With all the gloom of Strikeforce closing up shop and being pulled into the competing MMA promotions hearse that is Zuffa, the legal drama between Bellator and Eddie Alvarez, and that dead horse that keeps getting beaten in the injury parade, I decided to step back and take a look at something that not very many people are talking about: the Japanese MMA scene.
Before you scroll past this Fanpost, hear me out. Certainly, since the death of Pride in 2007, and the bankruptcy of DREAM and SRC, there have been virtually no major league Japanese promotions. Add onto that the devastation of the tsunami just a few years ago, and the Japanese MMA scene looked to be all but dead.
However, the UFC began dipping their toes in the Japanese market, ONE FC has begun moving its way through southeast Asia with plans on Asian domination, and the ever present regional shows, such as Pancrase, DEEP, Shooto, and even a revival of Fighting Network RINGS, have kept MMA alive in Japan.
To the western eye and casual fan, Japanese MMA looks barren and lifeless. But if you inspect closer, you'll notice that there are several world renowned fighters serving under her banner, and some regional prospects just waiting to be discovered.
The world ranked talent that most western audiences are familiar with, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Shinya Aoki, and to the hardcore fans, Masakazu Imanari, have been experts in the sport for quite sometime. Kawajiri is riding a five win streak in his new home at featherweight, with four finishes. Aoki has won 9 of his last ten, with a majority of his wins coming via his trademark submission game. Imanari has stayed true to his roots and scored a leg lock submission in his last bout.
Those fighters are who people generally think of when they think of the Japanese MMA scene, the established players, and for good reason. While staying primarily in Japan, they've managed to showcase their elite skills and gain the attention of the MMA world. But then there are the upstarts, the neophytes, the prospects, of which, as far the Japanese scene is concerned, there are many.
For instance, take into account Isao Kobayashi, the current lightweight King of Pancrase. Kobayashi is (at the time of this writing) 13-1-3 in his career, and riding an 8 fight unbeaten streak. He avenged his only loss to UFC veteran Koji Oishi, and proved that he's a finisher with 10 finishes in 13 victories. The 24 year old still has a lot of time to grow and fight the competition the world has to offer (having only fought in Tokyo), but so far he's doing his home country well.
Another Japanese prospect and Pancrase product is the organizations middleweight champion, Rikuhei Fujii. Fujii claimed the middleweight title by defeating Japanese mixed martial arts pioneer Yuki Kondo not once, but twice. Add onto that his controlling style and 6 fight win streak, he's a Japanese prospect to look out for.
The final prospect I'll present you with as proof that Japan's MMA scene still has life is Satoshi Ishii. A gold medalist in Judo at the Beijing Olympics, his only losses have come against a very experienced Hidehiko Yoshida in his debut and against arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time in Fedor. He's defeated every other opponent in his still growing MMA career, including former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia. This is the most promising heavyweight to come out of Japan in quite some time, and the hype, at least so far, seems to be legit. Given time to mature his all around game, Ishii could turn into something great.
So there it is. Japan's MMA scene is not dead. Has the market cooled? Damn near frozen. But there is still life beneath the frost, and it's got a warm, promising pulse. While there may never be an organization as great as Pride in the country of Japan, there will still be world class MMA fighters to keep the Japanese MMA scene alive.