There was a time when Japan was indisputably the home of the top martial arts promotions in the world. Pancrase and SHOOTO were the forefathers of them all, showing those to follow what a beautiful sport this could be. K-1 and Pride soon joined the fun with bombast and a pro wrestling style promotion that delighted mainstream and hardcore fans alike.
For almost a decade the small nation of Japan lorded over the martial arts world. The best of the best pursued their careers there, a who's who of the top mixed martial artists and kickboxers of their generation. Controversy brought things crashing to a halt. Pride was engulfed in their famous Yakuza scandal. K-1's Kazuyoshi Ishii had a scandal of his own, spending almost two years in prison on a tax evasion charge.
Today, Pride is dead and buried. Only the fighting legacies of their proud fighters sustain its memory. K-1 is holding it together by a thread. Money is scarce and despite continuing interest, the future seems unsustainable. Now, even the less ambitious World Victory Road Sengoku promotion is struggling to go forward.
The controversy springs from an article in Gong Kakutougi, a leading Japanese fight magazine, that WVR says has done them serious harm. The article in question makes the claim that Sengoku is so poorly run that fighters often don't sign their bout agreements until the night of the fight or sometimes even the day after. The promotion says reporter Manabu Takashima has no proof of these claims and his article has made sponsor Don Quijote reconsider their support of MMA in Japan. As MMA Fighting's Dan Herbertsen explains, that could be the final nail in the coffin:
Discount chain store Don Quijote, chaired by Takao Yasuda, is arguably the most important company supporting Japanese MMA. Don Quijote's money bought Pancrase out of debt, founded SRC's parent company World Victory Road and has been a major sponsor of Shooto, DREAM and Pride FC.
If Don Quijote pulled its money out of MMA, it would be catastrophic.
As native promotions hang on for dear life, Strikeforce is considering its own entry into the complicated market. With stars on hand like Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett, and Shinya Aoki, there is some potential there. But Japanese MMA expert Zach Arnold says Strikeforce is making all the wrong allies in its attempt to breathe life into the Japanese scene:
To my astonishment over the weekend, Strikeforce boss Scott Coker on multiple occasions told the US press in attendance in San Jose that he was having dinner with Sotaro Shinoda to negotiate bringing a Strikeforce show to Japan under DREAM auspices for April 9th. I chose the word astonishment because not one US media type blinked at all when Shinoda appeared in town, let alone had his name publicly mentioned by Strikeforce. Why? Sotaro Shinoda was Nobuyuki Sakakibara’s right-hand man in PRIDE. PRIDE, of course, had the Shukan Gendai yakuza scandal that resulted in Fuji TV cutting ties from the organization and ultimately led to the company’s demise. Suffice to say, you can see how ex-PRIDE employees under the DREAM banner could make things difficult in terms of attracting potentially big sponsors or television deals in the country.
Is MMA dead in Japan? Sadly it's looking like 2011 may be the end of an era.