Over at Sherdog.com, Tony Loiseleur has an exhaustive piece up on the efforts to make Strikeforce heavyweight and K-1 World Grand Prix champion Alistair Overeem into a kakutogi star in Japan. It's a long piece, but for a full grasp of Loisleur's thesis the entire piece should be read.
A few things stuck out to me. First, there's an explanation of why Overeem has prioritized competing in Japan for K-1 over defending his Strikeforce title. Loiseleur explains:
Cultural allure is the simplest reason why Overeem remains adamant about spending the best years of his career in Japan and K-1 rather than exclusively fighting MMA stateside.
On top of Overeem's fascination with Japanese pop culture, K-1 stars are infinitely more revered in his native Netherlands, and by fighting K-1 and MMA, his chances for frequent fights and paydays are much greater. Exclusively fighting for Strikeforce or the UFC, he would be looking at three fights a year at most. By fighting K-1 and MMA together, he can easily double that.
Though he does not say so himself, Overeem wants to be in the Octagon someday, according to members from his entourage. However, that time simply is not now. The present is all about building his star and his bank account, and Japan is still the best place to do that.
I'm with most North American fans insofar as I'd prefer Overeem more regularly defend his Strikeforce title, but the Dutchman's logic is sound. In fact, by Dana White's own argument Overeem is making the proper choice. White routinely notes that a fighter's window to make money and an impact in the sport is very short. By prioritizing his competition schedule as he currently does, Overeem is maximizing his financial intake while accruing legitimate athletic accomplishments. At some point soon he'll need to return to the Strikeforce cage, but this balancing act is clearly working for him. It's also a fresh reminder that the globalization of the sport and it's globalized actors can have differing priorities even outside clear geographic power centers.
I also struck by the plain comparison of Overeem with Bob Sapp. With Overeem's seemingly ubiquitous presence on Japanese TV, along with interviews in print magazines, newspapers and any other media outlet of significance, he is getting the sort of rare push that harkens back to the days of the "kakutogi boom" led by Sapp. But there is a crucial distinction:
The greatest case study in this process is Bob Sapp, who became a staple on Japanese television in 2002, turning into one of the most popular celebrities in the entire country and one of the principals of Japan's "kakutogi boom." However, when it became clear they were promoting a guy whose personality far outstripped his talents, interest in Sapp declined.
"I think Alistair is one notch ahead of [Sapp]," says Goodall. "He's clever enough to ride that wagon because he knows that it's not just popularity for himself but for K-1, as well. A lot of Japanese compare [Sapp] with Alistair, but Bob Sapp was all show and no work."
This begs the question as to why Fuji TV had not pushed anyone else the same way since Sapp. Why not Semmy Schilt or Remy Bonjasky?
Simply, their inability to excite a majority of the fans despite their winning kickboxing abilities made them uninteresting subjects. They lack the understanding and ability to play to the TV crowd the way that Sapp and Overeem can.
"If you're the champion, the least you could do is learn a few phrases in Japanese and try to engage the crowd," Overeem tells me at one point, wistfully shaking his head. "You need to engage the audience. It's your responsibility."
Overeem's media savvy and understanding of the climate in Japan cannot be understated. I've always suspected Sapp was ready to take advantage of opportunities thrown his way without ever really considering what it all meant. It's almost like a American TV reality star just looking to maximize whatever exposure they get from being on TV, whose only plan is get exposure while the getting's good. Overeem, by contrast, is taking advantage of the opportunity, but in a much more refined and strategic way.
To that end, what also interested me was not only Overeem strategic vision, but the players and inner circle of Overeem who are using their considerable expertise, business connections and elbow grease to turn Overeem into the next big thing. To wit:
I engage Boon in a long conversation on his master plan of building Alistair into an international star. Boon tells me Overeem is in a "get big in Japan" phase. They do all they can to get him on TV and have him meet a who's who of Japanese media moguls and celebs to ensure his ubiquity in the country for years to come.
"A few years ago, Alistair sat down with me and said, ‘These are my goals. I want to do things like fight in Japan this often, get titles, and retire at this age.'" Boon tells me. "So I developed a plan to do all of it. I can make it happen because of the network I've developed over the years."
Boon has signed Overeem with Yoshimoto Kogyo -- one of nation's oldest and most powerful talent agencies. Though Yoshimoto has historically managed the armies of comedians ever-present on Japanese television, its sheer size and reach has seen it extend its promotional efforts to athletes, musicians and actors, as well. Overeem is the company's first foreign athlete in its nearly 100-year history.
Boon acquired these capabilities by spending more than two decades in the fight game as a producer, promoter and manager. Hemmers himself used to train and manage his stepson, Dutch kickboxing legend Ramon Dekkers, among many other Dutch fighters. A lot of history and ability exists between the two of them, and now Overeem benefits from their combined efforts. However, a media push of this magnitude for one of their charges is a new experience for both of them.
The mediocre ratings for the 2010 K-1 Grand Prix is proof that despite the best practices and heft of this media push, it may all be for naught. Overeem may have the goods to be a star, but part of becoming that "star" requires a kakutogi climate that's significantly more favorable. And as Loiseleur points out, that will only happen when the major media players in Japan work in tandem for that end.
I encourage you to read the entire piece. It's illuminating beyond the scope of Overeem's push. There's much to be gleaned about Japan, the state of MMA in that country and about maneuvering goals within Japanese society. But really, it's about Alistair Overeem and his vision for himself and his future. If his gamble is correct, not only will he be the star he's setting out to be, but maybe - just maybe - he can help reignite kakutogi fever in Japan.