Kakutogi Context: Notes on the Waning Japanese Fight Scene

By: Tony Loiseleur
Nov 2, 2011



It is no secret that “kakutogi” (combat sports) in Japan is at its lowest point since the salad days of the early 2000s. The industry has seen a gradual but steady decline, as evidenced by Japanese MMA’s increasingly dour headlines of the past few years. The problems are further exacerbated by the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt between local fighters, promoters, and media -- information which international observers tend to miss out on.

This post is not only an attempt to share the information that I’ve gleaned from my many conversations with those invested and involved in the business but also an attempt to put into context some of JMMA’s recent troubles. Consider this a supplementary piece to the news that’s already out there; part errata, part clarification, but wholly from the perspectives of those who live and work within the Japanese fight community.

First things first: it is true that numerous fighters have not been paid for their services. So far, only a few have been remunerated after going public. Initially, these fighters were non-Japanese: Gary Goodridge, Bibiano Fernandes, Ray Sefo, Jerome LeBanner and Alistair Overeem, among other K-1-based international fighters. Only recently have Japanese fighters -- including Kazushi Sakuraba and Kazuyuki Miyata -- begun publicly adding their names to this list. While late and non-payments are nothing new, having been a years-long problem in the post-boom kakutogi industry, what comes as a surprise is a Japanese fighter deciding that silence is not the better part of valor.

Often overlooked is exactly which promotional entity these fighters are contracted to. Most who have publicized their payment grievances have been in the employ of Fighting and Entertainment Ground. Fernandes and Miyata both competed in K-1 Hero’s before fighting in Dream, while fighters like Sefo, Goodridge, LeBanner, and Overeem were naturally signed to FEG as K-1 kickboxers. A former Pride Fighting Championships icon, Sakuraba himself jumped to FEG shortly before Pride’s purchase by Zuffa LLC in 2007.

Those contracted directly with Dream production company Real Entertainment have been compensated, although sometimes later than fighters have expected or are used to. Such is not always the case, as some do receive immediate payment, while others still receive regular, salaried payments. As a former Pride and current Dream employee, longtime ring announcer Lenne Hardt attested in a March radio interview with Sherdog.com that being paid weeks or months after an event is normal in JMMA. Though Japanese fighters are not as willing to go on record the way that Hardt did, the general consensus among Dream fighters appears to be that, while sometimes late, payment does eventually come from Dream.

Despite the fact that Dream was originally billed as the successor to K-1 Hero’s, and despite FEG and Real Entertainment’s long-standing working relationship since Dream’s founding in 2008, the promotion has instead turned out to be the spiritual successor of Pride. Anyone who has seen a Dream event will see the production hallmarks of the former JMMA giant, given that Dream has inherited veterans of Pride’s production staff rather than K-1’s. This divergence goes beyond simply the production side, as personnel from both promotions and fighter representatives have repeatedly elaborated that both shows have evolved independently over the years, so much so that even their finances are largely separate from one another.

While Real looked forward to incoming funds from a deal with Shanghai’s Puji Capital, the company has not been simply waiting around for the money to materialize. According to conversations with fighters, managers and personnel from both promotions, Real has independently courted investors of its own, raising enough money to promote Dream events in 2011 -- no small feat given the ongoing global economic malaise and the new national austerity brought on by March’s Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami.

Though Dream may not be promoting the kind of extravagant events which fans were treated to in 2003, the company is ostensibly more stable than K-1 at the moment. However, what further muddies the picture for the international crowd is the question of whether FEG can legally promote events under the K-1 banner. As initially reported by multiple outlets in July, trademarks under the K-1 brand were supposedly transferred to a Japanese real estate company by the name of Barbizon. This was a surprising revelation for most international fans and media, but it failed to make headlines in Japan. In the ensuing kerfuffle abroad, a telling detail was overlooked in the online record of the trademark transfer. Specifically, the record notes that the transfer was made in January 2006 and was formally announced in February 2006. This, of course, was during the tail end of K-1’s biggest years, well before its current difficulties and even before the purchase of Pride by Zuffa.

These dates are significant because 2006 was the year before K-1 founder Kazuyoshi Ishii was incarcerated for tax evasion. Originally charged in 2002 and sentenced in 2003, Ishii was able to use the appeals process to defer his sentence until 2007. To mitigate the potential stigma of K-1’s association with a convicted felon and because one cannot legally commandeer a company while incarcerated, the K-1 name was entrusted to Barbizon, which has retained it for the past five years. Insofar as preserving its business in Japan, where K-1’s primary focus and audience are concerned, the importance of this changing of hands cannot be stressed enough. The stigma of criminal association is enough to hobble certain businesses in Japan, especially in the ultra-public and ultra-sensitive Japanese television world. Local tabloid “Shukan Gendai’s” exposé on Pride’s “yakuza” ties reportedly got it taken off of Fuji Television in 2006 -- a major blow to the promotion’s ability to generate revenue, which eventually lead to its purchase by Zuffa.

To keep K-1 rolling, these potential consequences had to be mitigated. Kicking off this hand-changing process was the 2003 creation of FEG, the company which would act as the promotion’s operational base, rather than Barbizon, in Ishii’s absence. Regardless of who legally lays claim to the K-1 trademark and name, it is clear that it has not stopped FEG from promoting the kickboxing mega-event over the years, nor has it affected its promotional cooperation with events like Dream or grassroots kickboxing promotions like Krush. As explained to me by a promotional insider in an amused, yet matter-of-fact tone: “In Japan, you don’t have to technically own a company to operate it.”

Given the above, the question now becomes: Why hasn’t FEG publicly clarified the Barbizon issue? It is a question that I have also asked representatives from both major promotions on several occasions, and the general response has been simply that the matter is not something they see as important to address since it does not involve their primary audience in Japan. FEG staffers have essentially declined to comment on the grounds that reports by international media of K-1’s dissolution or sale are untrue, while Real representatives claim the matter is outside of their affairs. The same care taken by FEG in protecting the brand in Japan during the boom years is thus clearly not taken for the markets beyond it. This is not so much out of spite as due to FEG’s inability to recognize the reach, influence and overall importance of international media.

As odd as this reaction is, it is essentially in line with what has been described to me over the years as FEG’s kind of corporate stoicism; so long as FEG staff concentrate on producing K-1 shows, their hard work will eventually pay off and speak for itself, silencing the naysayers. The refusal to comment publicly has cost FEG opportunities with fighters who doubt its financial solvency and has hindered efforts at recovery, particularly with potential investors who were recently courted for a potential event in China. October’s on again, off again K-1 World Grand Prix in China is the latest casualty of this corporate philosophy of mute “business as usual” perseverance.

As such, these revelations should not only indicate how different the Japanese fight industry is compared to America’s but also how different business ideologies can be in Japan. While these practices may work for a Japanese promotion focusing on operating in Japan, the decision to stay silent in the face of international criticism naturally hurts it once it begins venturing into the international business sphere. Further, the absence of transparency by not publicly clarifying one’s legal ownership and corporate structure also repels potential business partners who do their due diligence before deciding to invest.

Whether or not FEG can learn from these experiences at this point is unknown, though it is a question deeply tied in with its chances of survival. However, the K-1 name itself is still a household one amongst the Japanese populace and fans of Japanese popular culture. It may not be popular now, but it is still so entrenched -- taken for granted, even -- that mainstream Japan still associates the brand with high-level combat sports the same way that many Westerners now are familiar with “Ultimate Fighting” rather than “MMA.” The continual presence of the brand in Japanese minds speaks to FEG’s last and greatest strength -- that of K-1 as a unique institution in entertainment and combat sports. FEG itself may not be able to survive the rut it has dug itself into, but the K-1 brand will survive because it is too valuable of a commodity to disappear.

Whether owned by Barbizon or Ishii, whether run by FEG or some new entity, K-1’s show will go on, sooner or later. Fight fans can only hope that whoever takes the reigns for the future has learned the valuable lessons offered by its turbulent past.

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