In its heyday, mixed martial arts (MMA) was big business in Japan. Pride Fighting Championships (Pride) was packing stadiums full of 40, 50, or even 60,000 people on a regular basis. Big crowds, huge arenas, and larger-than-life fighters were the norm as every aspect of each event went decidedly over the top.
It was a great time to be a fight fan but like all good things, it wouldn't last forever. I detailed the final two years of Pride's run here, here, and here. A combination of scandal and lack of native-born stars helped Japanese MMA meets his untimely demise.
As the pendulum swung towards unprecedented success in the United States, the fight game continued to fall apart in the Japan. Companies like Sengoku have closed up shop while former Pride employees are doing anything they can to keep DREAM's head above water. The futures of long-time promotions Shooto and Pancrase can be justifibly described as shaky.
With the news that the UFC is returning to the Land of the Rising Sun, Dana White and company enter unfamiliar terrority with a distinct possibility of failure.
But while Zuffa has never ventured into the Far East, the UFC has. We'll take a look at those events, especially its first and the two that bookended what is considered UFC's "Dark Ages."
Much like the UFC would with Brazil, the company absconded to Japan in a special event that wasn't bound by its numbering system.
UFC Japan -- or UFC 15.5 -- took place at the Yokohama Arena and was stage for two title bouts. Frank Shamrock submitted Olympic gold medal wrestler Kevin Jackson in 16 seconds to become the first light heavyweight champion in the organization's history -- although then it was known as the "middleweight" division.
In the main event, Randy Couture earned his first heavyweight title by outpointing champion Maurice Smith. But the big story that evening was an undersized Japanese fighter losing and then not losing and then winning the event's one-night heavyweight tournament.
Kazushi Sakuraba had only fought once before -- although his debut, a bout with Kimo Leopoldo, is widely considered to have not been legitimate -- and stepped in on short notice for an injured teammate.
He ended up fighting the same man twice that night. The first time, timing and human error nearly earned Sakuraba a loss. As his opponent, Marcus Silveria, threw a knee, the Japanese legend dropped for a takedown. John McCarthy, the referee overseeing the fight, thought Sakuraba had been knocked out and stopped the fight.
Boos from the crowd and a literal sit-in protest from "The Gracie Hunter" eventually swayed officials to review tape and the official decision became a no contest. And after Tank Abbott, the other fighter slated for the finals, was injured, the decision was made to rematch the Brazilian and Japanese fighters to determine the winner.
Sakuraba won by submission in the first round and became the UFC Japan tournament winner. So anytime someone claims that Anderson Silva is a "Pride fighter," you can make the argument that Sakuraba is a "UFC fighter."
The event was a success but much would change in the fight landscape in the two years between it and the UFC's next trip to Japan.
When they returned for UFC 23, they had lost most of their pay-per-view exposure and were struggling to stay afloat. Combine that with the fact that Pride Fighting Championships was in full swing, catering to their native fans as only they knew how and the return to the Land of the Rising Sun wasn't too well-received.
Despite an all-Japanese tournament to draw interest from the natives, a lackluster heavyweight title bout between Kevin Randleman and Pete Williams headlined the show. It didn't exactly scream ticket sales especially since two days later, Pride was hosting their own event in a larger arena than the UFC could manage.
The UFC would hold two more events in Japan the following year. By the time UFC 29 rolled around, they were in a freefall that nothing could stop them from.
Although the former owners of the UFC had managed to get the sport sanctioned by the New Jersey State Athletic Commission, they were still drawing closer and closer to bankruptcy. UFC 29 -- the last in Japan and the last before the Zuffa purchase -- is reported to have had only 1,400 people in attendance. A week earlier, Pride packed nearly 30,000 people in the Saitama Super Arena.
The UFC's history with Japan is inauspicious at best. After the Pride purchase debacle, I never thought we'd see Zuffa step foot on the island again.
But here we are four and a half months away from the Octagon's return to Japan. When the fans begin filing in for the event on February 26, 2012, will they be a part of the first step towards MMA's reemergence in the home country?
Or will this be the confirmation that combat sports in Japan may be taking an extended hiatus from popularity?