When you think of Japanese mixed martial arts, what’s the first image that comes to your mind?
Is it the image of Kazushi Sakuraba and his legendary rivalry with the Gracie Family, or more specifically, his 90-minute fight with the legendary Royce Gracie?
Is it the highlight reel knockouts of Mirko Filipovic or the epic battles between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko?
Perhaps it was the horror film classic that was the PRIDE run of Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” or maybe it was the early days of Tatsuya Kawajiri and Shinya Aoki, the latter of whom had scored his famous victory by “Aokiplata” on Joachim “Hellboy” Hansen.
Whatever it is that comes to mind when you think of Japanese MMA, we can’t deny that the JMMA Boom of the early 2000s had as much to do with the current state of MMA as Zuffa’s acquisition of the UFC.
Some legends of the Japanese MMA circuit found success while others were less successful, but they did manage to carry on in the sport and create memorable careers for themselves and a great majority of these fighters either made or are currently making their own respective marks in the UFC.
This year, however, Japanese MMA has hit what some would consider its greater-than-greatest depression yet and the earthquakes in Japan have done nothing to help but everything to hurt the situation.
World Victory Road, the promotion responsible for the Sengoku Raiden Championships, lost a major sponsor when the Don Quijote discount store chain ceased all funding to WVR and until the promotion found itself another major sponsor, the promotion would be effectively finished.
Not helping matters was the migration of such talent as Jorge Santiago, Hatsu Hioki and Dave Herman to the UFC, the signing of Maximo Blanco and Kazuo Misaki to Strikeforce and the participation of Marlon Sandro and Ronnie Mann in Bellator Fighting Championships’ Featherweight Summer Series.
DREAM has suffered money woes that are well documented also, and although they have not faltered as a promotion, they have been unsuccessful in landing a time slot on HDNet for their past two events.
K-1 has only hosted one event, their 63Kg tournament, on YouTube after being unable to secure a TV deal and fighters such as Jerome Le Banner have been vocal in their displeasure with K-1’s inability to pay their fighters on more occasions than some care to count.
As for organizations like DEEP and Cage Force, they’ve been successful in their own respects, without a major TV deal, but Cage Force hasn’t put on a show this year and DEEP canceled their first international show just days before the event.
So far, Pancrase has been having the most foreseeable long-term success, but that can be attributed only to the downfall of Sengoku.
So when MMA Fighting’s Daniel Herbertson talks about Hioki’s debut against George Roop at UFC 134, Anderson Silva’s shot to erase the last loss of his career against Yushin Okami at UFC 134 or things from DREAM hosting another Bantamweight Grand Prix to prominent kickboxing promotion It’s Showtime putting on shows in Japan, is it realistic to believe that we have anything to look forward to in the Japanese MMA scene?
Well, the UFC isn’t the Japanese MMA scene, so yes, it is very realistic.
See, even if DREAM or K-1 isn’t responsible for the next big Japanese fighter, DEEP and newborn Singaporean MMA promotion One Fighting Championship, possibly the Bellator of the Asian circuit, could be responsible for the next big MMA star out of the Asian circuit.
Riki Fukuda and his now famous bout with Ryuta Sakurai has already put DEEP on the map as an organization to watch, former UFC Welterweight mainstay Yoshiyuki Yoshida has tested the waters in One FC so far and the heavily underrated RINGS promotion is looking to return with a show slated for March 2012.
Really speaking, the only other reason why Japanese MMA might see a more depressing future, other than the current woes previously stated, concerns the DREAM/Strikeforce alliance.
If you will recall, DREAM had a deal with Strikeforce to allow some of their fighters to fight on Strikeforce cards with Strikeforce fighters being also allowed to be fight on DREAM cards, provided they were not booked for a Strikeforce event or provided that they were cleared to go through with a proper training camp.
As the UFC incorporated the lightweights into their organization, the time finally came when DREAM featherweight champion Hiroyuki Takaya finally fought for Strikeforce, but now that Zuffa, LLC. has purchased Strikeforce, the smart money is that the co-promotional deal will be over once Strikeforce’s contractual agreement with Showtime is over.
That may be the only other problem, though, because as time goes on, a new generation of Japanese fighters will emerge and as long as the most revered market in the sport keeps producing top-card talent, Japanese MMA has nothing to worry about.
As a matter of fact, one should not be surprised if Japanese MMA starts to go through a rebirth starting in 2012.
It’s a long shot, but for Japanese MMA as it exists in 2011, a long shot is better than no shot at all.