The UFC returns to Japan this weekend with UFC 144: “Stay Up Extremely Late”, and the event marks the first time the Octagon has been officially erected in the country since UFC 29 back in 2000 (and I say “officially” because you can bet the Yakuza put up an Octagon in their downtown Tokyo office to lop dudes’ heads off in). Of course, we all know that for the longest time the MMA scene in the Land of the Rising Sun was big – bigger than what was taking place here in the States, bigger than anything going on anywhere else in the world. And sure, the late PRIDE Fighting Championships gets the credit for packing thousands upon thousands into stadiums, but the truth is PRIDE was never always the only thing going in Japan. There was Shooto, which was where the little guys battled it out (think: the WEC’s well-respected grandfather). There was Smackgirl, where the ladies fought (duh). There was RINGS, which was what you’d get if a bunch of pro-wrestlers tried to break into the MMA business. There was Vale Tudo Japan, which was to PRIDE what the Neanderthal is to modern man. And there was Pancrase.

What the heck was Pancrase, you ask? Good question.

When the UFC was bold and new and making its first mark on pay-per-view, and heroes like Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn were Octagon stars, Pancrase was some sort of unknown quantity to burgeoning MMA fans, alluded to and spoken of with respect by commentators and fighters alike during UFC broadcasts. We were told Shamrock had been a “King of Pancrase”, which was the Pancrase organization’s equivalent to champ and somehow served to qualify him as a kind of badass, and later, that same label was used to pump up the resumes (and legends) of Bas Rutten and Frank Shamrock. But no one really had a firm grasp on what it meant to be a King. Did it make a fighter on par with the UFC’s best? Could a King defeat a UFC champ?

Sadly, Pancrase’s incursion into the US pay-per-view market back then didn’t do the organization any favors. At the time, UFC events came about three to five times a year, and fans like myself were starving for the kind of action we’d witnessed in the Octagon. What we got instead when we tuned into Pancrase was… laughable. Fighters wore humungous boots, whacked each other with open-handed slaps, and grabbed onto the ropes of the ring whenever caught in a submission (grabbing the ropes was a “get out of jail free” card). Maybe that sort of thing was cool to watch for the Japanese market, but those of us watching here in the States had to be restrained from putting our shoes through our television screens. Add to that the rumor that Pancrase had the occasional worked (i.e., outcome predetermined) fight, and man, that was all she wrote.

Thankfully, just as the UFC evolved to adopt the Unified Rules, so too did Pancrase evolve, shedding the lame boots, open-handed slaps and rope grabbing for “real” MMA-style competitions. And though becoming a King of Pancrase never really came to mean as much as winning a UFC or PRIDE belt, a number of respected MMA studs earned themselves that moniker. There was Sanae Kikuta, whose ace grappling enabled him to snag an Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling Championship, and Nate Marquardt, who went on to fight for the UFC belt, plus beasts like Josh Barnett, Ricardo Almeida and Yuki Kondo. In terms of just plain old competitors, Pancrase had even seen the likes of Chael Sonnen, Paul Daley and Evan Tanner get into the ring.

Pancrase is still alive and kicking and churning out shows today, which, given the lifespan of the average MMA promotion, certainly means the organization can be considered a successful one. They’re not the monstrosities of pageantry and pomp that you’d see if you went to a DREAM event, or what you’d see if you took a time machine back to when PRIDE was ruling the world. No, in many ways, Pancrase is the Japanese equivalent to something like King of the Cage – a survivor and solid producer of mixed martial arts.

But who knows, maybe that’s the secret to its success.