherwise, they’re just as messed up as we are, if not even more so. Once PRIDE was sucked into those issues, ‘Under new management’ just didn’t fly. The UFC was under the wrong impression from the standpoint of carrying on.”
PRIDE’s success was later shown to be a house of cards that collapsed almost as dramatically as one of its openings, and its absence would create a massive void in the Japanese MMA scene that the market couldn’t fill. The love of that show and the desire to get back its magic—and money—prompted a handful of promoters to try like mad to replace the fallen promotion. However, all of them would fail fairly miserably, including Zuffa, which purchased DSE’s assets in March 2007 for a reported $65 million (and whose president, Dana White, would later accuse shadowy forces of keeping the UFC out of Japan). But the American juggernaut had not yet given up on returning to the sport’s spiritual home.
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Headlining the February 25 pay-per-view card is UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar against Benson Henderson. Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Rampage Jackson meets Ryan Bader in the co-main event. Other notable participants include heavyweight Cheick Kongo, Jake Shields, Yoshihiro Akiyama, and Anthony Pettis. Such an assortment of talent would hardly be out of place in a show held in the U.S., but at first glance, it appears something is missing. Four fighters on the bill—Rampage, Mark Hunt, Takanori Gomi, and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto—were proven commodities in the days of PRIDE. But of the seven Japanese fighters that occupy the fight card, only Yoshihiro Akiyama—a star four years ago alongside Yamamoto in PRIDE’s competitor K-1 Hero’s—graces the pay-per-view portion of the event. At the press conference announcing UFC 144, the most popular and well-known fighters, Gomi and Yamamoto, did not sit on the stage.
In other words, the event resembles an international UFC event like ones in the U.K. or Brazil. Apart from an emphasis on regional talent, the matchmaking is relatively subdued. Freak-show fights featuring a sumo or giant— historically popular in the pro-wrestling inspired Japanese scene—are nowhere to be found. And that’s very much on purpose.
“That era died five years ago,” says Shu Hirata, who manages UFC 144 fighter Takeya Mizugaki and runs the Japanese MMA blog Nightmare of Battle. “I think Japanese fans are hungry for real MMA and world-class competitors. I think that’s what the UFC hopes to provide.”
Assisting in that effort is Dentsu, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world and a dominant force in Japanese media. Sources say the company is working to secure a television deal with TV Tokyo—Japan’s sixth-largest network—to bolster the promotion’s longstanding deal with WOWOW, a pay channel with a fraction of any over-the-air channel’s broadcast reach. Seven-minute programs introducing the UFC began airing in November on TV Tokyo. Dentsu is also working to re-brand the image of White, whose F-bombs made him a popular media target during the sale of DSE. Sources say Dentsu and telecommunications firm Softbank have made a major investment in the promotion’s return to the country, agreeing to pay $3.3 million to license the Feb. 25 event and assuming the bulk of the event’s financial burden. In exchange, the Japanese companies are said to bolster their portfolio of international brands, which helps net major sponsors in the future.
The goal, many say, is to brand the UFC as a worldwide sport that is distinct from its predecessors, which appear to have left an indelible mark on the Japanese entertainment world. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police recently circulated a memo to the major networks in Tokyo warning them of “Fight-sports related promoters” with ties to “anti-social forces,” otherwise known as the Yakuza.
There are, however, significant challenges in the Japanese market that have little to do with organized crime. An economic downturn that followed the global financial crisis was compounded by the massive earthquake that hit the country in March 2011. Gyms were periodically turned into refugee centers. In the TV business, the licensing fees that once provided significant revenue shrank as Japan went digital, advertising slumped, and the number of available channels increased. Japanese promotions DREAM and Sengoku managed to secure TV deals early in their lifespan, yet both failed to generate strong ratings in primetime and saw the bulk of their events broadcast on late-night TV. Sengoku closed shop in March 2011 after the loss of its major sponsor, and late last year, FEG was sold to one of its creditors, a real estate firm. DREAM no longer has a network TV deal on its home soil. If anything, there may be a critical lack of mainstream exposure to MMA since PRIDE’s fall.
“Mixed martial artist Amanda Lucas, George Lucas’ daughter, gets a bigger page than the UFC press conference in the national sports newspaper,” says Hirata.
Depending on how you look at it, the UFC stands to make a huge splash in an underdeveloped market or put another pin on its travel map. The promotion’s strategic partners have already made the Feb. 25 show profitable. What’s unclear is whether UFC 144 will spark a revival in spirit and silver. Japan’s rapidly aging population suggests a surge.
“The UFC has become so big,” says Bob Meyrowitz, who promoted four events in Japan as the UFC’s former owner. “K-1 and PRIDE both have had their rise and fall. Japan has had an economic downturn. It is no longer such a prized place to be. So I think it should be a very good time for the UFC to go back there. They go back as a very successful, strong organization, at a time when Japan is not that strong.”
The culture of fighting sports in Japan has certainly changed in the 15 years since pro wrestling protégé Kazushi Sakuraba defeated Marcus Silveira in the heavyweight tournament finals of Ultimate Japan. When the UFC traveled to Japan in 1997, the concept of MMA as a sport and not a circus hadn’t fully taken root, despite the longtime existence of fight promotions like Shooto and Rings. It was an education process.
“The main concern was that there would be real fights,” Meyrowitz says of the UFC’s first experience in the country. “The promoters didn’t get it. Fighting events there were fixed. It was just accepted that you knew in advance who would win and who would lose. And they couldn’t conceive of why we would do it that way and not know who would win.”
Every fighter on UFC 144 paid in blood to be in the Octagon, and for them, fighting in Japan is a small way to pay tribute to their MMA forefathers. For Jackson, who found his start there, it’s returning home.
“Who knows? Maybe I’ll take more chances and not care because it’s all about the crowd,” he says. “I react to the crowd. I don’t care about the people watching on TV. I’m all about putting on an exciting fight. One thing I love about Japanese fans and why I love them the most is that they don’t care if you win or lose. All they care is if you have the samurai spirit, that you put on a good fight. That’s why Japanese fans are my favorite. And American fans are jealous that I say that all the time.”
By Jim Casey
It’s common knowledge that Don Frye is the greatest fighter ever. He cemented that legacy at PRIDE 21 in 2002 against Japanese giant Yoshihiro Takayama in an epic thriller that will be remembered as the most electrifying slugfest in PRIDE history. After an intense mustache-to-no-mustache staredown, Frye and Takayama played a game of MMA Chicken, the rules of which consist of punching each other in the face without blocking or ducking until one man falls over.
Here’s what the first 30 seconds looked like from the perspective of Takayama’s face: left jab, right hook, left hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, right hook, left hook, right hook, left hook, left hook, right hook, left hook, right hook, left hook, right uppercut, left hook, right hook, left hook, left hook. This is not an exaggeration.
When it was all said and done at the 6:10 mark, Takayama’s face looked like a bucket of hammered crabs. The victorious Don Frye stood unscathed in his American flag shorts—perhaps a little thirsty for a beer. And that was that.