After months of speculating whether the UFC was serious about heading back to the Land of the Rising Sun, UFC Asia marketing director Mark Fischer officially announced yesterday that the UFC will hold an event on Sunday, February 26th at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The event will take place at 10 AM local time on February 26 in order to accommodate a live pay-per-view on February 25 for fans stateside. According to Japanese combat sports magazine Gong Kakutogi, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Yushin Okami, Michihiro Omigawa, Takanori Gomi, Hatsu Hioki, Riki Fukuda, Takeya Mizugaki, and Norifumi Yamamoto are all being considered for the early 2012 card.
According to MMAFighting.com's Dan Herbertson, Fischer also pointed out that the UFC's plan "is to make a Japan show an annual event on top of other Asia-based shows". Fischer likened it to the recent success of UFC Rio, utilizing local fighters and the local media. Unfortunately, this isn't the first step to a complete revival of mixed martial arts in Japan. It's more like dipping a toe into the water to check the temperature in the dead of winter.
FightOpinion.com's Zach Arnold has plenty of opinions to chew on revolving around the event, but the notion that this is a "vanity card" has gained more and more validity as news has surfaced. The most telling sign is the 10 AM JST time slot. As if it wasn't going to be hard enough "making it" in Japan, the UFC won't even cater to the fanbase in the country. They'll cater to us here in the United States instead.
The rumored roster for the event isn't going to make waves either. To be perfectly honest, I'm not convinced any roster could draw in the current combat sports climate in Japan. Akiyama and Yamamoto are likely the two most interesting fighters on the docket for Japanese fans, but their stock has dropped considerably. Unless the UFC is willing to sacrifice some of their freak show talent, i.e. Alistair Overeem or Josh Barnett, it's difficult to see the intrigue at all.
Throw another log onto the fire when discussing the UFC's current stance in the Japanese television landscape. It might as well be non-existent. Deals with WOWOW, NTT Plala, and TV Bank have hardly any reach. Fans must seek out the UFC's content themselves to find it, which means new fans aren't finding the content, only fans who were already fans. Network television rules Japan. Most of the population is watching network television at all times, not flipping to Bravo to watch a horrible reality cooking show or Jersey Shore on MTV like we do here in North America. Without network, revenue will be hard to come by.
Why is the UFC heading to Japan? The yakuza is still very active in the entertainment industry. Combat sports is down right now in the country. If UFC Rio proved anything, it proved that lessened media from the UFC's largest market hurts the buyrate for pay-per-views. The UFC could pull in a decent crowd for one or two events annually, but live gate money subtracted from the money the UFC will need to spend to produce an event in Japan could put them in the red. Is it really worth it?
While I do believe there is a plan in place for the UFC to begin planting seeds in Japan for long-term success, now isn't the time to make those moves. I think the most overlooked problem for the UFC is that there isn't any sign that they want to change their product to cater to the Japanese fans. The UFC doesn't seem at all interested in attempting to bridge the cultural divide. Historically, that's been the most significant problem with American businesses heading to Japan.
The UFC wants to push their brand, their own style of what combat sports is to the Japanese. Unfortunately, the whole idea that the spectacle of American entertainment can draw in a crowd is only a novelty idea. History suggests otherwise. In fact, history suggests that Americanized versions of anything have failed miserably in Japan without some tweaking to fit into the culture. The vanity act will only falsely create an idea in the UFC's head that success can happen. It won't last.