The country of Japan has deep-rooted links to MMA (mixed martial arts) that will remain until the end of time. Japan at one point in time was a hotbed for the best MMA, and there is still deep nostalgia around the country, not least in memory of the K-1 and PRIDE era.

Japanese MMA History & Successful Beginnings 

Japan has a long and significant history in martial arts, playing a key role in the emergence of karate, judo, and Japanese jiu-jitsu. In 1976 the country was host to what could be considered one the first MMA fights in history. 

Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki took on heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali in the now-infamous “wrestler vs. boxer” bout. The fight itself was something of a farce but the interest it gained from the watching world was extremely significant and paved the way for a new sport in the coming years. 

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Japan emerged as the home of the newly named sport of MMA. Pride, Pancrase and Shooto frequently put on elite level fights in front of sold out crowds which gained national television coverage. A Japanese star emerged in Kazushi Sakuraba to bolster the sport even more. The legendary fighter beat a whole host of MMA icons during his rise to prominence.

The Rise Of UFC & Westernization Of MMA

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was founded in 1993 but did not enjoy the immediate success that was very apparent with the various Japanese MMA outlets. 

Several issues plagued the company in its early years and brought it to the brink of collapse by the time it was sold to Zuffa for $2 million in 2001. 

A change in approach proved to be successful for the UFC as they built the company’s reputation with new safety measures, various media deals and a plan for global expansion. The company was sold for $4 billion back in 2016 and is estimated to be worth close to double that amount in 2020.

The rapid monopoly of MMA by the UFC has meant the companies which once rivalled the promotion now cease to exist. All the top MMA talent is quickly snapped up by the UFC. Asian MMA promotions are seeing a lot of their fighters move abroad in search of their legacy and financial opportunities.

Japanese MMA Is Alive & Well  

Despite the fact MMA is now dominated by one company the sport remains alive and well in Japan. Rizin Fighting Federation was formed in 2015 by the former president of Pride, Nobuyuki Sakakibara. 

RIZIN incorporates some old elements of MMA that are no longer seen in mainstream organizations, such as soccer kicks. The company has also hosted several cross over bouts with Bellator that have seen promotional barriers broken down in order to determine who is the best fighter on the planet. 

As they did in 1976 the Japanese MMA organizers continue to create spectacles by inviting the best American boxers to come and compete against their own talent. The now retired, undefeated fighter Floyd Mayweather traveled to Japan in 2018 to take part in an exhibition bout against RIZIN kickboxing sensation Tenshin Nasukawa, picking up m and a first-round knockout victory. It was ridiculous odds – Mayweather (-340) was heavily favored over Nasukawa (+260). No one really enjoyed betting with a Japanese bookmaker, and Mayweather was the only one who made easy money from this fight.

The fight itself again was something of a farce but the lasting ability of Japanese fight organizations to create intrigue and spectacle continues to shine through.

As we finish up the tough first year of a new decade the future looks uncertain. Japan has been the host of some of the biggest MMA spectacles ever but the question remains whether Japan will be able to reemerge as a key MMA territory for the foreseeable future.

A martial artist and former coach for two decades from Houston, Texas. Specializing in the disciplines of kickboxing, karate, MMA, and Jiu Jitsu.