It's no secret Japanese fight promotion works differently than fight promotion in America. Pride Fighting Championships, the legendary Japanese promotion purchased by the UFC in 2007, was known for booking fights with an eye for bigger-than-life storylines and outrageous spectacle. Pride sometimes let the sporting aspect of MMA be damned in favor of fights that would get grannies and teenage girls buzzing.
The UFC is headed to Japan for UFC 144 on February 26, 2012. It's their first show since the 2007 purchase of Pride and they've already announced the full card for the event:
Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson
Ryan Bader vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields
Joe Lauzon vs. Anthony Pettis
Cheick Kongo vs. Mark Hunt
Tim Boetsch vs. Yushin Okami
George Sotiropoulos vs. Takanori Gomi
Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palaszewski
Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto vs. Vaughan Lee
Takeya Mizugaki vs. Chris Cariaso
Riki Fukuda vs. Steve Cantwell
Tiequan Zhang vs. Leonard Garcia
Other than the presence of popular former Pride star Rampage Jackson and controversial judoka Yoshihiro Akiyama, there isn't a lot on the main card for Japanese fans to get excited about. The UFC has stacked the preliminary card with Japanese fighters, but many of them, like Yushin Okami, are virtual unknowns in their homeland.
Adding insult to injury, the preliminary card starts early in the morning in Japan, forcing Japanese fans to make some complicated travel arrangements to get to the arena in time for the fights.
With that in mind, I asked Zach Arnold of Fight Opinion how the show might have been constructed if the UFC wanted to do it "Pride style." First he noted the fighters with high profiles in Japan who are NOT on the card (I've added commentary regarding the fighter's other scheduled bouts and/or complications):
- Alistair Overeem
Overeem will be busy facing Brock Lesnar in the headliner for UFC 141 on December 30 in Las Vegas. If he wins he's been promised a shot at Junior dos Santos and the heavyweight title. Nevertheless, Overeem, a Pride veteran and K-1 champ would be a huge boost to the Japanese card.
- Josh Barnett
The Pride and Japanese pro wrestling star is currently engaged in the Strikeforce heavyweight GP where he's expected to meet Daniel Cormier in the finals. No date has been set for that fight while Cormier recovers from a hand injury.
- The Nogueira brothers
The UFC has plans for both Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira to fight at UFC 140 on December 10. Big Nog will rematch Frank Mir and Little Nog will fight Tito Ortiz.
- Wanderlei Silva
The long-time Pride champ just beat Cung Le at UFC 139 and the UFC hasn't announced Wandy's next fight. This one is a bit of a head scratcher as Silva would definitely have added to the UFC Japan card's appeal with both Japanese and American fans.
- B.J. Penn
The former two-division UFC champ is currently on a sabbatical from fighting so you can't really blame the UFC for not including him on the card.
- Urijah Faber
Even though "The California Kid" hasn't ever fought in Japan, a bout with "Kid" Yamamoto would have gotten Japanese fans buzzing. Unfortunately, the former WEC star is expected to coach the first season of The Ultimate Fighter to air on FX as a build-up to his title bout with Dominick Cruz.
- Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic
The 2006 Pride Open Weight GP champion and former K-1 star is very well known in Japan. Unfortunately, he retired after his UFC 137 loss to Roy Nelson.
- Fedor Emelianenko
The long-time Pride heavyweight champ has never been able to come to terms with the UFC. He's expected to meet Satoshi Ishii in Japan on New Year's Eve.
- Kazushi Sakuraba
While the aging Sakuraba hasn't won (or been paid for) a fight in years, he's still popular with Japanese fans. UFC president Dana White's been outspokenly critical of Japanese promoters for booking Sakuraba long past his expiration date though so it's hard to see him changing his tack and booking Sakuraba.
- Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
Shogun just lost a brutal five round war to Dan Henderson at UFC 139. The former Pride GP champ would definitely get the attention of Japanese fans.
- Dan Henderson
See above. The former multi-division Pride champ remains well known in Japan.
Arnold suggested a number of possible match-ups using the fighters named above plus the fighters actually booked for UFC 144 that would dramatically increase the card's fascination level for Japanese fans:
- Josh Barnett vs. Alistair Overeem or Josh Barnett vs. Frank Mir
Pro-wrestler vs. K-1 champ is the kind of bout that gets buzz going in Japan. It's also possible to see Barnett, the catch wrestling submission expert, vs. Mir, the UFC's best big submission artist, having a lot of appeal for Japanese grappling fans, who are legion.
Unfortunately the UFC's commitment to a coherent title picture precludes Overeem fighting Barnett in Japan (unless he loses to Brock Lesnar at UFC 141). Japanese promoters always reserved the right to schedule fights with only weeks or days to go before the match, but the UFC doesn't do things that way.
- Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Penn or Gomi vs. Penn
Despite not having fought in Japan since 2005, the Hawaiian Penn is a figure of considerable interest in the Land of the Rising Sun. A bout with the legendary Sakuraba or his old rival Gomi would have appeal.
The biggest problem with this plan is Penn's current retirement. Possibly they could have lured him out of his sabbatical, but with Penn it's hard to know what actually motivates him to sign a bout agreement.
- Wanderlei Silva vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
The two fought a legendary three-fight series in the early 2000's that left the undersized Sakuraba a shell of his former self. American fans will never understand the Japanese fascination with seeing their idols risk life and limb against much bigger men, but there's no doubt it exists.
Even with Silva's rapid physical decline as a result of suffering many KO's of his own, its hard to see how the UFC would justify booking him against Sakuraba.
- Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto vs. Urijah Faber
Three years ago this was THE fight in the smaller divisions of men's MMA. Kid was known as the Japan's top little guy, having fought at both 155 and 170lbs and more than held his own against much bigger opponents. Meanwhile Faber was the top featherweight in the U.S. Unfortunately neither man was known in his opponent's homeland and there was no way to justify the cost.
Now that Kid has gone 0-2 in the UFC and Faber remains a top contender, there's just no way to justify this booking in the context of the UFC.
- Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic vs. Mark Hunt or Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic vs. Alistair Overeem
Both Hunt and Overeem are ex-K-1 champs, making either of these bouts an easy sell in Japan. Unfortunately, Cro Cop retired after going 4-6 in the UFC.
- Dan Henderson or Mauricio "Shogun" Rua vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
Japanese fans remember all three men from the Pride era and would likely prefer to see Quinton in the cage opposite a familiar face rather than the completely-unknown-in-Japan Ryan Bader.
Henderson is in the title picture in two divisions after his UFC 139 win but it seems possible that Shogun could have been booked for this event.
- Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
This would be a rematch of the infamous NYE 2006 no contest between the two fighters when Akiyama was caught greasing up against the beloved Sakuraba. That bout made Akiyama a heel-for-life in Japan and no doubt a rematch would be of interest there.
Again, Dana White's stated and principled opposition to booking the decrepit Sakuraba in a fight presents an impossibly high hurdle for this fight, on the other hand, White has changed his mind before.
While it's indisputable Arnold's suggested fights would indeed have much greater appeal to Japanese fans, the problem is the UFC's sport-centric booking style is diametrically opposed to the spectacle and story-driven booking style favored by Japanese promoters.
As big a market as Japan used to be for MMA, without support from a major network the UFC has to book fights with an eye toward the expectations of the much larger U.S. fan contingent. And that could mean Japanese fans being left out in the cold.