Primer: New Year’s in Japan

By Jake Rossen Dec 28, 2010
Kazushi Sakuraba | Daniel Herbertson/

If Ryan Seacrest happened to be a major celebrity in Japan, he would eventually be offered a substantial sum to be beaten severely in any number of the country’s traditional New Year’s Eve fighting events. The Japanese watch television in huge numbers that night, and promotions have hired everyone from actors to pro wrestlers to fighters dressed in costumes in order to draw attention away from the standard music and variety programming.

Does it work? For a long time, it did: any combination of Sumo, Bob Sapp, or Olympic champions would usually produce tremendous ratings. But the decline of real fighters and the increasing reluctance (possibly related to the shrinking pay stubs) of the “special attractions” has taken its toll.

It’s a real sign of MMA’s erosion in Japan that only one event -- K-1’s Dynamite -- is actually airing New Year’s Eve; the more serious Sengoku takes place Dec. 30. In both cases, fans can see a series of competitive fights. But in K-1’s arena, the need for ratings will prompt the usual stunt work: Shinya Aoki will be facing Yuichiro Nagashima in a fight that alternates kickboxing rounds with MMA rules and Bob Sapp will be wrestling Sumo great Shinichi Suzukawa in an orchestrated entertainment-only intermission. Both are likely to dwarf the night’s most legitimate bout, a lightweight meeting between Strikeforce’s Josh Thomson and Tatsuya Kawajiri.

Stateside, most of the attention has been directed at Todd Duffee taking a late-notice bout against Alistair Overeem. Duffee was touted as a UFC prospect before a shock KO at the hands of Mike Russow; reported head-butting with UFC management led to his release. But Duffee can strike, and he’s a few levels above the kind of competition you’d expect Overeem to accept only three weeks after a grueling K-1 tournament. Too good to believe, actually. Like most of the Japanese product, it’s subject to change.

What: K-1 Dynamite: The Power of Courage 2010, a 15-bout card from the Saitama Super Arena near Tokyo; Sengoku “Soul of Fight,” a 25-30 bout card from the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo.

When: Thursday, Dec. 30 with a replay Jan. 14 and 21 on HDNet (Sengoku); Friday, Dec. 31 at 4.a.m. ET on HDNet (K-1).

Why You Should Care: Because MMA’s Evil Knievel, Ikuhisa Minowa, will force an entertaining fight against 2004 Olympic Judo Silver Medalist Hiroshi Izumi; because it will be incredibly fun to see Aoki strapped up in kickboxing gear; because Kawajiri is Thomson’s strongest opponent in years outside of Gilbert Melendez and Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante; because Sapp has the lungs of a coal miner after only two minutes of activity and might need resuscitation; and because Sengoku’s Marlon Sandro/Hatsu Hioki fight decides the best featherweight not in the UFC.

Fight of the Night: Sandro/Hioki if you like craftsmanship; Tatsuya Mizuno/Sergei Kharitonov if you want to see someone donate blood.

Hype Quote of the Show: “If everything goes well with this fight, maybe I’ll just switch to a three-week training camp.” -- Josh Thomson, on the late-notice New Year’s tradition, to Knoxx Gear.

Questions: K-1 Dynamite and Sengoku

Can K-1 ever repeat its past successes on New Year’s?

2009 may have been K-1’s last gasp as a viable television property during the holiday: the promotion was able to attract a sizeable audience based largely on interest in kickboxing legend Masato’s retirement fight. Names like Kazushi Sakuraba and Shinya Aoki continue to be scheduled but appeal primarily to devoted MMA fans and not casual viewers who were spoiled in past years by the popularity of Sapp, actor Ken Kaneko, and fights involving massive size disparities.

The show remains a free-for-all -- Sapp is here, along with flexible rules -- but the Japanese public may no longer be interested, even at that price.

Why is Thomson taking the risk against Kawajiri?

File Photo

Tatsuya Kawajiri (above)
Lack of planning is a notorious trait among Japanese fight promoters who often cobble together cards by measuring production in days instead of months. While foreign fighters were content to trade prep time for sizable cash purses, the shrinkage of the sport in Japan and reliable employment in the States has made that deal less attractive over time.

Thomson, a former Strikeforce lightweight champion, accepted a fight with the dangerous Kawajiri on only three week’s notice. At this level of prizefighting, it’s unreasonable to expect a standout performance with minimal notice. If Thomson wins, there’s no penalty. If he loses, few will remember he entered the ring at a disadvantage.

Is Sandro going to stick around Japan?

Sandro is’s No. 5 ranked featherweight, an impressive feat considering the majority of that division’s talent (Jose Aldo, Michihiro Omigawa, Mike Thomas Brown) resides in the UFC’s newly-created division. If he can defeat Hatsu Hioki in Sengoku’s most relevant bout Thursday, the American promotion might be able to make him a financial offer that would trump his obligations -- which might not even exist on paper -- to Sengoku.

The problem? Sandro is on Team Nova Uniao, the same gym real estate as Aldo. That friendship could prompt him to stay put, but being the best in the country -- instead of the world -- might eventually begin to feel like a consolation prize.

Will a weight cut finally euthanize Sakuraba?

MMA’s running joke has long been Japan’s treatment of Sakuraba, an all-time great whose career was derailed after Pride booked him in a series of brutal mismatches. At 41, assisted living can’t be far off.

What better way to celebrate New Year’s than to book him against vicious striker Marius Zaromskis? K-1 figured it out: force him to cut to 170 pounds for the first time in his career to make it an official Dream welterweight fight. A dehydrated body might unfold into a televised execution.

What would a Duffee win mean for the heavyweight division?

It wasn’t long ago that Duffee’s promise in MMA was the subject of magazine covers and protein-shake ads; he seemed to possess the vaunted “big man’s athleticism” that’s normally the exclusive property of pro football.

The upset loss to Russow shut it all down; Duffee’s idea of a rebuild is to tackle a peaking Overeem on short notice. While Overeem himself isn’t in prime condition -- he finished a K-1 tourney only three weeks ago -- it’s a risk that most athletes wouldn’t be willing to take. If Duffee wins, it would have a dramatic effect on Strikeforce’s heavyweight matchmaking into 2011: Overeem would no longer be the top of the mountain, and big fights with Fedor Emelianenko or Fabricio Werdum would be muted. If Duffee loses, the hole he started digging with Russow only gets deeper.

One loss can be passed off as an anomaly. Two in a row is a freefall.

Red Ink: Aoki vs. Nagashima

With nearly 50 fights on the schedule -- more than some promotions put on in an entire year -- New Year’s in Japan is a blender of competitive fights and sideshow attractions. At least one of the bouts will manage to be both.

For K-1’s Dynamite program, Aoki has agreed to an alternating-rules bout with Nagashima, an experienced kickboxer with modest skill in MMA. A coin toss decides which round begins the fight. If a stand-up round is needed, Aoki and Nagashima will switch to larger kickboxing gloves. The premise was first used by K-1 for a Jerome Le Banner/Sapp fight in 2004, an event notable for Sapp begging his corner not to send him out for a striking round against the kickboxer.

Is it ridiculous? Absolutely: Aoki is no great striker even by MMA’s standards. Likewise, Nagashima has no business on the ground with anyone. But rather than book a squash match, Nagashima is being afforded a chance to ply his trade.

What it Means: Absolutely nothing.

Wild Card: Everything.

Who Wins: Aoki might be better able to avoid Nagashima’s strikes than Nagashima can avoid a clinch. Still, this is a format James Toney would appreciate. Aoki by submission.
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