by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
The growing relationship between Strikeforce and Dream has flourished over the last few months. The partnership will reach a new level when Japanese lightweight champion Shinya Aoki hits U.S. soil this weekend to challenge Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce 155-pound title.
For several years, the U.S. and Japan have been the two largest markets for mixed martial arts, but there has always been a less than cooperative nature when it comes to an exchange of athletes between promotions.
Years ago, the UFC and Pride seemed to reach such an agreement. During a pay-per-view broadcast it was announced that Japanese fighters Kazushi Sakuraba and Kazuyuki Fujita would soon compete in the Octagon. The UFC did manage to send Chuck Liddell to Pride for its Light Heavyweight Grand Prix, but Pride never reciprocated and the deal went south from there.
The recent fighter exchange between Strikeforce and Dream is significant not only because U.S. fans now get to see some of the best Japanese competitors fighting in America, but U.S. based fighters get to expand their fan bases in Japan.
Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker has played a major role in getting the deal done. He recently explained how it’s worked for him when so many have failed before.
“I don’t think too many people could have pulled it off, but I tell you the history that I have working with K-1. I grew up in a martial arts school, and I grew up in a martial arts culture let’s say, and so the owner of K-1 was very good to me, a friend. He owns K-1 and he owns the parent company that owns a majority of Dream, and I’ve always maintained being very good friends with him,” said Coker on MMAWeekly Radio.
“What I learned from him was I worked for him for eight years doing K-1 in North America, but I also worked in Japan and basically went back and forth, and bringing fighters back and forth for those eight years that I worked for him. So I understood how the business worked, and I understood how the culture worked, and so I understood how to navigate in that culture.”
That navigation allowed Coker to sit down with the heads of Dream and negotiate a deal to fight champion vs. champion and fighters who would travel to both countries for competition, something that has rarely been accomplished before.
“When Strikeforce got the TV deal with Showtime and CBS a year ago, one of my goals was to bring those fighters here and have our fighters go there, and have a good relationship with Japan,” Coker said.
Bringing the best of Japan to the U.S. and vice versa is what Coker believes needs to happen to answer that age-old question of who truly are the best fighters in the world?
“To me these fights should be happening,” said Coker. “Now they’re able to do that, and we’re very happy and very excited for the mixed martial arts fans and the supporters of MMA, and let the best man win. The true nature of sport is to compete, so let these guys compete.”
Aoki’s fight will mark the second Dream champion to travel and fight in Strikeforce. The first was welterweight champion Marius Zaromskis, who was eventually knocked out by eventual Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz.
Diaz will be the next high profile fighter from Strikeforce to travel to Japan, when he faces top Japanese fighter Hayato “Mach” Sakurai for Dream in a non-title affair.
“They asked for Nick, and Nick loves Japan, so it was a good time for him and the good faith of our relationship with Dream, and it goes back to our commitment about let’s put the best fights out that we can,” said Coker.
The exchange doesn’t stop there. When Gegard Mousasi finishes his title fight with Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal on April 17, he will then go back to Japan to compete in the Dream light heavyweight tournament. Coker re-assures American fans that his transport to Japan isn’t permanent and the Dream tournament is slated to wrap-up sometime mid-Summer.
A trilogy of matches going back and forth between Japan and the U.S. may break out between Aoki and Melendez, depending on who wins their fight on Saturday, and Coker promises more big matches to follow very soon.
“Maybe we’ll see (Tatsuya) Kawajiri over here fighting Josh Thomson, or Gilbert (Melendez), and let’s keep this relationship healthy,” said Coker.