UFC hopes to shake up Japan fight scene

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

In the fourth round, Benson “Smooth” Henderson caught the neck of Frankie Edgar in a guillotine, and it looked so tight. But somehow Edgar, the UFC lightweight champion, escaped.

It was perhaps the most thrilling moment of the day. Possibly the most hyped moment in a long time in Japan’s MMA scene.

On Sunday, the Ultimate Fighting Championship made a long-awaited but triumphant return to Japan with UFC 144, which was also dubbed “UFC Japan.” It was the first UFC event in Japan in 12 years, and the first under the current and successful ownership, of Zuffa, LLC, a Las Vegas-based sports promotion company.

“It was great. It was an awesome event,” UFC president Dana White said after the show at Saitama Super Arena, which was jam-packed despite the 9:30 a.m. start time that was in place with the U.S. television audience in mind. “I was very happy from the beginning to the end. Everybody — Japanese, American, Polish, wherever they were from — put on a great event.”

Henderson, who beat Edgar in a unanimous decision in the main event to win the title, said after his fight that the atmosphere wasn’t what he expected to experience in Japan.

“I thought the Japanese audience was awesome,” Henderson said. “Actually hearing them cheer, it was pretty loud. I don’t know if it’s normal. From what I’ve heard, they are normally a quiet crowd. But they were pretty loud going into the fifth round. They got pretty hyped up.”

Even before Sunday, White had proclaimed UFC Japan was already a “success,” based on the amount of tickets sold and attention garnered. The promoter said that almost 20,000 tickets had been purchased.

“We consider this show a success,” White said at a news conference at a Tokyo hotel on Thursday. “First time back in 12 years, UFC is as big as PRIDE was here, for us to come in and do an event, a sellout — we’re very happy with the results.”

As for Japanese MMA fans in attendance, the word “finally” perfectly summed up their feelings. Because recent years have been an empty period with virtually no blockbuster events after PRIDE Fighting Championships closed down in 2007.

PRIDE FC was once arguably the biggest and most popular MMA promotion on the planet. During its heyday in the early 2000s, it assembled a stable of the world’s best fighters and many thought it was a bigger and better stage than UFC.

But Zuffa purchased PRIDE FC in 2006, and the organization eventually folded, causing an outflow of top fighters to UFC.

“We didn’t kill PRIDE,” White said. “We gave it a shot but it just didn’t work out.”

Some PRIDE fans may not like UFC. But to give credit to Zuffa, since its purchase of UFC in 2001, the promoter has completely changed MMA’s status from niche outfit to mainstream sport, particularly in the U.S.

Asked how he would deal with those who think the sport is too brutal to watch, the outspoken White scoffed at the idea.

“There’s never been deaths or serious injuries, in the almost 20-year history of the UFC,” White said. “My answer to them is, ‘Don’t watch it. Change the channel. Don’t buy a ticket. Don’t show up.’ “

Whether you like it or not, there’s this fact: MMA is now the fastest growing sport on earth, and UFC, which launched its first show in Denver in 1993, is the largest MMA promotion.

UFC is televised in more than 140 countries and territories, reaching more than a billion homes in 21 different languages around the world. It signed a seven-year contract with U.S. network Fox Television last summer, while the main bouts can only be seen on pay-per-view.

John Morgan, a reporter for MMAjunkie.com, who was in Japan to cover the event, said that UFC is threatening to crack the “Big Four,” referring to the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, the four major sports in the U.S.

Morgan said UFC’s expansion almost duplicates that of NASCAR, a fast-developing American auto racing circuit.

“But I think MMA is quickly becoming that,” Morgan said. “The demographics are obviously growing, it’s a wide range of audience. It’s growing quickly.”

Morgan added that UFC is even surpassing boxing.

“Boxing is still a popular sport,” Morgan said. “Boxing remains popular among older generations, but the kids are not really into boxing any more. I think (MMA) is a new choice of combat sport.”

It wasn’t just the fans who were excited about the American promotion returning, but most of the fighters also said it was a privilege to put on a show in the Far East.

Light heavyweight fighter Ryan Bader, who defeated Quinton “Rampage” Jackson via decision on Sunday, said prior to the fight that he was delighted to hit the canvas in Japan.

“I grew up watching MMA,” Bader said. “Coming over here to fight in front of the Japanese people in Japan, where mixed martial arts is huge (and) kind of a birthplace of it, it’s an honor for me.”

Meanwhile, UFC isn’t resting on its laurels. It aims to continue to expand around the globe. And after going to England, Ireland, Germany, United Arab Emirates, Sweden, Australia and Brazil, UFC now has its eye on Asia. Sunday’s show was just the first opportunity for UFC to make an imprint into East Asia.

White indicated even before Sunday that UFC would soon be back in Japan.

“The fact that we came in here and sold the amount of the tickets that we have, it’s phenomenal. We’re ecstatic. We’re more than excited,” White said.

“Martial arts comes from Asia. Comes from Japan. Comes from China. Comes from Korea. Mixed martial arts started in Asia and its boom was bigger here before it was anywhere else in the world. It makes all the sense (to come to Asia).”

There’s speculation that UFC is going to Macau and Singapore soon, and later to other Asian countries.

“We want to go everywhere, we want to take this thing everywhere,” White said with a grin. “I’ve said this for years; everything we’ve said we are going to do, we’ve done. I said we are going to Brazil, I said we’re going to go here, we’re going to go there. And I’ve been saying we’re going to come back to Japan, and here we are.”

Henderson, whose mother is Korean, said prior to the event Sunday that he would love to be counted in if the UFC has a show in Korea.

“I would absolutely love that,” said Henderson, a native of Colorado Springs, Colorado. “If the UFC asks me to go over there, I would definitely be on the card.”

In regards to having another UFC show in Japan in the near future, Edgar said, “I think it’d be great. MMA is so much in the Japanese culture. We’re trying to make the UFC a world organization. Why not be in one of the biggest markets?”

Of course, Japanese fighters would love to fight in front of the home crowd again.

Takanori Gomi said after a win over compatriot Eiji Mitsuoka that the return of the UFC meant so much for Japanese MMA.

“It really felt great to fight in Japan,” said the former PRIDE light-weight champion, who was on the card along with eight other Japanese fighters. “The guys for today’s main bout are in the same weight class as me. So I want to catch up with them and hopefully bring back the belt to Japan.”