Friday, March 9, 2007

Let's think to the rhythm of “Mirko’s Rhapsody”

By Manabu Takashima

Over a month has passed since Mirko’s debut in the UFC 67. I've seen almost 30-odd UFC shows, but this is the first time I've seen so many Japanese press reporters. Chalk it up to the "star power" of Mirko Crocop. Any and all of their questions were directed to Mirko - not a single question about the UFC. In either case, not a second went by that the local press wasn't using to hound Mr. Crocop.

Their logic goes like this: get something - anything - on Mirko Crocop and the UFC, and we get boosted sales numbers. After all, with him and his impending debut in the UFC ring, the number of subscribers to WOWOW (a satellite television distributor who carries UFC fights, among others) is already estimated to go through the roof.

The biggest name in the PRIDE roster, leaves the bright lights of the PRIDE stage to fight on the UFC. That’s sensational! In some ways, it's bigger than anything he did in PRIDE. The UFC matches, struggling for numbers, will get a viewership kickstart with Mirko Crocop added to their fights. The people at WOWOW must be wetting themselves with excitement.

Well, everybody on the business and media side might be celebrating the good times. After all, they're the ones so riled up, that they're ignoring security and trailing Crocop .Again; everything's peachy, right? Right?

Maybe not.

After all, PRIDE, which is on basic cable, is where we watched Mirko C. make debris of his enemies. And, until halfway through this year, you could still see him on basic cable, for FREE, more importantly.

But this summer, the only way to see him in action was on SkyPerfecTV, via pay-per-view. And next time, you won't even see him in the ring; that is, assuming you go all the way to ringside to find out.

In one fell swoop, the very foundations of Japan's mixed martial arts world are set to crumble and come crashing down. And if the most blatant warning is this case of Mirko Crocop's move to the UFC, and it's no cause for celebration.

All was good, for a time. Up-and-coming fighters moved from RINGS to appear in PRIDE. The new blood moved from SHOOTO to PRIDE: BUSHIDO. And (all business connections, contracts, and promoters aside), it meant that all of those fighters would stay in-house; that is, inside Japan.

In the future, we may see other fighters, not just Mirko Crocop, "fly the nest" to search for better things overseas. In fact, at a recent press conference for Bodog Fight, an American fighter (who wishes to remain nameless) who spoke on his experiences fighting in Japan, said that "(he was) glad those days of long plane flights and fighting while jet-lagged were over."

In other words, the days of fighting for organizations that AREN'T the UFC.

On the day of Mirko's UFC debut, Randy Couture held the opening of his "Extreme Couture" Gym. With its octagonal cage ring and enormous mats, the amount of equipment and sheer size of the gym is on a scale unimaginable in Japan. Along with gym members like Forrest Griffin, many non-members also attended the opening. But curiously absent were the fighters swarming around me, asking "I wanna fight in Japan - got any connections, know anyone in the biz, etc.?"

The day when UFC will begin its mixed martial arts "invasion" onto Japanese soil, complete with carpet bombing and door-to-door searching, isn't far off.

To tell you the truth, I say "let them." We've already got mixed weight-class matches being passed off as mixed martial arts, not to mention celebrity fighters; plenty of reasons for people to keep gawking. We might not have an Athletic Commission (or an equivalent) in our country. But, if the UFC can enforce the same level of security (as well as rigidly enforced drug testing), and keep up the same standards of fighting as they do for their California or Nevada fights, then I'm all for it.

Most importantly, if they can hold some type of performance in Japan every 2 months or so; even an exhibition match would do. But, could they really pull it off?

Of course, they'll still hold matches here; once, maybe even twice a year. But, it wouldn't be possible to have matches of the same intensity as before; with fighters you'd cheer for 'til your voice gave out, or careers you'd follow daily.

The UFC's already bought the WEC, and the next target in their sights seems to be lightweight fighters. So, the 140lbs.weight-class fighter that's traditionally been off-limits for organizations like HERO'S or PRIDE BUSHIDO, is fair game for the UFC. If this happens, you can bet that fighters like Lion Takeshi and Hatsu Hioki (not to mention Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto), fighters we used to be able to see at places like the Zepp Nagoya, or the Korakuen Hall, will be bound by contractual obligations; and, no longer be able to hold matches in Japan.

Organizations like Elite XC and the aforementioned Bodog Fight have begun women's fights. It's safe to say that top fighters in Smackgirl promotion will start coming up as possible grabs. For just 3,000, 5,000, maybe even 7,000 yen extra to the fighters per match; those fighters we once rooted for, we might not even see anymore.

Of course, from the fighters' point of view, more fight money is a good thing. And I'm not against them getting paid more; in fact, I'm all for it. Demanding fighters stay poor for all the hard work they do doesn't solve anything. The main problem is that, for all the upgrades in skill and lifestyle, the place they'll be showing off those skills is anywhere but Japan.

The big names and fresh faces of Japan's MMA world will all be leaving for other countries. On top of that, the top fighters from other countries will stop visiting Japan, too. And if our top fighters keep on leaving, what'll happen, you ask? That'll leave this country as nothing more than a starting point, a training ground. The entire nation will become one big minor league.

Some of you may say "that just means MMA will be the same as other sports in Japan," that it's the same deal for soccer's J-League ( professional Soccer League in Japan ), or Japanese Pro Baseball. That's exactly the problem.

Over the years, with other sports, it's been different.
With soccer, we're used to watching the J-League (or JFL) matches. Not the Premier League games ( in England ). Series A games( in Italy ), the Liga Espanola games( in Spain) and Budesliga games ( in Germany) none of that. With baseball, we're used to seeing the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants play the Osaka Hanshin Tigers, the Lotte Chiba Marines play against the Saitama Seibu Lions; not NY Yankees versus Boston Red Sox.

On the other hand, Japan's MMA fans, whether they know it or not, have been watching world-class matches for years now. And if the fans (diehard or otherwise) will keep watching the fights, even if the rank drops from, say, a Premier League game to a J-League one, that's fantastic. But the likely outcome is, a drop in the level of fighters will lead to a drop in the number of people who'll watch them. And if the fans stop coming, then the number of matches held drops, too. Along with the number of venues willing to host said matches; and, if that happens...

What'll happen to all those training gyms that've popped up these last few years? More importantly, what'll happen to their owners? I don't care if you push it to the back of your mind, or if you only think about it while you're chasing after Mr. Crocop, but...

In either case, this is a problem which deserves your attention.

MMA Ring Report would like to welcome the column by Manabu Takashima, a prominent member of the Japanese MMA community and well respected, writer, photographer and martial arts mind who has contributed to some of the biggest MMA magazines in the world. Special Thank you to Mr. Takashima for his efforts.


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