Regrettably, most fight fans don't have the ability to head to the subway station, hop aboard a train, and walk into Korakuen Hall. As a result, Shooto Japan has long been available only to those willing to open their wallets and drop 50 bones for a Region 2 DVD, those who can successfully navigate the tape trading circuit, or those faithfully combing Youtube.
In many ways, those pursuits have become the defacto barrier between being a hardcore fight fan and a full-blown MMA zealot, whose idea of a wild night somehow involves R.E.A.D. 2000 Final.
Jason Manly wants to change that.
Manly says his goal is to bring Shooto Japan stateside, and Saturday night in Irvine, Calif., he will do just that with an 11-bout fight card, aptly titled "The Arrival, Ch. 1: This is Shooto," which is set to feature some of Shooto Japan's brightest up-and-comers.
It is a considerably ambitious venture for Manly, who has yet to promote enough cards to make you use both hands to count. Yet, the fight industry was somewhere the 28-year-old Californian says he knew he always wanted to be.
"Odd as it sounds, I kinda started training with the intention of getting to the fight business," chuckled Manly, whose constant laughter and quipping quickly serves to contrast him from your usual promoter stereotypes.
Manly's training led him to a 1-0 pro MMA mark, after notching a submission win over Rob Snyder at a Gladiator Challenge event in Nov. 2001. Moreover, his training and love for MMA also crippled his other athletic forte. Manly, who attended UC Berkley on a full track and field scholarship, went from team MVP his freshman year, to battling injuries over the rest of his collegiate career, a result of bumps and bruises sustained in training which he was forced to conceal to stay on the team and keep his scholarship.
"Yeah, MMA kinda killed my track career," said Manly, still laughing.
Manly jumped into the fight business, promoting events under the Warriors Cup in Stockton, Calif. However, Manly's real promotional dream was ignited after a friend offered him tickets to PRIDE's first venture on American soil last October. After watching Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) dispatch Mark Coleman (Pictures), Manly, through a mutual acquaintance, met with leading Shooto authority Kazuhiro Sakamoto, a former Shooto world champion himself who now heads Sustain, the foremost pro Shooto promoter in the world.
"We talked about doing shows, maybe working together, kinda progressed from there," revealed Manly. "Then we started talking about bringing out fighters, bringing out Shooto. I just thought that the Shooto brand was so much more established, we might as well do it under the Shooto banner."
Advertisers, sponsors and other collaborators had some trepidation about Manly's international undertaking, which resulted in the event having shifted from potential dates in June and July to August. However, working with promotional group No Limits has seemingly given Manly the necessary tools to go forward with his pro Shooto venture.
"I know this is not one of those jumpin'-into-it-for-the-money kinda deals. In the long run, I'm prayin' it's gonna pay off," said Manly, without even a slight characteristic laugh. "But, I've got great people to work with in No Limits and [No Limits owner] Karen Santaniello. She's been instrumental."
Manly's card will be, for most, an introduction to a curious trio of Japanese talent, as the event's four marquee bouts feature Kenichiro Togashi (Pictures) taking on Gladiator Challenge champ Brian Cobb (Pictures); "Wicky Akiyo" Akiyo Nishiura (Pictures) squaring off with Joe Camacho (Pictures); and in the main event, highly regarded 145-pounder Tenkei Fujimiya (Pictures) battling Bao Quach (Pictures).
"With Wicky, Shooto people see him as the next big thing," said the 28-year-old promoter. "I think the American fans will take to him. That's the main thing with him: he's a wild and exciting guy. See, myself … I couldn't be a fighter. I'm too nice. But Wicky's got a mean streak in him. He comes to fight, and is looking forward to hurt somebody."
"Tenkei is his teammate, and he's a top fighter at that weight," he continued. "And we feel that's where we can make our mark in the states with lighter weight guys. His fight with Bao is going to be great. I don't see them waiting for the judges; I see someone getting knocked out."
With Wicky and Fujimiya, Manly has brought in two former Shooto rookie champions who will be Shooto mainstays for years to come. They're heavy hitters, and crowd pleasers that have amassed a fanbase amongst Shooto fans. What makes the trio a curious one is the inclusion of Togashi, who will be making his second stateside appearance, having submitted Darren Crisp (Pictures) in April on the Manly-promoted Warrior's Cup card in Stockton.
The 26-year-old Togashi is a vastly underrated competitor, who has faced an impressive line of opposition, including Mitsuhiro Ishida (Pictures), Joachim Hansen (Pictures), and Koutetsu Boku (Pictures). However, he has consistently managed to fly under the radar, largely due to scaring off potential opponents by giving elite fighters all they could handle, but failing himself to gain crucial victories.
"I've trained with some of the best fighters in the world," stated Manly. "So, when I train with a lot of these guys, so I can really gauge them. Togashi is slick; he's real, real good."
"That fight is maybe the most interesting for me," he said of the Cobb-Togashi bout. "I think Togashi will be more technical, but Cobb will maybe be bigger and stronger. I'm interested to see where that fight ends up."
Manly's goal of popularizing Shooto stateside is undoubtedly noble. But it is a dream that has failed for others before.
Hawaii's Superbrawl (now ICON Sport) had a similar idea in the late 90s, which saw Shooto standouts such as Rumina Sato (Pictures), Mamoru Yamaguchi (Pictures), Takanori Gomi (Pictures), Ryota Matsune (Pictures), Akira Kikuchi (Pictures), Masanori Suda (Pictures) and Jutaro Nakao (Pictures) fight in Hawaii over the next few years, while Hawaiian natives such as Stephen Palling (Pictures) and Ray Cooper (Pictures) became respected competitors in Shooto Japan. Roughly six years ago, Jeff Osbourne, now of bodogFIGHT, had a similar idea with his Indiana-based HOOKnSHOOT promotion. HOOKnSHOOT's Evansville, Ind. became familiar territory for Shooto Japan regulars such as Shikou Yamashita (Pictures), Juaro Nakao, Seichi Ikemoto (Pictures), Kohei Yasumi (Pictures) and Takumi Nakayama (Pictures).
What is now ICON Sport has long outgrown its Shooto ties, while Hawaiian Shooto still exists in the form of small local affiliate Punishment in Paradise. Meanwhile, HOOKnSHOOT still exists as a Shooto Americas affiliate, but the Japanese imports are long gone, and by and large, so is the promotion's relevance to Shooto on the largest level. So, what makes this any different?
"The one thing that makes it different is that I go to church on Sunday, and I'm prayin'," laughed Manly, a devoutly religious Christian.
"Really though, what makes this different is our relationship with Shooto Japan," he continued. "What people think 'Shooto' is … it's Sustain, the Japanese guys, the dragon logo. That's what we're bringing."
Though Manly admits that all the trappings of professional Shooto won't be brought this time around, a cursory background check on professional Shooto and oversight by the Armando Garcia-led California State Athletic Commission would lead most to believe this is a marriage of oil and water.
"We will be using the Shooto gloves. We thought we'd be able to do it with the Shooto rules this time," revealed Manly. "Armando Garcia was actually all for it, but we just didn't get it done in time, so it won't be this time around."
The weight classes for this evening will be imperially altered so to speak. Since Shooto's weight classes are rooted in the metric system, the weight contracts for the evening will be rounding up to fives and zeroes in pounds from the usual weights of 132, 143, 154, 168, 183 and so on and so forth. Shooto officials won't be a piece of the puzzle either. Taro Wakabayashi, who has refereed hundreds of amateur and professional Shooto bouts over his 13-plus years as a Shooto official, was denied his license as a referee by the CSAC.
"Yeah, his résumé looked pretty good, but he'll need to take a refereeing course in September they said," Manly snickered.
Any hardship this card entails doesn't seem as though it will do much to dampen his ambitions. A general "What's next?" sort of question was all Manly needed to take off in a 100 meter style sprint again.
"BJ [Kojima] wants to come out and fight for us," he said. "We want to get Lion [Takeshi], [Ryota] Matsune, everyone. I want to do [Shinya] Aoki against Nick Diaz (Pictures) in Stockton."
Of course, there's at least one other name he has in mind.
"Rumina Sato (Pictures)," he proclaimed. "We're working on getting him to come fight, but obviously, he's got a lot of stuff going on."
The goal is to run an additional five shows at the No Limits Event Center over the next year, with bimonthly events. While continuing to showcase talent from Shooto Japan, the events will also serve the purpose of crowning North American Shooto champions, under the revamped regional structure of international professional Shooto.
"We're gonna do this October and December before the year is even out. We're gonna crown champions from 135 up to heavyweight in tournament style. I know it's ambitious," Manly said, laughing once again. "But I'm an MMA fan, so I approach all of the promotions, and productions from that perspective, I feel this is what fans want to see."
But with MMA in an unprecedented period of growth globally, with dozens of promotions now wielding cable television and being available on pay-per-view, it is hard to imagine why individuals outside of MMA's rabid hardcore fanbase would care about an entity whose product is still rooted so deeply in the heart of Tokyo, and whose stateside excursions would only be a sliver to squint of the much larger, more vivid picture.
"Why should people care about Shooto?" said Manly, echoing my question. "Shooto is for the people. This is their organization. I don't want to be a Shooto 'promoter'; I think of myself as a Shooto 'brand manager.' I'm just managing the brand and the sport here, and doing whatever I can to make it grow."
But since that was such a straight, matter-of-fact answer, it would not have suited Manly to end on such a note.
"Shooto is the OG MMA organization," he laughed. "And PRIDE ain't ever comin' back, so this is the best you're gonna get."