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Are freakshow fights good for Japan?

(Roxanne Modafferi is one of the top 135 pound female fighters in the world who is currently working and training in Japan. For more info on Roxy, check out our interview and highlight video or her website!)

At the dojo last week, I asked pro-fighter teammate (who shall remain anonymous) if he saw the Super Hulk tournament at DREAM 9.  “No, I didn’t. I wanted to watch, though,” he replied.

“Do you think that’s good for MMA in Japan, or not?” I asked.

“Well, it’s okay I guess,” he said, flipping the pages of an MMA magazine he was glancing through.  “The general person wants to watch, right?”

I thought back to 2006 and earlier, when PRIDE was a household name, alongside K-1.  They both put on great matches between high caliber opponents.  However, the Japanese love of pro-wrestling showed through with many of their ‘freakshow’ bouts, such as “Giant” Silva and Bob Sapp versus various people. Ikuhisa Minowa (still known as Minowaman from his pro-wrestling days) has been in more than his fair share of these fights. Back in 2006 he managed to defeat the 7’2 Giant Silva with a knee to the head. Silva, 1-6 at the time, held his face and tapped out immediately, looking as if he didn’t really understand what was going on after he sat up.  Did he even know he was in a fight?

“Do you think Bob Sapp is strong?” I asked my teammate.

“Hmm,” he replied.  “But he has no heart, you know?”

Sapp had just fought Minowaman in the latest DREAM and tapped to what I thought was a loose ankle lock.  It didn’t look tight to me, but as a fighter, I’m hesitant to criticize a fight that I haven’t been in myself.  It wasn’t my ankle so how can I judge whether to tap or not? But thinking back, Bob Sapp had a cool entrance.  He has his look. He goes on Japanese TV. He’s a star. He’s a showman. His job is the same as Gina Carano on Showtime, when it comes down to it – to bring in and entertain the fans. Fight, but also be someone people want to watch.

So how to “save” Japanese MMA?  One organization has to stick around long enough at a high level for people to remember it.  There was HERO’s, Yarennnoka, etc.  I talk to my students (I’m an English teacher for the average business man), and only a few vaguely remember HERO’s, fewer watch Dream, but everyone knows K-1.  When questioned, most say, “Oh yeah, I remember PRIDE.”

Why? This is the key. It’s a different kind of equation than in the States (or Canada, England etc), where Dana White can promote the hell out of the UFC to fans who are looking for this kind of thing. Either you like MMA or you don’t. But Japanese promotions are aiming at the general audience as well as the hard-core fans, those who might tune in to fights if they are watching TV while eating dinner. And those fans tend to want to see their favorite pro-wrestler taking on some huge giant of a man, or a roided up baseball player from another country.

Are mismatches good for MMA in the US? No way. In Japan? I think yes. What do you think?