Despite attracting enormous media and fan attention in Japan while building massive anticipation for a future MMA debut, Ishii told Japan's Nikkan Sports that he feels the Octagon is where he belongs.
"I have finally made up my mind," Ishii told Nikkan Sports Wednesday. "The UFC is where I want to fight."
Ishii, who turned 22 on Friday, was expected to ink a deal with Fighting and Entertainment Group and Dream, which some Japanese media outlets alleged was worth in the neighborhood of 500 million yen ($5.86 million USD), and make an in-ring appearance on New Year's Eve to greet the crowd and announce his debut in 2009.
However, Ishii and his handlers have been cautious in building toward Ishii's debut, wary of any potential failure. A well-placed source has told Sherdog.com that Ishii has been slow in acclimating to the striking game, creating the necessity to postpone his debut. Ishii himself has admitted to the Japanese press that his striking training has been a difficult pursuit thus far.
Ishii's announcement is a curious one. While it is not unusual for high-profile crossover athletes to acquire contracts with Zuffa and the UFC, such as Brock Lesnar, and despite what he may offer for Zuffa's future attempts in the Japanese market, Ishii has not even one MMA bout to his ledger, and said that his management had not even spoken with Zuffa brass at this point, despite his wishes to fight for them.
Following Ishii's proclamation, FEG president Sadaharu Tanigawa addressed the comments to the media on Thursday.
"It's unfortunate that the man with the Japanese MMA world on his shoulders is going abroad," said Tanigawa.
"We'd like him to become a pillar of Japanese MMA," Tanigawa continued. "I think it's important to have dreams but we want him to understand that the world has an expectation of him, and this is his destiny. We want to foster his growth to a level where he can be an athlete that's one in six billion."
With Sengoku's anticipated Jan. 4 event at Saitama Super Arena looming, parent company World Victory Road has added to its lineup.
The promotion has announced a lightweight bout for the bill between Sengoku lightweight tournament semifinalist Eiji Mitsuoka and upset of the year architect Sergey Golyaev, in what may amount to a title eliminator.
Mitsuoka, an early favorite in Sengoku's 2008 lightweight bracket, was dumped from the tournament in the semifinals by eventual champion Satoru Kitaoka, who stealthily leglocked Mitsuoka in 76 seconds last November. On that same card, Golyaev shockingly upset promotional ace Takanori Gomi by controversial split decision.
Despite the loss, WVR adhered to the "Road to Gomi" theme of the tournament, announcing that Gomi would still meet Kitaoka on Jan. 4 in a five-round title affair to crown the promotion's first lightweight king. With the announcement of the Mitsuoka-Golyaev bout, Sengoku PR officer Takahiro Kokuho confirmed that the bout may well serve as a lightweight title eliminator, with the winner meeting the victor of Gomi-Kitaoka clash later in 2009.
Fortifying World Victory Road's statements earlier this year that Sengoku would focus on the lighter weight classes in 2009, Kokuho said the promotion’s forthcoming program will be strongly centered on the featherweight division with a 16-man tournament.
Kokuho revealed that Sengoku is looking to begin the featherweight bracket in March, with subsequent rounds in May and July at locations yet to be announced. The tournament would, at this point in time, be designed to crown the promotion's first 143-pound champion.
Interestingly, Dream parent company Fighting and Entertainment Group has publicly discussed having its own featherweight tournament in 2009, although the promotion have yet to finalize such an event, and have yet to even agree on a specific poundage for its featherweight division.
Kokuho added that in the new year, WVR would hold tryouts at several of Japan's top gyms in order to find further developmental talents. Currently, standout amateur wrestlers Shigeki Osawa and Maximo Blanco are training under the auspices and financial support of WVR, who hopes to groom them into outstanding young fighters for Sengoku in the future.