There have been countless articles writen which have cited the decline of Japanese MMA. I do not think it takes a rocket scientist to see a decline in the sport’s relevance in Japan. The MMA scene has struggled even been on life support since the collpase of PRIDE. Several organizations have emerged and tried to replace the powerful MMA promotion. Sengoku tried and is now essentially defunct. DREAM has tried, but failed. DREAM is still hanging around, but their future is still very much in question. Shooto, DEEP and Pancrase all have their own financial problems. Bad managment and financial decisions have hurt many of the smaller MMA promotions. Perhaps the sport of MMA is not the most important issue in Japan right now. Japan is still dealing with the after effects of a devestating earthquake. However, many of us remember tens of thousands of fans filing arenas to watch MMA. Many of us remember the classic environment of a PRIDE event. What has changed?
The way we guage MMA in Japan has changed. It used to be that we gauge it based on the success of MMA promotions based in Japan. If that was the case then Japanese MMA is not doing well at all. However, I believe the way to gauge Japanese MMA is on the success of Japanese fighters. Many Japanese fighters have opted to move to a more stable promotion. While some fighters remain in DREAM and Shooto, many of Japan’s biggest MMA stars have headed to the UFC. Hatsu Hioki, Kid Yamamoto, Riki Fukuda, and Michihiro Omigawa are now in the UFC.
2011 has not been kind to Japanese fighters in North American promotions. Japanese fighters have gone 2-9 in the UFC and Strikeforce in 2011. Shinya Aoki notched one of those wins in Strikeforce when he defeated Lyle Beerbohm. The only other Japanese fighter to win in UFC or Strikeforce was a spplit decision win for Takeya Mizugaki. Even when Japanese fighters have done well it seems that their luck runs out. Riki Fukuda and Michihiro Omigawa both probably won fights that the judges scored against them. There is still time in 2011 to even out the record.
While the record of Japanese fighters looks bleak, I believe there is reason to be excited for Japanese MMA. Later this month, Yushin Okami will fight for the UFC middleweight title. While Okami may be a big underdog, he certainly could shock the world. A win for Okami would be huge for Japanese MMA. He really has been the only MMA fighter from Japan to translate well outside of Asia. Also, Hatsu Hioki will make his UFC debut later this year. Many people consider Hioki to be the second best featherweight in the world and the biggest threat to Jose Aldo’s crown. Japanese MMA fans can also find some room for excitment in the fact that the UFC is likely to head to Japan to host a live even in early 2012. Perhaps the establishment of the new Asian based promotion OneFC will have a ripple effect in Japan as well.
With that said, there is a reason Japanese MMA has not done great. I do not believe it has anything to do with the culture. Japanese fans love fighting. The problem is several things. One, promoters have been charged on many levels with being corrupt. Second, for some reason prospects coming from Japan have not been developed properly. We are not many years away from Japan having no relevant fighters. They need new blood.
If Japan can develop new stars and properly manage their organization the tide can turn. If not, the hope for Japanese MMA will rest on a select few Japanese fighters who make the move to North American promotions. These Japanese fighters will fight for national pride and a nation which needs something to place their hope in. While the outlook is dim, there is room for optimism and it begins with Yushin Okami at UFC 134.