Norifumi Yamamoto sits down in defeat at UFC 144 on Feb. 25, 2012 in Saitama, Japan. Photo by Esther Lin via MMAFighting.com.
When Zuffa wants to hit a new market (or in this case, return to one it had spent a decade away from), the strategy typically consists of two things:
- Load the fight card with locals.
- Push said locals to the moon.
So when UFC returned to "The Land of the Rising Sun" for the first time in what felt like forever with last night's (Sat., Feb. 25, 2012) UFC 144: "Edgar vs. Henderson" pay-per-view event, it did so with as much Japanese flavor as possible, though they didn't push as hard as usual. The problem with this strategy, though, is unlike say, WWE, UFC doesn't control the outcome of its contests.
Which means precisely what you think it would.
The issue of Japanese fighters losing in Japan is magnified by the fact that, sadly enough, there really aren't any true superstars left. This was supposed to be a show that would see the resurrection of once great fighters like Norifumi Yamamoto and Takanori Gomi. It was also supposed to expose the audience to Yushin Okami, who has long been a top middleweight but never quite got the recognition he deserved.
As it were, nearly everything that could have gone wrong did. That's not to say it was a bad show; far from it, actually. In fact, it will be difficult for any event to surpass it for "Card of the Year" by the time 2012 is over.
The UFC just didn't get many of the results it desired.
Let's look at how the Japanese fighters competing on the card fared and how that affects things going forward:
- Issei Tamura def. Tiequan Zhang via knockout in round two
This fight was always a sort of lose-lose for UFC because it wanted Zhang to be a guy it could depend on to break into China while Tamura losing in the opener would set a bad tone. Ultimately, the result didn't do much of anything outside of expose Zhang as a guy who absolutely cannot lead the charge into China. While Tamura's win was spectacular, it occurred on Facebook and was the opener of the evening. Few witnessed the destruction.
- Chris Cariaso def. Takeya Mizugaki via unanimous decision
Again, this wasn't a game changer by any stretch but many felt Mizugaki got jobbed here. That includes UFC President Dana White, who awarded Mizugaki his win bonus despite the decision. There was nothing to write home about either way.
A nice win for the home crowd that was rapidly filing into the building in anticipation of the main card but, once again, there was little chance a star would be born here. The situation just didn't call for it.
- Vaughn Lee def. Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto via submission in round one
This is where it got ugly in a hurry for Japanese faithful. Although Yamamoto didn't receive nearly the response the powers that be surely assumed he would (likely due to his struggles stateside), his defeat was a crushing blow. After all, "Kid' used to be the talk of the town, one of the very best to come out of the East. At one point in Dec. 2007, he was 17-1 and the very best Japan had to offer. Now? He's lost five of his last six bouts, including all three of his chances inside the Octagon. He could be toast after this loss.
- Takanori Gomi def. Eiji Mitsuoka via technical knockout in round two
What a weird performance from Gomi, another Japanese fighter who used to be the absolute best but has since fallen on hard times. The opening round consisted of "The Fireball Kid" leading with his head like he was using it to tire out his opponent's fists. It damn near led to a knockout loss, too, until he turned it on in the second round and finished the fight with a flurry of punches. His victory, according to Zach Arnold of Fight Opinion, is the biggest MMA related headline in Japan coming out of this event. Considering everything else that happened, combined with his two losses coming in, this was just what the doctor ordered.
Most definitely the desired result, as the UFC is short on challengers to Jose Aldo's featherweight championship. However, Hioki, dominant as he was, didn't exactly give anyone a good reason to believe he's ready for a title shot and even told Ariel Helwani after the event that he doesn't want one just yet because he needs more time to work on his game. Such honesty is refreshing but doesn't exactly help make him a star.
- Tim Boetsch def. Yushin Okami via knockout in round three
The craziest fight of the night featured Boetsch continuing his improbable run at middleweight with a thrilling come from behind knockout victory over Okami, a man UFC has never found the right formula for. He was more or less a sacrificial lamb in his last fight against Anderson Silva in Brazil and this was his chance to get back to his feet in front of his home crowd. He was well on his way to doing so, too, until "The Barbarian" decided to go crazy after going down two rounds to zero. With nothing to lose, Boetsch unloaded with everything he had and after landing about 28 solid shots to Okami's chin, the fight was over. It's completely fair to wonder just where "Thunder" goes from here.
- Jake Shields def. Yoshihiro Akiyama via unanimous decision
What is there to say about Akiyama that hasn't already been said? He, perhaps more than any other fighter on the entire roster, has been a monumental disappointment for the UFC. It was thought that was partially because he was competing at middleweight. But his first fight at 170-pounds didn't give us any indication that was the case. The dude lost a stand-up striking battle against Jake Shields, of all people. With four losses in a row and a cold reception in Japan, there are very few reasons to keep him around.
- Ryan Bader def. Quinton Jackson via unanimous decision
Okay, so Jackson isn't Japanese but he was by far the most popular fighter on the card. His entrance was one of the highlights of the night, a goosebump inducing affair that could have been made even more special by his victory. Sadly, he looked shopworn, like the years of competing inside rings and cages across the world had caught up to him. He later revealed a knee injury suffered both before and during the fight greatly hampered his performance but there's always something. He'll turn 34-years-old in a few months and while he claims he's still motivated to compete, we have every reason to not believe him.
UFC 144 was a fantastic show that provided plenty of thrills. But it didn't provide much hope for a future in Japan for the promotion. The reasons are many but most notable among them is their lack of ability to secure the proper television deals. The best way to do that going forward would have been strong performances from the Japanese fighters on the card.
As you can see above, that just didn't happen.
This doesn't mean UFC won't be back in Japan with another card that could exceed expectations. But for those hoping it would become the next Canada or Brazil can forget that.