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Foreign Fighters Earn Fame and Fortune in Japan (February 16, 2004)

Akebono vs Sapp
A scene from the Akebono vs Bob Sapp fight. (Jiji)
New forms of professional mixed martial arts (MMA) that have originated in Japan, such as K-1 and Pride, are enjoying unprecedented success. On New Year's Eve 2003, three commercial television networks broadcast MMA events in a ratings free-for-all. Foreign fighters have figured prominently in the popularity of MMA in Japan, and their ranks include a former NFL football player, a former heavyweight boxing champion, and a master of Brazilian jujitsu. These fighters treat Japanese fans to thrilling and often unpredictable matches as they pit their various disciplines and backgrounds against one another.

Battle of the Networks
The MMA events shown by three networks on New Year's Eve created quite a stir. Kohaku Utagassen (Red and White Year-end Song Festival), which is broadcast on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.) every year on the evening of December 31, is the perennial ratings winner. This year, however, the commercial stations faced off against this venerable institution by boldly placing their MMA events in the same time slot. Dynamite, a K-1 show, was a power-packed display of punching and kicking. Pride Special featured grappling and groundwork, punching, and kicking. And Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003, produced by onetime professional wrestler and former member of the House of Councillors Antonio Inoki, matched martial artists of various styles against one another.

Dynamite was especially compelling, as it featured the debut fight of former sumo yokozuna (grand champion) Akebono. Akebono's opponent was former NFL football player Bob Sapp. Nicknamed "The Beast," Sapp has become a popular fighter in recent years and has made quite a name for himself in Japan as a television personality, amassing over a dozen TV commercial deals thanks to a charming persona far removed from his fierce demeanor inside the ring. During the fight, Sapp overpowered Akebono with punches to record a first-round knockout. Afterward, he issued a challenge to former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who was watching the fight via remote video feed in the United States.

Pride featured Brazilian jujitsu master Royce Gracie in a match against former Olympic judo gold medalist Yoshida Hidehiko, which ended in a draw. And Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye entertained fans with the daring aggressiveness of the numerous foreign fighters. The main event was a match between boxer and former IBF cruiserweight champion Imamu Mayfield and pro wrestler Fujita Kazuyuki, which was won by Fujita. Each event drew some 40,000 spectators. Dynamite won the TV ratings battle with an overall figure of 19.5%, and when Akebono fought Sapp, it even overtook Kohaku Utagassen with 43% of all viewers tuned in.

A Land of Golden Opportunity
The incredible popularity of MMA in Japan provides foreign fighters with a golden opportunity to strike it rich. Some fighters at the world-championship level earn well over ¥10 million yen ($95,238 at ¥105 to the dollar) per fight. The October 2003 K-1 event included former heavyweight boxing champion Francois Botha of South Africa. At the December 2003 K-1 World Grand Prix, held at the Tokyo Dome in front of a crowd of 67,000, Remy Bonjasky, a former banker from Holland, defeated Japanese fighter Musashi in the finals to reign supreme. Mirko Cro Cop of Croatia has risen to stardom as a K-1 fighter and has become famous in his home country as well; in November 2003 he was even elected to a seat in his country's national parliament. According to the K-1 administrative office, some 900 fighters in over 30 countries are training in hopes of one day making it to the K-1 ring. And in Pride, 70% of the fighters to date have come from overseas.

New mixed martial arts like K-1 and Pride have been embraced by Japanese fans in large part because they provide a forum where strength and skill are employed in something approaching real combat. In this respect, these martial arts differ significantly from traditional professional wrestling, where the formulaic script has had a Japanese wrestler overcome a foreign wrestler playing the role of the "bad guy." Fans of the new MMA respect these fighters regardless of their nationality because of the way they fight hard in real bouts. And as the birthplace of such traditional martial arts as judo and karate, Japan is held in high esteem by the fighters.

More professional MMA events are scheduled for 2004, and there will no doubt be an even greater influx of foreign talent to Japan in pursuit of the Japanese dream.

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Related Web Sites
NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corp.)
Antonio Inoki
Bob Sapp in Kidsweb Japan
Yoshida Hidehiko in Nipponia

Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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