Japanese mixed martial arts may be on a decline in contemporary times, but the two-headed attack of World Victory Road's Sengoku Raiden Championships and FEG's DREAM series of events continues to provide the Asian market with an outlet for a sport that has grown exponentially in the West. While World Victory Road's product has concerns as to whether it will be able to continue competing with the more casual fan-friendly, star-packed promotion like DREAM, both casual viewers in Japan and hardcore fans in the United States can see some value in both promotion's cards over the past year.
One of the major criticisms that has come to the forefront of discussion about the decline in Japan's popularity has been the lack of rising talent in the Asian market. Most notably, Japan lacks an amateur sports structure like that of North America to feed their demands for talent, and there have only been a handful of amateur wrestlers, judo players, and Kyoshukin Karate converts to enter the sport with success. In the United States, amateur wrestling has produced huge numbers of successful fighters, but Japan has some other major roadblocks that really hinder the growth it can attain besides simply lacking a huge amateur structure to feed their ranks.
One of those problems has long been the obsession with popular figures in Japanese culture that simply don't have the skills or background to compete at a high-level immediately in the sport. Fighters like Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto obviously had the wrestling background and brutal power to be highly successful, but those popular figures of Japanese mixed martial arts are now fading into the darkness without anyone to replace them. The Bobby Ologuns, Akebonos, and Bob Sapps of the past generation won't cut it now.
DREAM.15 featured one of the very few rising stars in Japan that seems to have a little buzz behind with mixed martial arts fans in "The Land of the Rising Sun". Katsunori Kikuno, the crescent-kicking Kyoshukin Karate convert, was defeated by Brazilian lightweight veteran Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante by a close split decision in one of the evening's headlining battles, but he managed to show a solid stand-up game throughout the first ten minutes of the bout, frustrating the once-considered top five lightweight in the world. As mentioned during HDNet's broadcast of the event, Kikuno has found some popularity from fans due to his background in a more traditional martial art like Kyoshukin Karate, which originated in Japan.
Shinya Aoki also comes from a somewhat traditional background in that he does incorporate a black belt in Judo with his very creative Brazilian jiu-jitsu grappling skills, but Aoki's popularity mostly stems from the fact that he can pull off incredible submissions in an awe-inspiring, edge-of-your-seat manner and he's a top-flight fighter with proven success. He's entertaining, yet good at the same time. Kikuno is still a work in progress as evident by his grappling prowess against both Cavalcante and Alvarez, but winning fights isn't necessarily my concern right now.
With the Japanese mixed martial arts scene struggling, it seems a bit dangerous for a promotion like DREAM to rely on an up-and-coming fighter like Katsunori Kikuno to draw fans, and it actually makes me believe more trouble is brewing down the road. For as great as it is to see Kikuno's Saichin Dachi stance move from zombie-like to a flurry of explosive punches, I feel like Kikuno's obvious lack of other skills may eventually bring him out of the very light "up-and-coming" group of fighters and into an "never going to be a top fighter" group, limiting his popularity and drawing power for a promotion like DREAM.
Obviously, DREAM shouldn't be relying on Kikuno as a drawing power as of yet, and they still have more than enough relationships with camps throughout the world to bring in top prospects. But the Japanese fans want a Japanese representative who can compete at the top of the sport, and right now -- that's Shinya Aoki. Aoki is only 27 years old, but he can't foot the pressure of being the sole man to assault the North American dominance of the sport in his weight class.
I think there is a concern among both promotions as to the lack of new representation in their country, and to be perfectly honest -- Kikuno seems like a fill-in fad for the time being until he develops a more well-rounded game in which he can actually compete with the top fighters. The real questions are whether there is any pressure in Japan from the networks to find new Japanese stars, and whether or not these mid-level talents can produce enough draw to get Japan through these hard times in the market and stop the networks from cutting mixed martial arts altogether until someone can convince them otherwise.
Don't get me wrong. I found DREAM.15 highly entertaining, but I'm not quite convinced that this level of an event can be maintained without some sort of infusion of talent from Japan. Kikuno and Aoki can't fight ten times a year, and this card seemed to be lined with the stars we're used to seeing from a top notch Japanese event. Will we see some sort of change in how fans perceive these events in Japan? Will talent be found? What about a merger? We can only hope.