Once upon a time, Japan was the hub of the mixed martial arts world. Pride created some of the most entertaining events in MMA history. The Pride era is still well-remembered and cherished by dedicated MMA fans. After 15 years since its closure, is Japanese MMA finding a way to reboot enthusiasm in the country?
Possibility of UFC -Rizin cross-promotion event
Recently Dana White talked about the possibility of working with Rizin and its president Nobuyuki Sakakibara for a US return. Dana noted, “I like Sakakibara, I always did, even when we were really hardcore competitors. He was a fun guy to compete with. And I don’t know… I’m not saying that I would but I’m not saying I wouldn’t either. At the time when we competed, when PRIDE and UFC were both first coming up, it was just such a different time in the sport.”
Dana and Sakakibara share a long history dating back to the early 2000s. Sakakibara was the president of Pride FC and White was the UFC boss at that time. There was a rivalry between the two organizations until the time when UFC acquired Pride’s assets, making it the top mixed martial arts organization in the world, both in name and reality.
Long since the Japanese martial arts boom is gone
Pride created a massive martial arts boom in Japan, and on New Year’s Eve, three TV stations competed to broadcast a mixed martial arts event. The year 2000-2005 was the golden era of Japanese MMA when Pride reached its prime, attracting all the best MMA fighters at that time.
The successful era of Pride also coincided when Kazushi Sakuraba became a Japanese hero. Sakuraba took the nickname ‘Gracie hunter’ by taking down Royler Gracie, Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, and Ryan Gracie one after another. Later, he was awarded a UFC Hall of Fame as the first Asian fighter. Pride’s era also corresponded to the glory of Wanderlei Silva. Silva became the first Pride’s middleweight champion and defended his title three times until his defeat in 2004 against Mark Hunt.
Originally, Pride was launched to create the event for Nobuhiko Takada and Rickson Gracie to fight. Rickson Gracie recalls the Pride era, “When Pride started, there were many fights that were conscious of ‘fights’ in terms of rules and fighter attitudes. But UFC events, which are now the most popular, are not fights. That is a game“. Gracie hinted that the current MMA judgment system may be one of the factors that affected the decline in popularity of MMA in general among Japanese people. In samurai spirit, the current judgement system does not appear to be a complete settlement of fighting.
Rizin FC has been organizing MMA events in Japan for 6 years now. It is clear that Rizin’s current president Nobuyuki Sakakibara had the ambition to recreate the MMA enthusiasm in the country by the launch of Rizin. In the past Rizin’s events, a number of legendary figures of the Pride’s era were featured to boost energy in the arena. Some fans are regularly betting on MMA fighters with oversea bookmakers like bet365 and odds for Rizin are also made available by a few Japanese betting sites. There was the exhibition boxing fight of Floyd Mayweather vs Tenshin Nasukawa. Also, there have been many kickboxing fights to promote Nasukawa as the main card of the events. Strictly speaking, Rizin has not been a pure MMA promotional organization and has not been able to reach its initial expectations to revive MMA enthusiasm in Japan. Even if Rizin manages to get the UFC to set up a cross-promotion event in the country in the future, however, it is not very likely to regain their wings to the level of 15 years ago.