Everyone knows the UFC's battle plan when it comes to a new market. The idea is to get an Ultimate Fighter reality show on a strong television outlet, and audiences get to know the fighters, see them fight, and the best ones become television stars that can be used to build the sport's popularity in those markets.
But Japan is very different from most markets UFC has tried to open up, because they already have had a long history of different fighting styles, both modern mixed martial arts, and styles somewhat similar.
The popularity of Japanese MMA has declined greatly over the past few years, due to a number of factors, the key being the lack of new superstars that captured national attention and limited television exposure to create new ones.
On Thursday, Dana White, from Tokyo, talked about the usual battle plan, except with a few tweaks.
For the first time, UFC will be partnering with a local promotion, Vale Tudo Japan, formerly the Shooto promotion. Shooto, first called Shooting, a pro wrestling term for legitimate fight, was formed by pro wrestling legend Satoru Sayama, the original Tiger Mask, in 1985, long before the UFC or anything of the type hit the U.S.
The two companies will be a very different type of television tournament, using featherweights and bantamweights.
"It'll be eight guys per weight class," said UFC President Dana White, on the final leg of his Far East tour after stops in Hong Kong and Macao in trying to put together television and live event deals in those markets. "There will be 30 episodes on television, three fights on each show, over eight months."
The difference is the tournaments will be round-robin style, meaning all eight fighters in a weight class will face the other seven. The fighter in each weight class with the best win-loss record in the tournament will get a UFC contract. That style of tournament format is part of the Japanese culture. Sumo, one of the country's biggest sports, has done tournaments that way over a shorter time frame for generations. Every major pro wrestling company has used that format for annual major tournaments as well, dating back 55 years.
"Much like The Ultimate Fighter, this series will continue to cultivate and popularize top talent for us in new markets," White said. "The round-robin tournament concept is going to make for amazing fights, with a lot at stake. Every fight will matter, every performance will count."
The big announcement of a terrestrial television deal, the first time UFC has had regular programming on a major network in Japan, will come at the Sept. 20 show at the Saitama Super Arena, just outside of Tokyo. The roster of fighters will also be announced at the show, as well as the announcement of the network and time slot. The television is expected to start airing in December.
White explained the other differences between this format and the traditional Ultimate Fighter seasons.
"They won't live in a house, and they won't train under guys that we bring in," he said. "They will train with their own coaches and do their own thing. People will see they where they train, where they live, and their families. They'll get more in-depth. It'll be a real look at who these guys are. The thing about TUF is you put guys in a pressure cooker, and it's f***ing insane. Well, it wasn't last season, but the other seasons."
The show will be filmed more like a documentary on the fighters lives, leading up to fights.
"These guys will become known because of television," he said. "So you'll have people with some star qualities or you'll have fighters people dislike and want to see them lose, no different from anywhere in the world."
"This show will be very Japanese," he said. "It will be shot here in Japan by a big, reputable company, for the Japanese market, to build Japanese stars."
While not official, the show is expected to be airing simultaneously outside Japan on Fight Pass.
"It's still a work in progress," said White. "But if I had to give an answer right now, I'd say, yes, it will."