Friday, December 16, 2011
The UFC in Japan
When I heard the UFC was returning to Japan after a layoff of 12 plus years, I was bamboozled. I spent 5 minutes making sure I selected the right word to describe my feelings towards this, and that's the one. Why the hell would they go to Japan?
It's a vanity thing. It has to be. Does Japan happen to be an untapped market, one of those places that Zuffa could justify putting a card in to "spread their brand?" No. It's not like Germany or Ireland or Abu Dhabi or Atlanta. Japanese people are acutely aware of MMA, and there are diehard fans there. Remember a little organization called PRIDE?
So that means it's a market where the UFC will do gangbuster numbers across the board, like Australia or Montreal or Toronto, right? Um, no. The UFC will not do well, at least in terms of live attendance, in Japan. In fact, I am extremely curious as to whether or not they will even put as many asses in the seats as DREAM was able to when they were last at the Saitama Super Arena, which was officially announced as 9,270.
Even if the attendance is decent, though, what I'm stoked to hear (or not hear) is the silent stoicism of the crowd. You know how at every UFC event they make a point to pan camera shots through the crowd to capture some raw, drunken emotions? ("UFC! Blood! Beer! Punches! YEAH!!!!!") Imagine the vibe when they do that in Tokyo only to see multiple guys with reading glasses on politely and intensely reading their program inserts like they hold a higher truth to the universe. Maybe this wont happen, but I certainly hope it does. This card is going to answer the question "I wonder what it would be like to hold a UFC card with all of the crowd energy of a wake?"
The "kakutogi boom" has been over for quite some time, and Japan hasn't found anyone close to replacing Kazushi Sakuraba when it comes to star power. Sakuraba encapsulated everything the Japanese public wanted out of a superstar: pro wrestling pedigree, boatloads of charisma, tons of heart and grit, fun and creative fight entrances, and the uncanny ability to turn a moment of nothing into something memorable. The Japanese public is all about stars. There's a reason that the most-watched fight in the history of JMMA is Naoya Ogawa vs Giant Silva (a fact, by the way). Nobody with that pro wrestling pizzazz is looming on the horizon to capture the imagination of Japanese casuals. And even if there were, he certainly isn't on this card.
I can't figure out a rational reason for the UFC to go to Japan. Maybe this is their subconscious way of pretending to keep PRIDE alive. I don't know. I do know two things.
1. After this card, there will be more cuts than the French Revolution.
Some of these fights have a "These guys have proven that they have no business in the Octagon, but they signed three fight deals and we contractually owe them one more ... dammit ... screw it, we'll just throw them on the Japan card!" stink to them. Kid Yamamoto and Takanori Gomi need to be axed. They aren't getting better, and they aren't taking necessary steps to attempt to do so (During his last "training camp", Kid was reportedly drinking and smoking like somebody on Mad Men). They're just going in there, windmilling, and hoping for the best. Steve Cantwell will be gone should he lose to bruiser Riki Fukuda. And really, Leonard Garcia should be cut no matter what happens. Horrendous decisions aside, Garcia is 0-8-1 in his last nine fights. That streak is almost Shannon Ritch-ian. No, seriously. Look at his record. His fights are exciting, but this is someone who shouldn't even be fighting at the Tachi Palace, let alone in the UFC. Enough already.
Even something like Akiyama-Shields raises eyebrows. Both are skilled guys that, for whatever reason, have looked terrible during their UFC tenures. I wouldn't be surprised to see Yoshi get cut after a loss. Thems the breaks.
2. They can't put this card on pay-per-view, right?
Now, I'm not saying that it isn't pay-per-view worthy. Any card headlined by Ben "My best friend was born in a manger" Henderson and Frankie Edgar is worth shelling out whatever sum it'll take to see it. However, Japan is 16 hours ahead of us time wise. In the past, like when they'd run in England, they'd just run the card on a tape delay later that night, in the usual pay-per-view slot. But now that their days on Spike are numbered, this means that they'll most likely run this on FX. Not only that, but the start time in Japan is also going to raise some concerns. It's going to be freaking early.
It's strange; it's like they're intentionally burying great fights like Bendo vs. Guida (absent from the FOX broadcast so Dana and Brock could flap their gums) and Bendo vs. Edgar (a compelling matchup and an instant Fight of the Year candidate ... naturally, they main event it on the Japan card, where you'd be hard pressed to find 20 people in the entire country who care).
I'm interested to see how they play this. Zuffa has proven that they're more cognizant of the fact that the international market is often very different than the American one, and that getting on TV can slowly phase out the importance of pay-per-view buys. But this is going to be a disaster.
All of this reeks of "We're the UFC, we're a monopoly, and we can do whatever we want, including running a show in Japan without a single matchup that might compel Japanese fans." How could they run a show there and not have ONE "Japan vs. Japan" matchup? Look at the Rio card; there were "all Brazilian" fights everywhere you looked. This whole card just feels like a giant Eff You to Japan. It's a vanity project, something for Lorenzo and Dana to cross off of their "Things I Always Wanted To Do" checklist. Nothing more.