The UFC rolls into Tokyo, Japan this weekend with their UFC 144 event, headlined by the Lightweight title fight between Champion Frankie Edgar and Challenger Ben Henderson. Word is that the show is being received well, as the Saitama Super Arena has been configured for 22,000 and is nearing a sellout. However, after 12 years since a UFC event, with no events in Japan running at a major level, it is clear the UFC has only made a moderate impact on what once was the second biggest market in MMA.
Yes, even that is in question, as the Japanese events that have been running have failed to reach the spectacle of the old PRIDE events. They have also failed to create and nurture new Japanese stars. Which brings us to on of the issues with the UFC 144 card – the Japanese talent is largely retreads, and there does not appear to be any young blood developing.
The UFC has a good vehicle for developing young talent – the reality series ‘The Ultimate Fighter’. They need to develop a series for the Japanese market using all-Japanese talent for the coaches and the fighters. Granted, in the complex world of Japanese MMA, where gym politics, affiliations to organizations and general polarization will possibly block some talent, the athletes at all levels must be feeling the pressures of not having an outlet for their craft. The time is ripe to launch a show for the Japanese market only.
Perhaps two legendary coaches could be tapped, like a Masa Funaki and Nobuhiko Takada. They can build a coaching staff that might include fighters like Sakuraba and Minoru Suzuki. Or perhaps active fighters could coach, like Hayato Sakurai and Caol Uno.
Ant the talent could be from anywhere in Japan. Has a Japanese fighter even appeared on the American version of the reality show? Then let them eliminate themselves in the usual show format and have an all Japanese final at the end.
Many are saying that the Chinese, Korean and even the Philipino market are in better shape than Japan right now, and that is true to a certain extent. But what people fail to realize is that Japan has a huge advantage in that it has a robust network of gyms where fighters can prepare for this sport specifically. That does not exist to this level in other Asian countries and it will take years to catch up.
All I am suggesting is that the UFC jump start the Japanese market by recognizing that they need new stars to capture the audience. The retreads on UFC 144 will never break them through in Japan.