Can Fedor Lead a Rebound for Japanese MMA?

January 8, 2012

Fedor EmelianenkoNew Year’s Eve has become a symbol of Japanese MMA over the last several years. And perhaps no more important were the most recent festivities, as Dream’s Fight for Japan: Genki Desu Ka Omisoka 2011 sought to close out a tumultuous year on a high note.

On hand for the evening’s festivities was HDNet commentator Hans Thompson, who feels the event turned out well despite the circumstances of an uncertain time in Japan.

“I would say that it didn’t have quite the luster that even last year’s event – which was a relatively small event – because although there were a lot of good fighters, a lot of them had been fighting on Dream events all year long,” he said. “I didn’t have big expectations for the card, but it turned out to be an entertaining – if not long – night of fights.

“In terms in size of the live audience, it looks the same as it did last year, but the absence of a major TV deal is a big obstacle for them. I think if they can get that sorted out, it will change the scale of the NYE shows and they might approach the scale of the shows in the past. But it’s a big if.”

As a microcosm of the year that preceded it, Dream’s NYE event featured a bevy of top Japanese talent on the card with the hopes of showing the world that Japanese MMA was still strong and a viable commodity, even in the face of what is undeniably America’s dominance in the sport.

“There’s very much a desire to bring Japanese MMA back to the forefront – or at least pull even with U.S. MMA in terms of recognition,” said Thompson. “I think it’s a sticking point, and a sore point, to a lot of these fighters that Japan used to be regarded as the center of MMA in the world.

“I think (Shinya) Aoki said a year or two ago despondently that Japanese MMA could become a colony of U.S. MMA. I think they’d love to reverse that trend, and there’s a lot of talk about that, but it’s easier said than done.”

While homegrown talent was a focal point for much of the evening’s action, it was the return of Fedor Emelianenko to Japan that was the evening’s crowning moment, as he quickly dispatched former Olympic gold medalist judoka Satoshi Ishii in the same manner he had dominated many a fighter in Japan before.

“Whether Fedor’s back per say remains to be seen,” said Thompson. “There was a lot of excitement about him being there, but in terms of relevance, maybe not the most relevant win he could have.”

As for whether or not he thinks Fedor may stay and finish out his career as a hero in Japan, Thompson feels it most likely hinges on what Emelianeko’s true motivations are.

“There might be some griping about his creditability (if Fedor stays in Japan), because the best heavyweights are in the States now, and that’s pretty undeniable,” he said. “But if the money there and the fights are there; he loves fighting in Japan he says, and he gets a lot of respect in Japan, so I can see why it would be attractive to him.

“If he wants to challenge himself to become the best again, he’ll have to come to the U.S. also and beat the top heavyweights here.”

Perhaps more so in the past, Dream’s NYE event was as much a statement about survival than a transition point from one year to the next. When it comes to the future of both the event and the promotion itself – and Japanese MMA as a whole – Thomson feels that there is still a long road to haul and many contributing factors to take account of.

“I couldn’t say for the future,” he said. “I think that will depend on the economy in Japan and in the economy in Japanese MMA specifically. All I can say is that I hope they continue to have NYE shows in Japan, and that they’re as big as the market and current fighters will allow.

“I’m hoping that as we move forward there will be more relevance. I think that will bring legitimacy to the Japanese titles that they can compete with the best in the world outside of Japan too. Hopefully that will lead to more fan interest and more shows. I can’t say that will necessarily happen, but I hope it does.”