Antonio Inoki’s 2013 Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye event in Tokyo at Ryogoku Kokugikan, brought to you with support from North Korean politicos. North Korea, the country always threatening to launch a nuclear strike on Japan. North Korea, the country ran by Kim Jong-Un, the crazy dictator who recently executed his uncle. Kim Jong-Un, whose father had close ties with Antonio Inoki because of Rikidozan and allowed Inoki to run Pyongyang Stadium for a two-day wrestling holiday in which Inoki beat Ric Flair.
This is what the Japanese MMA scene looks like 10 years after three major broadcast television networks financed gigantic combat sports shows.
13 years ago, Antonio Inoki’s vision of Japan being the top player in pro-wrestling & MMA was propelled to a height he never imagined. In order to make this happen, he had to gather the biggest promoters in the sport (PRIDE & K-1) in a room to work together. The flaw in the plan was the same as its strength: once you get heavy hitters involved in the scene, then it’s a free-for-all and everyone wants to destroy each other until there’s nothing left. That’s pretty much happened after the 2003 New Year’s Eve events in Japan.
I wrote an article about the last 20 years of MMA history in Japan and it’s a nice crash course piece to read. So, after you read that article, let’s fill in the missing details.
The devious mastermind’s experiment blew up in his face
Antonio Inoki came up with the concept of a hybrid MMA/wrestling show in 2000 that would take place at the Osaka Dome and be backed by Dream Stage Entertainment, the parent company of PRIDE. Eventually, PRIDE & Fuji TV would break off and do their own thing while K-1, the largest kickboxing promotion in the world, would work with Inoki on major events for Tokyo Broadcasting System. Then there was a split between K-1 and Inoki. The end result was a New Year’s Eve scenario on 2003 where you had PRIDE with a major event on Fuji TV versus K-1 with a major event on Tokyo Broadcasting System versus Antonio Inoki with a gong show on Nippon TV from Kobe Wing Stadium.
Think of it like this: imagine the powers-that-be at the NCAA deciding to run the BCS National title game head-to-head against the NFL Playoffs on multiple broadcast TV channels at the same time. It would be absolute football chaos.
The PRIDE show was headlined by Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira vs. Kazushi Sakuraba and Royce Gracie vs. Hidehiko Yoshida. The K-1 event was headlined by Bob Sapp vs. Akebono and scored massive television ratings. A network hadn’t seen ratings for a fight of that nature since the Inoki vs. Ali bout from 1976 at Nippon Budokan that was officiated by “Judo” Gene LeBell. The Inoki event was headlined by PRIDE champion Fedor Emelianenko against New Japan ace Yuji Nagata. Fedor destroyed Nagata, which resulted in Nagata getting buried a few days later at the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Tokyo Dome event. It took years for Nagata to wipe the stigma away from the losses to both Fedor & Cro Cop.
Impossible to clean up the mess
To make a long story short, PRIDE got pissed that Fedor fought on the Inoki event. So, revenge was exacted. Fedor eventually broke off from his manager, Miro Mijatovic. That started us down the path of the yakuza wars and eventually the police stepping in to put an end to everything. Fuji TV got hammered through a negative media campaign by weekly publication Shukan Gendai, which sensationalized the matter and put a bright spotlight on the proceedings. The “whistle-blower” was an admitted yakuza fixer for K-1 named Seiya Kawamata. Eventually, Fuji TV dropped their contract with PRIDE despite ratings that UFC would die to have in the States. PRIDE eventually died.
Then K-1 thought that everything would be gravy with them controlling the only broadcast TV pipeline in Japan. However, their ratings plummeted and they lost their backing. K-1 would die.
If you had told me 10 years ago that PRIDE & K-1 would be dead a decade later, I would have never in a million years had believed your prediction. But it happened. It happened because the TV networks pulled the plug and the yakuza rot behind the scenes became public news. The anti-yakuza sentiment grew in Japan and then came the new laws to try to cramp extortion practices. These laws carried some teeth, albeit not enough to stop banks from issuing some… creative loans. However, the laws directly impacted the black money that was backing combat sports in Japan.
And now look at what we are left with.
As one of the very few MMA writers to tackle the yakuza issue head-on, I have always been public in my anti-yakuza stance on combat sports. The volatility of the gang money simply created too much chaos and benefited the worst of the worst in society. I also understand that without that dark money, many players in the fight business would have never had jobs. For some individuals, there would be no fight business without the dark money.
I just thought that the players in the Japanese scene would figure out a way to make a buck in such a ripe market for combat sports without having to be propped up by the gangsters. Boy, was I wrong. It’s 2013 and Antonio Inoki is not only a politician one again, he’s the only one even bothering to run a show (albeit a hybrid MMA/wrestling event). With the same cast of characters from a decade ago. Even Fedor was there as a guest to make a cameo appearance. Nothing’s changed for Inoki. It never has. As someone who grew up in the Japanese combat sports scene, I find that utterly depressing and yet completely predictable.