Floundering Judo Superstar Satoshi Ishii and the Future of Japanese MMA

The road not taken, at one point Olympic Gold medalist Satoshi Ishii flirted seriously with signing with the UFC. It's believed he might have been slotted into the TUF 10 against Roy Nelson, Kimbo Slice, et al.

Olympic judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii was the most highly touted prospect coming into MMA in 2009. Now he's lucky to get a DQ overturned in a very minor league promotion. Nightmare of Battle reported:

The X-1 promotors have overturned the Satoshi Ishii DQ loss to Myles Tynanes to a no contest due to a referee miss. When Ishii dropped Myles at the end of the first round the gong wasn't noticed and the referee acted too slow (he didn't step in-between immediately following the gong sounding).

When Ishii heard this he didn't really care much. In his mind he won the fight. He showed growth in his stand-up game and that has increased his self-confidence. The fact that he KO'd his opponent is bigger than the result being overturned.

They are also reporting that Ishii is likely to fight next on one of Impact FC's cards in Australia before returning to Sengoku in August.

Jordan Breen (transcript via Fight Opinion) thinks that Ishii's journey into the MMA wilderness is a good thing:

"Satoshi Ishii has done something really interesting that very few Japanese guys get the chance, let alone actually forward with, and he's left Japan, he's training at HMC out in Hawaii and basically he's just fighting like an MMA prospect. Just fighting every couple of weeks. When you compare and contrast that to how most Japanese athletes are handled, especially cross-over guys who won Olympic medals, it's a bit crazy really. It's almost like MMA's kind of like a sport. You know, just this guy who has some potential just going, he's training somewhere, he's fighting as much as he wants. It's kind of like the way that MMA's supposed to be almost. And he's probably going to win as a result of it. Right now, he's not facing world-beaters. You know, he's had an exhibition fight in Hawaii, he just had a fight down in [New Zealand] that he won via armbar.

The point is that Ishii now can train at his own rate. He's outside the media scope of Japan. No promotions are forcing things upon him. He's just getting to train and develop at his own rate and do his thing. That's great. We can only hope that MMA, as we continue to globalize, offers these opportunities to more guys. There's an Olympic gold medalist wrestler or judoka from Japan who want to learn how to fight MMA properly, they don't have to be put into you know fights for half a million dollars immediately where they're going to have their competitive edge dulled by the fact that they're facing guys with 10 times more experience. So, good for Satoshi Ishii. And good for his handlers for recognizing that this is probably the best way to develop an actual fighter."

Zach Arnold strongly disagrees:

With natural MMA prospects, you can separate the love-of-the-game and business factors. With Satoshi Ishii, you can't because they will always be intertwined. His whole selling point for getting into the business in the first place is because of his Olympic background, so you have to be really careful with how you start. Once he turned pro, he started doing press conferences and the negative charisma was just overflowing. The media turned on him and looked at him as a goof. And he indeed was a goof who goofed up very badly when he chose Sengoku over K-1. It was one of the most asinine business decisions he could have ever made. At the time he made that choice, I remember talking to agents in Japan who handle fighters who were just shaking their heads at how badly things were being managed for him. Then, when he had surgery last year, people started questioning what kind of skill level he had in the first place. There were plenty of whispers that his training sessions weren't going well at all and that he was a very slow learner.

If you are managing Ishii's business affairs, you owe it to him to be honest and to do the right thing. Your margin for error with someone like him who can be your meal ticket is very small. If you bring someone like him into MMA, you have to be able to make a snap judgment after a couple of months of training and be able to figure out, OK, can this guy actually improve or is it going to take too long or is he just what he is and do we need to cash out and get as much as we can before the public thinks he's a fraud and then go back to salvaging him afterwards and rebuild his image? In this case, his management team should have done the deal with K-1 and played it smart. Instead, he ended up with a lousy deal and is in this awkward position.

Essentially Breen and Arnold are splitting along the lines of fight fan and student of promotion. What Ishii is doing is without a doubt what's best for him as a fighter. He's a very young kid with almost no MMA experience, by all means bring him along slowly. But Arnold is right that he totally botched his coming out party by signing with Sengoku after going on a big media tour. 

But this brings up some larger issues about Japanese MMA and its failure to develop propects. And here's why this matters: modern MMA was invented in Brazil and Japan; Japan was the first country in the world where MMA achieved popular succes; Japan has a tradition of combat sports that rivals any nation in the world. If MMA stops growing in Japan, we've got problems.

More in the full entry.

Hayato "Mach" Sakurai spoke out about this in a recent interview with MMA Fighting:

All the the good fighters used to be young. Now they are all old and no one has replaced them.

There has to be some program or campaign to create new fighters like The Ultimate Fighter for the UFC. There is nothing to develop fighters. The Ultimate Fighter is really a copy of an older Japanese boxing TV show, and we need that again in Japan for MMA otherwise the level difference between Japan and the rest of the world will become even worse. Japan is going to become weaker and weaker.

...

You seem frustrated by Japanese MMA.

Of course I am! It's hard for me to speak out loud about this but of course I am! What is with these guys who come from other sports and get so much money to fight. Three times as much money as any MMA fighter! If the MMA community has money like that to spend, they should be spending it on young fighters. Too many young MMA fighters cannot spend the time they need to on training because they need to work to support themselves and that takes too much time away from the gym.

Tsuyoshi Kosaka spoke to Sherdog about the same issue:

"In my estimation, the UFC is already quite complete in terms of promotion and their roster of fighters," he says. "In Japan however, whether Dream or Sengoku, MMA is still developing. We still need to raise greater public awareness of the sport and of the fighters themselves. A lot of people in Japan still don't know what MMA is and why fighters do the things they do in the ring. We're still at a stage where we need to explain things to everyone."

Tony Loiseleur elaborated in the same article:

Besides being a pioneer for Japanese in the Octagon, Kosaka is one of Japanese MMA's greatest domestic resources. Serving as guest commentator for Dream and UFC broadcasts in Japan, Kosaka is also an ambassador to fans and laypersons alike by conducting public video seminars where he meticulously dissects major MMA events.

Japanese isolation from the rest of the MMA world is a complex dilemma. On the one hand, Japanese promotions do little to appeal to or acknowledge the international audience, which then diminishes the impetus for homegrown fighters to learn about international MMA and venture abroad. On the other hand, while Japanese promotions doggedly work to revive a domestic market, they are currently promoting MMA to an audience that simply is not interested in the sport.

There are no indications that this narrow focus will ever change. Historically speaking, what Japanese MMA seems to need now is what buoyed K-1 Max and Pride's success -- omnipresent, charismatic stars that capture the imagination of everyday Japanese people and not just fight fans.

Ten years ago Japan produced a bumper crop of MMA stars: Kazushi Sakuraba, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Tsuyoshi Kosaka, Rumina Sato, Caol Uno, et al. Five years ago hot new prospects like Takanori Gomi, Tatsuya Kawajiri, and Shinya Aoki were coming to the forefront. Today there doesn't appear to be a new generation on the horizon.

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