For weeks leading up to the UFC’s return to Japan we’ve been hearing of Yakuza conspiracies, back-room deals and police investigations which foreshadowed the demise of Mixed Martial Arts in the country. With UFC 144 in Saitama this past weekend, the UFC hopes it can tap into a market where a single MMA event was once held in a 100,000-seater stadium.
From 1997-2007, the pageantry of pro wrestling coupled with the brutality of soccer kicks, head stomps and one-night tournaments – dominated Japan’s mixed-martial-arts landscape under the banner of PRIDE. However, as the organisation was sold and folded, and TV rights for MMA events ended, the sport seems to have been forgotten overnight.
UFC 144 was a journey into the unknown. A country that could claim to have birthed the sport of MMA has obvious potential, but the bitter winter the sport itself is facing, with few stand-out stars let alone champions, left UFC president Dana White announcing that he did not know what to expect from Saturday night.
The night itself turned out to be outstanding. A card packed with gruelling fights, brutal knockouts and highly technical submissions from top to bottom. The extremely knowledgeable Japanese crowd seemed to lap it up.
There’s an oft told tale of Japanese MMA events: a tale of crowds which sit in eerie silence in their tens of thousands observing the match rather than cheering the fighters. No one expected it to be any different at UFC 144, but they were wrong. The fans cheered the Japanese fighters, applauded the most technical application of submission attempts and escapes which would go over the heads of the average arm chair fan, and even gave resounding welcomes to former PRIDE stars including Rampage Jackson.
That silence did return, in places, as Joe Rogan pointed out. The main event between Edgar and Henderson was observed in deathly quiet for the most part. But none of that detracts from the success of the event or the appreciation of Japanese MMA fans.
The question remains, however, will this one UFC event do for Japanese MMA what UFC 134 in Brazil did for Brazilian MMA: that is birth, or re-birth in this case, the sport overnight in the country.
There are crucial difference between the UFC’s experience in Brazil last year and Japan this year. The Brazilian event was shown on national television and garnered an estimated 23 million viewers. In Japan, it was broadcast on the subscription channel WOWOW which only claims 2.56 million subscribers. This was not an event that was watched nationally.
More than that, Brazil now boasts three of its nationals as UFC champions whereas Japan has none. And, on their night, Brazilians scintillated with dominating performances whereas the Japanese “stars” remained a mixed bag.
Yushin Okami, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Norifumi Yamamoto, three of the biggest names in Japanese MMA, were all defeated on the night. What’s more, there was no Anderson Silva “moment” – that outrageous front kick to Vitro Belfort’s face that seared the Brazilian fighter into the imaginations of his countrymen.
Still, the UFC can take comfort in having given MMA fans in Japan an exceptional night of fighting. It’s a great start, but expect it to take many more nights like this before Japanese MMA sees a return to the heady days of PRIDE.