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The Ultimate Fighting Championship's signing of Yoshihiro Akiyama represents a significant business first – the first time a true native top-level drawing card from Japan has signed with a foreign mixed martial arts organization.
There have been plenty of Japanese fighters in UFC over the years, including Caol Uno, a legitimate lightweight contender in the early days of the division (who is set to return to UFC in June); Yushin Okami, a top middleweight contender; and even Kazuhiko Nakamura came in after the PRIDE purchase in 2007.
But Uno, while somewhat of a name fighter in Japan today, was not any kind of crossover star. Okami was an unknown fighter except to hardcore fans. Nakamura was known as a PRIDE regular. But he was a mid-carder, and it was joked that when PRIDE came to the U.S. for the first time before it folded, the American fans thought Nakamura was a bigger deal than anyone in Japan did. He only lasted a few fights with UFC before being sent packing.
Japanese MMA, hugely popular during the early part of the decade – the Bob Sapp vs. Akebono freak-show match on New Year's Eve drew a Super Bowl-like rating, and an outdoor show with Mirko Cro Cop vs. Japan's first MMA hero, Kazushi Sakuraba, drew 71,000 fans – is suffering now due to a lack of stars and mainstream interest.
UFC has talked with most major Japanese fighters, but talks always came down to economics. Because they were more valuable to the Japanese promotions than they would be to UFC, the money offers were better, plus there were more sponsorship dollars available for fighting on a shows broadcast on network television in Japan.
Those with knowledge of Akiyama's decision say he was unhappy about his role as a villain in Japan, due to his role in his country's version of the "Greasegate" controversy that came out of last month's Georges St. Pierre-B.J. Penn match. Instead of embracing his status, he wanted to start fresh in a new setting.
UFC president Dana White has long talked about wanting to promote in Japan, but there are a multitude of challenges, including the UFC's television clearance on a station only a small percentage of the public gets and the difficulty foreign promoters have experienced trying to get a foothold in the Japanese marketplace.
And while Akiyama is, with the exception of only Kid Yamamoto, the biggest television ratings draw of Japanese MMA fighters, he is also hated in the country.
Akiyama has a strange dichotomy, because as much as he's hated in Japan, he's loved in South Korea, as the country's current martial arts hero.
At this point there are no plans to run live events in South Korea, but UFC does have television in that country and Akiyama on its roster greatly bolsters its standing.
But putting marketing aside, there is another reality to Akiyama. After Akiyama was knocked out cold on December 31, 2007, by Kazuo Misaki, he has not been the same fighter. He is slower to react, which is the kiss of death against top competition. Fighting Entertainment Group, the promotion behind K-1 in Japan, was well aware of this, putting him against two non-fighters in his only matches this past year. Unless his reflexes suddenly snap back to pre-knockout levels, UFC is paying big money for a fighter who may very well be shot. And unlike in Japan, UFC is not going to put fighters who couldn't even win in minor-league shows against him because he's a draw.
When it comes to the big stage, the Japanese MMA world is difficult for an American to understand. Although there are championships, they are not really all that important. During the heyday of PRIDE and in K-1 today, nobody in Japan talks or cares about people's win-loss records. Fighting with honor was considered far more important than winning.
Some people liked to say it was mostly about putting on entertaining fights, but that's not really correct either. It was about creating unique celebrity stars who can bring everyone, from older people to especially younger women, to the sport with their story and role.
In 2004, Akiyama was recruited by the FEG and handpicked to be the next superstar of the sport. With his looks and physique, the idea was he would appeal to the female fan base that creates the kind of idols who end up on television and magazine covers, expanding their popularity long past the hardcore followers of a sport.
His Korean ancestry was considered a plus for an ethnic appeal to that community in Japan. And he was already known as an athlete, from judo, a popular sport in the country. He won the Asian championship in 2002 for Japan, and placed fourth in the 2003 world championships.
He had his unique and memorable ring entrance, holding hands with members of his team and coming out to "Time To Say Goodbye," sung by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman.
He debuted on the biggest night of the year for MMA, on December 31, 2004, as part of the Japanese New Year's Eve fighting tradition.
Everything was set up perfectly to make him an instant star. He was put in a match billed as judo vs. boxing, giving up more than 60 pounds to a former world heavyweight boxing champion, Francois Botha. He was representing not just Japan, but a Japanese native sport, against a foreigner, and he was physically a much smaller man. Plus, putting someone world-class in judo who had been given the best MMA coaching available against a pure boxer with no other weapons, under MMA rules, typically creates more of a mismatch than a difference in size. As expected, Akiyama immediately took Botha off his feet, and armbarred him in 1:54.
After a loss to kickboxer Jerome LeBanner, who was 80 pounds heavier, in his second match, Akiyama was built up against opponents with little chance to be competitive with him. His lone impressive win, on October 9, 2006, winning the Hero's middleweight tournament, was beating Melvin Manhoef. Manhoef, perhaps the best middleweight striker in MMA, also had no ground game and was taken down and armbarred in 1:58. The win put him over the top, beating such a physically impressive foreigner who Japanese fans had seen put one opponent after another to sleep with his fists.
With the tournament win and a 10-1 pro record, this led to the match that was to make him the new face of Japanese MMA, with the legendary but physically shot Sakuraba, on December 31, 2006.
The match itself drew a 25.0 rating, meaning one in every four homes in Japan was watching on television.
The problems started as Sakuraba went for an ankle pick, and Akiyama slipped away. Sakuraba immediately went to the ref and protested that Akiyama had grease or Vaseline on his legs. The ref ignored it. Akiyama took advantage of Sakuraba's hesitation, punching him in the face. The telling blow came later, a spinning Akiyama backfist that stunned Sakuraba. Sakuraba ducked for a single leg and slipped right off. By the end, Akiyama threw 105 punches on the ground, and blood was coming out of Sakuraba's ear. At 5:37, the referee stopped it.
Sakuraba's face had swollen to the point it was nearly unrecognizable, but he was never knocked out. Instead of hugging Akiyama after losing, he went to the ref and screamed about Akiyama being greased up. The ref checked Akiyama's back and said he found nothing. Sakuraba screamed that it was the legs what were greased. The ref, who was later heavily admonished for how he handled the situation, didn't check.
However, since the Japanese network filmed the event with a 30-camera shoot, a few days later it came out that the camera in Akiyama's locker room showed him in the dressing room applying Oil of Olay body lotion.
The public turned on Akiyama; in their view, he attempted to cheat to get a win over a living legend. The result of the match was overturned and ruled a no-contest. Akiyama, in his best Alex Rodriguez moment, said he was suffering from dry skin and didn't realize the magnitude of what he was doing.
Akiyama had his entire purse withheld and was forced to publicly apologize. K-1 received 10,000 outraged fan letters who wanted Akiyama banned for life. K-1 publicly announced he was suspended, but privately felt that due to public outrage, they would never use him again.
Akiyama was directly told his career was over, and he asked if he could apologize to the crowd on the next show. FEG head Sadaharu Tanigawa told him that he couldn't, and told him he would never be allowed in a ring again.
"Never" ended up being just over 10 months, as FEG sooon ran a show in Seoul, South Korea. With massive popularity and using his Korean name, he knocked out current UFC fighter Denis Kang in the main event.
MMA's popularity waned in 2007 in Japan, and the public and sponsors furor died down over the Sakuraba match. With TV desperate for ratings, he was brought back on December 31, 2007, for a match with Misaki.
It was an amazing spectacle. As "Time to Say Goodbye" started playing, 19,000 fans at the Saitama Super Arena were booing at the top of their lungs, something that just doesn't happen with the normally polite and reserved Japanese audience. With Akiyama down and starting to get up, Misaki kicked him brutally in the face, and knocked him out cold. The explosion was like one rarely heard in a Japanese sporting event. But as it turned out, the videotape showed Akiyama was down at the time of the kick, making it an illegal blow, and for the second straight New Year's Eve, Akiyama's match was overturned and called a no-contest.
But after that knockout, the question is whether UFC has spent a lot of money purchasing damaged goods.