by Chad Dundas, MMARated.com
World Victory Road’s Sengoku 4 card looked like a good one over the weekend with Takanori Gomi and Frank Trigg earning hard-fought decision victories and the semifinals of the lightweight grand prix taking shape.
Unfortunately, the event raised only the most hardcore eyebrows in America. A quick glance at a major MMA message board on Monday revealed precious little discussion about Sengoku or any other Japan-based organization. It begs the question: In an MMA landscape now dominated by Western sensibilities, are the Japanese promotions still relevant?
Answer: Not really.
Not that long ago, the Japanese MMA scene was unquestionably the best in the world. At the height of its power, PRIDE Fighting Championships boasted a roster of talent unequaled by any promotion on the planet, the best production values in the industry and a war chest stuffed with more than enough money to keep it that way.
But then somebody started to ask some pretty inconvenient questions about where all that money was coming from and who those guys were with the nice suits and the ringside seats. One little Yakuza scandal later, the PRIDE ownership group found itself without a TV deal, a sinking financial picture and no choice but to sell out to the gaijins from the UFC, who likely took great pleasure in turning out the lights for good at their head Tokyo office.
This October marks the first anniversary of the official closing of PRIDE and MMA in Japan has still not recovered. While the promotions that have come along since – DREAM and World Victory Road – are doing nice work, they’re still struggling to recapture the attention of the American fan.
PRIDE succeeded internationally because it had the best fighters in the world. And while the Japanese market may well be fine at the local, even national level, it won’t return to international prominence until someone comes along with deep enough pockets to start pulling top-level talent away from American shores, just as Dream Stage Entertainment – the company that owned PRIDE - did in the late 1990s.
The UFC is now the standard bearer. The best fighters fight there, on the best fight cards, without the cultural disconnects that sometimes make it difficult for casual observers to invest themselves in the Japanese product. There are few tape delays, questionable decisions, circus match-ups, and its all marketed in a slick package with a heavy metal soundtrack that suits the American palette just fine.
Like it or not, the UFC now offers a distinctive brand that is going to be difficult for any foe – foreign or domestic – to compete with. Most of the serious challenges are also coming from American companies like Affliction and/or EliteXC. There is no Japanese heir apparent on the horizon.
That’s a shame, because DREAM and WVR have a lot to offer the business. However, without an American pay-per-view deal and not much of an advertising presence here, it’s hard for them to make headway with fans.
Perhaps given enough time and an influx of non-organized-crime-affiliated cash, Japan will rise again. Until then, it seems we’ll have to make do with the American product.