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Notes From Japan: No FEG Events Till At Least July, Former PRIDE Director Rumored Return To JMMA, UFC Update

MMA Fighting’s Dan Herbertson has been providing a steady stream of news and notes from the Japanese MMA scene in the past few days. Here’s a quick rundown, but I suggest you check out his articles on FEG and the UFC if you’re at all interested in what’s going on across the Pacific.

— It looks like it’s going to be awhile before FEG’s fate is decided. The parent company of K-1 and DREAM is currently going through a “restructuring” that isn’t expected to be completed until May, which means there won’t be any K-1 or DREAM events until at least July, if ever. FEG USA’s Mike Kogan confirms that high-profile fighters such as Alistair Overeem and JZ Cavalcante have yet to be paid as they claim. In other words, nothing has changed yet.

— Rumors of former PRIDE director Nobuyuki Sakakibara’s return to JMMA have begun to surface in Japan. Word is that Sakakibara is working with DREAM’s Hiroyuki Kato and former Sengoku event producer Takahiro Kokuho are planning a one-off event at a small venue the size of 3,000 seat JCB Hall sometime this Spring. While a small show doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface, Herbertson explains why it is.

If these sources are correct, this event would change the face of Japanese MMA dramatically.

Firstly, it would most likely mean the end of DREAM and that there has been a split between Real Entertainment and FEG. This is not surprising at all and was bound to happen with the poor ratings, poor finances and with K-1 creator Kazuyoshi Ishii (although Ishii may be squeezed out in the current FEG restructuring) out of jail.

It’s the return of Nobuyuki Sakakibara to MMA that is simply mind boggling.

The Sakakibara back-story is complicated, but in short, no one understands how anyone would want to be involved with Sakakibara when his ties to the yakuza (that brought down PRIDE) will send any potential business partners and sponsors in the other direction.

In addition to Herbertson’s report, I also suggest checking out Zach Arnold’s thoughts on Sakakibara’s rumored return.

— Former Sengoku fighters Jorge Santiago, Dave Herman and Ronnie Mann were all granted their release from the organization in recent weeks so they could sign with US promotions. Ronnie Mann ended up with Bellator while Dave Herman signed with the UFC and will make his debut against Rob Broughton at UFC 131. Jorge Santiago is still believed to be negotiating with the UFC and Strikeforce. Obviously, this isn’t a good sign for Sengoku, and Herbertson expects more releases to come.

According to UFC Asia head Mark Fisher, it’s purely a coincidence that the UFC is moving in on Japan while the leading JMMA promotions are crumbling.

“Zuffa has been working on the Japan market for many years, and the various relationships and resources we have built up here over this time have generated some significant opportunities for us now.”

A network television deal, though hard to come by these days, will be key for the UFC to thrive in Japan. Fischer is aware of the obstacles in landing such a deal, but says they have the patience to wait for the pieces to fall into place.

“Certainly, [getting a network TV deal] remains one of our key objectives but we are patient and realize there are a number of steps to take to get there,” says Fischer. “The sport of MMA still has a deep base of popularity in Japan. The combination of this fundamental base, the UFC’s global leadership of the sport and our commitment to excellence in everything we do, and the participation in UFC of a number of locally relevant fighters, is a potent formula which will ultimately make UFC an attractive property for network TV in Japan. We are also looking at creating innovative programming most suitable for network TV, which will help us get those relationships started and then we can build from there.”

As for when a live UFC event might be staged in the Land of the Rising Sun, JMMA mag Kamipro says the UFC is planning on a Dec. event based on an interview they did with Dana White, but I have doubts that anything is set in stone if that’s even true.

No matter how much progress the UFC claims they’ve made though, Zach Arnold reminds us of the immense obstacles standing in the UFC’s way.

  1. They are not a Japanese company. I don’t care how big UFC is worldwide, they are not nor will they ever be viewed as a Japanese company. This is a huge hurdle. Even if Zuffa was able to get a Japanese front man, it would be a challenge. Their front man happens to be a white guy. That’s a strike against the organization. I’m not racist, but I am telling you how things operate in the country. It’s very difficult for Zuffa to get a network TV deal on a big-money scale because they are not Japanese.
  2. They are not viewed as a Japanese product. By that I mean the following — they do not use a pro-wrestling ring. They do not use a PRIDE-style production set-up. The visuals are a legitimate strike against the company. Jordan Breen mocks online fans who say that MMA just ‘isn’t the same any more’ without PRIDE around and I think he misses the boat when he does so. I completely understand that fan mentality and it exists in Japan.
  3. UFC needs a major Japanese MMA promotion to produce stars. This sounds like a very obtuse idea, but I’ll point out what I’ve learned over many, many years with the fight scene in Japan. There’s two ways to cash in big in Japan with native athletes. The first method is that a Japanese promotion has to produce the anointed crop of uber-rookies and then those rookies are ’sent overseas’ to conquer the foreigners so they can come back home to fight… for their home Japanese promotion. The second method is that the major Japanese promotion brings over foreigners and pays them a lot and hopes that they lose to the natives. This plays off of the fans’ psyche that Japan is the world stage and therefore if you want to be legitimate, you have to come to Japan. If you’re noticing already, both methods of producing Japanese stars are almost impossible for UFC to pull off. This is why WWE has not been able to make it in Japan despite making it everywhere else in the world, including vanquishing some popularity of Lucha Libre in vaunted Mexico.

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