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Former K-1 promoter Sadaharu Tanikawa attempts to revive fighting on Japanese network

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A new form of fighting as a television spectacle was announced at a press conference in Tokyo on Monday, with some major names in Japanese combat sports and entertainment behind it.

The new promotion is called "Ganryujima," which is named after a small Japanese island best known as the site of a duel to the death in 1612 between legendary master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (who the former kickboxer was named after) and Sasaki Kojiro. In more recent times, the island was used for televised pro wrestling spectacular grudge matches held without a ring or cage, known as Jungle Death matches.

Sadaharu Tanikawa, who ran the K-1 kickboxing promotion from 2003 until its closing in 2012, will be heading the promotion, which is being backed by the Fuji Network. The Fuji Network is one of the major networks in Japan. They ran prime time spectacles during the heyday of the Pride Fighting Championships, until canceling due to a scandal when it came out publicly that there was organized crime backing of the group. The Yakuza taint of Pride killed the promotion, as no other television network would touch the shows, even though ratings were still strong, and even after it was sold to Zuffa. It has not aired any fighting sports events for the past seven years.

Sports like kickboxing and MMA have continued to exist in Japan. UFC events at the Saitama Super Arena have drawn well, but to the general public, interest faded in both sports.

The rules explained at the press conference in Tokyo are that it will be a MMA fighting, but without submissions. The matches will be held in a flat circle, similar to sumo, with no ring or a cage. Punching will be allowed on the ground. Wrestling is allowed, but submissions are eliminated. There will be quick stand-ups from lack of punching on the ground, as the ground work will be allowed only if their is an attempt to finish the fight.  

According to those close to the promotion, the mentality behind this is to attract a casual fan audience. Their belief is a cage is not general public friendly in Japan, and that extended ground work is boring to the public.

It's more a spectacle, attempting to use people who already have names in Japan, and do celebrity fights and freak show fights, which worked for a period for ratings purposes. However, they were overdone and interest faded in them, but it has been years since they were done. The mentality was an attempt to produce a fighting surface and rules that sumos, the most famous combat sports athletes in Japan, can compete in. Attempts to use sumos in kickboxing and MMA worked for ratings purposes during Japan's MMA boom, but they were unable to win many fights, so interest in them fighting faded over time.

Among those involved with the promotion are Hiroshi Hase, its Chief Director, a current senator in Japan whose background included wrestling in the 1984 Olympics and being a Hall of Fame pro wrestler; Masato, Japan's best-known kickboxer whose retirement coincided with the ending of K-1 as he was its last native superstar; and Shinichi Shinohara, a silver medalist in the 2000 Olympics in judo.

The first show will be Feb. 28, which will air on Fuji's satellite station, which is not that significant because satellite penetration in Japan is limited. But the top executives of Fuji are looking at building the group up to where they have a major network spectacular on Dec. 31, 2015. Fighting on New Year's Eve was a tradition on the network for many years, until Fuji got out of the fighting business over the scandal.

The past few years, the Fuji Network brought in fighting celebrities like Bob Sapp, Fedor Emelianenko, Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem, Kazushi Sakuraba and many others for arm-wrestling and tug-of-war tournaments that aired on New Years Eve. In Japan, New Years Eve is the biggest television night of the year and the feeling is that gimmick has run its course and fights on network television are new again.

The initial reaction of the Japanese fighting sports media was strongly negative, particularly when Hase tied in the Ganryujima name with his pro wrestling death match on the island..