Politics of Promoting on New Years Eve in Japan
When Sherdog.com first broke the news of Fedor Emelianenko
(Pictures) possibly facing Hong Man Choi (Pictures) on New Year's Eve, hardcore fight
fans questioned why the supposedly best heavyweight on the planet
had to face yet another "freak show."
To understand why the fight was booked, you have to look far beyond
the notion of an undisputed champion going toe to toe with a
First, you need to know that New Year's Eve is a very special day
for the Japanese people -- from both cultural and social points of
view. It is not only saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming
the new but also a holiday traditionally spent at home, which makes
it the day TV stations score the highest ratings of the year.
The "Kôhaku Uta Gassen" ("Red and White Song Battle"), an annual
music show airing on Japan's public broadcaster NHK, produced
ratings as high as 70 to 80 percent in the 1980s. Even today more
than 40 percent switch on NHK on New Year's Eve, which means it is
probably watched by at least 50 million people. Think Super Bowl,
except the most popular music artists are going at it instead of
the best football players.
What does this have to do with Fedor and Hong Man Choi (Pictures)?
In 2000, Japanese pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki started
putting on martial arts shows to compete with the Red and White
Song Battle. Although the inaugural show was still held under pro
wrestling rules, the three events that followed were more or less
straightforward MMA shows -- K-1 fighters against members of the
Inoki pro wrestling army.
As the relationship between Inoki and co-promoters Dream Stage
Entertainment and Fight Entertainment Group soured and as Inoki
lost influence within Japanese martial arts circles with his
Bom-Ba-Ye events, PRIDE and K-1 began hosting their own New Year's
Eve shows in 2003.
During the "NYE Wars" that followed the next three years, both
promotions did very well audience-wise. In 2004, the peak year for
MMA in Japan, PRIDE and K-1 combined for a market share of more
than 34 percent. That means nearly 50 million people in Japan tuned
into MMA programming on New Year's Eve 2004.
Because Japanese MMA originated in pro wrestling, entertainment
comes first when booking fights, especially on Dec. 31. This is why
hardcore fight fans don't always get the fight that has the most
meaning from a sporting perspective. More often the battle that is
made has the most appeal to the casual viewer.
For example, Fedor
Emelianenko (Pictures) faced 400-pound behemoth
Zuluzinho in 2005 instead of tested Russian Sergei Kharitonov
(Pictures) and then fought former K-1
champion Mark Hunt
(Pictures) in 2006 instead of top
contender Josh Barnett
(Pictures). The same reasoning applies
to why he'll face someone like Choi this year instead of a more
seasoned MMA vet like Jeff
Monson (Pictures) or Pedro Rizzo (Pictures).
However, Fedor's meeting with the 7-foot-2 Techno Goliath is not
100 percent certain either. Though FEG, which holds the contractual
rights to the colossal Korean, has announced its cooperation with
the Yarennoka! event that is supposed to stage the big fight, a
number of factors influence the passing of one of FEG's major stars
to a rival promotion.
First and foremost is the fact that Choi has another fight
scheduled on Dec. 8 against Jerome LeBanner (Pictures). Should he win the battle against
the 34-year-old Frenchman, this single-bout affair becomes a
tournament with up to two more three-round, three-minute fights
against the best kickboxers in the world.
The effects of Choi's participation in the K-1 World Grand Prix
Final, the most prestigious and most competitive kickboxing
tournament in the history of the sport, are varied.
He is not the favorite, but he is among the more promising
tournament entrants at a bookmaker value of 8:1. Choi is also one
of only two participants to hold a win over two-time defending
champion Semmy Schilt
Should Choi pull off the coup and take home K-1's golden
championship belt, the chances of him fighting at the Yarennoka!
event are slim to none -- and slim has just left the building. Such
a scenario would require FEG to loan Choi to its former fiercest
rival for that rival's first attempt to regain a foothold on the
Japanese market. A fight between Choi and Fedor in that case would
be too risky; a probable loss for Choi would mean a huge
devaluation of the K-1 Grand Prix, even if it's kickboxing and the
Fedor fight is MMA.
Additionally, K-1 has always had its newly crowned champ fight on
its own New Year's Eve show, and FEG would certainly not make an
exception for Choi. In a nutshell: If the Korean takes home the
gold on Dec. 8, he is headed to Osaka to fight at Dynamite!!
instead of to Saitama for Yarennoka! on New Year's Eve.
Although an injury would rule out the 27-year-old giant from both
events, an unhurt early exit creates the best chance for his fight
with Fedor to take place. In this scenario K-1 has more to gain
from the fight than to lose. If Choi pulls off the win, then K-1
will have the only fighter under contract to really beat the
Russian Emperor. If he loses, then Fedor will have beaten a K-1
fighter whose primary career is kickboxing.
Now to M-1 Global's options should the fight with Choi fall through
for one reason or another.
Josh Barnett (Pictures) is the obvious choice as an
opponent. The 30-year-old former UFC heavyweight champion will
already be in Japan in December to work the Dec. 20 IGF pro
wrestling show and to participate in a catch wrestling match two
days later against Hikaru
Sato (Pictures) in Pancrase.
However, since the clash between Barnett and the Russian superstar
is already 18 months in the making -- Barnett openly challenged
Fedor after submitting his brother Aleksander in May 2006 -- M-1
Global would more likely save this potential mega-fight for its
North American debut in February 2008. While Barnett has a decent
following in Japan, his marketability and his fighting skills could
provide M-1's breakthrough in the United States.
There have also been strong rumors in the past couple of days of an
encounter between Fedor and Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures). The Olympic judo gold medalist
has participated in all previous Shockwave events, even headlining
the 2005 edition. Bringing the 38-year-old world-class ground
fighter back into the fold would mean a gigantic political and
financial feat for the promoter.
For Yoshida to realign himself with a group that recently fell on
its face could put his public reputation or even his position as
commentator at Fuji TV on the line. Plus, a battle with Fedor would
certainly not come cheap: Yoshida shared a $5 million purse with
Naoya Ogawa (Pictures), and he is unlikely to settle for
less money against a more dangerous opponent. Putting this fight
together would show just how deep the pockets of Vadim Finkelchtein
& Co. really are.
Last but not least, the aforementioned Mark Hunt (Pictures) resurfaced this past week at a
Hustle pro wrestling show and expressed his desire to participate
in the Yarennoka! event. Hunt faced Emelianenko on New Year's Eve
2006 and, to the surprise of many experts, gave the Russian a real
run for his money.
Should fights with Choi, Barnett or Yoshida fail to materialize, a
rematch with the "Samoan Monster" may be the backup plan.
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