Rizin out of the Shadows: Does MMA Need Former Pride Boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara?

Josh GrossMMA Senior Columnist September 30, 2016

Saitama Super Arena hosts Rizin Fighting Federation 3.
Saitama Super Arena hosts Rizin Fighting Federation 3.©RIZIN FF / Sachiko Hotaka

Guarding entrances to Buddhist shrines across Japan, the Shinto gods Fujin and Raijin often serve as protectors for their peaceful surroundings. Thunder and lightning don’t roll through without wind power, so Raijin has long been aligned with Fujin, making them a common pairing in the natural order of things.

It was here that Nobuyuki Sakakibara and the team that worked alongside him during his years running the Pride Fighting Championships found inspiration for Japan’s next big mixed martial arts venture.

Aficionados of Japanese MMA, both foreign and domestic, tend to appreciate the side of the sport that draws from unconventional strains of influence—like the red demon Raijin. Given his ability to harness thunder and lightning, Japanese children have long been warned to curl up and hide for fear that Raijin would devour their bellybuttons. For Sakakibara’s purposes, it was the process of recovering from the effects of the Shinto god’s handiwork that suited him.

Raijin became Rizin, which, like it sounds, is an attempt to get up off the deck.

©RIZIN FF / Sachiko Hotaka

Sept. 25's first round of the Rizin World Grand Prix, an open-weight tournament with prize money totaling $500,000, brought together a smorgasbord of mostly unheralded fighters from different parts of the world including Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Kazuyuki Fujita, Teodoras Aukstuolis, Szymon Bajor, Joao Almeida, Amir Aliakbari, Karl Albrektsson, Valentin Moldavsky, Jiri Prochazka, Mark Tanios, Baruto Kaito and Hyun Man Myung. Other fights featured intriguing prospects such as Kron Gracie and Erson Yamamoto.

Wanderlei Silva, the former Pride 205-pound champion, will join the field on Dec. 29, when he meets Cro Cop for the third time.

Silva was among the first Pride stars to get pulled into the Octagon after the sale in 2007. His time there came with mixed results, and he left when the company released him for avoiding Nevada State Athletic Commission anti-doping tests in 2014.

Returning to Japan where he was a major star, Silva has taken on the unofficial roll of brand ambassador for Rizin.

“This is not the UFC,” Silva told media Monday. “The only thing that can bring you back to this promotion is a good performance, not a win. There’s no place for fearful fighters here. You come to fight, or you stay at home. I hope you perform better way in December, or you’re not coming back anymore.”

When Sakakibara visited California for business in May and chatted with reporters, he sought help getting the word out that his event is something promoters should want to send their fighters to. Several heeded the call. Late last year, Bellator MMA allowed Mo Lawal to participate in Rizin's first attempt at crowning a tournament champion. He won.  

Next spring marks a decade since Sakakibara appeared on an elaborate stage with Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White in the posh Tokyo development of Roppongi Hills.

March 27, 2007the day Pride Fighting Championships was officially no longer Japanesewill cling to its co-founder "to the day I die” Sakakibara said during a visit to Los Angeles earlier this year.

News of the deal between Pride and the UFC was hailed as the unifying moment MMA might become a global enterprise, rivaling soccer for the public’s attention under one big league. Like the AFL-NFL merger did for professional American football during the 1960s, the UFC-Pride dynamic represented an honest to goodness chance to control all corners of the MMA world, Fertitta told the Associated Press.

The stateside plan for Pride, such that it was, required the highly produced style of big-budget Japanese MMA to operate in a market tainted by rumors of scandal. This wasn’t the ideal scenario from the perspective of the UFC, but it had long sought a promotional Robin to its Batman. When the time was right, Pride's best would clash with the UFC’s top fighters for a so-called Super Bowl of MMA, and it seemed possible when Sakakibara agreed to part ways with Pride for a reported $70 million.

The UFC, however, sent mixed signals. Several top fighters were quickly siphoned off into the UFC ranks, though not all of them made the move. Fans who were hoping to see Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko would never be so lucky.

By October 2007, the Pride office in Tokyo was shuttered when staff loyal to the Japanese side were laid off after they chose to hitch their wagon to K-1's promoter, Fighting and Entertainment Group, and form Dream, which went belly up four years later.

Dana White said the UFC attempted but failed to arrange for a new terrestrial television deal in Japan for Pride. When Fuji TV backed away from Pride in 2006 after reports of organized crime ties to the Sakakibara-led organization hit the news, that important arrangement became untenable. It was also suggested that Sakakibara and some of the people around him were not interested in participating in background checks and other due diligence deal-closing activities.

White said it was like he and his company were unwelcome in Japan.

The fallout prompted a legal showdown between Zuffa and Sakakibara over breach-of-contract claims. Background checks cast aspersions on the Japanese businessman, labeling him "not a person of suitable character" to work with the Fertitta brothers, who in their other lives were Las Vegas casino owners mindful of gaming licenses, according to the Spectrum Gaming Group, LLC, which performed background investigations (h/t Bloody Elbow). Sakakibara responded that he had cooperated and participated in the background check process.

Sakakibara said: "If that came from Dana or Lorenzo that would be something I could respond to. However at that point I’ve already sold my assets. I’m not even on the same boat. It was their decision to continue or not to continue Pride. It was up to them. There is nothing for me to speak about regarding being an unsuitable character.

"I don’t feel that ‘scandal’ is the right way to describe it because there’s absolutely no specific evidence of what went out there as a rumor. The fact is Fuji TV stopped airing Pride, which led to many speculations. There is no specific evidence of anything. So me, personally, I don’t feel guilty for any of those scandals. If I did and if any of it were true I probably would not even be able to come back to this moment. So I am here and one of the reasons I’m back is I feel I have to prove everybody wrong and I have to earn my trust."

The UFC's acquisition of Pride sent a clear message about the state of MMA. After the smash debut of The Ultimate Fighter in the U.S. in 2005, business trended up throughout North America, while everything about Japanese MMA trended down—a sharp reversal from the preceding decade. It didn’t take a genius to envision that the vast majority of the sport’s best fights would be earmarked for the Octagon.

By design or based on the reality on the ground, the state of the sport at large, especially in Japan, mattered much less than the state of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. This was Zuffa’s history as it drove UFC to mainstream popularity. Against any competitor that grew into a viable option for fans and fighters, the Zuffa plan was simple: let it fail under its own inflated weight or make a play to buy.

In regard to Pride, the UFC worked both tracks.

Of course, it was the Las Vegas-based company that benefited most from its drive to coalesce the best mixed martial artists under one tent. Four years after dealing a body blow to the Japanese side of the business, Zuffa clamped down on another American competitor, Strikeforce, which was similarly brought into the fold in 2011 before being shelved so its top competitors could compete in the UFC, where they have since enjoyed considerable success.

Zuffa’s smart maneuvering, including the accumulation of an immense library of fight content and other assets, prompted Hollywood powerhouse WME/IMG to claim ownership of the UFC (and everything else it gobbled up along the way) for $4 billion earlier this year.

Following the expiration of a seven-year non-compete clause, Sakakibara resurfaced intent on righting a wrong.

“I told my staff, the fighters, everybody involved that Pride will continue,” he said, recalling his words the day the deal was announced at Roppongi Hills. “So I’ve been holding this emotion of guilt this whole time and I was determined to come back and give back what I can to the people I have let down. So if there’s anything I can do to ask for forgiveness or give back to the people I let down, I was willing to do anything I can to do it for my last challenge.”

He won't blame the UFC for Pride's closure. There’s no point.

“There were probably several reasons why that they couldn’t continue Pride, so I don’t blame anyone but myself,” he said. “It was my fault that I could not fulfill my promise.

“The main reason I came back was because Pride died. I think our goal is to let go of Pride and reconstruct and recreate a new atmosphere, a new product and a new vision. That’s the way to be successful. To let Pride go.”

Founded one year ago, the Rizin Fighting Federation represents Sakakibara’s effort to rebuild himself and the industry many believe he failed. Accountable for the demise of Pride—and the subsequent regression of MMA in Japan in its absence—Sakakibara said there remains tremendous potential for the sport in Japan and across Asia.

“Obviously, Japan is not as big as the U.S., but in terms of consumption and the ability to pay, which comes to the fighters and investment in the sport with sponsors, Japan still has the ability to do so,” Sakakibara said. “Yes the Asian market has grown, but a lot of these countries still need development and education toward investing and funding into the sport. How I look at it is Japan still has big potential. Obviously, all the Asian countries have big potential for the future, but as of right now Japan still has the capital to be the center of Asian MMA.”

Key to Rizin's concept is taking on the roll of a "federation" rather than a run-of-the-mill MMA promotion where everything is contained in house. By doing so, Sakakibara sees Rizin creating what the UFC-Pride merger failed to do: a place for fighters, regardless of the organizations they represent, to participate on neutral territory against all comers. Sort of like the UEFA Champions League.

“If you compete as a promotion, the largest company is obviously going to win and prevail,” Sakakibara said. “Our goal is to tie all of the promotions together, not in a vertical way but in a horizontal way. We want to be the bridge for each promotion to cooperate at the same scale. That is our goal, and we think that is the key aspect to be the federation instead of a single promotion.

"We want fighters competing in their respective country and organization to look forward to and be motivated by participating in our sporting event that we host," he explained. “Ideally, it would be absolutely great to have a no-namer from some country become a superstar and be recognized all over the world and get a UFC contract the next day. That would be an ideal situation from our point of view."

As business stands now, however, Sakakibara's vision is fantasy.

The UFC, with its mainstream reputation as the only place where fights really matter, has little incentive to share talent with anyone. The last time it did, Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell, among UFC's fiercest fighters ever, participated in but did not win one of the greatest events in MMA history, Pride's 2003 middleweight grand prix. Since then, UFC has maintained its status as an autonomous league, eventually re-emerging in the Japanese fight market in 2012, where it held an event per year until 2016.

“From my point of view, I want UFC to be more aggressive,” Sakakibara said. “Not just once per year. I want the UFC to do more events in order to revitalize and stimulate the market.”

That can happen, he said, if the fights are top-shelf. Casual Japanese fans grew accustomed to watching the best in MMA and won’t be satisfied if their countrymen, most of whom Sakakibara described as “mid-tier,” simply take on opponents from other parts of the world.

“Right now what we’re seriously lacking is talent that’s ready for international competition in the big guys, especially 205 and above,” he said. “I’ve been out of the industry for eight or nine years, and yes there are new stars such as Conor McGregor—big draws—but in the heavyweight division there’s still a lot of the former Pride fighters in the top rankings. I’m not saying that in a bad way, but we really need to create new stars and new names."

Rizin could meet this threshold if it discovers the next Kazushi Sakuraba, but that's much easier said than done. Beyond UFC veteran Yushin Okami, few Japanese fighters above the 185-pound threshold have emerged who can regularly win against higher-end competition. This is why Sakakibara holds higher expectations for finding female stars than male onesyet another difference in the sport since his departure.

Three MMA bouts featuring women took place at Saitama Super Arena on Sept. 25, including the co-main even in which 25-year-old Rena Kubota (2-0) looked impressive. Twenty-three-year-old 115-pound prospect Kanako Murata, one of Japan’s top amateur wrestlers, pushed her record to 4-0 over a representative of the Combate Americas promotion, Kyra Batara. And heavyweight Gabrielle Garcia stomped her way to another win. 

With a nod to the Pride days, Rizin has instituted a set of rules that don’t line up with the “UFCnized” bouts that permeated MMA over the last decade. Ten-minute opening rounds in a ring rather than a cage. Yellow cards for inactivity that result in 10 percent purse penalties. Liberal rules that allow for knees to the head of a grounded opponent and soccer kicks.

There's no question Sakakibara has already impacted the state of MMA in Japan since his return. During Year 1 at the helm of Rizin, the sport returned to terrestrial television for the first time since Pride went down. Sakakibara, who ran a lower-level professional soccer club in Japan during his days away from the fight game, relied on his relationships inside Fuji TV to navigate skepticism about him and the business. In addition to live fights, Fuji TV features shoulder programming designed to reintroduce MMA to casual audiences.

Fuji TV executives were pleased with the early results last New Year’s Eve, according to Rizin representatives. Ratings doubled what the network produced the year prior thanks to nearly five hours of live MMA content that peaked at 5.5 million households. Sept. 25's card improved on that slightly, hitting a peak of 5.6 million households and averaging 4.4 million over the course of the broadcast.

Compared to monstrous ratings during Japan's golden days atop the fight world, that’s a tiny number, yet it should be viewed as a solid start.

“The fact is terrestrial television has supported MMA once again and have decided to partner with me once again,” Sakakibara said. “So I’m truly grateful for those staff at Fuji TV who decided to make this happen even with the doubt and skepticism going on within the network.”

The Japanese audience is trending older, mostly men in their 30s and 40s who would be the core of the old Pride fan demographic.

“A lot of the people who know the past have come back,” Sakakibara said. “That’s a fact. What we need to do is work on reaching the new generation.”

The logo for the Rizin Fighting Federation implies “eternity” and features three points shooting out from what appears to be a rising sun. These three “arrows” represent how people should view Rizin.

First, it’s a place for the fighters who built MMA, such as former Pride stars Silva and Cro Cop, to finish their careers as they please. Second, Rizin intends to become a platform to nurture new young talent. And third, through its grand prix tournaments, it aims to discover stars who can attract wider audiences.

“In order to take the sport to the next level, I want to try to do something to evolve MMA,” Sakakibara said.

But does that mean kakutogi (combat sports) needs Sakakibara like it need Antonio Inoki, the pro wrestling cultural icon whose influence in the 1970s created the conditions for MMA to flourish in Japan?

“We’ll all find out if I was necessary after I attempt what I want to do,” he said. “You’ll know the result after looking back at what’s done. I can’t really answer if the Japanese MMA industry needs me, but what I do know is this industry definitely needs someone or something to challenge new things.

"Right now it feels like everyone has fallen into the Unified MMA system, and it seems like everybody is scared to take the next step, the leap of faith for a new adventure. Someone needs to be like Antonio Inoki and become totally stupid and do a challenge. And then those types of challenges will be looked back at.

"I would like for people to look back at what I’ve done and say, ‘Yeah he did the right thing and was absolutely necessary at the time.' I hope to be able to be that person."

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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