Dream has tried to change course. A cage introduced last fall was intended to mimic the format of promotions here, but fighters had little interest in it. (Kazushi Sakuraba entered his last fight with "We want ring" playing on video screens.) They dug into Pride’s bag of tricks and hosted a "Super Hulk" tournament with over-sized, under-skilled giants taking on smaller, more talented fighters: Jose Canseco was a participant. They even tried resurrecting the foolproof Gracie/Sakuraba rivalry by enticing Ralek Gracie to come fight the aging star. (He won.)
None of it mattered much. Ratings on TBS, one of Japan’s over-air networks, are not impressive. The trick bag is approaching empty.
More bad news? Dream is backed by FEG, the promotion behind K-1 -- Japan’s premiere combat sports league since the early 1990s. If they don’t have a handle on how to resuscitate things or the cash to make bold moves, the chances of a positive outcome are slim.
In many ways, it was the surge of the UFC in 2005 that started it: finally able to afford marquee talent, Pride had issues holding on to attractions. When the Yakuza scandal hit, effectively destroying that company in 2007, Japan’s audiences seemed to take that as a sign that the glory days were over.
This would be a good time to suggest changes, but the reality is, there may not be many to make. Pride built its foundation on the appeal of pro wrestlers fighting "for real," a resource that’s dried up in the wake of lower purses and fan apathy. Sakuraba always seems one bad break away from retirement: Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto is aging in the ring.
The MMA market has contracted in Japan and done so in a very big way. It's time to recognize the reality of what this means: rather than servicing the pro wrestling impulses that launched MMA in Japan, the country's leading promotions, DREAM and Sengoku, are rapidly atrophying into little more than glorified regional promotions.
Japan does and will continue to develop marquee MMA talent, particularly in the lighter weight classes. The combat sports tradition is rich, and the country is a top factory of international-class judokas and amateur wrestlers. But in the overall landscape of featuring meaningful MMA, the balance of power in delivering the most meaningful MMA has shifted dramatically away from the East.
There are a few ways to begin assessing the problem. I'm personally drawn to the "divide and self-defeat" reality of top MMA organizations. It's a division of the meager ranks at the elite. It is not particularly clear what the value-add is of Sengoku at the moment, outside of discovering and launching Japanese prospects. Initially launched as something of a post-MMA corruption organization with more adherence to sporting parameters, the promotion now features bantamweight tournaments with fighters of almost zero recognizable name value to the hardest of hardcore North American fans. Grooming the next generation of Japanese talent is a worthwhile activity, but is inherently not first-class MMA and certainly not the most profitable or even entertaining enterprise. That's historically been the job of regional MMA and a glaring admission from the promotion about what kind of show they actually are. I don't want to gloss over some of the other contributions Sengoku has made (the rise of Muhammed Lawal, Khalidov vs. Santiago series, fantastic featherweight fights, etc.), but those appear to be declining in frequency and not by accident. They've improved their TV deal, but lost executives, key fighters and their gyms, sponsorship alliances and more.
As we witnessed over the weekend, DREAM is still capable of offering first-rate, high-level, important MMA. DREAM's lightweight and featherweight divisions still offer accomplished, highly-ranked fighters to say nothing of the use of familiar Japanese faces of those ranked outside of the top 10 - Kazuhiro Nakamura, Hiroyuki Takaya and others. But Sengoku's problem is DREAM's problem is Japan's problem. I do not believe Japan has the fan support or fighter supply to divide what little talent they actually have. It's far too crude to analyze the Japanese from that of an owner trying to cut losses and consolidate wealth. I'm not here to glibly suggest SRC should fold it's tent to support DREAM on behalf of Japanese MMA. But unless there are serious and substantive changes, that might happen by itself. As ousted SRC head Takahiro Kokuho said himself:
"Promoters must create an event which can be held without TV deals and sponsors. To do so, we are at the state where we have to restructure MMA by studying other sporting events and learning from them. Japanese MMA organizations are going to diminish if they keep competing against each other. They have to see the world and other kind of sports. There were good times in Japanese MMA. I think people are still seeing the mirage of the times in the past."
Continued in the full entry.
The problem is significant and not one I can adequately cover in a single post, but here's a personal anecdote that I find illuminating. For my radio show, Japanese MMA is ratings cancer. As I said on the air in the above clip from last Saturday's show (Japanese rant starts at 6:06 mark of the segment), in no way whatsoever does it even benefit me a little to talk about DREAM, Sengoku or even American fighters competing abroad. The numbers not only fail to increase, they'll send ratings into a free fall if you talk about it longer than a handful of minutes. In terms of what matters to modern MMA fans in major media outlets, Japanese MMA is not even a minimal concern.
Even this site, which has an obligation to cover Japanese MMA in some formal capacity, isn't really serviced by coverage. When there is a lull in Strikeforce or UFC events, occassionally Japanese MMA can stand out as a traffic driver. We also have a healthy audience here in the BE Night Crew, so there is a portion of the audience that actively seeks out and participates with coverage of East Asian MMA. Generally speaking, however, it's of very marginal significance. While the quality of coverage would decline here, we could easily replace all coverage of anything Japan with anything Brock Lesnar and do far better numbers. I don't know what HDNet's numbers look like for DREAM and Sengoku events, but I'm incredibly curious to find out.
Ultimately what matters for today's Japanese MMA is that their shows produce television ratings, draw local crowds, sell merchandise, and attract sponsors at home. International expansion is not a top priority or necessity for them at the moment. They also don't need my radio ratings or traffic numbers to ensure their survival. And, in fairness, part of what makes attracting audiences here for what's going on there difficult is the national and cultural divide. But the issue isn't whether Japanese MMA is viable because it drives numbers in North America. What's at issue is the decline of the ability of Japanese MMA to produce fights, fighters and events that matter.
Japan was once the seat of power in the MMA kingdom, but when the polarity of power shifted to the U.S., the Japanese were left with not much more of a sport than what they themselves could personally muster. It's good, only occassionally great. Not what it once was. Not even close.