Editorial by Rami Genauer
EDITORIAL BY RAMI GENAUER
With Pride’s American debut right around the corner, one can’t help but be reminded of the UFC’s similar situation nearly a decade ago. Back in the UFC Dark Ages of the late 90’s, the promotion was forced to hold its events in some less-than-marquee locations. While Lake Charles, Louisiana and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi may boast modest amounts of glitz, it would take a tenuous stretch of the definition of the word “glamour” to describe these and other locales that played host to the UFC during its gawky adolescence.
But perhaps no location was more awkward than the one chosen by the UFC on December 21, 1997: Yokohama, Japan. Just two months after Japanese audiences saw the Rickson Gracie armbar that launched a thousand message board posts at the inaugural Pride event, the UFC fled regulators, cable executives and one belligerent senator to the Far East. And while four UFC events occurred in Japan between 1997 and 2000, the promotion never built a solid following in the country and does not appear to have any plans to return.
The truth is, the UFC’s first Ultimate Japan show was never an attempt to win over Japanese fans. Unwelcome in its native land, the UFC simply picked up its operation and tried to run a typical American show in Japan (only two of the 12 fighters on the card were Japanese), marketing it to the same American satellite television audience as its other shows.
Not so with Pride’s current bid for the American fan and dollar. In a similar bind as the early UFC, Pride is running from bad press, a cancelled television contract and possible investigation for mob ties in Japan. The company desperately needs a foothold in other markets to keep afloat and the U.S. must look like a land whose octagons are paved with gold. But the similarities to the UFC’s former predicament don’t end there: Pride is making the exact same mistake the UFC did in 1997.
In Freudian terms, Pride’s error is one of projection; they are putting on a typical Japanese Pride show, assuming it is what Americans want when it is actually exactly what Japanese fans want. Part of Japanese culture is reverence for “guts” and “fighting spirit” over actual results. This applies in Pride’s case as it relates to Japanese fighters facing foreign opposition. Over the course of years, Pride has sent numerous overmatched and undersized Japanese fighters to face superior foreign competition. But it is arguably the beatings endured by Japanese fighters that have endeared them to the public more so than their victories. Pride knows that its fans would rather see a Japanese fighter lose than see a match featuring no Japanese fighters at all. So it has a win-win situation in creating fight cards: If the Japanese fighter wins, he brings honor to his country and people. If he loses properly, he does the exact same thing.
Modern American audiences do not react the same way as the Japanese, however. For evidence, one need only look at the names of the two major competing MMA organizations. Japanese are concerned with matters of pride. Americans just want to know who is the best, the ultimate fighter. So Pride’s decision to face Fedor Emelianenko against Mark Coleman is perfectly understandable from a Japanese perspective. Though Coleman is a past-his-prime, relatively unpopular fighter who enjoys little name recognition among new fans, his passport still carries the Stars and Stripes. And to the Japanese mind, that should be enough. But Americans will doubtfully relish watching a fighter, countryman or not, getting pummeled by Fedor. Sustained excitement in the States is built around the prospect of great fights, not on the back of blind patriotism.
Some might argue that Pride’s intention is to build up their champions as the best in the world by giving them a few easy fights. In America, however, perception of quality is best achieved by triumphing over superior competition. In many cases, we tend to blame the defeated as being overhyped and overrated (see Nate Quarry, Babalu Sobral and John Kerry) rather than laud the victor. Whatever Pride’s intentions, the message this match sends to American audiences will likely reflect more negatively on Coleman than favorably on Fedor.
Several other Pride decisions point to this projection of Japanese interests. The Japanese still love Mike Tyson, though his days as a respectable commodity in America are long since past. His inclusion stateside confers an automatic brand as gimmick rather than serious athletic contest. And because the Japanese love freak show fights, they can wrongly infer that Americans must love them too. Just fill the spot reserved for Giant Silva with Butterbean and the card is good to go. Never mind Butterbean’s lack of MMA bona fides, reputation for worked fights and association as a Toughman fighter, with its frequent negative confusion with MMA.
Projection has blinded Pride to the fact that MMA does not enjoy mainstream American acceptance as it does in Japan. Stunts and freak show matches work in Japan because the public and media do not have ill-informed opinions and preconceived negativity toward the sport. They add to the air of spectacle that keeps the Japanese clamoring for more. But more than anything, America needs to see the respectable, skilled, athletic and pure side of MMA. And to succeed in America, Pride needs, more than anything else, to show that it has more of those traits than the UFC. How exactly Butterbean and Tyson qualify as “the real deal” is anyone’s guess.
From their rhetoric, Pride seems to view America differently than the way the UFC saw Japan in 1997, as a convenient place to run until the heat was off. Their decisions, however, have engendered some question as to their prospects of success. In coming to America, they’ve been made to look like Yoshihiro Takayama in his famous fight with Don Frye; like a bewildered Japanese fighter flailing wildly in the hopes of making contact with an American target.