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Unless you understand the Japanese fighting culture, the New Year's Eve match-up that pits Fedor Emelianenko, the Yahoo! Sports No. 1 pound-for-pound mixed martial arts fighter in the world, against the 7-2 1/2, 355 pound "Techno Goliath," Choi Hong-man of South Korea, would seem to make no sense.
But MMA fighting in Japan is part of a world of fantasy, where key promoters idolize World Wrestling Entertainment chief Vince McMahon and learn from Japanese pro wrestling organizations. Almost the only reality of MMA in Japan is what happens between the bell.
On no night is that more evident than New Year's Eve, which has, over the past seven years, become a cultural tradition as the biggest fighting night of the year.
Boxers, kickboxers, pro wrestlers, actors, comic book giants, comedians and Olympic medalists in a variety of sports have all shared the stage in the past, and will continue to this year when two major shows are held on the same night, one on pay-per-view and the other on network television.
Hong-man’s MMA career consists of 16 seconds last year on New Year's Eve against Nigerian-born comedian Bobby Ologun. The match consisted of Hong-man, 15 inches and 142 pounds heavier than his foe, dragging Ologun on the ground to the center of the ring by his ankles after Ologun tried a flying knee and landed on his back on the mat.
Hong-man is one of the most popular figures on Japan's martial arts scene. It's hardly because of skills, but as much because of his uncanny resemblance to a Japanese cultural icon, the famous pro wrestler Giant Baba, who passed away in 1999. When he was discovered by K-1 officials and brought to Japan, it was almost as if Baba was reincarnated, except bigger and with better dance steps.
The kings of New Year's Eve fighting are hardly people like Shinya Aoki, an incredible submission specialist, who faces J.Z. Calvan (real name Gesias Calvancanti) of Brazil in what should prove to be an amazing battle between two of the world's best lightweight fighters.
They are people like Ologun, who became famous in Japan as an almost real-life cartoon figure whose eyes would bug out on television, and whose hobby was fighting; or Bob Sapp, the 6-4, 360 pound former Chicago Bears draft choice. At the peak of his popularity, there was a Bob Sapp store, selling nothing but his merchandise, in Tokyo.
On New Year's Eve of 2003, 54 million people, or nearly half the population of the country, tuned in for three minutes to see him kickbox on New Year's Eve against early 90s sumo legend Akebono.
That was significant because one of Japan's great television traditions is the NHK network's New Year's Eve concert. Unlike in the U.S., where people go out to celebrate New Year's, in Japan nearly everyone stays home for what is the most important television night of the year, and the concert is their version of the Super Bowl, the show that everyone watches.
For years, the networks in Japan threw in the towel rather than compete with something so big. But in 2001, the TBS Network presented a fighting show called Inoki Bom Ba Ye, a production of the Pride Fighting Championships, starring Antonio Inoki, a legendary pro wrestler. Inoki's dreadful 15-round stalemate with Muhammad Ali in a 1976 wrestler vs. boxer match is, within the Japanese culture, considered the birth of modern mixed martial arts.
The show featured eight matches, seven of which involved pro wrestlers, doing matches of varying degrees of realism, with the top three matches pitting New Japan pro wrestling stars against kickboxers from K-1 (the wrestlers won two of the three). But the most important aspect was that the show drew a healthy 14.9 rating--the biggest rating any network had ever done in Japanese television history against the concert.
BOOM TIMES FOR MMA
After the televised success in 2001, the 2002 Inoki Bom Ba Ye on New Year's Eve was headlined by Sapp against Yoshihiro Takayama. The two finished first and second a few weeks earlier for Pro Wrestler of the Year in Japan, and were put on as the headline event on television. The closest thing to a U.S. equivalent would be if Hulk Hogan and The Rock were put in the ring and fought (for real) on a show that was presented by UFC and featured stars from HBO boxing all on the same night. Sapp-Takayama did a 24.5 rating, with Sapp winning quickly via armbar. From that point on, the biggest fighting show of the year became traditional for New Year's Eve.
By 2003, the success of the Sapp-Takayama show was such that three different networks wanted the show. Pride and K-1 split, and Inoki went his own way. The three shows drew 25,000 to 35,000 fans each. It turned out to be the most important night in Japanese MMA history, and not because Sapp and Akebono, for the three minutes of their fight, beat the concert in the ratings.
It was because Inoki's group lured Emelianenko, Pride's heavyweight champion, away from Pride to appear on the Inoki show against pro wrestler Yuji Nagata in a quick mismatch. But years later, when allegations came out in a Japanese magazine that Yakuza members connected with Pride had threatened the promoter of the Inoki show for using Fedor, the allegations led to the Fuji Network dropping Pride, and led to the promotion dying, being sold to UFC, and vanishing.
Over the past several months, with Pride gone, the popularity of fighting in general in Japan has nose dived. Unlike in the United States, where the UFC has patterned itself after aspects of the boxing game, Japanese MMA and pro wrestling are considered essentially parts of the same industry. Both Nobuyuki Sakakibara, who ran Pride, and Sadaharu Tanikawa, who runs K-1, have studied pro wrestling and its ups and downs. Tanikawa felt that what saved U.S. pro wrestling was the Monday Night wars between McMahon and rival World Championship Wrestling. Tanikawa noted, like in Japan when Pride died, that when McMahon's rival WCW was purchased, pro wrestling interest nose dived, and has never fully recovered.
His idea for this year was to create his own competition, thinking it would spark a business comeback. Tanikawa worked with the front office staff of the former Pride Fighting Championships, who had been fired recently by Zuffa (UFC) when the group couldn't get a television deal and recognized promoting in Japan without one was financial suicide.
The answer to Tanikawa's equation was Yarrenoka, the Dec. 31 show at the Saitama Super Arena that features Emelianenko, the last Pride champion, against Hong-man, who is K-1's biggest heavyweight draw.
There are two other former Pride vs. K-1 match-ups, with the submission experts Aoki vs. K-1's best lightweight in Calvan; and Kazuo Misaki, who won Pride's middleweight Grand Prix tournament, against Yoshihiro Akiyama, K-1's best middleweight fighter. The show also features a couple of more potentially spectacular lightweight matches with unbeaten Gilbert Melendez vs. Mitsuhiro Ishida, and Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Brazil's Luiz Azeredo.
The show airs as a pay-per-view in Japan, and for the first time, New Year's Eve in Japan comes live to the U.S., as HD-Net airs the show in its entirety starting at 6 a.m. Eastern time on Dec. 31.
Emelianenko has been a New Year’s Eve constant. His matches in the past have ranged from Zulu Jr., a 340-pound bulbous son of a famous Brazilian street fighter; Yuji Nagata, one of Japan's top pro wrestling stars; Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, in a battle of the two top heavyweights in the world at the time; and a win last year over Mark Hunt, who he gave away 59 pounds to.
K-1 has a show in Osaka's Kyocera Dome, where it has drawn 27,500-40,000 fans for its big shows in the past. The night consists of marquee matches that would never be sanctioned by any self-respecting athletic commission in the United States. Two of the biggest New Year's Eve celebrities, Sapp and Ologun, square off in a match where Sapp should have a weight edge of around 140 pounds. Ikuhisa Minowa, a popular 183-pound fighter, faces Zulu Jr. (real name Wagner de Conceicao Martins).
Masato, under kickboxing rules, faces Choi Yong-soo of Korea, who from 1995-98 was the World Boxing Association Super Featherweight champion. It's become a tradition to ring in boxing champions, who can't defend a low kick, for Masato to eat up on New Year's, which infuriated the Japanese Boxing Association to the point they've ruled that any boxer who competes on a K-1 event will never be allowed to box again in Japan.
Another comedian turned fighter, Bernard Ackah, who knocked Johnnie Morton cold in June in Los Angeles, has a kickboxing match against Musashi, the most famous Japanese heavyweight kickboxer. Hideo Tokoro, who usually fights at 145 pounds, faces 190-pound Kiyoshi Tamura, who in his heyday in the late 90s was arguably the world's best pro wrestler.
Kid Yamamoto is back, facing a Zuffa-contracted wrestler in WEC bantamweight contender Rani Yahya, an incredible submission specialist, who on paper Yamamoto should destroy standing, but may face real trouble if it goes to the ground.
There is a four-man tournament with 16-year-olds, in an attempt, before the biggest TV audience of the year, to introduce a star they can groom as the next idol for teenage girls. And there is even the return of Masakatsu Funaki, the pro wrestler who established the premise of wrestlers fighting for real in 1993, long before the term MMA existed. Funaki comes out of a seven-year plus retirement to face Kazushi Sakuraba, who really built the Pride organization with his 1999 and 2000 fights with members of the Gracie family.
See also: Top 10 rated NYE matches in Japan.