When PRIDE, Japan’s largest MMA player, collapsed a few years ago after an asset sale purchase by Zuffa (the parent company of UFC), K-1 was left standing as the only major fight promotion in Japan. To this day, K-1 is still the second largest promotion in the fight game. The way they promote fights and styles is very different than the method that UFC uses to promote their events. Both are successful entities; companies with management staffs that play hardball but do so in very different ways. Unlike many of UFC’s contractual problems with fighters, rarely do you hear much in the media about the turmoil that Japanese organizations go through. There are various reasons – politics, TV networks, money, and the yakuza to name a few.
However, there was one major war that was brewing publicly that fans were watching from the sidelines – K-1, the long-established giant in the fight game with control over all network TV channels in Japan, versus a promotion called Sengoku which was backed by parent company World Victory Road. World Victory Road’s main source of cash was Don Quijote, a major discount chain store in Japan. It’s chairman, Mr. Yasuda, has long been a backer of many fighters. He is no different than many of the major money marks that have come and gone through the fight game in Japan over the decades, backing various promoters and keeping rival groups financed enough to run shows. World Victory Road’s plan was to use Takahiro Kokuho, the power source behind the J-ROCK fight team, to book cards for Sengoku. Kokuho made it clear that he would run a more ‘scientific’ approach to booking, as opposed to the K-1/DREAM style of matchmaking which mixed some freak shows with serious tournament matches. On paper, the Sengoku strategy looked reasonable enough to work.
“In March, we had the [James] Thompson – [Jim] York fight on the same event as our featherweight tournament, and that was it for show-style bouts on that card,” stated Kokuho in an interview earlier this year with Sherdog.com. “We won’t be doing things like Bob Sapp-Kinniku Mantaro, however, because while that draws a lot of attention, it hasn’t proven to keep people interested beyond that fight, and it drives hardcore fans away. Our formula is like introducing new fans to water, then giving them cola. Afterward, when you give them water again, they’ll realize how much better it is for them.”
However, as all people in the fight business learn soon enough, even rich people hate losing money and have short patience. If there aren’t results right away, then they tend to back out of the business in a hurry. This is why rich people who want a joyride in the fight game are called money marks and for good reason.
The Sengoku formula for booking failed miserably at the box office. They booked many foreign fighters and failed to create many Japanese stars. Unlike other fight markets, Japan is heavily dependent on having native stars or else fans won’t show up consistently. That’s the way it always has been and that’s the way it always will be. Attendance at Sengoku events was so poor that the promotion never released attendance numbers, despite the fact that they ran shows at big venues like Saitama Super Arena (40,000 seat capacity) and Ryogoku Kokugikan (11,000 seat capacity) in Tokyo.
It was after Sengoku’s November event at Ryogoku that rumors started swirling that the promotion was having problems. The company was trying to work with TV-Tokyo, the smallest of the broadcast networks in Japan. TV-Tokyo’s reputation as a pay-to-play channel meant that if Sengoku was going to be on the air, they were going to pay for the TV time on their own or by bringing sponsors to the table. Shukan Playboy, a weekly tabloid in Japan, reported that Don Quijote chairman Mr. Yasuda was allegedly so upset with the proposed bill for the promotion’s upcoming New Year Event that he backed out of the project and that the show was doomed without money or television. The main event of Sengoku’s New Year’s Eve show was going to be Hidehiko Yoshida vs. Olympic judoka medalist Satoshi Ishii, whose debut a year ago would have been big but by this point is very cold.
With K-1 having a lock on the network television pipeline, World Victory Road ended up approaching K-1 to work with them on their annual New Year’s Eve event called Dynamite!!, which has aired this past decade on Tokyo Broadcasting System. The event attracts good, solid ratings and is an event that can be counted upon to draw eyes to television sets. When K-1 made the announcement that Sengoku would be working with them, the theme of K-1 vs. Sengoku was declared and teased in a similar fashion to interpromotional pro-wrestling promotional feuds in past decades. The prospects of filling up an 18 – 19 match card with interpromotional matches became realistic.
However, an interesting bombshell has been dropped. Whether it is real or a double cross is yet-to-be-determined, but Kami no Puroresu magazine in Japan is reporting that Mr. Kokuho, the power source behind J-ROCK, quit Sengoku. J-ROCK is the management team of Hidehiko Yoshida and many of the Japanese fighters that got pushed on Sengoku cards. Without Kokuho in power, J-ROCK is reportedly free of Sengoku commitments. Kokuho played hardball as a manager during the PRIDE days when Yoshida was a big star. Being an agent/manager always suited his skills best. Without Kokuho on board with Sengoku, the prospects of World Victory Road being able to deliver a match between Yoshida and Ishii for K-1 show are now in question. The reason Kokuho’s departure from Sengoku is hard to read is because the Japanese fight scene is extremely political. It’s entirely possible to believe that he was forced out by Don Qujiote, the major money backers of Sengoku. It’s also possible to believe that it could be a swerve and that WVR is playing hardball. Whatever the truth is, the fact remains that K-1 has all the political leverage in the world. They will be promoting a main event fight featuring the retirement of famous kickboxer, Masato, who draws an extraordinary amount of female fans. He pulls in gigantic ratings and his retirement fight will generate enormous buzz. The K-1 Dynamite show does not critically need the Yoshida/Ishii fight – it simply would be a luxury to add that fight to the show.
K-1 has a history of vanquishing their enemies, but this time they managed to sit and watch their competition self-destruct. That’s not to say that K-1 is on completely solid ground – a recent report in Cyzo magazine claims that K-1 founder and Godfather Kazuyoshi Ishii is having financial problems related to a company that he created in the diet business and is looking for financial support. Nevertheless, K-1 has complete and total control over the fight business in Japan and will have a successful New Year’s Eve show. The question is what they do about Sengoku in the future – how much money and PR will they give the promotion or will K-1 attempt to destroy Sengoku in short order after the New Year’s Eve event is done?
As for the impact of K-1 dominating the fight scene (for both kickboxing and MMA in Japan), it will have an impact on Strikeforce in America. Many Strikeforce fighters are interested in fighting in Japan and having a steady promotion like DREAM will allow them to go back and forth between Japan and the States. This will create some headaches for Scott Coker, who will have to work with a talented roster of limited depth. In the long run, however, it will mean that we will see K-1 talent coming to America and fight fans will get a chance to see foreign talent that they otherwise would never get a chance to see in a UFC-only world.