Is Japanese MMA Done and Can Dana White Avoid a Similar Fate in the States?

Photo by Dave Mandel via Sherdog

When Kenny Florian squashed Japanese legend Takanori Gomi at UFC Fight Night 21, fans of Japanese MMA were pinning their hopes on Shinya Aoki, the #2 ranked lightweight in the world per the USAT/SBN Consensus MMA Rankings. After Aoki's one-sided loss to Gilbert Melendez, many pundits are writing off the Land of the Rising Sun as a major hub for MMA. D.W. of Head Kick Legend responds:

If the fight happened in Japan there is no doubt it would've been a different fight without a cage and with the different rules. Of course this pokes a lot of holes in how people rank MMA, especially in the lightweight division, as this shows just how hard it is to compare American MMA and Japanese MMA. The fact that Aoki did not win a single round is almost irrelevant to his fighting style as Shinya Aoki has never been a truly dominant fighter as opposed to a fighter that can fight himself out of bad positions and pull off impressive wins. Aoki has no stand up to speak of and went into this fight with grappling alone at his disposal.

I know for many the talk of a rematch will die down as it wouldn't seem competitive, but a rematch under DREAM rules in a ring could be an entirely different fight and one I'd like to see.

But it's not just Aoki, a controversial figure even in his homeland, former mega-star KID Yamamoto has signed to fight for Strikeforce and will be making his debut for the promotion in a dark match (untelevised) at their May 15 event. This is staggering because for many years, Yamamoto was considered not just the best under 155lb fighter in the world, but he was a huge star on Japanese television. D.W. has some thoughts on this as well, per Head Kick Legend:

It will be difficult to get high profile wins in Strikeforce when Yamamoto will apparently not be airing on Showtime. This goes back to a previous point, that Strikeforce has no clue how to promote Japanese fighters. Shinya Aoki on CBS while KID Yamamoto will be on a dark match on a Showtime card is absolutely beyond belief, as their star power is nowhere on the same level. Even with Yamamoto's problems and disappointments, he is still one of the biggest Japanese draws in a post-PRIDE world for MMA. The only other name that comes to mind post-Kazushi Sakuraba in martial arts is recently-retired K-1 MAX fighter Masato. On New Year's Eve the highest rated segments involved KID Yamamoto in the DREAM vs. SRC series, Masato's retirement and the Yoshida vs. Ishii bout. Shinya Aoki's fight was aired during the last half hour block after the Masato fight and was the lowest rated portion of the show.

This is without a doubt not how anybody expected KID Yamamoto to make his American debut. This is with a whimper and not a bang. The talk a few years ago was that the fight that needed to happen was KID Yamamoto vs. Urijah Faber, one of the biggest dream bouts of the past few years that it looks like will never happen. Zuffa and FEG could never come to terms to make the fight happen, with both sides wanting more than the other could offer.

Strikeforce is making a mistake here, even with Yamamoto on a 2-fight losing streak in MMA. Yamamoto could be the easiest of all the Japanese fighters from DREAM to promote. His fighting style is exciting and entertaining, with 12 of his 17 wins coming via brutal knockouts and two via submission, there is basically no such thing as a dull KID Yamamoto fight. On top of that, unlike most of the other Japanese fighters from DREAM, Yamamoto grew up in the United States and speaks english, as well as integrated a lot of "American" attitude and style into his persona which helped make him such a big star in Japan.

Frankly, the reason that fighters who have headlined successful Japanese events for years like Gomi, Aoki and Yamamoto are fighting in the U.S. is because the MMA business in Japan has all but collapsed.

Why has Japanese MMA collapsed as a business proposition? Well there are numerous reasons, but (yes I'm going to link to him for the third time in one post, what can I say, HKL is my go-to for Japanese MMA updates) D.W. of Head Kick Legend blames the mendacity of Japanese MMA promoters and says there is a warning there for Dana White:

So I'm sure you are wondering, how exactly is Dana White lying to everybody considered Japanese. It is quite simple, if you've been following HKL since we came up at least, or following the Japanese MMA and kickboxing scene for any period of time, you'll notice how anything said to the media should be taken with a grain of salt. What this means is when Tanikawa of K-1 or Sasahara of DREAM make an announcement it is usually not considered official until it has been added to the official fight card. The same can be said for the media in Japan, whose sources are usually within the companies. What this creates is an atmosphere where fighters, fans and the media are all fed lies on a daily basis and finding out what is truth or fiction often comes down to educated guess-work or waiting until the event is live.

I'll use a recent example where Andrei Arlovski's camp was given a contract by FEG to fight Alistair Overeem on New Year's Eve. They signed it, returned it, then went about getting Andrei's camp in motion to fight Overeem in a MMA bout. The only problem is Bas Boon, Overeem's manager, had not approved the bout and turned it down for a fight with Kazuyuki Fujita. There are older examples, like K-1 giving Bas Boon a contract using him a middle-man to sign Fedor Emelianenko, of course the problem was that Boon had minimal connections to Fedor and there was no way that Vadim and Co. would approve this contract not under their terms.

Tanikawa's Twitter feed is full of tongue-in-cheek rumors, sometimes used simply to throw people off of his trail. Other times he is completely honest. When pressed about Alistair Overeem a few months ago, he said Overeem would not fight at DREAM.13 but K-1 Yokohama. The problem was, Overeem thought he was still fighting at DREAM.13. Do you see why this is confusing and hard to believe?

Dana White is moving down a winding road full of bumps if he can continue to justify lying to the fans and media. This is the problem, he finds there to be nothing wrong with this, when maybe he should take a look at the years of abuse from Japanese promoters and how much of a mess the fight industry is there. If you build your foundation on sand, don't expect it to stand up to a battering of waves.

We've enjoyed a five year run of success from the UFC in the States, but we should never assume that it's a given to continue. Nearly a year after UFC 100, Zuffa has come no where near repeating its success, despite having mounted more events in the last nine months than ever. 

The apparent failure of Strikeforce to make a go of things on CBS leaves the American MMA market sadly diminished and while that may look to be a good thing for Dana White and the UFC, it leaves the sport itself in a more tenuous position than it's been in since the "dark ages" of 1997-2002.

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