MMA in Japan: sport or spoof?
Dream 9 featured a bizarre mix of washed out athletes and elite MMA fighters
MMA in Japan has a troubled past, with corrupted promoters and organizations
But ratings remain steady and a new influx of fighters could change its course
There's no logic behind mixed martial arts events like last Tuesday's Dream 9 in Japan. None.
On the same night and in the same ring the former Major League slugger Jose Canseco made his MMA debut against an experienced Korean kickboxer (who's built like an out-of-season Shaquille O'Neal), former Olympic wrestling hopefuls and world-class mixed martial artists fought spirited campaigns in front of an appreciative audience.
Nowhere is the schism between what casual and diehard audiences expect from MMA clearer than Japan. And nowhere do promoters and TV networks more willingly capitalize on that rift.
At its highest levels in Japan, MMA appears to serve one purpose: a vehicle to deliver numbers for networks, paltry as they may be compared to the boffo ratings that nearly made it a household sport a half decade ago.
Failed promotions, bitter political rivalries and the rise of MMA in North America all helped tamp down MMA's relevance -- and ratings -- in Japan.
Still, the sport exists -- though where it's headed and what it will look like isn't necessarily clear.
In March 2007, Ultimate Fighting Championship's owners acquired Japan's Pride Fighting Championships in what was hailed as the deal that would bring together two halves of a fractured sport. Yet, 27 months after the deal went through, it's difficult to say what, if anything, was achieved save the sense that mixed martial arts faces uncertain times where it once flourished.
Though there's an argument to be made that Japanese MMA remains healthy based on its proliferation, dwindling television opportunities, dropping purses and an unsteady morale among the country's fighters paint a different picture.
With a brewing rivalry between Pride's parent company, Dream Stage Entertainment, and K-1 backer, Fight Entertainment Group -- a sort of mutually beneficial cold war between promotional companies -- MMA in Japan was elevated in stature following the turn of the millennium.
When the playing field shifted after Pride folded following allegations of ties to organized crime, promotional rivals found themselves working together. Just how successfully, though, is a matter of interpretation.
That combined effort rendered Dream, which has the look of Pride but lacks its soul. Said one Japanese fighter manager, who asked not to be identified: rather than "concentrating on getting the sport back to where it used to be," these factions spend their energies on an ongoing "war between K-1 and Pride."