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As UFC 144 Nears, Shadow of PRIDE Looms Large

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With its unique brand of glitz and grandeur, Japan injected life into mixed martial arts when it was needed most, during its darkest days in North America. If the UFC's return into Japan now, several years after it became the world's preeminent promotion, isn't a return of the favor, it at least comes pre-packaged with a respectful bow and a nod to history. For example, it comes as no coincidence that for UFC 144, the promotion chose as a venue the Saitama Super Arena, the de facto home of PRIDE which held 24 of the promotion's events during its 10-year history.

It's just the scale that will change. While that venue can be configured to seat nearly 50,000 fans, on fight night, it will instead house around 20,000. As for the tone, well, that is the mystery of UFC 144. While a UFC event traditionally hosts a raucous group of fans, part of the allure of the show is to see whether the event will be populated by the typically quiet and respectful Japanese observer or a new age fan.

UFC's reception is part of the story. Like during Thursday's press conference, when a Japanese reporter asked White about his own personal expectation.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but still, some of the Japanese MMA fans believe that Zuffa destroyed PRIDE, and if they see your face on the screen…"

"Oh, you're saying I'm not very popular over here," White responded, a smile on his face. "I don’t know. Listen, I can take some boos. We didn't kill PRIDE. I’ve said this many times. PRIDE is the only other organization that I've ever respected. PRIDE was an organization here in Japan that did huge sellout shows. They had tons of fans in the U.S., and a lot of the big stars not just in Japan but worldwide came form Japan. It’s the only other organization I’ve given respect or credit to. If I get some boos, I can handle it. I’m pretty thick-skinned."

Keep in mind that when the interpreter originally translated the reporter's question, he changed it to ask White about the reaction the referees might receive. It was only after the reporter stood up and asked his question again, this time in English, that White could understand that he was saying.

That tone of respect is one that permeated the press conference, but so did a singular topic. Over and over, White along with the six fighters -- Frankie Edgar, Ben Henderson, Quinton Jackson, Ryan Bader, Yoshihiro Akiyama and Jake Shields -- on the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo dais were asked about MMA in Japan, Japan, Japanese MMA and every permutation thereof.

They said all the right things and gave all the right answers, even if they have no idea what to really expect on Sunday morning, when the event will begin at 9:30 am local time.

"Anywhere else in the world we go it’s loud and it’s crazy," White said. "You know how it is when we go live on pay-per-view, the whole place is going insane. It’s going to be interesting here to see if that's what it’s like here, if it’s the same reaction they had at the PRIDE events or more like the other places we go. I’m curious to see."

On fight night, the UFC will present its standard production, complete with multiple replay screens and music blaring at a pounding decibel level. How that "UFC experience" that White talks about will go over for the first time is anyone's guess, but the organization has to believe the fans who purchased tickets know what they're getting themselves into.

For now, about 2,000 tickets remain from turning the event into a sellout, according to White, and the arena is expected to be full by the time the main card begins.

That's a positive development for a promotion that has waited over a decade to return to what many consider to be one of the most instrumental countries to the development of martial arts.

From White's perspective, the return is already a success. Not only is the event likely to sell out, but due to a sudden deal, a broadcast of the event will be available on TV Tokyo, a free channel, albeit in the wee hours of Sunday night. It also airs live on cable channel WOWOW.

"This is the first show back in 12 years," White said, "You heard 'Rampage' and [a reporter] saying the UFC isn't as big as PRIDE was here, and for us to come in and do an event and sell out the way we have, we’re very happy with the results. I know what we're going to do on Sunday and what kind of show we're going to put on for the Japanese fans. I think they’re going to be very excited and this is going to help spread the word in Japan."

White said the UFC does plan to come back to Japan in the future, and that this is not a one-off show for the sake of going into a market that has been a target ever since Zuffa ownership bought the UFC. Instead, this is a show that matters not only for the long-term growth of the UFC, but for MMA in Japan.

Despite not being in the main event, Jackson has essentially been the face of the show, having fought in Japan 18 times during his PRIDE days. In discussing his return to the Land of the Rising Sun after five years away, he's been downright wistful.

"Japanese fans just really know how to treat a fighter," he said. "That’s why I love them. That’s why whenever I fought here, I always tried my best to put on an exciting show no matter what. I took risks, and was slamming people so much. It took a lot of energy to slam people and do the stuff I did. I lost a lot of fights just trying to excite them because I really love them. That’s the type of energy they give to me and that’s exactly why I wanted to come here and fight. That’s exactly how I’m going to fight, like I did when I was 25, and put on a great show for these Japanese fans because they’re the best in the world."

PRIDE may be long gone, but there is hope that at least for one day, the glory days can return to Saitama Super Arena, and the clock can be turned back to a time when Japanese MMA was king and the love affair between fighters and fans was at its best.