Once upon a time, the center of the Mixed Martial Arts universe was the land of the rising sun. During the late 90’s / early 2000’s while MMA was struggling to be a legitmate sport in North America, it was a hot ticket in Japan with many options to watch. PRIDE of course was the best known and most popular brand of MMA to come from the country, but pioneers Shooto, Pancrase, and RINGS paved the way. Many of the greatest fighters this sport has ever seen made their name in PRIDE, but many of those same legends got their start in the trailblazing promotions mentioned. Mixed Martial Arts wouldn’t be where it is today of course without the Gracie family, ZUFFA, and the nation of Japan.
During the early days when MMA in America was viewed as human cockfighting, Japanese promotions were bringing order. Adding rules, weight classes, and even implementing a very good amateur fighter program (Shooto originated this concept). While the sport in the early days in the US was treated as a fad and spectacle, it was treated with honor and respect, the true “Martial Arts” way in Japan. MMA before it was even known as MMA was treated as a gentleman’s combat sport in Japan. When fighters were having trouble making a living in North America, they were getting paid big money in Japan. Where many of the fighters were treated like big movie stars and sporting greats.
During PRIDE’s hay day, there was no argument that the best fighters in the world wanted to be in Japan. Not only would fighters be able to make big bucks, they would be able to perform in front of sold out big arenas filled with thousands of dedicated fans. With champagne flowing and getting paid in briefcases filled with cash, being a professional Mixed Martial Artist in Japan was the place to be. There is nothing like a big, stadium packed, JMMA event. That is until we slowly learned about JMMA’s dirty little secret, the business behind the scenes we weren’t supposed to know about.
PRIDE had it’s ties to the Yakuza, fighters left and right abusing performance enhancing drugs due to no testing, and due to their criminal affiliation it lost their big deal with Fuji TV in 2006. Without it’s deal with Japan’s biggest TV station, the promotion struggled, and eventually the final nail in the coffin was when ZUFFA purchased the promotion in 2007. Since then, Mixed Martial Arts hasn’t been the same in Japan financially. Kickboxing promotion K-1 created HERO’S to fill the void that PRIDE left. HERO’s turned into DREAM and Sengoku was created as it’s main competitor. DREAM’s parent company FEG has been having big money troubles to the point where to this date they haven’t even paid many of their top stars including 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix Champion Alistair Overeem. Sengoku is pretty much left for dead, it’s primary sponsor Don Quijote stopped it’s funding to the promotion in March.
Gone are the sold out Saitama Super Arenas, the bright lights of the PRIDE stage, and the way it seems now, gone is the big money. Many of Japan’s top stars have moved on and have signed contracts with the UFC, Strikeforce, and Bellator. The exposure for the events outside of Japan isn’t looking good either. Yesterday was DREAM’s Fight for Japan GP final. Usually DREAM’s big events are shown on HD Net in North America, with many hardcore fans staying up till 4am to watch their favorites in action. Unfortunately for this event, fans outside of Japan had no way of seeing the fights. Leaving people to closely monitor Twitter accounts from English speaking MMA journalists for results.
Fans were left scrambling for a way to watch these fights. Not even a pay stream was offered for the thousands that would have paid to see quality JMMA fights, revenue that DREAM lost out on. The UFC wants to hold a possible event at the Saitama Super Arena next year and with many of JMMA’s top stars now fighting for the UFC the possibility of selling the event hasn’t looked any better. But would the Japanese embrace an American owned promotion in their home land? That remains to be seen.
Which brings us back to the question I asked in the title, what is wrong with JMMA? Japan is one of the meccas for martial arts and combat sports. As long as there are martial artists, as long as there are fighters, as long as the “Samurai” spirit still exists, MMA will always have a place in Japan. What really is wrong with JMMA in my opinion is the way promotions conduct their business. How do you expect fighters to treat your promotion with respect if you aren’t paying them? How can you expect your top stars to stay if your business isn’t conducted properly? What about being easily accessible on the internet? Having pay-per-stream events for people outside of Japan so they can watch the fights early in the morning live? That could generate more money for the promotion, not much, but better than nothing.
Agree or disagree with my point of view? Please leave your two cents in the comment box, let’s take this dicussion further.