The news that former baseball star Jose Canseco would make his mixed martial arts debut as part of the Dream promotion's "Super Hulk" tournament was a shocker even by the liberal standards of Japanese MMA.
In Japan, matchmaking at the top level is designed with one major goal: attracting eyeballs of curiosity seekers and non-sports fans to prime-time network telecasts.
Canseco's proposed May 26 match at the Yokohama Arena against 7-foot-2½, 330-pound Hong-man Choi of South Korea, is really a sign of just how desperate things are with MMA in the country.
Choi is the same fighter who faced Fedor Emelianenko at Dream's 2007 New Year's Eve show. He actually blocked a takedown attempt from the greatest heavyweight fighter in MMA history, landed on top, and marked up Emelianenko's face with punches before being quickly submitted from the bottom with an armbar. Choi has a win on his record in a kickboxing match with Semmy Schilt, the most dominant heavyweight kickboxer of the past decade.
Dream, formed by the K-1 organization to be the country's leading MMA promotion after PRIDE was purchased and then folded by the owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, has been a huge disappointment as a prime-time ratings draw. The popularity of MMA in general has faded for a number of reasons, including the biggest stars aging or leaving for America.
The company is in danger of losing future prime-time television for MMA unless this show is more successful.
Aside from the traditional New Year's Eve event, the first two events of 2009 aired after midnight, meaning far less money in rights fees than for a prime-time event. It was widely known going in that the company was looking for something big to reverse the trend for this show.
Desperate times cause people to do desperate things, including the attempt to justify making a complete mockery of the sport in a last-ditch effort to save it on prime-time television. The justification for Choi-Canseco is that if they lose prime time, MMA becomes a minor sport in the country where it first thrived.
Without the governmental regulation American promoters face, Japanese promoters can do as they please. But where does one draw the line on freak-show fights?
The first round of Dream's entire tournament is based around huge size discrepancies, so it's not really a "Super Hulk" tournament as much as a "David vs. Goliath" series, where every fight will have at least an 80-pound size differential.
Gegard Mousasi (24-2-1), Dream's former middleweight champion and one of the best fighters in the world outside of UFC, faces 290-pound Mark Hunt (5-5), a hard-hitting former kickboxing star with no ground game.
Bob Sapp (10-3-1), the 6-4, 350-pound celebrity fighter, faces Minowaman (41-30-8), a popular journeyman who usually fights at middleweight.
The other first-round match pits Jan "The Giant" Nortje (2-5), billed at 6-11, although in reality he's closer to 6-8 and 335 pounds, a hard puncher with no ground game, against Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (5-4), a light heavyweight who recently had some high-profile UFC matches, including a loss to current top contender Lyoto Machida.
The problem is, as ridiculous as this all sounds, fighting is a dangerous business, even for those who are good at it. Putting a 44-year-old novice in a tournament with real all-around fighters, let alone fighters with devastating knockout power, is borderline criminal.
Canseco was already brutally knocked out by a much smaller retired NFL player, Vai Sikahema, in a boxing match.
"He could get seriously injured," said Sapp, who was as shocked as anyone when Canseco's name was announced for the tournament. "Hong-man Choi [who once knocked out Sapp in a kickboxing match] is a lot bigger. [Canseco] got knocked out by a football player. I think it's being put together because it's a good opportunity for Choi to get more popular by beating up a famous American celebrity."
The Japanese announced the fight last week, but Canseco has not yet officially signed, so he can still back out. But evidently he needs the money almost as bad as Dream believes it needs the ratings.
Canseco has some fame in Japan, where baseball's popularity is on par with the U.S. The Canseco name is popular both because of his exploits and those of his brother Ozzie, who set the Atlantic League (one of Japan's major leagues) single-season home run record.
Choi is the safest opponent in the tournament for Canseco. The fight probably isn't going to last long, and it's not like Canseco is going to win and advance to where he'd have to face a harder-hitting fighter.
Choi was a 367-pound powerhouse the night he faced Emelianenko. But since then, he had an operation to remove a tumor near his pituitary gland that caused the condition acromegaly, or gigantism. The tumor was discovered in a California State Athletic Commission examination two years ago, which nixed his 2007 fight with a debuting Brock Lesnar.
Choi has been a different person since recovering. He's dropped close to 40 pounds, lost all aggressiveness and all of his fights.
The tourney's first-round winners advance to the semifinals in September, and while Sapp hasn't been told outright, he believes the finals will be on the annual New Year's Eve show.
If he wins, in between these fights, Sapp has signed on to face Bobby Lashley (2-0) on a U.S. pay-per-view show June 27 in Biloxi, Miss., at the Gulf Coast Coliseum.
Lashley plans on staying in pro wrestling while pursuing an MMA career, a path Sapp went down but doesn't advise. "At the beginning, he can probably do both, but if he wants to be serious in MMA, he's going to have to focus on it," Sapp said. "If he beats me, he's going to have to face someone tougher than me next. He can't be going backward. The big difference between the two of us is when I did it, I had no wife and no kids. He's got a family he also has to take care of. That can take its toll."
- Jose Canseco
- Fedor Emelianenko