UFC Heading to Japan, Strikeforce Bringing Japan Here

The Japanese press is reporting that the UFC is looking to put on a mega-event in Japan as early as next spring. Dave Meltzer reported on this a while back.

Word is they're calling out the top Japanese stars and hoping to set up a battle of the Zuffa champs vs the Japanese stars. Dana is apparently hoping to land Kazushi Sakuraba, Kid Yamamoto, Hidehiko Yoshida and Takanori Gomi to face Zuffa's top stars. Presumably they want Urijah Faber vs Yamamoto and B.J. Penn to rematch Takanori Gomi. Not sure who which wolf they want to throw Sakuraba to. And Brock Lesnar vs Hidehiko Yoshida is just too dreadful to contemplate.

Clearly from a business angle they're after the right Japanese fighters, although you could make a case for Yoshihiro Akiyama instead of Sakuraba, both as a draw and as a top fighter. Regardless, it would require getting both DREAM and World Victory Road on board, as well as securing a Japanese TV deal.

There's also an element of machismo and us vs them in the proposed matchups. Penn has already beaten Gomi soundly and Sakuraba and Yoshida are well over the hill. The only up in the air match is Faber vs Yamamoto.

Of course, Zach Arnold is recommending that the UFC wait and see what newly released from prison Japanese mastermind Kazuyoshi Ishii does next:

There has been talk, since his release from jail, that convicted felon Kazuyoshi Ishii is trying to either consolidate or buy out the two smaller players in MMA (Sengoku and Pancrase). Ed Fishman was once approached about investing money into Pancrase, but the company reportedly had 7-figures in debt. The rumors at this time claim that World Victory Road, the parent company of Sengoku, has bought a stake or a controlling interest in Pancrase. If so, Pancrase will basically become a feeding system for Sengoku. However, Sengoku looks to be a money-losing proposition itself and it may get swallowed whole by K-1 if Ishii perceives that there is some value to consolidation in the business. All of this could be taking place while DREAM is on its last legs. I’ve long predicted that once Ishii got out of jail that DREAM would be finished and that K-1’s Godfather would create a new MMA project in 2009.

Meanwhile, Strikeforce is quietly plugging away, actually signing top Japanese fighters and bringing them to the U.S. From a Strikeforce press release:

Top-ranked lightweight (155 lb. limit) mixed martial arts (MMA) gun, Mitsuhiro "The Endless Fighter" Ishida (16-4-1), will make his way from the battlegrounds of Japan for the first time in his seven-year professional career to face former NCAA Division I wrestling stud and rising Team AKA star, Justin "The Silverback" Wilcox (5-2), in the cage at Strikeforce's mega-event at the world-famous Playboy Mansion in Beverly Hills, CA on Saturday, September 20th.

Also 29 years of age and a wrestling phenom known for his exceptional endurance, Ishida infiltrated the top echelon of 155 lb. competitors by conquering numerous other top contenders in Japan's leading MMA organizations, including the now defunct Pride Fighting Championship as well as Shooto and Dream.

Ishida sent a shockwave through the world of MMA on New Year's Eve last year when he outfoxed then Strikeforce World Lightweight Champion, "El Nino" Gilbert Melendez, for two, five-minute rounds and handed Melendez the first defeat of his career by way of unanimous judges' decision at Saitama, Japan's Saitama Super Arena.

Ishida will be the second top-ranked Japanese fighter on the Strikeforce card, joining middleweight star Kazuo Misaki who'll be facing Joe Riggs. Ishida had a set back with his upset loss to Caol Uno in the DREAM tournament but he's still a top fighter. Will be interesting to see how his wrestling style matches up against a top American wrestler. I wouldn't be surprised to see Ishida dominating the takedowns -- there's a difference between applying wrestling technique in MMA and in the NCAA.

Regardless, I'm very impressed with Strikeforce's ability to sign a higher tier of Japanese fighters than the UFC has been able to. I'm not saying that Yushin Okami and Yoshida aren't top fighters, I'm just saying they were far from stars in Japan.

UPDATE [from Luke Thomas]: Reader Omasuki shares his perspective on the possibility of the UFC returning to Japan:

For many Japanese MMA fans. it is the UFC who killed PRIDE. UFC is a big bad guy who eats everything. In addition, there were no UFC on Japanese TV for the past 2 years so casual fans simply do not know what it is. UFC brand does not work as it is here. Many DREAM fans have never seen GSP, who I believe could be a huge star here too if promoted properly. 

For UFC to enter Japanese MMA market, spending millions of marketing and advertising is not a solution. Man on the street knows what PRIDE and K-1 is in this country. Akebono vs Bob Sapp was watched by 50 million people. Just leverage and stretch the already existing popularity. Just say PRIDE style fights are back. 

As long as I personally have been observing, UFC is not very good at executing this type of quiet, patient and very local market entry strategy. But maybe they are starting doing the right way. I assume someone deliberate may be helping UFC. I would not be surprised if the person who is helping UFC is Kazuyoshi Ishii, a K-1 founder and a huge fixer in the industry.

National network TV deal may be a big missing element, but if everything goes well, the event headlined by Gomi v BJ and Kid v Faber can draw, I believe,  50,000 people to Saitama Super Arena. 

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