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MMA Struggling to Survive in Japan

By on February 1, 2011

To many viewers, Japanese MMA seems an eccentric area of the sport, prone to fantastic mismatches, over-promotion of Japanese fighters instead of an emphasis on diversity and of course, the spectacle we’ve come to expect from organizations like Pride FC and now, Dream. What newer or more casual fans of the sport may not know is that Japan has had a relationship with mixed martial arts that is about as historic as what we’ve seen in North America. That relationship is now in pretty serious trouble, but that is really nothing new.

Going back to the 1980’s, Shooto provided a precursor to the MMA events we see today, and Pancrase emerged on the scene with its own take on the sport right around when the first Ultimate Fighting Championship took place in the United States. A few years later, Pride Fighting Championships emerged as the only real contender to the UFC that has ever existed, especially on a global scale.

Now, Pride is gone and for the most part, Dream and Sengoku have taken the reins. K-1 often runs mixed martial arts bouts along with their kickboxing events, and Pancrase as well as Shooto are still going strong, but Dream and Sengoku are the spiritual successors to Pride that have a chance of reigniting mainstream Japan’s brief love affair with MMA, as well as challenging North American promotions on the global level one day down the road.

However, if Japanese MMA’s fortunes lie with Dream and Sengoku, things aren’t going too well. Dream has had public issues with funding and although there were rumblings that they had secured financing last year to give the promotion some breathing room, they won’t run a show until well into 2011. On top of that, after running six events in each of its first two years in existence, Dream had just four in 2010 (five if you count the co-promotion with K-1 on New Year’s Eve).

Then there’s Sengoku. On Tuesday morning, Sengoku’s official website had posted a criticism of criticism of an interview done with their featherweight champion Hatsu Hioki in one of Japan’s larger combat sports magazines. Now, if you follow the comments of Dana White, you may not think that’s a big deal. However, in Japan, things are done much differently, and this kind of criticism is not often done in public very often. Furthermore, you may wonder what the big deal is when you read the excerpts that were deemed to be offensive (all of which are available in Tony Loiseleur’s excellent write-up on Sherdog), but again, even a tame criticism of Sengoku is a big deal at this point of time, with Japanese MMA already in trouble.

The big deal here is that Sengoku is postponing their April show and claiming that the magazine article has led one of their biggest sponsors, retail store chain Don Quijote, to pull sponsorship of the promotion. While many sources are saying that this is an exaggeration and that the sponsorship has not ended, it’s still yet another sign that a major Japanese MMA promotion is on thin ice.

One could take an optimistic point of view and say that even if Dream or Sengoku fail, someone will be there to take their place and try to finish what Pride started. However, making such an effort costs a lot of money. How many promotions will rise up if their predecessors continue to fail? Furthermore, how long can these promotions continue to stick around if they can’t get enough of a foothold in their own country to try to compete more on the global stage?

There are many reasons to be interested in what 2011 will hold for MMA, and the continuing question of how much longer Japan will sustain MMA promotions like Dream and Sengoku is one of the more compelling storylines that will play out over the next 11 months. Most fans around the world who enjoy staying up late to catch results, footage or HDNet broadcasts of major Japanese MMA events will be rooting for these two organizations to pull through. Unfortunately, though, there may be little that MMA fans outside of Japan can do to make a difference.

E-Mail Jon Hartley

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