Is There More Than Meets the Eye to Floyd Mayweather's 'Fight' in Japan?

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterNovember 6, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 17:  Floyd Mayweather Jr. attends a basketball game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on October 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images)
Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

The sports world was blindsided late Sunday by the news that Floyd Mayweather Jr. is headed to Japan on New Year’s Eve to face 20-year-old kickboxing star Tenshin Nasukawa at Rizin Fight Federation 14.

Face him in what, exactly, we still don’t know.

Some 48 hours after the initial announcement, even event organizers appear a little shaky on the details.

"As far as the rule set and the weight, we still have some work cut out for us," Rizin FF President Nobuyuki Sakakibara said at Sunday's press conference. "But it will be a great fight that everybody will be so excited to see."

So, what is Mayweather even doing promoting an unexpected bout under as-yet unspecified rules against an unknown opponent in Japan in a bit less than two months?

Good question.

Mayweather himself has only said he expects to provide "entertainment" to fans on Dec. 31. That could mean anything coming from a guy who has been equally comfortable boxing Conor McGregor in a lopsided-but-legitimate fight in August 2017 or pummeling WWE’s Big Show during a scripted performance at Wrestlemania XXIV in 2008.

Yet if there is any lesson to learn from Mayweather vs. McGregor, it’s that there is often a method to the boxer’s madness.

Mayweather and McGregor dreamed their match into existence out of thin air, eventually transforming it from a social media stunt into one of the biggest pay-per-view events in history. If Mayweather is now casting in with Rizin, there must be a considerable paycheck lurking in it for him somewhere.

There was once big money in the Japanese fight scene. Perhaps he’s betting there can be again.

Saitama Super Arena lit up for a recent Rizin event.
Saitama Super Arena lit up for a recent Rizin event.Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

In the early 2000s, many of the best MMA fighters in the world flocked to Pride Fighting Championships, where Sakakibara was also in charge. In Pride FC, the fight purses were bigger and the fight-night crowds massive compared to the United States. The crown jewel was the 37,000-seat Saitama Super Arena, where Rizin 14 is set to be held this year. The biggest fight night was always New Year’s Eve.

Pride collapsed amid an organized crime scandal in 2007, and the shell it left behind was absorbed by the UFC. The American MMA market has been the focal point of the industry ever since.

Sakakibara’s reemergence with Rizin has been an under-the-radar affair since it began in 2015. The organization has mustered a baker’s dozen events featuring a host of notable former Pride stars like Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko CroCop and Kazushi Sakuraba, but to comparatively little fanfare.

If the former Pride boss has been planning a big play to get back to the top of the MMA world, perhaps he expects Mayweather to take a major role in it.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is just a one-off publicity stunt that ultimately comes to nothing.

But Mayweather wouldn’t go all the way to Japan for peanuts, and that means he’s likely thinking bigger than just a bizarre one-nighter against Nasukawa.

After all, this is a guy who typically commands nine figures to grace the squared circle with his presence. Mayweather reportedly made more than $300 million for going 10 easy rounds with McGregor last summer. Before that, he earned an estimated $150 million for his long-overdue 2015 bout with Manny Pacquiao.

He won’t get anything close to that for whatever this is against Nasukawa. At least not up front. But Mayweather hinted his relationship with Rizin will be ongoing, so it’s possible he plans to take a more full-time position with the company—maybe even an ownership stake—and get into MMA promotion moving forward.

Any involvement at all from Mayweather will be a boon for Rizin, and would perhaps give the fighter a chance to enhance his international brand.

Even that sounds specious at this point, though.

If Mayweather wanted to make a splash overseas, wouldn’t he be better off booking a rematch with Pacquiao or a second meeting with McGregor in Macau or elsewhere in East Asia? Either would constitute much bigger events and fights Mayweather would likely win.

By comparison, Nasukawa is just an upstart. He’s become a darling of hardcore martial arts fans while amassing a 27-0 kickboxing record and a 4-0 mark in MMA, but he doesn’t have anything close to the profile of McGregor. Nor does he wield the same kind of cultish legion of fans.

With such a short run-up before the event, there isn’t time for a major media blitz like the one Mayweather staged for his bout with McGregor. The lead-in to that spectacle was considered a sprint by insiders and it gave the fighters time to hold a high-profile "world tour" with stops in cities around the globe. Any bout with Nasukawa can't get the same treatment.

Mayweather and Conor McGregor scored big on pay-per-view in 2017.
Mayweather and Conor McGregor scored big on pay-per-view in 2017.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

To top it off, Rizin 14 is scheduled to go down just two days after most MMA fans will have opened their pocketbooks to buy UFC 232 on Dec. 29. That card includes the return of former light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones and a champion-vs-champion superfight pitting Cris "Cyborg" Justino against Amanda Nunes. It figures to be one of the UFC’s biggest events of 2018 and will cost buyers close to $70 after taxes and fees.

No, what’s happening here is markedly different than Mayweather-McGregor. It actually feels much different than anything we’ve seen Mayweather take part in to date.

So, what is it?

The easy answer is that the "fight" itself is probably going to be a disappointment.

Rizin is going to pay Mayweather a chunk of change for what figures to be an even easier night of work than the one he had against McGregor.

MMA Junkie’s John Morgan tells us to expect a three or four round exhibition bout:

John Morgan @MMAjunkieJohn

Pure hearsay at this point, but I was told from a reliable source that the current plan for Mayweather on NYE isn’t MMA, but specific rules not known yet. However, it would be an exhibition of three, three-minute rounds.

Those "special rules" Sakakibara said still need to be figured out? Those will almost certainly favor Mayweather. The boxer isn’t going to go out there for an MMA fight or even a kickboxing affair against the uber-talented Nasukawa. The overwhelming likelihood is some sort of glorified sparring match contested under boxing-centric rules.

That is, if it even happens at all.

There is still so much we don’t know about this situation, all we have is guesswork.

Is it possible Mayweather is somehow so hard up for money he’s going to Japan for a fight with Nasukawa just for a short-term payday? Sure.

Is it possible this bout (whatever it is) merely represents step one in a larger plan for Mayweather and Rizin to begin making moves in the MMA world? Absolutely.

What is perfectly clear, however, is this: Mayweather still understands the value of his name.

He has plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest MMA fans will fly into a tizzy every time the boxer and their favorite sport are mentioned in the same headline.

The fact is, he’s been trolling us at will for years.

Mayweather is nothing if not a master manipulator. Simply by appearing on stage with the Rizin crew, he’s managed to whip the combat sports world into a frenzy this week.

Even if things don’t go any further, that’s probably already a win for him.