It does not take a rocket scientist to see that Japanese MMA is in trouble. FEG, the parent company of DREAM and K-1 is in financial trouble. DREAM’s television ratings are way down and investors are reluctant. Sengoku is not fairing any better. The problem with Japanese MMA is deep. Japanese MMA has not been what it was when PRIDE ruled. I don’t know how to diagnose the problem exactly. Is it bad management? Is it Yakuza control? Is it a waning fad? I can tell some the reasoning behind the proble, but no one listens to me.
1. Poor match making – Japan has horrible match making. This does nto allow new blood to emerge. They have no problem with freakshow fights. Guys are not consistently fighting the best. Fighters are given little notice of who they will fight and hence do not have adequate time to prepare and train. DREAM will do things like match newcomer Satoshi Ishii, who could be a star against a tough veteran in Hidehiko Yoshida.
2. Dwindling Japanese Stars – Japan has embraced many foreign fighters. They love Cro Cop, Fedor, Wanderlei Silva, Rampage and others dating back to the PRIDE days, but the number of Japanese fighters who can compete with the world’s best is dwindling. Old stars are past their prime. Looks below at the recent track record of Japan’s top talent. Notice a few themes. The best fighters tend to head to the UFC (with a few exceptions), the stars are fading (Sakuraba, Sakurai, Misaki), and most of these guys are old. Now new talent is emerging.
- Kazushi Sakuraba – (26-15-1) – He may be Japan’s biggest star, but his best days are way behind him. He needs to retire yesterday. Sure, he can keep doing freak show fights (and probably will), but as far as competing with the world’s best…I doubt it. However, Sakuraba is an MMA legend.
- “Kid” Yamamoto – (18-3) – He is one of Japan’s biggest stars and it really hurt the Japanese MMA scene when he signed with the UFC. he may not be the fighter he once was, but he still has some left in the tank.
- Satoshi Ishii – (4-1) – He may be the hope of Japanese MMA. He is an Olympic gold medalist. He spurned the UFC and went to Japan. He has since compiled a 4-1 record. I am still not convinced that he will not eventually head to the UFC. If he does it would really hurt Japanese MMA.
- Takanori Gomi – (32-6) – He became a legend in Japan during his PRIDE days and has since left the Japanese scene and is fighting in the UFC. He could really make an impact if he beats Clay Guida. A successful Gomi in the UFC is good for Japanese MMA.
- Ikuhisa Minowa – (47-32-8) – Minowa is a fan favorite, but he is not that good. Poor match making is partly to blame.
- Shinya Aoki – (26-5) – Aoki is still one of the best lightweights int he world, but his stock has taken some hits recently. A failed campaign in the U.S. against Melendez, flipping off an injured opponent, and his unwillingness to engage in a hybrid fight on New year’s Eve in which he subsequently got KO’d. The good news for Japan is Aoki is unlikely to go anywhere.
- Yoshihiro Akiyama – (13-3) – Akiyama may be one of the biggest stars in Japan and Korea. He has not impressed in the UFC, but he has gained a fan base. He is still a legit top 20 guy, but his signing with the UFC hurt Japanese fans.
- Tatsuya Kawajiri – (27-6-2) – Kawajiri just notched a huge win for himself and Japan by dominating Josh Thomson. It is likely we see Kawajiri get a re-match with Melendez in Strikeforce. He is another glimmer of hope for Japan.
- Caol Uno – (25-14-5) – Uno is a legend in the sport as well, but he is past his prime. He tried to revitalize his career with a drop in weight, but just lost to Miyata. It may be time for Uno to hang ’em up following an 0-4-1 streak.
- Hatsu Hioki – (23-4-2) – Hioki may be the best fighter in Japan pound for pound. He is coming off a huge win over Marlon Sandro where he captured the Sengoku featherweight title. Hioki has 3 split decision losses on his record and his only UD came to Hiroyuki Takaya.
- Yushin Okami – (26-5) – I think Okami is the best Japanese fighter. He certainly has been the most successful in the UFC. He has earned a title shot now and willf ace the winner of Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort. I would not be shocked if we saw the UFC take that fight to Japan. While Okami is not helping Japanese organization, if he somehow won the UFC title, it would be HUGE for Japan.
- “Mach” Sakurai – (35-12-2) – He had his time, now it is time to retire. He has now lost four in a row.
- Kazuo Misaki – (23-11-2) – He put on one of the best fights in 2010 against Jorge Santiago. However, he is 2-3 since 2009. On a good note he won at Dynamite.
- Akihiro Gono – (32-16-7) -He went 1-2 in the UFC. He has since dropped to lightweight and lost that fight. Who know what is next for Gono.
- Ryo Chonan – (18-12) – Chonan just got brutally KO’d. He went 1-3 in the UFC and since has gone 3-2.
- Mitsuhiro Ishida – (20-6-1) – Ishida still has some relevance in the sport. He really may be able to make a mark at featherweight. However, he is just 3-2 in his last five fights.
- Michihiro Omigawa – (12-8-1) – Omigawa had a failed attempt in the UFC at lightweight and since has dropped to featherweight and revived his career. He has since left the Japanese circuit and signed with the UFC again. He is set to face Chad Mendes in February.
- Masakatsu Ueda – (11-1-2) – He has had an impressive run in Shooto, but recently lost to a relative unknown. While many have him ranked highly it is unknown how he would fair against elite bantamweights.
- Riki Fukuda – (17-4) – There are not many Japanese middleweights, but Fukuda has tons of talent. He has an impressive record and a good style. He will take that style to the UFC in February where he fights Nick Ring. Sorry Japan, another case of your talented fighters opting for the UFC.
- Takeya Mizugaki – (13-5) – He has gained a name for himself, but he isn’t helping Japanese MMA that much by being a part of the Zuffa roster of bantamweights. Even with some recognition in the U.S. Mizugaki is only 2-3 in the WEC. Granted, those loses came to top talent in Faber, Jorgensen and Torres.
- Hiroyuki Takaya – (15-8-1) – He went 0-2 in the WEC, but has since gone 6-2 and captured the DREAM featherweight title by defeating top ten Bibibano Fernandes. Takaya’s win over Fernandes was big for Japanese MMA.
- Yoshiro Maeda – (28-9-2) – He went 1-2 in the WEC before getting the axe. Maeda has not neccessarily thrived since leaving the WEC, but did pick up a big win over Masanori Kanehara at Soul of Fight.
- Satoru Kitaoka – (27-10-9) – The Japanese Joe Stevenson has been rumored to have signed with the UFC, but those rumors have been debunked (for now). He does have a 2 fight win streak going and perhaps has an underrated resume. He is still a possible bright spot for Japan.
- Keita Nakamura – (21-4) – An impressive record that is marred by an 0-3 stint in the UFC. He has since gone 5-1 and won the Sengoku welterweight tournament. K-Taro is young and can still make an impact in Japan if handled properly.
- Kazuhiro Nakamura – (15-10) – He had an 0-2 stint in the UFC, but since has gone 4-2. While a character, don;t look for Nakamura to win titles.
- Masanori Kanehara – (16-9-5) – Many ranked him as a top ten featherweight in the world, but he has now lost two in a row
- Akitoshi Tamura – (15-10-2) – He went 1-2 in a failed attempt int he WEC and since has lost 2 of 3, including his most recent bout at Sengoku: Soul of Fight.
- Masakazu Imanari – (21-7-2) he is still considered one of the world’s best 135’s, but I am not convinced. He is riding a five fight winning streak and some have speculated he could make a move to the UFC before his career is over.
- Kazunori Yokota – (11-5-3) – He has lost 3 in a row and right now is irrelevant.
- Mizuto Hirota – (12-4-1) – He still has not recovered from Shinya Aoki breaking his arm, but he still has talent. Wins over Ishida and Kitaoka before his loss to Aoki make him still a force.
- Hideo Tokoro – (27-23-1) – His record in less than impressive, but he did notch a win at Dynamite. However, he is never going to be a star.
- Kazuyuki Miyata – (11-7) – He has won 6 in a row, including a win over Caol Uno. He is 35, but still a force at featherweight.
- Eiji Mitsuoka – (16-7-2) – He is plagued with inconsistency. He can be used to build some good fighters, but he will never be a star in Japan.
- Kenji Osawa (16-9-2) – Osawa also had a failed experiment int he WEC going 1-2-1 in his time there. He has since rebounded with a win over Yoshihiro Maeda. Osawa is not looking to threaten the world’s best right now.
It has to be said that Japanese MMA is different from American MMA. A fighter in Japan can lose 10 fights in a row and still be marketable. The fans don’t care about wins and losses. Most of their stars have less than impressive records. It is the same reason that guys like Bob Sapp can be stars in Japan. Showmanship is way more important than skill set. For that purpose MMA was a fad in Japan that has seemingly died with PRIDE. Japan needs to have good fighters who can compete at a world class level and win championships in UFC and Strikeforce.
I think we will see further decline of MMA’s popularity in Japan and a growth in interest in K-1. FEG may notice that trend and jump more on the K-1 bandwagon.
It will be interesting to see what 2011 holds for Japanese MMA. Can DREAM survive for another year? Will Sengoku collapse? How will Japanese talent respond to offers from UFC? Have we seen the end for old Japanese stars?