LOS ANGELES, Jan. 11 — Standing at the dais during Thursday’s press conference to officially introduce PRIDE’s Feb. 24 main event between Wanderlei Silva (Pictures) and Dan Henderson (Pictures), PRIDE CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara said it as clear as he could while using his improving English: “We are here to stay.”
Those words seemed unnecessary last January when PRIDE, coming off a successful New Year’s Eve card and 2005 campaign, appeared to be in great position as one of the world’s leading fight organizations.
Yet after 2006 — the most trying 12 months in the organization’s 10-year history — consistent rumors circulate that PRIDE is on its way out as a major MMA promoter, and Sakakibara has very nearly doubled as a Gloria Gaynor impersonator.
With the explosion of mixed martial arts upon the American marketplace, Sakakibara has alternated between defending his company and strategizing an offensive game plan that would have PRIDE penetrate the UFC-dominated U.S. scene.
“2007 is the year of change and challenge for PRIDE,” Sakakibara told Sherdog.com. “We take the American market very seriously and also we have champions like Fedor and Wanderlei, strong fighters — they’re waiting for anyone to challenge them. We’re here to stay in America and those champions are here to stay in PRIDE.”
Following Thursday’s presser, Sakakibara discussed the state of PRIDE, rumors the Japanese organization was close to selling to the UFC, and several other topics that touch on the health of the company.
Sherdog.com: For PRIDE’s second show in the United States, what are your expectations? Now that you’ve already experienced it here, what are you hoping to accomplish?
Nobuyuki Sakakibara: We’ve been doing this in Japan for 10 years and we’re very confident in our product. We’re bringing in the best fighters in the world. The last time we tried to bring in the whole package of PRIDE in Japan as it is; we didn’t change anything at all into the U.S. market. So for the second show, we’re not going to change anything. We’re going to do what we’ve done the last 10 years.
Sherdog.com: Talk about the health of PRIDE. There was a lot of discussion last year that PRIDE was going to go away, PRIDE was selling. As we move in to 2007, what is the state of your company?
Sakakibara: The last show in October we didn’t do that for fun. We took it very seriously. And in 2007 we’ll try to push harder and farther into this market. No matter what is going to happen to us in the future we’re just trying to do our best to make it happen in the U.S. market.
Sherdog.com: Are you able to operate and give your best? Is the company strong enough to do that, do you believe?
Sakakibara: Coming to the U.S. market you can never be strong enough. We always welcome any offer for help or teaming up with sponsors. We are ready to come here. And again, any offer is welcome to us.
Sherdog.com: There were strong rumors last week that you were very close to selling to the UFC. Do you have a comment on this?
Sakakibara: It’s just a rumor. I haven’t had any close conversation with (UFC president) Dana White so far. But since the Fertitta brothers bought the UFC we’ve had a very close relationship and we have had friendly conversation. We’re just trying to come up with the idea on how we can make this sport grow. That’s our main concern. I think that is where the rumors are coming from. We’re constantly having a conversation with the UFC.
Sherdog.com: You’re having four shows in the U.S. in 2007. One of those events is in California in June. Do you know where that event will be held?
Sakakibara: We’re trying to make it happen at the Staples Center. I already mentioned that Dodgers Stadium would be our final goal. We’re not only promoting the fights. We’re creating the entertainment, the event itself. We’ve done the National Stadium in Japan. The biggest baseball stadium in Tokyo. So we’re trying to leave a footstep in America that we have achieved something that the people can remember for a long time. That’s what we’re trying to achieve in this country.
Sherdog.com: What are you plans in terms of Grand Prix events? Will there be a lightweight Grand Prix this year?
Sakakibara: Yes. Middle of May is the first round.
Sherdog.com: And are you still planning on a super heavyweight grand prix? A “monster” grand prix?
Sakakibara: Maybe not this year, the super heavyweight grand prix. But we’re making offers to all the big fighters all over the world so maybe next year we can make it happen.
Sherdog.com: I ask about the “monster” grand prix because there were rumors that you had discussions with WWE. What is your relationship with WWE?
Sakakibara: We try to keep a very friendly relationship with WWE. There is a lot to learn from them in many aspects of the entertainment business. Vince McMahon is one of my role models as a businessman. He is my hero as a businessman.
Sherdog.com: Have any other match-ups been made for your card on February 24th?
Sakakibara: Match-ups, not yet. Today I will announce Takanori Gomi (Pictures) will take part in the next show.
Sherdog.com: Will he defend his belt?
Sakakibara: No, non-title fight. But he will make his U.S. debut.
Sherdog.com: Who will be your promotional partners in California?
Sakakibara: We’re getting many offers from many companies. But in the near future we’re going to surprise people. We’re going to announce some surprises.
Sherdog.com: Mirko “Cro Cop.” You lost him as a fighter and you said PRIDE couldn’t compete with salaries being offered in the U.S. Are you concerned you’re going to lose more stars like Mirko to the UFC or other promoters?
Sakakibara: It’s very possible that many fighters follow Mirko’s footsteps. PRIDE’s plan is to decide the toughest fighter in the world. It’s a very tough situation as a working place for a fighter, so we’re expecting more fighters to follow.
Sherdog.com: So you’re expecting to lose more fighters because of difficulty of competition in PRIDE and not because, like you said, fighters are making 30 to 40 percent more money in the U.S.?
Sakakibara: The theme in PRIDE is, again, to decide the strongest man on the planet. So maybe more strong fighters will come into PRIDE and those who can’t survive in PRIDE, they’ll leave. That’s very natural.