The Slow and Steady Approach Will Prevail in Japan's Declining MMA Market

Freestyle wrestling champion Maximo Blanco has been one of the rising stars of Sengoku who has benefited from the "slow and steady" philosophy of World Victory Road. Photo by Taro Irei, Sherdog.com

One of the semi-permanent discussions among die-hard mixed martial arts fans over the last half decade has revolved around the downward spiral of Japanese mixed martial arts and how it can be revived back to its original, profitable, highly-entertaining product that it once was during PRIDE's peak. Countless gimmicks have been tried, tested, and ultimately proven to be only temporary fads. Most of those gimmicks lie in the hands of DREAM, FEG's mixed martial arts promotion, as they've added some flavor to their cards with the use of a cage and continually pushing big name stars of an old era in Japan. But as Daniel Herbertson points out in his most recent article at MMAFighting.com, World Victory Road's Sengoku Raiden Championships is taking the higher road:

"Slow and steady" may be good words to use to describe the growth of World Victory Road's Sengoku Raiden Championship up until this point. Attendance numbers are solid but not great, some interesting talent has come in and some has left, the quality of the event is getting better and they have slowly become a profitable venture.

That is what the public see though. First under the direction of Takahiro Kokuho and now under Mukai, Sengoku and has been signing some of the biggest prospects in Japan, creating a development program, building gyms, holding tournaments and setting up the potential for growth that is anything but "slow and steady".

There are two distinct camps to the argument regarding the rebirth of Japanese mixed martial arts. Some believe the only way in which interest can be resurrected is to "bring down the house" with quality match-ups involving big stars and including the PRIDE-style freakshow bouts whenever possible. While that could certainly bring huge ratings, it has only proven to be a temporary solution to the concern that people just aren't interested in mixed martial arts in Japan anymore.

Others believe that PRIDE's style of promotion was a fad itself , and in order to be profitable long-term -- a huge shift in how these promotions work and make money needs to happen. That's where the "slow and steady' approach comes into play, and while their main competitor, DREAM, aims to build partnerships to buy the drawing talent -- Sengoku continues to develop talent, almost like a Major League Baseball team waiting for its turn to shine once that talent develops.

Interestingly enough, this also involves another lengthy debate we've had over the past three to four years -- why aren't Japanese fighters improving, and why aren't there more Asian-based fighters progressing into the upper-echelon of weight classes worldwide?

We've gone over it a thousand times, but generally -- the argument points out the same problems. Deficient training in comparison to camps in the United States and Brazil, lack of a diverse and competitive amateur wrestling circuit in Japan, only now finding the huge benefits of weight cutting, and the feeding of highly-credentialed prospects to well-rounded veterans who "discourage" those new talents from continuing in the sport. Some of these reasons are obviously more profound than others, but the lack of training is the most significant.

As Kid Nate pointed out this week, there are some improvements in that area, but Herbertson points out the other obvious issue that needs to change and has changed with Sengoku:

Beijing judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii was one of the most sort after free agents in all of MMA in 2008/2009. Sengoku beat out the UFC and DREAM to secure him and immediately secured a new major sponsor in security company Senko.

Other recent signings include Judo Olympic silver medalist Hiroshi Izumi, 24-year old two-time All Japan Greco Roman Champion Katsuya Kitamura and seven-time consecutive All-Japan Wrestling Championship winner Akihito Tanaka (the fighter formally known as Kinniku Mantoro).

But rather than throw these new fighters to the wolves (or Bob Sapp, while dressed as a comic book character), many have been placed into a development program.

From their conception Sengoku has been putting "training players" of all levels into a program that is meant to support fighters through the initial stages of a professional MMA career.

Talent must be developed for Japanese mixed martial arts to have any sustainability. Bringing in the latest and greatest isn't a viable option unless your ultimate goal is to ravage the surplus of money you've accumulated over the years when profits were high. Sengoku didn't start with a huge initial investment, thus they were forced to work by using methods that are more familiar to Western fans than Japanese fans -- quality matchmaking and bringing in developing talent.

DREAM is beginning to remind me of my beloved, yet idiotic Chicago Cubs. Sometimes a great spectacle to watch in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, but the product itself can be abysmal and the money that's pouring into the pockets of their players is exceeding the entertainment and success the team has provided. They also had a propensity to go out and get the best available ballplayer on the free agent market, and now they're sinking in deep water.

DREAM must avoid that type of disaster, and they could take some hints from Sengoku. But instead, I have a feeling we are going to see DREAM become way too ambitious for their own good, expand into new markets, and blow cash. Sengoku's structure is much more stable for growth. Partnerships with training camps and promotions like Shooto and Pancrase is a great way to find talent, and they also provide a means to developing that talent. But I think the most important factor here.... is that Sengoku is allowing talent to grow, unlike what many promotions in the past have done to Olympic medalists and wrestling champions. That should, in itself, provide us with a vision of the goal they intend to reach.

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