When DREAM and PRIDE were in their heyday about 10 to 15 years ago, Japan might have been considered the epicenter of mixed martial arts around the world.
Those days are mostly over now. A number of organizations still remain, but the world’s most important MMA circuit is probably the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, which purchase PRIDE in 2007, headed by president Dana White.
There is a considerable amount of talent still coming out of Japan, however, and the market remains important on a global scale. This is why White has brought a UFC event to Japan each of the past two years and will do the same again in September. It’s also part of the reason UFC has joined with Vale Tudo Japan, in what the company calls a “ground-breaking deal,” to produce a tournament series that will air on Japanese television.
The project will be similar to “The Ultimate Fighter,” (TUF) a U.S. reality show that puts a group of fighters under one roof and documents their lives as they train and fight each other in a competition that bestows a UFC deal upon the last man standing.
“We are going to obviously go out an find eight of the best 135-pounders, eight of the best 145-pounders and then we’re going to follow them,” White said about the Japanese project. “We’re going to get in depth, inside their lives, and put together these documentary-style features about them. These features will lead up to the fights.
“When we lead up to the finale, we’ll end up with two winners and probably three or four stars and guys who can continue to fight in the UFC.”
TUF has been wildly successful and has greatly raised UFC’s profile in the U.S. sports scene. Since 2005, there have been 20 seasons based in the U.S. and six outside America in Australia, Brazil, Canada, and China.
The Japanese market is a different beast and not always the easiest place to establish a foothold. White hopes that in addition to uncovering a few stars, the show, which will be shown on terrestrial television, will help UFC increase its Japanese fanbase. The last two Japanese UFC events, in 2012 and 2013, were sellouts, and this show is the circuit’s next step in Japan.
“Obviously for us getting into this market, this tournament is very important,” White said. “We’re going to continue to bring events over here, but this tournament, television show, if it does well — and if it’s done the way we know we’re going to do it, it should work — it opens a ton of doors for many possibilities here.”
The existing versions of the show generally had an established home base from which the fighters’ lives are chronicled as they’re split into separate teams under coaches who are usually current UFC stars.
White says the Japanese version will be different in some ways. For one, the fighters won’t live together. The show will instead document them in their natural environments as they prepare for the tournament that’s the backbone of the program.
“The tournament won’t have coaches,” White said. “They’ll have their own teams. You’ll see what team they come from, who their trainers are . . . this will be a real documentary-type show that’ll go deep inside these guys’ lives.
“Japan is already a culture that’s very educated on mixed martial arts. ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ we kind of had to do it a different way to educate a lot of fans in the U.S. and other places we go. The Japanese market is very educated.”
Depending on the final format, the show may also present a peculiar challenge for its participants, who may compete more than they’re used during the (as of yet undetermined) run of the show.
“When you’re fighting like three times in, I wanna say, four or five weeks, you can’t really take a lot of beatings,” said Roy Nelson, who won the 10th season of TUF in the U.S. and is half of September’s main event in Saitama, where he’ll fight Mark Hunt. “You gotta just try to go in there without getting knocked out or breaking a hand. When I won the finale, I knew I had time off. That’s why I knocked out Brendan Schaub. Because I knew I had time off afterward. I could go for the whole gusto.”
If successful, the show could create a larger foothold for UFC in the Japanese market and ultimately around the globe.
“The goal is to create this sport all over the world,” White said. “The thing that I’ve always said is, all these other sports are great. Soccer, baseball, basketball, American football, it’s all good, but at the end of the day what people really love . . . people love fights. People love big fights.
“Realistically, if you look at the PRIDE era and the UFC era, this sport, the sport of it, has really only been around about 15 years. If you look at what all the other sports have, they have histories of 100 years, 50 years, 60 years. This sport is still very, very young. There’s a lot of growth potential and a lot of work to do.”