By way of Leland Roling of MMA Analyst I found Dave Meltzer's list of the top 10 most viewed MMA fights in Japan -- all of which had more viewers than Kimbo/Thompson. Here's the list:
1. Akebono vs. Sapp (K-1 2003): 42.5 rating, 54 million viewers
2. Masato vs. Kid Yamamoto (K-1 2004): 31.5 rating
3. Lebanner vs. Sapp (K-1 2004): 28.6 rating
4. Ologun vs. Abidi (K-1 2004): 28.1 rating
5. Kaneko vs. Bennett (PRIDE 2005): 27.7 rating
6. Rulon Gardner vs. Yoshida (K-1 2004): 25.9 rating
7. Ologun vs. Akebono (K-1 2005): 25.8 rating
8. Yoshida vs. Ogawa (PRIDE 2005): 25.5 rating
9. Sakuraba vs. Akiyama (K-1 2006): 25.0 rating
10. Kid Yamamoto vs. Majoros (K-1 2006): 25.0 rating
I'm taking two things away from this -- MMA peaked in Japan in 2003 and stayed strong for the next three years. The glory days in Japan ended when links between PRIDE and the yakuza were exposed, but they started almost a decade earlier with the first PRIDE event in 1997.
Obviously its a very different culture, but if the American MMA boom is anything comparable to Japan's we've got quite a run ahead of us. Let's say PRIDE's network TV debut in 1997 was comparable to the first season of TUF in 2005, and last weekend's Elite XC show could be compared to the 2001 New Year's Eve shows which signaled the mainstream breakthrough for Japanese MMA.
So at this rate I'd say we're three to five exciting years away from it all collapsing in a heap of scandal and disgrace (no point in speculating if it'll be the Fertitta brothers' shady business dealings or somekind of boxing-style scandal involving by Gary Shaw). Let the good times roll.
The other thing that jumps out from that list is that virtually all the biggest fights in Japan were freak shows. Yes, even in Japan, the ancient home of martial arts where millions train judo from childhood and the crowds are quiet like they're watching a golf game -- breaking out in polite applause after an impressive bit of grappling on the ground...even in Japan, the freak shows are what put butts in seats.
Two of the top 10 fights in Japan featured Bob Sapp, the walking definition of freak show. #2 was actually a kickboxing match (not sure why Meltzer included it.) Numbers 4,5 and 7 featured TV stars fighting MMA and 6,8 and 10 featured one or more Olympic medalists. Only #9 could be considered a straight-up sporting MMA match, and ironically it was spoiled by cheating.
So the thing for us hardcores (and the guys at Affliction) to remember is that the freakshows sell the tickets that subsidize the great fights.