Last weekend's Dream event from Tokyo pulled in an 11.9 rating that spun the needle to 18.1 for Satoshi Ishii's bout with Ikuhisa Minowa. Not bad for a fight that was put together at the last minute and couldn't benefit from a lot of media attention.
The numbers by no means take Dream off life support. FEG, the promotion's parent company, is still seeking a massive financial investment and there are anecdotal reports that fighters are being forced to wait for their fight purses. With the destruction of Pride and the faded skills of some of the sport's biggest draws overseas -- most notably Kazushi Sakuraba and Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto -- Japan has suffered a steep decline in interest. It might turn out to be cyclical -- pro wrestling in the States has experienced some of the same decline and uptick -- or it might be an indication that only the biggest fights hold any appeal for viewers there.
Naturally a flash of success from a promising young talent means that FEG, the owners of DREAM and K-1, are looking at putting together a complete mismatch for Ishii's next fight. Ishii said after his DREAM.16 win over Minowaman that he wanted a K-1 fight against the legendary kickboxer Peter Aerts. With Aerts advancing in the K-1 Grand Prix, FEG officials are talking about Ishii against another kickboxing legend, Jerome Le Banner. Yes, they want to throw Ishii in against a man that former UFC champ Tim Sylvia has been ducking for years -- under MMA rules.
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From what I've heard, the Japanese ratings for the Final 16 were unimpressive so it makes sense to me that K-1 would throw together a fight like this for a ratings jump on the December show. A former Olympic gold medalist judoka vs. a K-1 superstar sounds like a slightly twisted, Japanese version of the boxing vs. MMA debacle known as Couture/Toney. Although UFC 118 didn't do the type of numbers the UFC expected, the Japanese market has been swayed to tune in to fights like this in the past much more notably than Americans.
I applaud Ishii's yearning to become a more well-rounded MMA fighter, but if he wants to go into K-1, call out Yusuke Fujimoto or Tsuyoshi Nakasako. Go up against an appropriate veteran opponent that has a longer stand-up background for you to test your skills against. If Satoshi Ishii fights Jerome Le Banner, Ewerton Teixeira, or Peter Aerts, he will be beaten badly and potentially brutally and I don't think many would disagree. If K-1 desperately wants this match-up, make it an openweight MMA fight and make it somewhat competitive.
This is exactly the kind of short term spectacle over sport thinking that brought Japanese MMA to its knees in the first place. Here's Ishii, a young kid with loads of athletic talent and incredible take down skills who needs to be brought along carefully, adding striking and improved ground fighting to his Judo game, probably should cut down to light heavyweight. Handled carefully he could be the first top ranked Japanese MMA fighter since the hey days of KID Yamamoto, Kazushi Sakuraba and Takanori Gomi.
Instead they're looking at giving him brain damage in a freak show fight against an aging veteran that will do nothing to build anything over the longer term.
Japan was MMA's biggest market from 1997 to 2007. Despite the growth of the U.S. scene, the collapse of the Japanese market leaves the sport basically treading water. If we truly want MMA to become a major world sport, it's critical that the Japanese fans come back.