The death of Dream leaves a void at the top of Japanese MMA. I expect to see a very interesting battle as numerous groups maneuver to grab a solid foothold with fighters, TV rights, arena dates, and most importantly fans.
We have seen PRIDE, and Dream both become untenable while operating primarily in Japan, and K-1 suffering through some hard times, so why is it still such an attractive market? Japan is the world's 10th most populated country, but also home to it's third biggest economy. It is also a very urban country, so the population is concentrated in areas where they can get to arenas for big shows. There is a rich tradition of martial arts that includes Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, and MMA in the country. The fans in Japan understand a good grappling match as much as they understand an all out Leonard Garcia type brawl.
Let's take a look at the contenders to step in
Zuffa - I put Zuffa and not just UFC, because I feel that Strikeforce and It's Women's division could be key to any big move that Zuffa could make into Japan. Zuffa has the talent on the roster, Okami, Akiyama, Gomi, Hioki, Omigawa, Mitsuoka, Tamura and Mizugaki to bring the hometown feel and local talent to any card they have in Japan. They also have guys from the Pride days like Shogun, Hendo, Wandy, Big Nog, Lil Nog, and Belfort to supplement the hometown guys. But Zuffa has something more that is somehow overlooked when considering how successful it can be in Japan, The best talent in the world. Many people gloss over the fact that PRIDE had many of the best fighters in the world, and was putting on blockbuster fights, mixed with solid local talent card after card in its heyday. UFC is the only organization that can put on comparable cards several times a year in Japan.
UFC has multiple champions that have not proven to be big draws in the USA, what do they have to lose by sending Bendo, Cruz, Aldo, or the new Flyweight Champ to headline a card overseas. It will give the local fans a great champion, and UFC will not lose much on the home front.
Ronda Rousey - Not only is she a great talent, and personality, but her base is the most popular martial art in Japan, Judo. She can connect with a marital arts audience that is underrepresented in elite MMA compared to it's participation level world wide. Japan is the home of Judo, and a world power in the sport. Being an Olympic Silver medalist is a sure way to get people s attention, and open some doors for a rising ambassador of the sport.
What will hold Zuffa back is that they are just as worried about getting into China, India, the Philippines, and other countries around Asia and the world. UFC already has a show scheduled for Macao later this year, and It is unlikely that they will commit 2-3 shows a year to the Japanese market that they would need to in order to completely dominate the market.
OneFC has the Asian focus, and a growing network of fighters. They have already featured some of Dream's top talent on their March show, and seem poised to make quick offers to grab up the best talent they can. With their Asia centric business model, OneFC undoubtably will be able to focus more cards, and attention on Japan then Zuffa could in a year. Using it's extended network, One FC will have a good shot at grabbing the next great Japanese prospect before Zuffa can get their hands on them. What will work against OneFC is the same thing that will work against Zuffa, and that is dividing their attention around the rest of Asia. OneFC seems to be looking at Singapore, China, Philippines, and Indonesia just as much as they are looking at Japan. OneFC will also have to face the prospect of overpaying to keep top talent in their mix. UFC has more resources, and there is only so much talent to go around.
Bellator is a company looking to make a splash, especially with their upcoming move to SPIKETV. They are going to have a bigger audience, and possible the demise of Dream presents an opportunity for Bellator to launch some show's outside of North America. What if Bellator did something like their summer series from Japan with mini 4 man tourney's of only Asian fighters. Don't forget that Bellator is owned by a multi-billion dollar company in Viacom. My guess is that Viacom has some media connections in Japan, that could lead to Bellator working a good TV deal if they are aggressive in pursuing gains in this market. Could Bellator try to develop a working agreement with OneFC??
Deep is a japanese based small time promotion, and they may be able to pick up a few more fans, and fighters it is unlikely without a big aggressive move or partnership they will be able to make a serious move to get into contention with the better financed organization listed above.
Any organization making a move to improve their standing in Japan will have to deal with the ghost of PRIDE, and now Dream. There is also still the taint of the Japanese Mafia influence on MMA from the past which has hurt the perception of the sport in the country. In the end I do not see another big, "Japan Only" organization stepping up. I think the void will be filled by a combination of Zuffa, and OneFC. Bellator is a wild card in this, but I feel that they are still trying to consolidate their North American standing before they launch into a risky overseas market.
Just my thoughts of the night on the topic... my other thoughts end up here