There was a certain expectation in the minds of hardcore fans when Japanese featherweight kingpin Hatsu Hioki stepped into the Octagon this past Saturday at UFC 137 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Many of us hoped for a definitive answer to a question while others sought to lay more bricks onto the foundation of an argument that has become more prevalent as time has passed. Can Japanese fighters compete with their American counterparts?
Over the past few years, the answer has been a resounding no. Nearly every single high-level Japanese mixed martial artist who trains extensively in the Land of the Rising Sun has failed in the UFC, leading to even broader generalizations such as the notion that Japanese MMA is dead.
The USAT/MMA Nation consensus #2-ranked featherweight was supposed to, at least for one night, calm those fears. His perceived victim, The Ultimate Fighter season eight contestant George Roop, didn't play the part, however, giving Hioki all he could handle for three rounds and nearly pulling off his second consecutive upset. Fortunately for Hioki, two judges awarded him the win.
During the post-fight interview, Hioki touched upon the generalization that many of us have made about Japanese MMA:
"I want to say something to the world, even though we are in a tough situation, Japanese MMA is not dead," Hioki stated. "It's time to change."
Hioki is right. Japanese MMA isn't dead by any stretch of the imagination, nor will it ever actually cease to exist. Most fans understand that the exaggerated message is a less verbose way of saying it's at a low point. Among most fans, however, the verbal jabs and arguments are specific to the lack of evolution.
We've talked in great lengths about this subject in the past. Japan doesn't have the infrastructure to consistently create quality mixed martial arts fighters. A lacking amateur circuit, inadequate training facilities, lessened knowledge, and the absence of top-flight coaches in vital fighting arts like wrestling make it almost impossible for Japanese fighters to compete against the best fighters in the world. It's time to change.
Luckily for those of us hoping to see the underdog one day prevail, the wheels are already in motion for a momentous comeback. More Japanese fighters are traveling overseas and away from homes to improve. Hatsu Hioki trained under Firas Zahabi at Tristar Gym in the lead-up to Saturday's contest. Former Sengoku featherweight champion Masanori Kanehara has sought out the help of Greg Jackson in New Mexico after losing three of his last four fights. Akiyo Nishiura traveled to the U.S. to train with Matt Hume in the lead-up to his fight with Hideo Tokoro at DREAM 14.
Things aren't going to change for the better overnight, but breaking the stubborn practices that Japanese fighters have made in the past is a good sign. Times are changing and other Japanese fighters need to follow suit, not just for the betterment of their own careers, but for the good of the sport in Japan. In the long-term, these fighters are instrumental in helping the next generation of Japanese MMA fighters succeed. Why not instill the idea that it takes knowledge to succeed in the country's youth interested in combat sports?
Obviously, this doesn't solve every problem. The stubborn mentality, however, is the outer wall of the castle. With time and proof that Japanese fighters are improving by leaps and bounds by utilizing facilities outside of the country, a shift will eventually happen. Is Japanese MMA dead? No, just behind the times. Hopefully Japanese fighters will take the path less traveled and continue evolving. Perhaps one day, in our lifetime, Japan will rise again.