This country is the spiritual home of Mixed Martial Arts, along with Brazil. But whereas the South Americans popularised Vale Tudo (“Anything Goes”) rules combat, the Japanese progression to modern MMA came from the professional wrestlers and their catch-as-catch-can submission wrestling culture, alongside the world’s oldest MMA promotion (and almost a sport in its own right) Shooto.
SHOOTO & PANCRASE
Shooto was, is and perhaps always will be a cult as opposed to a mainstream brand of international fightsport, but puro resu (Japanses pro-wrestling) and its culture of training submission wrestling for real, despite the wrestlers essentially pretending to fight and competing in entertainment as opposed to sport, would spawn two organisations that put Mixed Martial Arts into the mainstream of both Japan itself, and the world. Fujiwara-Gumi wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, along with the American Ken Shamrock, were catch wrestlers (known as “shootfighters” back then) were tired of only utilising their martial arts system to allow other wrestlers to “beat” them, and desperately wanted to pitch their talents against other real athletes and fighters for real. The rebels founded Pancrase, their first event took place one month before UFC 1, with Shamrock submitting Funaki in the main event, and its popularity soared. For the following four years, all the best talent in Mixed Martial Arts was split between Pancrase and the UFC, with some of the fighters competing in both organisations, and in some cases winning titles in both organisations between 1994-1999; men such as Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Bas Rutten and Guy Mezger.
The second organisation, the one that really forced the burgeoning sport out into the mainstream and would set a standard that no other promotion matched in its ten-year-tenure (and arguably still hasn’t) was PRIDE Fighting Championships.
The relationship between puro & “shoot fighting” in the form of MMA could not have been clearer than in PRIDE - the pagaentry, production and flamboyance of big Japan-MMA shows are always in marked contrast to the more low key, cookie-cutter approach of the Americans and English.
Shooto and Pancrase paved the way, but when the Takada faction decided to intensify the BJJ vs Catch wrestling war, Pride was created to give a platform for the prospective matchup of Nobuhiko Takada and the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu God Rickson Gracie; the family champion. Of course, Helio vs Kimura, Royce vs Shamrock 1&2 et al had already occurred, with both “sides” notching favourable results, but Pride would intensify the open rivalry between catch-as-catch-can wrestling, and the form of Jiu Jitsu championed by the Gracie family, and adopted as a Brazilian Martial Art.
At Pride 1, notable MMA champions and fighters such as Dan Severn, Kimo, Renzo Gracie and Oleg Taktarov fought, but the real story was the main event. An imperious Rickson had his way with Takada (a feat he repeated a year later) but the event gave birth to what would become the biggest and without doubt most exciting organisation in the MMA world over the course of the next, wonderful decade.
Over the subsequent 18 months, consensus #1 ranked Heavyweight and p4p fighters Mark Kerr and Igor Vovchanchyn were added to the Pride roster, along with Gilbert Yvel, Marco Ruas, Royler Gracie, Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, Guy Mezger, Enson Inoue, Wanderlei Silva, Mark Coleman, and more. They joined homegrown stars of puroresu representing catch wrestling, such as Kazushi Sakuraba, Akira Shoji, Takada, Alexander Otsuka, and others representing Judo such as Olympic champion Naoya Ogawa.
In 1999, the #1 Heavy/Open Weight ranking and arguably p4p #2 spot (behind Frank Shamrock) was put on the line at a Pride event, when Igor Vovchanchyn defeated Mark Kerr via knee strikes. However, the result was later overturned, as said strikes had just been outlawed at Pride events.
In 2000, Pride arranged an Open Weight Grand Prix, which Mark Coleman won, defeating an exhausted Igor Vovchanchyn in the finals. The undersized power punching Igor fought for a combined 48 minutes that night, but that paled into comparison with his semi-final opponent. In a revenge of sorts for catch wrestling, Kazushi Sakuraba – who had defeated a Gracie family member leading into the fight – had fought for 90 minutes against Royce Gracie, whose corner threw in the towel after six 15min rounds.
The Grand Prix, and the gargantuan bout between Gracie and Sakuraba, put Pride events on the map as the metaphorical Super Bowl of Mixed Martial Arts. Former UFC and World Wrestling Federation Superstar Ken Shamrock made his well publicised return to MMA with Pride, at the Grand Prix finals. Pride had clearly become the place to be, with the best roster, most glamorous and extravagant shows and the sexiest image. It presented the sport in the best light it had yet to be viewed in – as a Martial Arts show that promoted respect.
The roster was by now more than comparable to the UFC’s, with many former and even future champions making their way over to Japan, to fight what was now perceived to be against a better level of competition, for bigger pay checks and before larger and more appreciative audiences.
By the time the next Grand Prix rolled around, Pride was largely acknowledged as the best of the best. Notables who had arrived from 00-03 were Ken Shamrock, Don Frye, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko, Kevin Randleman, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Ricardo Arona, Murilo Bustamante, Alistair Overeem, Chuck Liddell, Semmy Schilt, Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, and more. Notable homegrown fighters now included Takanori Gomi, Hidehiko Yoshida, Ikuhisa Minowa, Yoshihiki Takahashi, and more.
Further acquisitions from 2003 onwards included UFC and Pancrase champion Josh Barnett, world sambo champion Aleksander Emelianenko, Sergei Kharitonov, Paulo Filho, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Ninja Rua, Fabricio Werdum, Mark Hunt, Stefan Leko, Denis Kang, Nick Diaz, Phil Baroni, Jens Pulver, and the reacquisition of the services of Ken Shamrock and Vitor Belfort. Homegrown stars Takanori Gomi, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai, Ikuhisa Minowa and a young Shinya Aoki rose to the forefront of the lighter weights, though Sakuraba and Yoshida remained the biggest Japanese stars.
From 2003 to its death in 2007, Pride put on the best events, and the majority of top ranked fighters fought for them.
Thus did Dream Stage Entertainment assemble most of the world’s finest fighters into one preposterously stacked roster, creating what TRUE Mixed Martial Arts afficionado’s and fans remember – and miss – as the Greatest That Our Beloved Sport Had To Offer… the very pinnacle of martial arts combat.
Dream are one of two promotions that could lay claim to being PRIDE’s successor, with both being entertaining yet neither truly matching the juggernaut they followed. However, Dream has boasted some of the world’s elite talent, and in particular its continuation of the Pride Grand Prix tournament spectaculars to crown its inaugural champions led to 2008 being a fantastic year for Japan-MMA, despite the huge void left by PRIDE.
Breakout star Marius Zaromskis, who head kicked his way to the Welterweight Grand Prix title, former K-1 Hero*s stars such as Melvin Manhoef and Kid Yamamoto, old PRIDE legend Kazushi Sakuraba, Shooto king and Bushido’s submission specialist Shinya Aoki, feared light-heavyweight gatekeeper turned heavyweight monster Alistair Overeem and more made following Dream fun in 2008 and 2009. Sadly, Fighting Entertainment Groups’ financial difficulties struck the organisation hard, and a less consistent 2010 was followed by a turbulent 2011 in which FEG themselves nearly went under, leading to their eventual sale of their far bigger and greater asset, K-1.
SENGOKU (World Victory Road)
When FEG decided to work with their former rivals, the staff of DreamStage Entertainment, who were all laid off when the UFC bought the soon-to-be dead shell and empty husk of PRIDE, some defected and split off to form splinter organisation World Victory Road. What followed was some of the outright best events ever held on Japanese soil, with their own Grand Prix’s producing fireworks and a host of tremendous talent providing top notch action.
Their downside? Financial woes that have led to a hiatus lasting nearly one and a half year (at time of writing), with their last event being the epic Soul of Fight card that featured 27 MMA and K-1 rules bouts, on December 30, 2010.
They are still mourned and missed, particularly in light of Dream’s scarcity of events. The black irony is that WVR boldly declared that they would eventually become Japan’s consensus #1 via a taxing war of attrition as FEG bled itself to death, only to die themselves mere months before FEG’s decline became catatonic. Such a shame.
DEEP are a cool promotion and almost universally liked, but extremely frustrating in that they make very little effort (an attribute of most Japanese promotions) to market themselves to a potentially hugely lucrative international market. Perhaps relegated in recent years to a glorified feeder league of sorts for Dream, DEEP’s 50th event regardless boasted names such as Aoki and other former alumni, and their events are rarely damp squibs.
RINGS Fighting Network was the brainchild of Akira Maeda, the man who later ran K-1 Hero*s and founded the unique promotion “The Outsiders”. In its 1999-2002 heyday, before PRIDE poached their talent, RINGS boasted one of the finest rosters in the sport, with such luminaries and elites as Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Dan Henderson, Ricardo Arona, Randy Couture, TK, Renato Sobral, Kiyoshi Tamura, Jeremy Horn and Gilbert Yvel competing on their cards. Recently revived, the show is now fairly low key, and boasts nobody (as yet) considered top talent in the sport.
Perhaps a strange pick as second in line for a summary of Asian countries’ MMA histories, but as the world’s most populous nation and third largest country, why not?
This is a notorious market, as (much like in Thailand with Muay Thai) there is the thousands-year-old history of the many forms of China’s national martial art Kung Fu to consider, and the indifference to blindly following western culture. China has seen two noteworthy attempts to break their market, and neither one was geared towards international growth or recognition.
ART OF WAR
This is a truly disappointing organisation. The rumours of PRIDE-esque rules were abundant, the production values, the signings, the works. In short, it was China’s answer to the Affliction furore.
Sadly, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Art of War started in 2005, but by 2009 was ready to “take on the world”. They initiated a massive Public Relations campaign, similar to One FC in the present day (2012), and invited MMA luminaries such as Bas Rutten and referee John McCarthy to their twelfth event in May 2009, and they duly received a degree of international acclaim and even something resembling hype among the jaded former fans of PRIDE still desperately hoping for an Asian powerhouse in the sport. Fighters competing on Art of War cards included Olé Laursen, Jadamba Narangtungalag, Andy Wang, Peter Graham and Rolles Gracie, plus top Chinese competitors in Sanda, Judo, various forms of Kung Fu and Greco-Roman wrestling. And best of all – to my ear at least – they used an Oasis track as one of their themes.
But the reality was that Art of War events were hard to watch – not entertainment wise, they literally hard to locate – and by and large, one event apart, not enough was done to promote the organisation outside of China. What few events made their way onto megaupload and megavideo, knowledge of which seemed to be safely guarded by the few pretentious elitist Japanophilic basement dwelling hardcore MMA forum posting fans that knew of their existence, looked amazing; the production value was fantastic, the fights were reasonably entertaining, and it had a unique feel even of Japan, depite mimicking its pageantry and style. Sadly, Art of War quietly retired after their fifteenth event in November 2009. They never officially went defunct or ceased operations, and the official status of Art of War XVI is still “To be announced”. One would imagine that after two and a half years, much like Sengoku, we have seen the last of Art of War.
Another promotion destined to frustrate us, or a future juggernaut destined to crack the Chinese market and then head overseas to snag international support and acclaim? I don’t know. What IS for sure, however, is that by virtue of being the only MMA entity to get Niké sponsorship, money is not an issue for the promotion that somewhat counter-productively only allows those with Chinese visas (including Hong Kong and Macau) to compete on their events.
Can you imagine if RUFF tried to be all that they could be?
Sub-category – HONG KONG:
With its own niche in this economically strong semi-autonomous city-state of the People’s Republic of China, Legend have a great base to develop in Hong Kong. As a British colony until 1997, Hong Kong’s pseudo separation from the rest of China and their more welcoming attitude towards foreigners makes the city-state a more likely and attractive proposition for a Mixed Martial Arts promotion that can grow as a brand. Legend FC are that promotion. After signing an ESPN International deal (that may be affected by their current legal issues and of course the One FC ESPN deal) and snatching up good talent around the area, Legend FC built a successful, entertaining promotion and will look to move onwards and upwards into a bright future.
As far as I know, Pyongyang is yet to embrace the rise of Mixed Martial Arts, so Korea-MMA is comprehensively southern in nature! Korea is home to some well-known MMA camps though, some of whom produce decent talent competing on the Japanese scene such as Korean Top Team and Team M.A.D.
ROAD are Korea’s premier MMA promotion as of 2012. A step away from Japanese style with organisations such as Spirit MC, ROAD sees Korea take a step towards western affiliated Mixed Martial Arts with its desire to bring in international competition (albeit for Koreans to smash) and in using something closer to unified rules (with knees to the head on the ground permitted) and most crucially, the cage. ROAD FC win my personal support for their Grand Prix’s at lower weight classes – simply put, there is no better form of fightsport than a bantam, feather or lightweight Grand Prix, and with ROAD FC you can get your fix.
SINGAPORE, INDONESIA, THAILAND, MALAYSIA & THE PHILLIPINES
Non-continental East Asia, namely Singapore, is actually on the brink of becoming the new hub of Asian Mixed Martial Arts, thanks to the rise to prominence and business savvy of One FC. They are of course not limited to Singapore, and have and will host events in Indonesia and also Malaysia, their northern neighbour and the southernmost tip of continental Asia.
Part of their modus operandi has been to amalgamate all the regional promotions of East Asia and – ambitiously enough, but successfully – Japan’s Dream, into what is referred to as “The One FC Network”. This is the right kind of monopoly, akin to the old Elite XC Pro-Elite network that featured Elite XC, Strikeforce, Affliction and Cage Rage, and it can only be a good thing to encourage that kind of talent swapping between promotions as they try to rise together and raise the profile of the sport in their respective countries.
Here is my feature on why I feel One FC will become the next juggernaut and powerhouse of Asian MMA.
The ONE FC Network:
The most prominent organisation in The Phillipines, URCC are represented by several of their champions on One FC events. They are the single monopoly on Filipino MMA, and have been established for years under founder Alvin Aguilar, who is most responsible for introducing MMA into the Phillipines.
DARE are a Bangkok based organisation in Thailand, a country that recently banned Mixed Martial Arts (breaking news with Fight Sport Asia, see here). Prior to the ban, and possibly even after it depending on bribery and corruption, DARE were making waves by signing the likes of Irshaad Sayed and Mark Striegl, guys with decent reputations in East Asia, not to mention announcing bare-knuckle fights would take place on their events and that there was a 1 million US dollar prize purse for their infamous tournament that has no brackets or official structure. We will see in the near future where DARE go from here, post-MMA ban.
CAGE FIGHTING CHAMPIONSHIPS