By Fred Varcoe
JAPAN TODAY By Fred Varcoe

PRIDE and K-1 are muscle-packed, testosterone-fueled phenomena. But there’s more to sport than blood and brawn

On Dec 7, 2002, the man K-1 calls Master Kazuyoshi Ishii stood in the ring at Tokyo Dome during the 10th Grand Prix Final and proudly announced that there were 74,500 fans in the home of the hallowed Yomiuri Giants baseball team—a new attendance record. It was a proud moment for the founder of K-1 and gave the upstart sport significant cache on a piece of ground that symbolized the die-hard conservatism of Japanese sports. This was where Sadaharu Oh whacked many of his record 868 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants; where Shigeo Nagashima had hit the most famous “sayonara” homer in Japanese baseball on the day the Emperor attended his first-ever baseball game at then-Korakuen Stadium; and where the Giants won nine straight Japan Series from 1965 to 1974.

Now it was also where the mongrel sport of K-1 had drawn 74,500 fans, where the Brave New World of Japanese sports—the brash, the nouveau riche, the loud and the proud—had made their home.

That Ishii was soon to be convicted of tax fraud was seen by the old wave as a comeuppance he “must have deserved.” After all, surely the nouveaux only get places by cheating. It wouldn’t happen in old Japan. Would it?

Well, of course it would. Everyone (except me) cheats on their taxes. Ishii’s downfall may have given Old Japan a poster boy for all that’s wrong with the New World, but it didn’t stop the rot of that Old World. Tokyo Dome was significant because it housed the Giants, the symbol of the old regime, a world that smashed headlong into reality last year when baseball players went on strike. The Old World, their tobacco-stained suits and their envelopes of cash were getting their own comeuppance.

That’s not to say that K-1 will be the savior of Japanese sport. Some, perhaps many, would say it isn’t even a sport. Does it have enough rules? Does it have drug testing? Does anyone else know about it? (“Yes!” K-1 insists.) Significant questions, but hardly relevant to the phenomenon itself, which has turned its stars into massive celebrities. Bob Sapp has made a killing from his cartoon-like image, Akebono turned to K-1 after a disastrous venture into the restaurant business, and Japan’s very own pretty boy Masato is now taking part in high-profile cooking contests on TV and wears an apron.

So, is K-1 sport or entertainment? Spokesman Patrik Washburn considers the question irrelevant.

“What’s the difference? Sport should be entertaining. Each K-1 fighter has the desire to be the best fighter they can and at the same time give the fans a great show. The one is accomplished by the other. The more spirit they show in the ring, the more people will want to watch.” And people want to watch.

Former champion Peter Aerts is more direct: “Of course, it’s more sport than entertainment; just ask anyone who’s stood in the ring.”

K-1 began in 1993 as the brainchild of Master Ishii, the founder of the Seido Kaikan karate organization. Ishii had already put together a “martial-arts olympics,” a tournament that would be more accessible to mainstream viewers and that crossed various disciplines (karate,
kung-fu, kenpo, etc.), before he was approached by Fuji TV. The current format hasn’t really changed all that much since 1993. K-1 is largely a cross between boxing and kick-boxing with restrictions on the use of knees and elbows. The ideal fighter can do both, but that’s not always
the case; some don’t seem to be able to do either.

“Professional fighting is not for everyone,” Aerts points out, without pointing the finger at anyone in particular. “Some people just can’t take a hit, but there’s no perfect fighter.”

“The ideal K-1 fighter is someone who has fighting spirit,” Washburn elaborates. “How you lose determines what kind of fighter you are much more than how you win. It is watching someone grow as a fighter that makes K-1 so exciting. Training can only do so much… Many of our fighters have been champions long before they entered the K-1 ring.”

Sumo champions, boxing champions, kick-boxing champions, judo champions, wrestling champions. The credentials of the fighters are not in dispute; the question is, Can you mix these champions up and produce a great fighter? The current answer appears to be that it’s an experiment in progress. Provisional results would suggest that those who can combine dynamic kicking and boxing are going to come out on top. So while Akebono and Bob Sapp provide entertainment and TV ratings, the likes of four-time champion Ernesto Hoost, three-time champ Aerts and current two-time champion Remy Bonjasky take the honors. And you’d question their athletic credentials at your peril.

K-1 has also realized the need for weight divisions, or, at least, a lighter weight division. This has proven to be surprisingly popular. Or maybe it’s not so surprising. While the heavy division has plenty of cartoon characters, the fighters in the lighter division are all lean and fast and generally younger. Poster boy Masato has captured the hearts of young Japanese girls who flock to the “Max” events, while “Kid” Yamamoto, a supremely tough and tattooed former wrestling champion, is the “pin-up” for the guys. Any fight either of these guys is in produces electricity, not to mention money. K-1 is also moving into PRIDE territory and even pro-wrestling.
“K-1 is successful because it is whole-family entertainment,” says Washburn. “The rounds are short and the rules are easily understood. The fighters are dynamic and so are the fights. The appeal is very broad. Couples come to see the fights, and three-generation families tune in at home. Not many martial arts organizations can say that.”

Evidence of this broad appeal can be found on New Year’s Eve, when both K-1 and Pride put on a special extravaganza. Two years ago, K-1 lined up a fight between Bob Sapp and Akebono, who was making his K-1 debut, and the broadcast out-ranked Kohaku, NHK’s legendary songfest, for the first time. “Next stop, the world,” says Washburn.

“In a very short time K-1 has become a household word in Korea thanks to K-1 Asia champion, Hong-man Choi. We’ve held two tournaments in Seoul so far and we hope to continue to expand the Korean market. We are shown in over 90 countries worldwide and we hope to expand even more next year.”

Not bad for a mongrel.

© Dream Stage Entertainment

PRIDE’s history is somewhat shorter than that of K-1, and to some extent the sport has been playing catchup. The PRIDE empire stems from a single fight on Oct 11, 1997, when Nobuhiko Takada faced Brazilian legend Rickson Gracie at Tokyo Dome. The concept was that these two famed fighters would put their reputations on the line and battle just for their pride.

“In the beginning PRIDE was supposed to be just a one-time event and no one expected it to last this long,” says spokesperson Ayako Usuki. “When PRIDE first started, mixed martial arts (MMA) was not known by the public and we worked very hard to make PRIDE the way it is known now. In the beginning there were a lot of questions and doubts about whether showing a fight with close to no rules would be accepted. But now we have come to the point where we battle Kohaku on New Year’s Eve on national television. Also, Japanese people have always accepted martial arts and fighting as a part of their culture, which has lead to the national acceptance of the sport.”

PRIDE has been described as “as near to street fighting as you can get in a ring.” Apart from obvious rules such as no biting and no kicking opponents’ balls (or, indeed, biting them), PRIDE allows many different forms of combat, including kicking, punching, wrestling and submission holds. Unlike K-1 or professional boxing, being knocked to the ground is no protection—the fight continues until one fighter is incapable of continuing—and the rules allow for a greater likelihood of this happening. The first round is usually 10 minutes long, followed by two rounds of five minutes. Much of PRIDE fighting takes place on the ground, more often than not with one guy sitting on top of another pummeling his opponent’s face. While it may be consistently brutal, it’s not always consistently exciting.

So how much should PRIDE be considered a sport rather than entertainment?

Not surprisingly, the fighters themselves do not want to be thought of as “entertainment.” Emilianenko Fedor the PRIDE champion regarded as the finest of all fighters, puts it bluntly: “To me, it is only a sport and not entertainment.”

Mark Coleman, PRIDE’s first ever champion in 2000, also has no doubt.

“I don’t see how anyone can say it’s not a sport,” he told Metropolis. “It’s certainly entertaining, but it’s a sport that is entertaining. It’s 100 percent sport. It’s the No. 1 way to test guys and see their fighting skill.”

PRIDE’s Usuki realizes there has to be elements of both. “It is hard to determine the balance of sports and entertainment,” she pointed out. “PRIDE can only be defined by PRIDE. It is a sport because a winner has to be determined, but at the same time the fighters are expected put on an entertaining performance for the fans, which is sometimes more important than the result of the fight.” But Usuki is keen to point out that PRIDE has redefined its rules and classifications to make sure that the sporting element is always credible.

As a result, PRIDE has divided itself into two divisions, with two weight classes in each. PRIDE currently has a heavyweight division (over 93 kg) and a middleweight division (under 93 kg), while PRIDE Bushido has a welterweight class (under 83 kg) and a lightweight division (under 73 kg).
Croatia’s Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic on his way to victory over American Josh Barnett at PRIDE’s Fully Loaded contest in October
Masaaki Kato

PRIDE’s Grand Prix finals are big draws.

In August, 47,629 fans turned up to see two awesome finals that saw 23-year-old Mauricio Shogun take the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix title (after Middleweight Champion Wanderlei Silva, pictured left, was elimiminated by Brazilian Ricardo Arona) and Fedor overcome Croatian Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic to confirm his status as heavyweight champ. Fedor is seen as the ideal fighter, with powerful hands, enormous strength and supreme tactical skill—the ultimate all-arounder. Those who are restricted in their approach tend to come off worst.

CroCop was a star in K-1 until he defected to PRIDE, a move that created bad blood between the two camps (although K-1 draw Bob Sapp has also fought in PRIDE). However, publicly, relations are fine. “K-1 is great competition for us in a good way,” Usuki says. “We hope that the competition between K-1 will continue to add to the growth and popularity of all martial arts.”
K-1’s initial response was to produce its own version of PRIDE, known as HERO’S. PRIDE now says it will be holding its version of K-1 in 2006, while both are getting involved in professional wrestling. While the two camps may try to score points off the other, the fans are happy to have both and to differentiate between the two.

PRIDE also has its own rival in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the United States. UFC is big business across the Pacific, with stars like Josh Barnett and the up-and-coming Englishman James “The Colossus” Thompson. PRIDE is shown on pay-per-view in the States, and in the recent PRIDE 30, Thompson, Barnett and another fighter from UFC, Ken Shamrock, all took part. However, despite claims of worldwide interest (particularly in Brazil and Croatia, as well as South Korea), PRIDE’s home is Japan, and it remains to be seen whether there is a global market for such combat.

Domestically, too, it seems that there is limited room for movement. With four division of PRIDE, pro wrestling and its own version of K-1, it seems the guys at PRIDE have enough on their plates. Exporting the product and importing top-class fighters is the key.

“We would like to continue our growth here in Japan, and at the same time we want PRIDE to be known as a worldwide sporting event,” Usuki says.

Lofty ambitions, maybe, but PRIDE has earned respect in the fighting community in Japan, and there’s plenty of fighting communities left to conquer.

K-1 World Grand Prix 2005 takes place Nov 19 at Tokyo Dome. PRIDE, whose own Final Conflict was in August, will stage its next major fight at the end of December, to be screened at New Year, when K-1 will also hold its year-end tournament. See sports listings for details