For neophytes, the world of Shooto is wholly unfamiliar. But for hardcore fans Shooto was, for a time, practically a religion. With a logo reminiscent of the old Mortal Kombat games, it has been the banner under which many great fighters got their start.
It's kind of impossible to overstate what an important institution Shooto was for MMA fans interested in the lighter weights. The organization was practically the linchpin for MMA "elitism": who were you to talk about MMA on any kind of educated level if you couldn't recall the exploits of Rumina Sato beating Charles Diaz with a flying armbar? What do you know about Anderson Silva if you can't appreciate his 2001 win over Hayato Sakurai that earned him Shooto's Middleweight belt?
As organizations like Pride and HERO's took over the MMA landscape in Japan, Shooto's roster was constantly poached, but it never failed to produce quality MMA because there has never been a better amateur system than Shooto. Unfortunately, there's another side to Shooto, and one rarely seen until Sherdog's Tony Loiseleur brought the story into focus.
Taro Wakabayashi isn't a familiar name to MMA fans in the same way Takanori Gomi, Tatsuya Kawajiri are: but it's a very familiar name to the man who organized a petition to reveal Shooto's finances, for which Taro has assumed "unofficial autocratic control over".
Noboru Asahi, the man at the center of the petition, and his story go a little something like this: in 2003 he found himself an outsider looking in, distanced from his once established role as part of the Japanese Shooto Association (JSA) after suggesting Shooto begin co-promoting with Pancrase and Deep. To give you an idea of what an injustice this was, consider this unique practice:
Until recently, the JSA maintained that any licensed Shootor who competed in Pancrase would have his licensed revoked, while Pancrase forced competitors who trained out of official Shooto facilities to use pseudonyms for their gyms in official Pancrase press material.
This might seem bizarre to outsiders, but not to anyone familiar with the fall and disgrace of Pride. Promotional rivalry dates back to its most famous case when FujiTV dropped DSE-related programming (and thus Pride) off the reports of Seiya Kawamata who claimed DSE sent its own personal yakuza task force after him.
While the Pride scandal was more complicated, the Shooto scandal is simple: what has Wakabayashi done with Shooto's funds and why the presence of discrepancies? The pressure brought on by Asahi's petition presumably forced Wakabayashi's dismissal. For more on the discrepancies:
"At the last association meeting, when we asked Nakai how much money we have, he told us 200,000 yen (approximately $2,400). This was just after the East Japan Amateur Tournament, which should have brought in an additional 500,000 yen (approximately $6,000)," said Asahi.
As co-founder and co-owner of Japan's most prolific chain of Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools, Paraestra, Asahi claims Nakai and Wakabayashi's long-term affiliation as business partners enables Nakai access to Wakabayashi's business documents -- documents that Asahi and company have been pushing to be made public. Once Nakai divulged the amount of money in Shooto's account, Asahi and the petitioners were taken aback, as the total was far less than they
"By our estimates, Shooto should profit at least 2,000,000 yen ($24,000) a year. There's a lot of money that cannot be accounted for since a lot of it comes in as cash. Where did it all go?" Asahi asked.
Transparency is the key for now. But the broader point for the fighters and individuals is what the future of Shooto will be about. And they seem to understand their place in the MMA world for now: as a feeder organization for the big leagues.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The growing perception, and one Asahi explicitly alludes to is making sure the system is designed to accommodate the new (essentially Zuffa) landscape. The new mecca is less about spectacle, and pageantry, and more about sport. That last sentence is less about the state of things, and more about the reflection of how the fighters themselves feel.
Takeya Mizugaki even uses this language in a previous article by Loiseleur: "I respect the Japanese entertainment culture, but for me, I personally prefer the pure athletic image of MMA that's practiced in America, . . . . they treat MMA like a sport in America. Fighters are considered athletes, and I want to fight as an athlete. To me, the major leagues are [stateside]."
A discussion about Shooto's future, which can claim to having the most structured amateur system in the world, is simultaneously a discussion of the future of Japan in the world of mixed martial arts. The light at the end of the tunnel is that despite the setbacks, the tax scandal being one of them, the rebuilding process is already underway.
I couldn't possibly summarize the article in 500 words, nor is that my intention. Please read the fully entry here. Like Herbertson, you can always count on Loisleur for quality work. He can be found on twitter @JustTonyL.