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One-on-one with Nobuyuki Sakakibara: PRIDE regrets, and ushering a new era with RIZIN

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RIZIN Fighting Federation is hosting its nineteenth event in Yokohama Arena in Japan, featuring a rematch for the light heavyweight title between 2015 World Grand Prix winner “King” Mo Lawal and Czech stand out Jiri Prochazka. The co-main will be under kickboxing rules between sensation Tenshin Nasukawa and Fritz Biagtan, the first fighter under the new RIZIN-Manny Pacquiao cooperation deal to find and develop talent from the Philippines.

World-ranked fly- and bantamweight Kyoji Horiguchi also appears at the top of the card against recently released UFC fighter Ben Nguyen. Additionally, two of Japan’s most dominant grapplers in MMA are set for a lightweight scramble: Satoru Kitaoka and Roberto Satoshi de Souza.

One day ahead of the 12-bout card, RIZIN founder and president Nobuyuki Sakakibara spoke with BloodyElbow on a wide range of topics, past, present and future.

Pride Grand Prix 2005 - Final Round - Match - August 28, 2005

PRIDE Grand Prix 2005 – Final Round – August 28, 2005 at Saitama Super Arena in Japan.
Photo by Tomokazu Tazawa/Getty Images

PRIDE and the birth of RIZIN

The gregarious Sakakibara is known for his verbosity, and he gets right down to core facts when asked directly about anything PRIDE. That era is still considered the golden age of MMA, and he was the ring leader. Sakakibara doesn’t see it as all gold as some might expect.

“I wasn’t thinking about business. I wanted to make Rickson versus Takada. The first event was a flop. In all aspects it was a failure, but we wanted it to be legendary. We went through a lot of frustration and humiliation, so we just couldn’t end there. And so it became a business.

“There reason I think it became phenomenal is because it was the perfect time. The UFC wasn’t able to put on legal events. There was a demand for the sport and content, and there weren’t as many competitors then. That was one of the key aspects why we were received well.”

After selling PRIDE to the UFC, Sakakibara turned his talents elsewhere under a seven-year non-compete clause. He jumped back into the game of MMA when it was over, causing an entire generation of fans to swivel their eyes back towards Japan in curiosity and anticipation. The business of MMA is littered with those who didn’t make it, yet here was a man trying not just to get back into the sport, but create a product that would again capture glory. Was this from vanity, or regrets?

“Of course I regret selling PRIDE. I would not be here today — I would not try to revive the Japanese market with RIZIN if I did not regret selling PRIDE.”

And so RIZIN was born. During its first three and a half years, Sakakibara has faced challenges in a vastly different climate from new media to new fans and a plethora of new ways to reach them. Ultimately, as a businessman, he’s got one foot in the creative side and one foot in finance – the crucial element in the longevity of his project.

“There are pros and cons about the current MMA market in making revenue. Its not like back in the day when you had only six channels to source your content. Now people can access any kind of content on the internet. Terrestrial television doesn’t control all the media content and information. People can choose what they want.

“However, it’s still the cornerstone. Fuji TV’s our primary partner. We are the only combat sports organization to put on live content on terrestrial television prime time in Japan. Being on Fuji TV is one of the biggest reasons we can generate noise in the Japanese public in a short period of time. We can find many more options to partner with on the internet.

“Look out to, we need to capitalize on everything to meet this era. In terms of international partners, we want to be aggressive. Our goal right now is to look for a partner on the global scale especially in the North American market, someone who can share the same passion to work to develop our content. In 2019, that is our goal.”

Building stars for the new era, and the future of RIZIN

With a broadcast on Japanese television, a global stream on Fite.TV, and sold out live audiences into the tens of thousands, it seems that RIZIN is successful in creating the interest that can sustain itself in a new era. Having ridden the golden chariot before, Sakakibara is candid about what he feels is the needed direction now. It’s a combination of new stars and bold matches.

“In order to make a sport popular to fans, you need an absolute superstar. The Masters got attention because of Tiger. Tiger came first, golf came second. That’s the star we need to create. We started with Fedor and other legends, and it took three years to shift away to Horiguchi, Tenshin and Rena, to reach out to the general public and the younger generation to create new fans.

“Japan has a lot of upcoming new talent who can be international stars. In terms of heavyweight stars, we dominate in judo and wrestling, after they are are done with their amateur careers, we have a wide talent pool to choose from. It’s a matter of us providing an appealing platform for them to continue their careers.

“Please note, we didn’t start out as an MMA platform. We stared as everything. In our opening event, we had K-1 fighters Takeru and Hiroya fighting under kickboxing rules. Whatever people want to see, we will do that. I was never really an ambassador of MMA, it just happened that the demand was there. I wanted to put together the fights that fans wanted to see. Simple as that, that’s what led to the Grand Prix.”

As for the future of RIZIN, the world is laid out in front of Sakakibara like a chess board. He has a number of plans on different fronts. The scope of RIZIN continuing in its unique product is broad.

“Our goal is to create premiere live entertainment, thats what we are aiming for. Not only for combat. We’d like to collaborate with music, get best value out of live entertainment content.

“Our Pacquiao partnership puts a spotlight on Fritz Biagtan and young Filipino fighters, and it’s absolutely great. We hope to not stop with the Philippines market, we’d like to take it to a bigger global level. China is the blue ocean for any business, especially MMA. Being in the same time zone makes it appealing to Japanese business in terms of live events. There’s a difference in culture and business, so in order for us to penetrate the China market, we need the right partner, a solid business plan, time and planning.”

Would Sakakibara consider the biggest step in expanding RIZIN, going public?

“Any company would think it great to go IPO. We need to grow our content and build value in what we produce. That’s what I feel as of right now.”

RIZIN.11 — July 29, 2018, Saitama Super Arena
Akihito Tatematsu

Cooperation and Competition

RIZIN was formed as a “fighting federation” rather that a stand-alone promotion. One of the most visible examples of this is the cooperation with Bellator. King Mo Lawal is back to head the main card for RIZIN.15, and fans await a co-promotion that will see more RIZIN versus Bellator fighters, including a rematch between RIZIN bantamweight champion Horiguchi and Bellator champion Darrion Caldwell.

“We have a solid relation with Bellator, I respect Scott Coker as a promoter very much. We experienced the same era where MMA was considered barbaric. While there are many things I cannot disclose right now, we’re in communication and there’s definitely progress. There are going to be things that will make fight fans very excited.

“At the end of the day, my goal is to put on the World Cup of MMA, so if we could work with everyone to determine the best fighter in the world, that would be fantastic.”

In regards to other promotions, two foreign promoters that are playing a part in the Japan market are UFC and One Championship. Sakakibara has often stated he wishes that UFC fighters could appear in RIZIN, although he knows that contractually it’s something unlikely to happen. His position on the competition is quite positive.

“It’s always nice to have healthy competition, there’s no development if there’s no competition. We hope UFC comes back to Japan. UFC’s negotiations with (broadcaster) Wowow in Japan is a good thing. Although the Japanese market is not as big and lucrative as the US, we think there s a lot of potential, so we hope UFC continues the challenge here so we can have a healthy competitive relationship.

“I think One Championship is doing a great thing for the industry, spreading the sport to the Asia region. I respect that they are investing a lot of money into the market and Japan and giving Japanese fighters a chance. I don’t know the details about their partnerships with Shooto and Pancrase, but I hope it will give flexibility to the fighters and more opportunities and open doors, not limit them.”

Key bouts at RIZIN.15

RIZIN.15 kicks off shortly in Yokohama, and Sakakibara shared a few of the fights he’s most looking forward to.

“The fights are competitive top to bottom. The Horiguchi fight will definitely determine in what direction we are heading this year. Jeri versus Mo for the first light heavyweight championship – this will effect our direction also. Taiga versus Thalisson Ferreira -Taiga wants to show us something different.

“Asakura Mikuru versus Gustavo will leave a mark on the lightweight division. It will create an atmosphere. Who wins takes a big step forward. I think it has the potential to be fight of the night.”

Mikuru’s brother Asakura Kai was also set to be on the card versus Ulka Sasaki, but was scratched after Ulka and a subsequent replacement were both injured.

“Kai will be back soon, either on June 2 or July 28, most likely against Ulka when he’s recovered.”

Manny Pacquiao vs Takanori Gomi?

Akihito Tatematsu

The other potential match that has been brewing in social media circles follows upon the heels of Manny Pacquiao’s signing with RIZIN in a partnership with limited announced details. Takanori Gomi versus Pacquiao was hinted at, yet Sakakibara hasn’t given away anything else.

“After we announced the partnership, I spoke with Gomi a couple of times, nothing very serious. And before I spoke with him, I knew he was interested. So it’s not an impossibility. I’m not against the idea, the next Japanese who fights a legend, like Tenshin did. We want to continue to do things outside the box that surprise people, so that is something we’d be interested in, but I can’t give a timeline on it.”

RIZIN boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara continues his PRIDE mentality while he adapts to a new age. His vision is wide and ambitious. With MMA back on Japanese TV and new stars being created, the future looks bright for the promotion, yet the ring leader still feels there is much to accomplish.

“As I said, when we first started, the market was dormant. We’ve slowly woken it up. I’m not satisfied with with the popularity level, we’re about a third of PRIDE in the golden era, but I do feel the growth momentum and RIZIN has a lot of potential.”

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