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Takahiro Kokuho - A Different Take on Japanese MMA

During his almost two-year tenure as the brains behind Sengoku, Takahiro Kokuho was praised for his ability to find unsigned talent, consistently good matchmaking and his desire to portray MMA as sport in Japan, rather than just entertainment.

"Since the PRIDE era, Japanese MMA has been integrated with entertainment but the entertainment aspect always gave stronger impression than the MMA itself. To produce an event that can meet a world standard, I thought Japanese MMA must pursue competitiveness and preserve an entertainment aspect at the same time," Kokuho said.

Kokuho's tenure at Sengoku came to an end however in the days leading up to New Year's Eve 2009.

After successfully signing the hottest free agent in Japanese MMA, Beijing Olympic judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii, Kokuho was unable to secure a TV deal for Ishii's debut against Barcelona judo gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida. Kokuho was fired by Sengoku's parent company, World Victory Road (WVR) only weeks before the event. Sengoku and DREAM promoter Fighting and Entertainment Group (FEG) merged their New Year's events, and while it was a successful and entertaining event for hardcore fans, it was not a ratings bonanza as hoped.

"While I was working with World Victory Road , the broadcast for Yoshida vs. Ishii on a terrestrial network was still under negotiation. It was just that the owner of WVR made a different decision. Dynamite!! could have been something special if WVR and FEG decided to hold the event together at an earlier stage."

Sengoku has now been renamed to Sengoku Raiden Championship, and a new public relations director has been found. Although according to Kokuho, things are not exactly progressing well.

"I worked for SRC until last year and wished to create the story of SRC, but it didn't happen unfortunately. I think that SRC lacks direction at the moment. Where do they want to go? I don't really know where World Victory Road is headed for now.

From my stand point, I wish all the staff in WVR would give a lot of effort to make their event better. However, we shouldn't forget that Sengoku created more stars than any of the other organizations this past two years."

These stars are of key importance to Takahiro Kokuho and his story doesn't end with his termination from SRC. In addition to his public relations role at SRC, Kokuho was also the director and owner of entertainment management company, J-Rock, which manages, among other talent and athletes, some of the promotion's key fighters. Kokuho is now taking some of his stars with him.

Kazuhiro Nakamura and Michihiro Omigawa will follow him along with other fighters from Strikeforce, DREAM and SRC to farewell his biggest star – Hidehiko Yoshida in J-Rock's debut event, ASTRA. And as with many of Kokuho's ventures, ASTRA will be unique - especially for Japan.

To be held on April 25th at the Nippon Budokan, ASTRA is currently set to be a one-and-done event that will feature, in his retirement match, Hidehiko Yoshida fighting his pupil Kazuhiro Nakamura.

The matchmaking seems dangerous for Kokuho - he manages both fighters. Nakamura has gone 2-4 in the last three years, and if Yoshida is to be victorious, Nakamura's stock will fall even further. If Yoshida wins, Kokuho loses his most important fighter to retirement and his second-most important fighter to mediocrity.

"Booking the fight that fans want to see led me to put my fighters in difficult bouts. But my fighters know my attitude and that motivates them to be victorious."

It sounds like a simple and admirable goal but at what cost?

We saw a similar situation with the highly hyped and debuting Satoshi Ishii. The aging veteran, Yoshida decisioned Ishii on New Years Eve and the hype surrounding Ishii evaporated. Yoshida, who didn't really need a win at this point in his career, gained little and the younger fighter and the promoter lost out.

But MMA in Japan is struggling and perhaps fresh approaches like these are needed.

Rumors are persisting that FEG will drop DREAM and key sponsors have been lost. Discount retail chain, Don Quijote, is attempting to save the sport in Japan and already serves as a major sponsor or shareholder for nearly all of the country's MMA events. Kokuho doesn't see a future there and believes that things need to change.

"Promoters must create an event which can be held without TV deals and sponsors. To do so, we are at the state where we have to restructure MMA by studying other sporting events and learning from them. Japanese MMA organizations are going to diminish if they keep competing against each other. They have to see the world and other kind of sports. There were good times in Japanese MMA. I think people are still seeing the mirage of the times in the past."

Kokuho is trying to look past Japan's prestigious fighting history and to instead focus on the current reality of Japanese MMA. Not just on the promotional side but on the level of Japanese MMA compared to the rest of the world.

"It was a shame that [Takanori] Gomi was defeated, but I guess he couldn't get a win even here in Japan. Shinya Aoki has the skill and talent capable of fighting in the world level events. [Masanori] Kanehara and [Michihiro] Omigawa show talent in featherweight. Also, I think that Japan has great lightweight fighters such as Satoru Kitaoka and Tatsuya Kawajiri who have distinguished their strength."

"I see difficulty [for Japanese fighters] in the middle and heavyweight divisions, but it is not difficult to lead the world in the lighter weight divisions."

In part two of this exclusive interview with Takahiro Kokuho, he talks about his new promotion and why exactly he is making his two most important assets – Hidehiko Yoshdia and Kazuhiro Nakamura -- fight each other.