4 Reasons Combat Sports Are Dying in Japan

“What’s going on in Japan?” As a martial arts writer and fan, I couldn’t count on two hands the number of times I’ve been asked that question. It’s a reasonable thing to ask.

At one point in history Japan was at the top of the mixed martial arts and kickboxing world. Kazushi Sakuraba and Masato Kobayashi were household names. Now the UFC  and GLORY struggles to find Japanese fighters that can keep winning records within their organizations. Why is this the case?

In this article I take a look at what I believe are the four main reasons MMA and Kickboxing are dying in Japan. Do your best to keep an open mind throughout, and enjoy. Let’s get started.

1. A Distrustful Public

During the 1990’s, both Kickboxing and MMA were dominated by the massive Japanese promotions of the day: K-1 and PRIDE.

Most of the older MMA superstars had their run through PRIDE at some point, and the modern sport of kickboxing as we know it today was literally formed through K-1’s WGP and MAX tournaments from the early 90’s through the late 2000’s.

Throngs of Japanese fans swarmed to arenas by the thousands to cheer for their favorite fighters. As evidenced by their promotional videos and opening fighter introductions (starring the magnanimous Lenne Hardt) it’s not difficult to feel the electric current that was stirred in the heart of every cheering fan.

So what happened? Why is PRIDE no longer existent? Why is K-1 is slowly limping from show to show, barely able to scrounge together enough of an audience to fill in half their seats? Why did top billing organizations like Sengoku vanish into the ether?

The answer to this question is also the first reason combat sports are on their last leg in Japan: A public left jaded after criminality, lack of organization, an bankruptcy.

Both PRIDE and K-1 were rooted in shady dealings that ultimately led to the unfurlings of both organizations. With heavily documented ties to the Yakuza, PRIDE began to openly unravel when DSE President Naoto Morishita was found dead hanging by his neck in his hotel room. Authorities said this was because his Morishita’s mistress wanted to end their affair, but most speculated the reason had to do with gang ties and evading tax authorities.

In K-1, starting in 2010, multiple stories came out regarding the financial situation of the company and their parent organization FEG. Simon Rutz, the owner of rival kickboxing promotion It’s Showtime, claimed in 2011 that many fighters from his promotion had not been paid for fights in K-1.

In early 2011, FEG publicly announced that they were facing financial problems, and that the organization would take some months off to restructure. A seemingly endless list of fighters and managers spoke out due to unpaid fight purses, including Mirko Cro Cop, Ray Sefo, Alistair Overeem, and more. FEG eventually declared bankruptcy, and the organization has languished ever since.

Japan has since lost it’s trust in both MMA and Kickboxing. To Japanese diehards that experienced the golden days of PRIDE and K-1, watching the inevitable fall of all their favorite fighters into obscure organizations, defeat at the hands of UFC fighters, or simply disappearing altogether was too much to handle. While the UFC and GLORY have both attempted to break back into Japan, ticket sales are struggling. It’s hard to rekindle a flame that was on the verge of being extinguished.

2. No More Heroes

When you think of legendary American or Brazilian fighters, who comes to mind? Perhaps the Nogueira brothers, Randy Couture, Wanderlei Silva, or Chuck Liddel? How about Japanese fighters? Of course there’s many: Kazushi Sakuraba tops the list, but other MMA icons like Genki Sudo, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Hayato Sakurai, Kid Yamamto, and Takanori Gomi are all unforgettable.

In kickboxing, Masato Kobayashi WAS K-1. Plain and simple. He was the engine that spurred the sport in Japan. His rivalries with Buakaw Por Pramuk, Andy Souwer, and Yoshihiro Sato were literally the stuff of legend. He is without a doubt, one of the most famous Japanese combat sports athletes of all time.

But the legends of the past have all disappeared. Some like, Masato preserved their legacy by retiring at the peak of his career. Others, like Sakuraba, continued to fight until his body forced him into retirement.

While other countries have continued to generate a communal interest  in the sport through the production of world champions and contenders, in Japan, the closest thing to a hero is Shinya Aoki. While the “Baka Survivor” is without question one of the best, he’s not THE best. Without the near mythic winning power of Fedor or Masato, Aoki simply can’t carry the hopes of an entire country on his back.

Consider kickboxing in Japan. Right now, Japan has some of the best lighter weight fighters on the planet: Yuta Kubo, Masaaki Noiri, Tetsuya Yamato, Yuki, Masahiro Yamamoto, and the Urabe brothers are just the tip of a huge iceberg. But their Japanese countrymen, for lack of a better phrase, just don’t care.

K-1 has always been traditionally composed of two divisions: Heavweight and MAX (70 kg). If your natural weight wasn’t in either of those classes, too bad. Such is the case for fighters like Masaaki Noiri and Yuta Kubo. While they have a devoted fan-base among the kickboxing faithful, because they didn’t compete in MAX or the WGP their names are foreign to most casual Japanese fans.

It also doesn’t help that when the UFC visits Japan, it highlights old, fading, Japanese fighters over the young up and comers. If you’re an American, consider this scenario: Your country is lagging behind the rest of the world in MMA. Your champions of the past: Jon Jones, Ben Henderson, and Cain Velasquez are on the final days of their career. They’ve been knocked out more times than they’ve won and struggle against third rate opponents. And yet whenever you see a UFC with Americans on the show, it’s ALWAYS these same, aging fighters, and they ALWAYS look terrible. Would that increase or lessen your desire for more MMA in the United States?

I don’t mean to insinuate that Japan is losing interest in combat sports solely because of the UFC. They’re doing their best to put Japanese fighters on certain cards, but the former PRIDE aficionados still blame Dana White for the downfall of their favorite organization. It’s going to be a tough uphill battle, and it simply isn’t happening fast enough.

3. The Asian Hub Has Moved

Japan used to be the center of the Asian fighting world. It produced the first foreign Muay Thai champion, Toshio Fujiwara, spurred the development of Kyokushin Karate, and created two of the most exciting promotions in the history of combat sports. But after the downfall of PRIDE and K-1, Asian combat sorts were re-marketed towards hardcore fans instead of capturing the interesting of casuals.

MMA began to thrive in other areas of Asia. Singapore saw the emergence of super-organization ONE FC. The Philippines experienced a combat sports boom with the introduction of URCC and PXC. Korea saw the growth of ROAD FC; the largest Korean MMA promotion of all time.

These organizations then began to collaborate under the ONE FC network in an effort to create an Asian MMA alliance the likes of which had never before been seen. With the exception of older promotions like Shooto and Pancrase, Japan was left in the dust.

Out of them all, only DREAM is still able to draw a sizable audience in it’s home country. But with viewership in a downward spiral, and most of their stars signing contracts with MMA organizations elsewhere, how long will their success last?

That’s not to say Japanese fighters have been overshadowed. They haven’t. But at this point it wouldn’t be dangerous to assume most of the top Japanese mixed martial artists and kickboxers are finding work outside Japan rather than it.

Kickboxing is unique in Japan. It has created some of the best fighters in the world through organizations like Krush, Magnum, the Hoost Cup, and Shootboxing. However, these same promotions seem to go out of their way to prevent their international audience from getting involved through streams, video, or even results.

Much like ROAD FC during the early years of their inception, Japanese kickboxing is focused on keeping their product within their own country. To us, it makes little sense. But to bigger kickboxing companies like GLORY, SUPERKOMBAT, MAX, or even Thai Fight- it presents a unique opportunity to bring these highly talented, little known, and little paid fighters on board as quickly, easily, and cheaply as possible.

4. Professional Wrestling

Yes, that’s right. Professional Wrestling. Prepare yourself for a history lesson.

When PRIDE and K-1 were created in the early 90’s, both companies realized it would be difficult to market themselves as a professional combat sport. Although the foreign perception was (And is still) that all Asians were at least partially knowledgeable in the martial arts a, the truth was that the Japanese were more interested in professional wrestling than real fighting.

Antonio Inoki, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Tiger Mask were names that would always overshadow that of any professional kickfighter or mixed martial artist. Because of the “shoot” nature of Japanese wrestling, the line between what was fake and what was not had become deliberately blurred.

Wrestling legend Antonio Inoki even went so far as to “create” the concept of MMA, pitting himself in a variety of “fights” against martial artists of different disciplines. The most famous of these battles was with American boxing hero Muhammad Ali (Seen below).

So what did the leaders of PRIDE and K-1 do to create public interest in their organizations? Why, market them as professional wrestling events of course!

The fireworks, dramatic introductions, emotional promo pieces, etc., are all wrestling devices used to get an audiences’ heart racing. Current UFC and GLORY fans like to point out the enormous mismatches or “freakshows” commonly found in the olden days of PRIDE and K-1. Again, the purpose of these fights was to create an environment constructed from the fabric of wrestling.

To our WWE fans, how many times have you seen the classic “Big vs. Little” matchup? How about “Good vs. Evil,” or “Stylish vs. Strong?” These matches were played out in real life in the K-1 and PRIDE arenas, and the Japanese absolutely loved it.

Japan didn’t see fighting as most of us do now. Kickboxing, MMA- they weren’t sports, so to speak. The order of emphasis was placed less on stats, win-loss ratios, trash talk, and winning- and more on Bushido, or the “Samurai Spirit.”

In short, it was entertainment. Of course, all forms of sports are entertainment. But PRIDE and K-1 were a form of entertainment more similar to Professional Wrestling than a Professional Football or baseball league. There was a seamless connection between storylines and the fight itself.

GLORY and the UFC are standardizing combat sports to function in the same vein as an established sports league like the NFL. This is a necessary transition for both kickboxing and MMA. To survive in the long run, combat sports must eventually be accepted by a mainstream audience. Unfortunately, Japan grew up with a system far removed from the “rigidity” we see in fight sports today.

With the death of PRIDE, and the slow death of K-1, Japan also witnessed the removal of  pro-wrestling quality from MMA and Kickboxing- the same quality that drew them into the sport in the first place.With that “feeling” gone (as many forum goers have tried and failed to express), no superstars, and few martial arts organizations offering any appeal to the casual fan, combat sports have simply started fading away.


Can MMA and Kickboxing in Japan be saved? Certainly. But it will take a different approach than what’s already been tried. It will take high level organizations building up Japanese fighters within their own country. Most importantly however, it will take time, and lots of it. As fans of both the old and the new, all we can do now is sat back, watch, and wait.

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Categories: Asian MMA, Featured, Kickboxing, MMA

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