In many cases, fights themselves cannot speak to the true acumen with which they were designed. An exciting clash of styles may end quickly and unceremoniously before it turns into the blazing bout that's anticipated, while two outstanding and routinely entertaining fighters may not have modus operandi that thrillingly compliment one another. However, Sengoku's featherweight tournament opener was truly a display of well-crafted, conscientious matchmaking, regardless of a casual public more enamored with the stars of Dream, or the ongoing anemic live attendances.
Better still, parent company World Victory Road may be the world's foremost combat sports charity; fight-lanthropists, if you will.
Allow me to point out that WVR didn't necessarily get the 16 fighters that it wanted for its tournament. Both Michihiro Omigawa and Shintaro Ishiwatari ended up in the bracket, but only did so because they fought to a draw in their Jan. 18 Shooto bout, which was intended as a tournament eliminator. WVR struggled to fill the grand prix, as two of their high profile pursuits, Shooto world champion "Lion Takeshi" Takeshi Inoue and Deep titlist Dokonjonosuke Mishima both fell through. Inoue’s omission was due to Shooto promoters requiring his services for their 20th Anniversary card on May 10 in the middle of the tournament, and Mishima fell to a knee injury. This is how the likes of Jong Man Kim gained entry into the tournament.
Despite putting together a damn good tournament ripe with featherweight prospects, the line-up wasn't as potent as WVR had hoped. Yet, the promotion played the hand it was dealt brilliantly, as it got near-perfect outcomes out of its featherweight tournament's opening round bouts. Not every bout was hypercompetitive and, I can't say that I necessarily think the "best" eight fighters advanced. However, the matchmaking was both entertaining, and in many cases, pragmatic. Tournament favorites Hatsu Hioki and Marlon Sandro inspired excitement for future rounds with sterling performances, while strong showings from the other quarterfinalists did likewise, while giving many young prospects the chance to develop in the ring before our eyes.
For instance, Nam Phan, a dynamic grappler with improving standup, got to work his striking in true action against rock solid vet Hideki Kadowaki. In doing so, Phan notched a first-round knockout and created considerable excitement for his continuing tournament bid.
Chan Sung Jung, while already being acquainted with overcoming adversity, got to show his uncanny ruggedness and offensive skills against a gamer in Shintaro Ishiwatari. Jong Man Kim's one-dimensional mediocrity may have been out of place in the bracket, but WVR matched him effectively against Masanori Kanehara, who has struggled with falling asleep at the wheel during bouts, and was forced to be crisp and calculating for the full 15 against Kim.
The lone true upset of the first round came courtesy of Michihiro Omigawa, who knocked off hot prospect L.C. Davis with a commanding decision victory. Here, it is easy to see what sets WVR apart from other Japanese promoters.
Most WVR employees are from the offices of J-Rock, the management company that handles Hidehiko Yoshida and his pupils, including Omigawa; J-Rock president Takahiro Kokuho is simultaneously Sengoku's figurehead. It would have been incredibly easy for WVR to lob Omigawa an opening round softball, and fans would have tolerated it, as such tactics are common Japanese promotional practice.
Instead, Omigawa was matched tough, and he was forced to abandon his brawling tactics of the past in favor of utilizing his clinch skills and top game. For Davis, the consequences may be positive in defeat as well, as the bout revealed his undeveloped guard game and offers an easy vision of where he ought to improve.
My favorite of all was the pairing of UK standout Ronnie Mann and 18-year-old recent high school graduate Tetsuya Yamada, and not for any reason actually relating to the fight itself.
Yamada could have provided an easy and exploitable storyline for WVR to peddle to their domestic media. The Japanese's pathological obsession with Murakami-esque "Little Boy" archetypes often leads to the media’s sensationalism of any promising youth. With the built-in "Super High School Student" gimmick and WVR's inability to engage casual fans and the lay-public, coddling Yamada would be the expected move from a promotion desperate to stop losing money.
Instead, last week, (though I hate to gossip) when asked privately by a Japanese journalist why Yamada wasn't given a gimme in the first round despite his obvious upside with the media, Takahiro Kokuho simply replied, "That's not the kind of promotion I run."
Indeed it is not.
Now a year old, Sengoku's matchmaking and product is still every bit as esoteric as it was to begin with. It's no secret that when it comes to MMA, Japan is amidst the latter part of its cultural boom-bust cycle. As with all things that become reinvigorated -- but especially sports -- it takes truly particular and engaging personalities to galvanize the Japanese public, the way that the likes of Bob Sapp, Hidehiko Yoshida, Masato and others played pivotal roles in the kakutougi boom in years past.
WVR have made nominal attempts to snare some casual interest, using popular figures like the aforementioned Yoshida and Josh Barnett, playing into historical storylines with the use of Brazilian jiu-jitsu stars like Roger Gracie and Alexandre "Xande" Ribeiro, and trying to build Japanese aces like Takanori Gomi and Kazuo Misaki. However, it's extremely telling that the first-ever bout the promotion staged was Nick Thompson against Fabricio Monteiro -- two rock-solid welterweights, both virtually unknown to non-hardcore fans.
These sorts of matchups typify Sengoku's product. Despite the fact the promotion has yet to do anything even remotely close to turning a profit, WVR has consistently continued to craft an event that caters mostly to the most ardent cadre of MMA fans, the sorts with accounts to multiple MMA torrent websites, who find joy in live streams of D-level shows from the Midwest, and who are excited by the fact that WVR consistently chooses some of the most deserving-but-overlooked Japanese fighters, and unheralded-but-outstanding foreign talent to populate its card. For casual fans on either side of the Pacific, the charm is lost.
Short of signing a Japanese Olympian who, by dumb luck, happens to resound with the Japanese public, WVR has no hopes of making Sengoku profitable any time soon. WVR's wealthy benefactors are essentially funding fight opportunities for MMA's best unsigned and underrated talent. That sort of benevolence isn't financially prudent, but it is invaluable to the sport; it is the mindset which allowed the likes of Satoru Kitaoka and Jorge Santiago to enter the spotlight from the fringes of their divisions, and will inevitably put a crop of great young featherweights on the map over the course of the year.
I will end this essay on a linguistic note: If you indulge in Japanese wordplay, the name "Takahiro Kokuho" can be taken to mean "prosperous treasure," and even if the public regard Kokuho's product as junk, for the fiercest of fight freaks, it's nothing short of gold.