Memoirs of a Fight Fan In Japan

In Japan, MMA is still a viable art of fighting and pageantry, even in the years since PRIDE’s demise. However, does Japanese MMA have the muscle to continue to endure? Journalist Ben Folwkes found out firsthand as he flew across the globe to experience the Dynamite! New Year’s Eve event in Tokyo.

I was tired of thinking I knew about MMA in Japan. I had the collection of PRIDE DVDs. I did a few interviews at odd hours with fighters’ managers acting as willing translators. I talked to people who had witnessed Japanese MMA firsthand. I talked to people who had talked to people. It was no good. I had to see it for myself. So I set off on a 5,000-mile trip to experience the biggest MMA event of the year on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo.

The guidebook turned out to be a mixed blessing. On one hand, it warned against the many serious breaches in etiquette I was almost sure to commit—unforgivable sins like eating while walking or blowing my nose in public. On the other hand, it was comically vague at some points, such as when it listed under the heading of things to avoid, “The Yakuza, political extremist groups, and certain religious sects.”

An exhaustive resource it wasn’t. Thanks, handbook.

That’s where Tony Loiseleur came in. A Hawaiian-born American ex-pat doing his post-graduate work in Tokyo and working as a reporter for Sherdog, Loiseleur proved to be an encyclopedia of knowledge about Japanese MMA and culture. We met for lunch the day before the fights and I told him about what my guidebook labeled forbidden.

“Go ahead and do those things,” he says with a shrug. “You’re white. Nobody expects any better from you.”

This is the foreigner’s bargain in Japan. It’s a culture with so many intricate rules of decorum and custom that there’s no way for outsiders to avoid flouting a few dozen of them a day out of sheer ignorance. The Japanese realize this and they make allowances for it, but that comes at a price. Just imagine playing miniature golf with a beloved, but dim-witted child. You won’t get upset when he accidentally kicks your ball, but you won’t engage him as an equal in serious conversation.

The thing about the New Year’s Eve card, says Tony, is that it tries to offer something for everyone. You’ve got the K-1 Koshien tournament, which is equal to putting a high school football game on before the Super Bowl. You’ve got the cross-promotional Dream versus Sengoku fights. You’ve got the obligatory mismatches, so guys like Alistair Overeem and Gegard Mousasi can make appearances and collect paychecks.

But for real insight into what sells here, Tony points out, all you have to do is look at the giant billboard on the side of Shinjuku Station, which just happens to be the busiest train station in the world and, thus, some of most valuable advertising space in the world.

There are only two faces parked on that expensive piece of real estate, and they belong to Satoshi Ishii and Masato. Ishii I get. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in judo, and nobody reveres that particular accomplishment more than the Japanese. But Masato? How many American fight fans could even pick him out of a lineup?

In Japan, however, Masato is like a fighting Elvis. When word leaks out that he’s going to be in attendance at a press conference, the city’s teenage girls (unquestionably the best-dressed high school kids in the world, clad in Gucci fur coats, stiletto heels, and criminally short skirts) line up hours beforehand to shriek his name and snap photos with their cell phones. At 30 years old, good looks still intact, Masato is retiring from the fight game following this last New Year’s go-round. The Japanese reaction seems similar to how American women might take the news that Matthew McConaughey is retiring from taking his shirt off in public.

When I question some Japanese teens about their interest in the New Year’s Eve event, the first thing out of their mouths after I say “Dynamite” is “Masato!” To many Japanese, K-1 and MMA are interchangeable terms in the same way UFC and MMA are back in the States.

According to my new friend Tony, pro wrestling might just be the perfect prism through which to view the sport here. Storylines and pageantry are what sells, and the line between legitimate competition and pure entertainment can get hazy. American fight fans may have an obsession with rankings and top 10 lists, but it’s a different game in Japan. They want a show. They want Bob Sapp and Minowa and Kazushi Sakuraba over and over again. Who cares if they don’t win every time?

What I can’t help but wonder about is the lack of oversight and transparency, the lack of regulatory bodies and drug tests. Aren’t the Japanese fans bothered by the perception that it doesn’t matter what performance-enhancing substance might be running through a fighter’s veins? Doesn’t that bother them?

“There’s a saying in Japan, and the frequency with which you hear it really says something about the culture, I think,” says Tony. “In Japanese it is ‘Sho na gai,’ which basically means, ‘It’s unavoidable’ or ‘There’s no way around it.’”

Sho na gai.

As in, since weigh-ins are typically closed affairs and some fighters habitually miss weight with a nod and a wink from promoters, it’s a regrettable state of affairs, but what can you do? Or a foreign fighter doesn’t get paid until several months after the event. Or squash matches fill out a lean fight card.

Sho na gai. It’s a shame, but it’s the reality. When I get to Saitama Super Arena early in the afternoon on December 31, the line wraps around the building. The event itself will take more than eight hours, yet no one would dare show up late and risk missing the grandiose opening ceremony.

The arena is massive. Inside is space for several MGM Grands, with a JumboTron setup hanging overhead that would make the Dallas Cowboys jealous. A cruise liner could be steered in here without disturbing the place, which is good news, considering more than 37,000 people will file in here tonight.

A live event crowd that size is no small accomplishment on New Year’s Eve in Tokyo. While Americans might think of it as the night they put undue pressure on themselves to go out, kiss a stranger, and lay the groundwork for the next day’s hangover, in Japan it’s the biggest TV night of the year.

The two main competitors for Japan’s attention are Dynamite! and “K•haku Uta Gassen,” which translates literally to “Red and White Song Battle,” a singing competition between two teams of famous music stars that regularly hands all other NYE programming a severe beating. This year the show will draw slightly more than 40% of the national TV audience. Dynamite! will come in second with 16.7%, serving as proof to many viewers that interest in MMA is on the decline in Japan.

In the U.S., a rating like that would be an unprecedented success. An American crowd of more than 37,000 for a live MMA event would be a promoter’s dream. But this is not the United Staes. And I would be reminded of this once I got my press pass inside.

Members of the media have two choices when it comes to watching the fights. They can sit in the general media section at the top of the arena’s lower bowl, which, unless they had the foresight to buy binoculars outside, means watching one of the big screens all night. Or if they don’t mind less comfortable conditions, they can head down to the interview room under the arena, where every fighter is available for interview once his bout is finished. There’s no post-fight press conference; the interviews happen one at a time throughout the night. And every fighter— unless he’s on his way to the hospital—is expected to take his turn.

The downside to the interview room is that it’s a cramped space in the bowels of the arena, outfitted with only one laptop-sized video monitor. When a fighter comes in after a fight, the live video feed isn’t paused. The sound is simply turned off until the interview is over. It’s like watching a night of fights in someone’s unfurnished, unfinished basement, with frequent interruptions.

So many interruptions that the people interviewing fighters may not have seen the whole fight, because they were too busy questioning another fighter whose fight they also didn’t see in its entirety.

It’s no way to watch fights, let alone cover them for a media outlet. But there aren’t many better options. What can you do? Sho na gai.

I try it out for a while. I ask Minowa a question. It doesn’t go well. I begin to wonder if the translations are off when a Japanese reporter asks Minowa how it feels to win the Super Hulk Tournament and the translated response in my earpiece is a semi-coherent answer about being born as a human, but how sometimes as a fighter, he is forced to live in the darkness where the Hulk resides. Somewhere in there he also expresses support for the Japanese national soccer team.

The next couple of hours I bounce back and forth between my nosebleed seats and the interview room. I plant myself in the arena for all the important moments, such as Akihiro Gono’s entrance, which he promised would rival the performances of the “Red and White Song Battle.”

As usual, Gono delivers. His walk down to the ring takes several minutes, complete with live singing, elaborate get-ups, a choreographed dance routine, and two costume changes inside the ring. This might be where Japanese MMA truly shines. It’s a multimedia presentation not seen anywhere else. Something about watching a guy gyrate his way down a staircase covered in throbbing lights reminds 37,000-plus fans why they’re here—entertainment.

Several hours into the event I run into Andrew Simon, the CEO of HDNet Fights. He’s on his way to the concession stand to get some food for his starving announcing team. A bespeckled 39-year-old with a degree from Cornell and an MBA from UCLA, Simon isn’t what you normally picture when you think of fight fans. But as we talk about the show so far, he sounds like any other passionate fan, reeling off opinions on everything from big stars like Aoki (he never gets tired of watching him) to more obscure fighters like Michihiro Omigawa or “Kid” Yamamoto (he likes the former, isn’t so hot on the latter).

Then Simon invites me to where the HDNet broadcast team is calling the action. At first, this sounds like an excellent chance to upgrade my seating situation. That’s before I realize their broadcast table is almost exactly as high as my media seat, just a little farther down one side of the arena. The good news is that “Mayhem” Miller, Guy Mezger, and Michael Schiavello all have their own private screens in front of them to watch the action. As I sit down next to Simon, I get to peer at a much better view over Mayhem’s shoulder.

“This is work,” Mayhem jokes, standing up to stretch out and take off his headphones during a rare break in the marathon broadcast. “At least on Bully Beatdown I can go disappear in my trailer for a half-hour.”

Simon surveys his employees from the row of cordoned off seats just behind the broadcast table. Between busting Mezger’s for saying “you know” too often in his commentary, Simon gives me his best sales pitch for Japanese MMA. “The stuff you see here, all the legends on one card, the two promotions fighting each other, that’s something you’ll never see in the States,” he says.

If Sherdog’s Loiseleur is the disillusioned beat reporter of Japanese MMA, Simon is his perfect counter-balance: all cock-eyed optimism and favorable comparisons to the scene back home.

Sure, they love a little theater mixed in with their fighting here, Simon acknowledges, but didn’t the UFC just make a mountain out of a Kimbo Slice-shaped molehill? Didn’t Strikeforce just sign a 47-year-old former NFL player? He has a point. But then again, Simon has reason to stay positive about Japanese MMA. As long as HDNet is the goto broadcast source for American fans, he has a vested interest at seeing Japanese MMA succeed. Don’t try to tell him interest is on the decline. With 45,000 butts in the seats tonight and many more staying up late or getting up early to watch it back home in the U.S., Simon sees no reason to worry about the state of the sport over here just yet.

“There’s such a hardcore fan base [in the U.S.] for these events,” Simon says. “Whenever I put out a press release saying that we’re broadcasting an event but it’s not live, I get called an asshole on the forums. Sure, I see that, and I still sleep at night, but I think it tells you that there’s a global interest in this sport, not just in one promotion.”

So if the interest in Japan is solid, and if their motives aren’t so entirely foreign from ours, what’s next?

This is the question that hangs heavy in the air tonight. The Dream-Sengoku fights turn out well enough. Each promotion scores some big wins, enough to seem credible. Aoki’s armsnapping finish of Mizuta Hirota has a way of looming over the evening.

The cross-promotional collaboration may have been more necessity than opportunity, it turns out. There’s talk that Sengoku is losing financial support. Even Simon says he’s not sure if the country can support two competing MMA organizations. The consensus seems to be that Japan should put all its eggs in the Dream basket. However, no one wants to come out and say it. No one except Gono, who has gone from PRIDE to the UFC and then back home again. It’s earned him a little leeway when it comes to speaking his mind. At least he seems to think it has.

It’s already been a long night by the time Gono slides in to take his turn in the interview room. If he’s worn out after going two rounds in a winning effort against his old pal “Mach” Sakurai, his answers don’t show it. He seems to reflect deeply on every question. His answers become almost philosophical. He goes on at length, needing little prompting.

“I didn’t have a chance to get on the mic today, but if I did, what I’d want to say is basically this: The martial arts world in DYNAMITE!

Japan, well, I was a baseball dropout, so later whenever people asked me who my rival was, I’d always say, ‘It’s baseball.’ Three or four years ago,” Gono continues, “I think martial arts really had good potential to rival baseball, and fighters at this level are training just as hard as baseball players and they’re just as good. I want people to recognize this, and I want there to be the kind of enthusiasm people had for it in the days of PRIDE.”

The room becomes very still. It’s the first time all night that someone has made the comparison to PRIDE in an unfavorable context. So far it’s been old-timers like Goodridge and Hidehiko Yoshida talking about how much this night has reminded them of Japan’s best-known promotion. Gono sees it differently.

“I don’t know who I should be saying this to, really, maybe the management, or people higher up in this industry,” he says. “But actually, I don’t know what the motivations of the management of this industry are, only protecting or pursuing one’s own interests like that.”

You can feel him drifting into dangerous territory here. Maybe he knows, but he doesn’t care. Gono is on a roll. Gono is going to tell us like it is.

“I want them to expand and grow this world,” he says. “I mean, the bounds of this industry are shrinking by splitting, getting together again, and then splitting again. No one is gaining anything from that.”

He looks for a moment like he might go on, but he doesn’t. The frustration in his voice turns to fatigue. He wants to see a change, but how? What can you do? Where do you start? He gets up without finding the answer. He goes shuffling back toward the locker room alone one more time. Sho na gai.

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