Coming From The East: Lost in Transition?Posted on July 1, 2010, 03:50 AM by Joey Santosus
Since the explosion of mixed martial arts popularity there has been a noticeable continental divide between two major players in its development: Asia and North America. For a decade the Japan based organization Pride Fighting Championships was wildly successful and considered by many to be the top MMA Promotion in the world. Its inaugural event was held at the Tokyo Dome on October 11, 1997and over the next ten years 67 others would follow. However, in 2007 the company was swallowed up by Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta's Zuffa LLC, a move that would offset the balance of the MMA world and leave Japanese fans and fighters alike searching for their place in the sport.
In the years since, Japanese MMA has made relevant attempts at revival with its Dream and World Victory Road organizations. While finding varying degrees of success along the way, none have captured the same level of public interest as the their predecessor Pride FC. Without a secure home many Asian fighters have been forced to set their sights on the western hemisphere, home of established promotions such as the UFC, WEC, and Strikeforce. Unfortunately however, they have faced largely disappointing results.
While the lack-luster results may in part be attributed to the Asian fighter's ability, or inability, to make the transition, there are other factors that should be accounted for. Promotions, such as the UFC, have been less than helpful in establishing these fighters, not only among the ranks, but with the casual MMA fans as well.
A reoccurring mishap within North American MMA promotions in regards to handling their Asian prospects has been their tendency to "throw them to the wolves." Many have immediately faced top-tier competition, being served up as sacrificial lambs, rather than being built-up and promoted. One prime example of this, cited on FightLockDown.com, was demonstrated by the UFC with Japanese fighter Kuniyoshi Hironaka.
Hironoka was signed by the UFC after the Shooto vet's impressive victory over Renato Verissimo. While many new fighters may have been given an opportunity to "wet their feet," the UFC had other plans. His opening bout would be at UFC 64 against Jon Fitch, who at the time was coming off an impressive three-fight win streak, one of which was over #1 contender Thaigo Alves. Needless to say Hironoka was out-classed and handed a unanimous decision loss in what was quite obviously meant to be an official introduction for Fitch, as this was his first main card appearance. Following the loss, Hironaka would continue to be kept in a position of irrelevance before being matched with "The Road Warrior" Jonathon Goulet in a preliminary bout at UFC 83, where he was on the wrong side of a vicious knockout and cut from the promotion. The aforementioned website went on to list additional examples of Asian fighters that were essentially set-up to be beat-down rather than built-up by North American promotions, such as the WEC's Yoshiro Maeda and Takeya Mizugaki. The central barrier here is clearly the absence of an opportunity for mainstream success. Asian fighters have routinely been given unfair debuts, followed by a permanent spot on the under card.
Another detrimental factor has been the perpetuation of the stereotype that Asian fighters are inferior due to their "boring" fighting styles, which has made finding a spot on the main card difficult for even the more successful Asian combatants. The differences in fighting styles, and the fan opinions thereof, are reasonable considering the cultural differences between eastern and western fight fans. In Japan, fans attending an MMA event behave similarly to fans attending a golf tournament. While it sounds like an odd comparison, the matches take place in complete silence, silence only broken for particularly exciting moments, such as a fighter passing guard or evading submission. American fans, in contrast, have a less refined approach and the best bouts are considered to be those contested standing and ending in a violent manner. With the differences in fan expectations being night and day, many fighters who do not perform in this fan-favored manner will ultimately be kept out of sight.
FighLockDown.com exemplifies this point well with the UFC's treatment of middle-weight contender Yushin Okami. Okami has long been a top level contender in his respective weight-class. He has racked up impressive victories over big names such as Alan Belcher, Dean Lister, Kalib Starnes, Jason MacDonald, Rory Singer, the late Evan Tanner, and Mike Swick. All the while appearing on the main card merely three times. Okami's style favors efficiency over flash and has made him a consistent fighter, a factor that one would assume would garner attention.
While at a glance it appears that Okami is the only one that stands to lose in this situation, the UFC risks a potential backlash. While Okami suffered just his second loss during his time with the promotion at UFC 104 against the now #1 contender Chael Sonnen, he followed up with yet another victory over Lucio Linhares by TKO at UFC Fight Night 21. Had Okami defeated Sonnen, or should he continue to keep winning as he has previously, a title shot will be inevitable. When or if this time comes, casual fans will likely have little or no interest in the challenger, making the match a marketing disaster.
In recent time the UFC has been making strides in global expansion. With such a huge market for MMA in Japan, it is imperative they successfully incorporate Asian fighters into their roster. Doing so means extending more opportunities for those fighters to establish themselves amongst their division, as well as building a rapport with fans. With all things considered, this may explain their recent efforts, which have shed a positive light on the matter. The promotion's more Asian friendly roster now includes Dong Hyun Kim, Yoshihiro Akiyama and most recently the undefeated Dong Yi-Yang. Dong Hyun "Stun Gun" Kim is coming off an impressive upset win over TUF alumni Amir Sadollah, while all eyes will be on the Japanese/Korean superstar Yoshihiro "Sexyama" Akiyama this Saturday at UFC 116 as he faces Chris "The Crippler" Leben, who was a last minute replacement for Wanderli Silva.
Source to be cited: Many of the facts and examples outlined in this article were provide by FightLockDown.com.