Nippon Weekly: Former Pride Boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara Back in MMA?

When former Pride FC president Nobuyuki Sakakibara stepped down from his post in response to exposed Japanese mafia ties, it signaled the end of an era in MMA. Now, with Japanese MMA at it's lowest, Sakakibara may be working on starting a new era.

In this edition of Nippon Weekly: Sakakibara may be planning a comeback with some of the biggest players in Japanese MMA, FEG finally gives us a timeframe for its return, fighters flock from Sengoku, Gomi and Gono return to their roots and fat guys fight in Deep.

Former Pride FC president Sakakibara planning a move back to MMA?
Rumors were flying in Japan this week via Japanese outlet Miruhon that former Pride FC President Nobuyuki Sakakibara, former Pride director and vice president, and the man behind DREAM Hiroyuki Kato and former Sengoku event producer, Astra and J-Rock boss Takahiro Kokuho are planning on uniting for a one-off event to be held this spring.

Independent sources have confirmed to MMA Fighting that an event is indeed being discussed and currently it will be an all-Japanese show to be held sometime in the Spring at a venue around the size of the 3,000-seat JCB Hall, although specifics are still quite rough.

If these sources are correct, this event would change the face of Japanese MMA dramatically.

Firstly, it would most likely mean the end of DREAM and that there has been a split between Real Entertainment and FEG. This is not surprising at all and was bound to happen with the poor ratings, poor finances and with K-1 creator Kazuyoshi Ishii (although Ishii may be squeezed out in the current FEG restructuring) out of jail.

It's the return of Nobuyuki Sakakibara to MMA that is simply mind boggling.

Sakakibara's name was well and truly dirtied by Shukan Gendai via Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2003 promoter and former K-1 yakuza (Japanese mafia) fixer, Seiya Kawamata (a self-admitted former yakuza boss in the Kansai area).

Kawamata claimed that a Yamaguchi-Gumi yakuza and former loan shark of Korean blood by the name of Kim Dok-Soo (commonly known as Mr. I or Ishizaka), was the real power behind Pride and that Sakakibara was now working for the yakuza and was just a puppet.

Kawamata went to the press after Sakakibara criminally extorted Kawamata (confirmed by Kanagawa police) on Dec. 21, 2003 at the Asakasa Tokyu Hotel with Mr. I present.

Few of the charges that Kawamata leveled at Mr. I, Sakakibara or DSE stuck though as the key piece to the puzzle, Mr. I, fled to South Korea (apparently after pulling out most of the assets in Pride). However it was enough to bring down Pride FC as Fuji TV and the promotion's sponsors had no choice but to sever all ties.

Since the end of Pride FC, Sakakibara has been pouring money into FC Ryukyu, a soccer team in Okinawa. FC Ryukyu has repeatedly been denied entry into Japan's premier soccer league, the J. League.

It does not take a genius to figure out why the J. League wouldn't want to be associated with Sakakibara's team. For the exact same reason, one wonders how Sakakibara plans to make his way back into MMA promotion without sending sponsors and broadcasters running for the hills. Japan is in the midst of a major yakuza crackdown so the timing makes very little sense.

The other two characters involved in this rumored one-off event make much more sense.

Sakakibara's second in command in Pride, Hiroyuki Kato, has been running DREAM from behind the scenes and is widely regarded as a positive force in Japanese MMA. Kato came out clean following the Shukan Gendai reports, but due to his position at DSE, was never made into the face of DREAM.

Takahiro Kokuho, the manager of the Yoshida Dojo stable of fighters and the first event producer of Sengoku ran the hugely successful one-off Astra event in April last year. It was widely speculated that Kokuho may continue promoting events under the Astra banner but nothing eventuated.

When questioned about the possible collaboration with Sakakibara and Kato by MMA Fighting, Kokuho flatly denied the rumors and no fighter has admitted that they have been approached about a fight on the event yet.

It is not surprising that lips are tightly sealed though. Time will tell if Sakakibara defies the odds and makes his way back into MMA.

FEG in no hurry to return in 2011.
If you were anxiously sitting on the edge of your seat while waiting for news of DREAM and K-1 promoter Fight and Entertainement Group's life or death, you might as well sit back and get comfortable. You are in for a long wait.

FEG USA's Mike Kogan this week confirmed to MMA Fighting that the leading Japanese promoter's internal restructuring will not be completed until at least May and no FEG events are expected until at least July.

At the moment, FEG is planning to continue all three of its major events (K-1, K-1 MAX and DREAM), although that is obviously subject to change and it is clear that the events will be scaled down.

The financial state of FEG is still uncertain and Kogan was unable to confirm whether Chinese backer PUJI or any sponsors are still involved in FEG events. It seems as though Dynamite, K-1 MAX and DREAM broadcaster TBS has not signed on for 2011 yet, all signs are indicate that a new contract will be discussed after FEG's restructuring process is complete.

Unfortunately FEG's financial uncertainty continues to affect fighters as 2010 K-1 World GP champion and DREAM interim heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem and Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante have recently claimed they have not been paid for bouts under the FEG banner.

"What can I say, I am sure neither [Alistair Overeem] or "JZ" are making it up," said Kogan to MMA Fighting. "It's sad, that's all I can say."

Fighters flocking from Sengoku.
Sengoku Raiden Championship promoter World Victory Road do not seem to be fairing much better than FEG. Since canceling (sorry, postponing) its April event, there has been little sign of life from in the promotion other than foreign fighters leaving. Sengoku middleweight champion Jorge Santiago was the first to go with Dave Herman and Ronnie Mann were close behind and expect more SRC releases to be announced over the coming weeks.

SRC's contracts are generally exclusive only for Asia and although that does not present an issue for promotions like Strikeforce and Bellator, those hoping to have a shot at being signed by the UFC are forced to ask for their release.

Several contracted fighters, managers and even employees have been having difficulty getting any response from officials at SRC since New Year's Eve.

Gomi to grappling, Gono to kickboxing.
One of the best lightweights of all-time, Takanori Gomi, has been struggling to relive past glory in the UFC and most recently was dominated and submitted by Clay Guida.

Looking to address on his weakness, Gomi has been focusing on jiu-jitsu as of late and has signed up to compete on Feb. 27 at the 2011 ADCC Asia Trials.

After hearing of Gomi's participation, DREAM lightweight ace Shinya Aoki (who is back on Twitter) commented, "I wonder if it's still too late to sign up."

Also, someone has stolen the sign from Gomi's gym. Gomi asks that if you like his gym, please return it.

Pride and UFC veteran Akihiro Gono will also be stepping out of the MMA ring (there isn't a whole lot of choice in Japan these days) when he meets Yuya Yamamoto in a kickboxing superfight at Krush on Mar. 19.

The bout will be Gono's second trip down to 154 pounds. Gono's lightweight debut came at Sengoku 14, where he was completely shut out by then-unknown Mongolian Jadamba Narantungalag.

Yuya Yamamoto is best known for his 2009 K-1 World MAX GP run, exceeding all expectations and making it to the final four.

Reigning Shooto bantamweight champion Yasuhiro Urushitani was also supposed to be once again crossing into kickboxing at Shoot Boxing's Feb. 19 event but was forced out of his anticipated bout due to knee injury. UFC veteran and Cage Force champion Kuniyoshi Hironaka and Sengoku sponsored fighter Shigeki Osawa were there to represent MMA in his stead though but both fell with Hironaka getting knocked out in the first round and Osawa dropping a lopsided decision.

A Pancrase king to Shooto.
Flyweight king of Pancrase Kiyotaka Shimizu will continue the recent fighter exchange between the sport's two oldest promotion when he clashes with Shinichi Hanawa at the Mar. 12 "Shooter's Legacy 02″ Shooto event. Hanawa has recovered from a patchy start to his career to go 6-1 in his last 7. Shimizu's last foray into the Shooto ring ended in disappointment as he lost a majority decision to the fighter with the best hair in the sport, Mamoru Yamaguchi.

Shimizu was a participant in one of the first "official" Pancrase vs. Shooto fights. That was before he became the flyweight king of Pancrase, when he took on Mamoru in 2009.

Also on the card, Shooto flyweight ace Rambaa "M-16" Somdet will defend his title against Junji "Sarumaru" Ito, in what is sure to be an entertaining punch-fest.

Shooto will return the favor when they send one-time flyweight title challenger Hiroyuki Abe to face Takuma Ishii at Pancrase's Apr. 3 event.

Megatons return to Deep.
Despite financial woes, Deep presses forward and has recently announced a four-man one-night "Megaton" tournament to take place at "10th Anniversary Deep Annihilate!" on Mar. 13th

For the uninitiated, Deep Megatons division is for fat guys. Similar to the concept of DREAM's "Superhulks", but fat. The first round of the inaugural Deep Megaton tournament in 2008 was an eating contest.

In the second Megaton GP, Mongolian wrestler Baru "Seiryu" Harn (1-1) will square off with one-time Megaton title challenger Seigo Mizuguchi (7-8) on one half of the bracket while Ryota (0-1) and Yoshida Dojo Georgian judoka Levan Razmadze (1-0) will meet on the other half.

The Megaton belt was first won by Yusuke Kawaguchi, but he was forced to vacate his belt in January due to injury.

Note: For up to the minute updates on what fights aren't happening right now in DREAM, Sengoku or K-1, follow me on Twitter at @DanHerbertson.

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