Martin: Akiyama Signing Marks Potential Shift in MMA Landscape

February 26, 2009

At first blush, the UFC’s signing of Yoshihiro Akiyama doesn’t seem like a headline-grabbing news story. Middleweight rivals Denis Kang and Kazuo Misaki signed American deals to limited fanfare. However, the signing is a very significant move both in terms of what it symbolizes and what it could mean for the future.

Akiyama, 12-1 with two notable no contests, is an ethnic Korean who was born in Japan. Koreans and Japanese have a longstanding mutual distrust, and Akiyama is viewed under very different lens across the body of water known alternatively as the Sea of Japan or Sea of Korea. In South Korea, Akiyama is a star MMA fighter with an impressive record and exciting style. In Japan, he is seen quite differently.

In 2006, Akiyama was put in a high profile New Year’s Eve fight with aging Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba. K-1 was grooming Akiyama to be its MMA flag bearer, and a win over Sakuraba was thought to be the fight that would put him over the top. While the fight did make Akiyama a much bigger star, it ended up backfiring as far as how Akiyama was viewed.

Akiyama destroyed Sakuraba with strikes, after easily brushing off Sakuraba’s takedown attempts. The fight drew a massive 25 rating and was tied for the highest rating on K-1’s biggest show of the year. It looked like Akiyama had taken himself to another level. What developed instead was a scandal. Sakuraba accused Akiyama of cheating, greasing his body prior to the fight so Sakuraba couldn’t take him down. Things got worse when video evidence surfaced of Akiyama doing just that.

Cheating in competition was viewed very unfavorably in the nation of Japan, where honor is valued very highly. The fact that it occurred against a national hero like Sakuraba made it all the worse. Imagine if evidence had surfaced of Georges St. Pierre rubbing Vaseline all over his own body in the dressing room prior to fighting B.J. Penn, and that the bout took place in Hawaii. Akiyama’s victory was changed to a no contest, and K-1 suspended Akiyama indefinitely.

When Akiyama returned from suspension, he got crowd reactions practically unheard of in Japan. Japanese fans rarely boo or jeer fighters, but Akiyama was serenaded with unprecedented hostility and became the biggest villain in Japanese MMA.

With anger has come interest. Akiyama’s four fights since each drew the biggest rating of their respective shows, including a high profile Yarennoka show and the finals of Dream’s lightweight and middleweight tournaments. UFC was not bidding against itself with Akiyama. He has serious value in Japan and South Korea.

UFC wasn’t always interested in Japan’s top stars. When the UFC purchased Pride, the most notable stars besides Fedor Emelianenko who didn’t join UFC were Japanese. When asked about Takanori Gomi or Shinya Aoki, UFC president Dana White indicated he was pleased with his roster at the time. The Japanese stars who did join UFC were mostly secondary stars like Akihiro Gono and Kazuhiro Nakamura.

This business philosophy made sense. All things being equal, fighters are generally going to fight where they have the most value because that location ought to be able to offer them the most lucrative contract. International MMA stars were for years worth the most in Japan because that’s where the money interest was highest. Now it is highest in the UFC. But top Japanese stars are still for the most part going to be worth more in Japan than they are in the UFC.

This isn’t the first time one country has raided the MMA talent of another. Earlier this decade the shoe was on the other foot and it was Pride luring over top talent from the United States. Mark Kerr, Dan Henderson and Royce Gracie were among the big names who left the UFC and came to Pride to fight.

There is, however, a difference in the two situations. In Japan, there is a long history of top foreign fighters coming to Japan to give credibility to the native Japanese stars. This has a cultural legacy dating back to the days of Rikidozan, and the tradition carried through to the likes of Muhammad Ali and Alexander Karelin. From World War II to present, the Japanese public wants to see their countrymen invoke their fighting spirit against the most dangerous competitors from other countries.

In the United States, there isn’t the same dichotomy. The biggest grossing boxing, MMA and wrestling bouts have typically featured Americans against other Americans. There is no great call among the sporting public to see them tested against other nationalities if the public believes the best competition to be other Americans. In short, elite Americans mean more in Japan than elite Japanese (or Koreans) mean in America.

The UFC’s signing of Akiyama could have one of two principal motivations. The first is that the UFC is targeting Japan and Korea, and is bringing in the big guns. The second is that UFC simply wants to have the best fighters, and is willing to pay a little extra if they happen to have special appeal elsewhere. Whether the former or latter is more true will become evident over the next couple years. But it ultimately doesn’t matter when it comes to the battered Japanese MMA landscape. Both top MMA promotions are struggling and a full-on UFC raid could prove crippling.

UFC has given signals that it could go further. The company has openly talked about bringing in Satoshi Ishii and Kid Yamamoto, and both have attended Zuffa events in recent months. Ishii, a gold medalist in judo at over 100 kilograms, has perhaps the biggest MMA drawing potential of anyone in Japan. His size and background brings comparisons to past top draws Hidehiko Yoshida and Naoya Ogawa, and he is only 22 years old.

If Ishii has the potential to become Japanese MMA’s biggest star, Kid Yamamoto likely holds that distinction today. Yamamoto is an elite fighter and the top ratings draw in Japanese MMA. If Yamamoto and Ishii were to join the UFC, it would be a devastating blow to Japanese-based MMA.

With that consideration in mind, UFC needs to be careful in where it goes from here. If the company feels it can successfully break into the MMA market in Japan and South Korea, it will need the stars to be successful. However, if the company signs Japan’s top draws and then can’t get the proper breakthroughs in that country, it could prove to be bad news for all parties involved.

UFC could end up paying big money contracts to fighters who mean little in the United States and at the same time could do irreparable damage to Japanese MMA. No one would gain from the death of mainstream Japanese MMA.

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