The UFC’s annual trip to Japan on Friday night underscored how in the country, where the modern version of MMA was able to draw regular huge crowds and achieve mainstream success long before that happened in the rest of the world, that it’s actually a market that UFC has never been able to fully crack.
Only 8,571 fans came to the same Saitama Super Arena that has played host to some of the greatest cards and greatest fights in history. And the word from Japan was that a good percentage of those tickets weren’t paid.
That is the same building where Pride used to draw 20,000 or more, and then claim it was 40,000, and where UFC sold out its first time in. This was the UFC’s smallest crowd since making the arena an almost annual stop in 2012.
There are a lot of reasons why UFC can run events all over the world and draw big numbers, but in the market one would think at first they’d have a lot of success, they’ve struggled.
The biggest is that Japan has always been about Japanese stars. Sure, Mirko Cro Cop and Bob Sapp were gigantic stars more than a decade ago, but they were the exceptions and the popularity of Pride was built more on people like Kazushi Sakuraba and Hidehiko Yoshida, plus the sprinkling in of Japanese pro wrestlers and cultural celebrities.
The UFC did pick up some of the last stars of that generation, like Cro Cop, Kid Yamamoto and Yoshihiro Akiyama, but they are all long past their primes and pretty much done with the organization. The one star from that era who was on Friday night’s show was Takanori Gomi, who was the lightweight star of the glory days. Gomi is now 39 years old, and his loss to Maestro Dong Hyun Kim was his fifth straight, and eighth loss in his last 11 fights. There wasn’t a lot of curiosity or interest left with him in Japan.
Flyweight Kyoji Horiguchi, who was probably the UFC’s best Japanese fighter, a top tier flyweight, let his contract expire and signed instead with Rizin.
The UFC tried to use Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who was a top star in Pride, as its headliner, taking on Ovince Saint Preux, but Rua suffered a knee injury. The fact that Yushin Okami, a Japanese fighter was the replacement isn’t as significant as it sounds. Even though Okami was a legitimate UFC title contender at one point as a middleweight, he was never a star in Japan first, only having one Pride fight in his career. As funny as that sounds, both Okami and Horiguchi weren’t followed closely in Japan because they became stars overseas first.
Plus, the Japanese television situation makes things difficult. In most countries, there are a number of sports stations looking for product. Japan has them as well, but Japan is still dominated by network television, and its cable stations don’t have anywhere near the kind of distribution numbers that is the case in other places in the world. And even though Rizin has had consistent network prime time exposure since its return, the politics of getting network television in Japan is next to impossible for a foreign promotion.
Another issue is that in order to be in prime time on a Friday night in the U.S., this show started at 9 a.m. local time Saturday morning in Japan.
Still, to a lot of the company’s Japanese fighters, it was a chance to return home. And the fan base that is there is among the most sophisticated, because they’ve been around the sport longer, and most respectful, even if they are quieter than in many countries.
The fans that were there got some great action fights, topped off by Jessica Andrade’s win over Claudia Gadelha, one of the best women’s fights in company history, matching two fighters many would consider the second- and third-best women’s strawweight fighters in the world.
Let’s look at how Fortunes changed for five stars on this week’s show.
OVINCE SAINT PREUX – When Rua went down, Saint Preux (21-10) was a sizeable favorite over Okami (34-11), who had been fighting two weight classes down as a welterweight.
Okami only lasted 1:50 before becoming Saint Preux’s second straight victim of a Von Flue choke, a statistic even more amazing since only five fights in UFC history have ended with that move, and Saint Preux has three of them.
Since it was planned to begin with, Rua (25-10) would make sense to be Saint Preux’s next opponent.
JESSICA ANDRADE – A win over Gadelha, who gave champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk her two toughest fights, should by itself put anyone in line for a championship fight.
The problem is Andrade (17-6) just had that fight on May 13, and that fight was one-sided. Andrade couldn’t win a round or even a minute of a round.
So Andrade’s situation is that if somehow Rose Namajunas wins the strawweight title on Nov. 4 in Madison Square Garden, Andrade would become the rightful top contender. But if that doesn’t happen, and it’s not expected to, Karolina Kowalkiewicz (10-2) would seem to be the best next opponent.
But no matter who Andrade beats, the one-sided nature of her first fight with the current champion makes a title fight difficult for UFC to pull the trigger on.
CLAUDIA GADELHA – Gadelha (15-3) is a very interesting contender.
She’s had three losses. The first, to Jedrzejczyk, was a split decision that easily could have gone her way. In her second loss to Jedrzejczyk, she was dominating the first two rounds until she ran out of gas, and lost the last three. With Andrade, she was taking Andrade apart early, landing frequent big shots, but in this case she got tired in the first round and ended up being target practice as the fight went on.
What’s notable is that the fast start and fade is reminiscent of Amanda Nunes’ early career.
So the key is to figure out how to fight without emptying out the tank early. A good next opponent would be the first champion Carla Esparza (12-4).
JUSSIER FORMIGA – Formiga (20-5) finished Ulka Sasaki (20-5-2) with a first-round choke after a dominant performance on the round. He immediately asked for a title fight.
With Ray Borg getting the next title shot at Demetrious Johnson on Oct. 7, that would leave Formiga and Sergio Pettis (16-2) as the highest-ranked contenders who Johnson has yet to beat. The two were scheduled to fight on Jan. 15 but Formiga was injured in training.
With Formiga scoring such an impressive win, he and Pettis makes the most sense right now.
GOKHAN SAKI – Saki (1-1), who was one of the world’s top kickboxers, had an impressive first-round knockout in his UFC debut over Henrique DaSilva.
Saki came out fast, dropping DaSilva and blocked all of his takedown attempts. But late in the first round, he hit the wall.
Since he spent a career, 96 fights to be exact, under kickboxing rules and three-minute rounds, he was in a lot of trouble once they got past that mark in the round. Still, after taking hard knees, and with things looking bad, Saki came back with a left hook that ended DaSilva’s night.
Saki’s kickboxing is such that he’d be favored against anyone in the division is a pure standing fight. DaSilva wasn’t able to implement a ground game. The question becomes after just one win, in his first MMA fight since 2004, do you immediately match him with a Jimi Manuwa (17-3) type who is just one step below the title contenders? Or do you go with someone like a Gian Villante (15-9), a ranked fighter but not top of the class, to give him a test to see if his late first-round troubles mean he’s needs time before being put with the top contenders. Saki is someone, who if he develops takedown defense, and betters his ability to pace himself with the longer rounds, has the standing skillset to be a champion.