Monday, March 5, 2007

The end game for PRIDE

By Zach Arnold

On Saturday, news broke that PRIDE’s next American show on April 28th at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada had been cancelled. It capped off a tumultuous week after the PRIDE 33 event on February 24th.

Within three days after the PRIDE 33 event (heralded in the media as an all-time great MMA show), the foundation of PRIDE’s American business plan cracked.

A few days after the PRIDE 33 event, PRIDE boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara made negative comments to PRIDE-friendly Kami no Puroresu about PRIDE USA President Ed Fishman. In a very strange comment, Sakakibara stated that if Ed Fishman bought, ‘nobody would support him.’ This statement, on many levels, has potentially different meanings. On Friday, writer Josh Gross reported that PRIDE USA President Ed Fishman was considering a lawsuit against Dream Stage Entertainment (the parent company of PRIDE) if they defaulted on their contract with Fishman to promote shows in the United States. Later that afternoon, I was able to confirm that Fishman was indeed considering legal action against Nobuyuki Sakakibara & DSE for an alleged ‘pending’ breach of contract. What the legal claim is going to be, we do not know at this time.

What we do know is that PRIDE doing business in the United States has come to a screeching halt.

Chronicling PRIDE’s entry in the American market in 2006 is a very unique story.

Starting in late 2005 and plateauing in the first half of 2006, PRIDE was rocked by a major yakuza scandal that had several fronts. Admitted yakuza fixer Seiya Kawamata filed a police complaint with the Kanagawa Police, claiming that he was threatened by people he alleged were yakuza in the PRIDE organization. (Use this link for more general information). This was a result of fallout from the 2003 MMA wars in Japan when three big events (K-1’s Dynamite event, PRIDE’s Man Festival at Saitama Super Arena, and Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye at Kobe Wing Stadium) ran head-to-head on the same night, all on national free-to-air television in Japan.

In 2006, Shukan Gendai ran a multi-month negative campaign against Dream Stage Entertainment and PRIDE, alleging many criminal acts performed by people associated in the Japanese fight industry aligned with PRIDE. (PRIDE later fired back by publicly stating that would they file a criminal complaint against Shukan Gendai. Nothing publicly surfaced in regards to that complaint.) The negative campaign sold a lot of magazine copies for Shukan Gendai and put heavy pressure on Fuji TV, the television network backing PRIDE events. Supposedly, Fuji TV ended up doing its own internal investigation about Shukan Gendai’s negative campaign, which also alleged that the Kanagawa Police were questioning several Fuji TV employees (including producer Kunio Kiyohara, who was never directly named in Gendai articles) in regards to their supposed connections to the yakuza.

Gendai’s negative campaign damaged the image of PRIDE management in the Japanese public. It attempted to make PRIDE management out to be illegitimate businessmen.

Facing mounting pressure from Shukan Gendai’s negative media campaign, PRIDE President Nobuyuki Sakakibara launched a counter-attack in the media — questioning the credibility of Gendai’s claims. The heat was on. A lot of activity was taking place before PRIDE’s big Osaka Dome event on May 5th, 2006, which was the launch for the promotion’s Open-Weight GP tournament. Two days before this event, K-1 had a big event in Yoyogi (Tokyo) during Golden Week. At K-1’s May 3rd, 2006 event, PRIDE icon Kazushi Sakuraba made an appearance under the Tiger Mask gimmick. All the fans in attendance at the K-1 event immediately knew that it was Sakuraba.

His appearance sent shockwaves throughout Japan. For PRIDE to lose one of their top two strongest Japanese drawing cards (the other is Hidehiko Yoshida) damaged the company in terms of short-term matchmaking. Image-wise, it was a body blow. Two days later, PRIDE drew a big house at the Osaka Dome for their Open-Weight GP tournament event. However, all the media focus was on Sakuraba leaving PRIDE and Gendai’s negative campaign. Sakakibara found his back against the wall with the Japanese media asking him lots of questions. A week after Sakuraba’s appearance in the K-1 ring, Shukan Gendai published an article claiming that PRIDE sent a car to try to block Sakuraba’s driveway so that he couldn’t leave to go to the K-1 event in Tokyo.

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