UFC Japan Part 1: A History Lesson
UFC returns to Japan for the first time in over a decade Saturday night, presenting a card headlined by lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and Ben Henderson.
The UFC that goes to Japan this weekend is a vastly different promotion than they were when they last ran a show in the country 11 years ago. And as much as the company has changed, the mixed martial arts landscape in Japan has transformed just as dramatically since then.
The last UFC event held in Japan was on December 16, 2000. It is historically significant for the fact that it was the final UFC show before the company was sold to Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White.
The promotion's "dark ages" would soon be over. Sanctioning and regulation from most athletic commissions, and a return to cable television after years of political wrangling were on the way. The company would return to cable pay-per-view in September of the following year.
While UFC was down on its luck, mixed martial arts was enjoying a boom period in Japan in the late 1990's and the first half of the 2000's, roughly coinciding with the decline of the popularity of professional wrestling in the country. Multiple promotions popped up during that period, most famously the Pride FC group.
The market became oversaturated with the product as is typically the case in the entertainment industry. When a singing talent show succeeds, every network starts a singing talent show. When people make money in wrestling or MMA, everyone starts a promotion.
Pride was the last major group left standing when the boom ended. They overextended themselves, and even tried to expand to the United States, but it was too late and they ended up being purchased by the UFC in 2007.
As Japanese MMA was dying, 2007 and 2008 were big growth years for the UFC and MMA in America. Promotions began popping up all over. The Affliction clothing company started a promotion, throwing millions into producing two pay-per-view events. Elite XC got on CBS in prime time, which is no small feat. Gina Carano and Kimbo Slice proved to be ratings draws.
The peak of UFC's popularity and impact on pop culture may have been in 2009. That was the year when Brock Lesnar and Frank Mir drew the biggest pay-per-view numbers in the history of the company. It remains one of the five biggest combat sports pay-per-view shows of all time. 2010 was their best year on pay-per-view as far as gross number of buys, but one could argue that the pinnacle of the promotion's impact on the culture and relevance was the summer of 2009.
It is interesting to note that pro wrestler Terry Funk, well known in this country but a legend in Japan, has said that the Japanese wrestling scene is 10-20 years ahead of the United States. We witnessed a pro wrestling boom, followed by a crash, and a MMA boom, followed by a bust in Japan over the last 20 years. Here we have seen a pro wrestling boom, followed by a crash, and an MMA boom. Is there an inevitable bust on its way? Has it already begun? Some of the signs are certainly there. Falling television ratings. Falling pay-per-view buyrates.
UFC 144, also known as UFC Japan, serves as a reminder of mixed martial arts history and where the UFC has come from. Where the promotion and the industry will end up remains to be seen.
For part two, a breakdown of the UFC Japan card, click here.
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