We are gathered here today to pay our respects to a dear friend.
In his prime, he was healthy and thriving with seemingly nothing to cap his potential. The sky was truly the limit.
I am talking, of course, about the state of Japanese mixed martial arts (JMMA).
In recent years, the situation has turned grim for the once booming business. Pride Fighting Championships (Pride) went belly up and was cannibalized by the UFC and its successors -- DREAM and Sengoku -- failed to reach the same heights. Sengoku closed up shop earlier this year and DREAM has been running fewer shows with each passing year.
The point was made even more clear last night (Sept. 24) at UFC 135 when Nate Diaz thoroughly dominated the former number one lightweight in the world, Takanori Gomi. The beating was reminiscent of the one elder brother Nick Diaz handed Gomi four years ago in Las Vegas.
Since "The Fireball Kid's" bout at Pride 33, he has gone a paltry 5-5 including losing all but one of his UFC bouts.
And his fellow countrymen from across the Pacific aren't faring any better either.
Shinya Aoki is one of the best 155-pounders that Japan has ever produced and has nearly 30 wins to his name that serve as evidence. But when he traveled to the United States for the first time to challenge Gilbert Melendez for his Strikeforce lightweight title, "El Nino" shrugged off each and every submission attempt the Japanese fighter threw at him, easily securing a decision victory after 25 minutes.
Melendez's next fight was against the perennial Japanese contender Tatsuya Kawajiri. When they fought the first time five years ago, "El Nino" was lucky to get the nod from the judges. The second time around, Melendez ran through "Crusher" like a knife through butter.
That same night, the current DREAM featherweight champion, Hiroyuki Takaya, lost to unheralded fighter Roberto Peralta and the Japanese promotion went 0-2 against its American counterpart.
JMMA doesn't only have its native sons to blame for its woes. The success rate for non-Japanese fighters coming over to the UFC is shockingly low. Championships and accolades received in the Land of the Rising Sun don't seem to translate well to America at all.
Take Maximo Blanco for example. The Venezuelan terrorized Sengoku's 155-pound roster with his deadly and frenzied stand-up, earning six stoppages during his time there. A living ball of violence personified, Blanco seemed poised to take Strikeforce by storm but instead, his stateside debut was spoiled by Pat Healy and a well-placed rear naked choke.
Jorge Santiago became Sengoku's middleweight champion after a five-round war with Kazuo Misaki and he went on to replicate the performance with an equally thrilling bout in his rematch against the Japanese veteran. The second tilt was heralded as a Fight of the Year by many fans and pundits.
But when he made his way back inside the Octagon at UFC 130, he was put to sleep within two rounds by Brian Stann.
Claiming that the "sky is falling" whenever a fighter who found a lot of success overseas falters in the US isn't anything new. It happened when KID Yamamoto lost his UFC debut and it will likely happen again should he lose his next bout.
Lately, it just has been getting harder and harder to ignore that a huge talent gap exists between the top fighters in the UFC and Strikeforce and those who ply their wares in Japan. It's a declaration I don't make lightly as I have been a long-time proponent of JMMA.
Whereas in the past it was hard to compare fighters and their contemporaries, the world of MMA is getting smaller as the sport grows. If a fighter wants to fight top talent and prove himself one of the best, there aren't a whole lot options to consider.
We are starting to see more fighters than ever competing under the Zuffa umbrella and with that, the ambiguity that comes when ranking fighters is dwindling. We are finally seeing the best fight the best with more frequency. Because of that, we are also realizing that the champions and top-level fighters from halfway across the globe aren't all they're made out to be.
When the former number one lightweight gets shellacked by a middling 155-pounder, the suspicion that JMMA was almost all smoke and mirrors starts to become more and more apparent.