Japan's Fight Clubs

Back to Contents of Issue: March 2003

Local promoters preside over one of the few booms in Japanese business. But with one of them now dead, and another in prison, they are suddenly fighting to survive.

by Roland Kelts

AN AIR OF URGENCY pulses through the Utsunomiya line en route to Saitama. Mobs of teenagers and 20-somethings clamor on at each stop, the girls swathed in fashionable neo-peasant paisleys and suede jackets, the boys dressed in darker tones with hip-hop swagger and flair. Some of them gaze into glossy martial arts magazines as the train hums forward, others gather in dense mobs at each end of the aisle. It's an early Sunday afternoon in June, shoppers' rush-hour in Japan. Packed Shibuya- or Ginza-bound weekend trains are a Tokyo cliche. But this train is surging towards the 37,000 seat Saitama Super Arena, and it's way too early in the day for rock 'n' roll.

"I used to go to rock concerts all the time," confides Hidemi Ogata, an elegant, wiry-limbed woman with a no-nonsense haircut. Ogata is a freelance photographer who has published a book profiling a kickboxer. "But now I go to the same places to see fights. I've been to more than 10 events in the past two years. The music is good, the video shows are really artistic. And the crowd ... it's just so exciting."

The Sunday crowd at Saitama is decidedly youthful, chic and eager to spend, flashing tickets at the gate priced from JPY 7,000 up to JPY 100,000 for ringside seats, and stocking up on T-shirts, posters and other paraphernalia starting at JPY 5,000. The show is called "PRIDE 21," and for the next four hours, the capacity hall is blasted virtually senseless by an array of video pyrotechnics, throbbing rhythms, guitar shrieks and laser-lights -- not to mention the action in the ring: 16 fighters from the Americas, Europe and Asia competing in eight anything-goes matches, celebrity guest cameos, sparsely-clad ring girls and spontaneous spatterings of viscous bodily fluids to remind everyone what this is all about -- fighting that's real.

"Pro-wrestling was okay when I was a kid," adds Ogata, who pays an average JPY 30,000 for each tournament she attends. "But this is special because it's not fake. The fighters train for months to prepare for maybe three minutes in the ring. I can see into their personalities during the fight. They're practically naked up there."

Japan's fight business is big, bad and booming -- and among the very few native entertainment industries bold enough to branch overseas in the early years of the 21st century. K-1, a kickboxing and karate-based sports show founded 10 years ago, is the reigning Godzilla of the industry's Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) corporations, earning a reported JPY 2.6 billion plus in sales and JPY 500 million in profits. PRIDE, a grappling-oriented MMA outfit started in 1997, posts similarly eye-popping revenues; its JPY 100,000 premium seats and merchandising income from the big venues averages out to about JPY 40 to JPY 50 million per event. "Five years ago, these sports were not nearly as popular," says Mattias G. Lorentzi, a Tokyo-based martial arts trainer from Sweden who has worked with a number of K-1 athletes, including the current celebrity fighter, oversized American Bob Sapp. "The growth has been phenomenal -- and not just in Japan, but internationally."

Suddenly, however, the phenomenal success of both promotions could be jeopardized. In early January, PRIDE's 42 year-old president, Naoto Morishita, committed suicide in a Shinjuku hotel room. One month later, K-1 founder and former president, Kazuyoshi Ishii, was jailed with two of his colleagues on charges of corporate tax evasion. Ishii resigned as K-1 president in December, when the charges first surfaced; he and his cronies have now been arrested for hiding upwards of JPY 600 million in corporate income.

The hard won, clean-cut image of the fight industry -- so critical to its mass appeal -- has been badly tarnished. This matters a lot in Japan, where fighting has become both hip and classy, and not just for men. Young Japanese women, often cited as the single driving force behind Japan's consumer economy, have taken to fighting-as-entertainment in droves. Gainfully employed and residing in the family home, many have disposable income to burn. And unlike their male counterparts, who spend hours in the office and after-hours at the company drinking party, they have the time and energy in which to burn it.

"Fifty percent of our fan base is female," says Yuka Sugiyama, vice president of GAEA, Japan's top-ranked (and most lucrative) women's pro-wrestling company, which takes its name from the Greek "Mother Earth" goddess. Sugiyama founded GAEA with wrestler Chigusa Nagayo eight years ago. The company now posts annual profits of JPY 500 million and has recently gained widespread international exposure through GAEA Girls, an award-winning documentary produced by the BBC in 2000. It was shown at film festivals throughout the US and Europe, and there are plans for a German documentary, as well as a series of press junkets and events to be staged in European venues.

"There's an interest in Japanese women's wrestling because of the traditional roles Japanese women have had in the past," says Sugiyama. "You know, passive and quiet, kimono-wearing women." At GAEA's final event of 2002, held at Tokyo's vaunted Korakuen Hall, a sold-out arena of otherwise reserved housewives, OLs and teenage girls screamed out wrestlers' names at the top of their lungs. The wrestlers themselves sometimes spilled out of the ring and came crashing into the seats, where they were greeted with raucous applause and good-natured heckling. "We definitely gear some of the show toward women," Sugiyama adds, smiling. "Wrestlers like Chigusa are tough, independent and strong-willed; she's almost entirely followed by female fans. Men are afraid of her."

Japan's traditional forms of fighting sports are centuries old, with sumo being the indigenous style most foreigners immediately recognize. But sumo has been slipping in popularity for years. Critics cite the industry's xenophobia (its staunch unwillingness to embrace international participants or audiences) and its scarcity of young stars. January's surprise retirement of yokozuna Takanohana, the grand champion who served as a Michael Jordan-like mascot for the sport, has left another void in sumo's ranks that will be hard to fill. But especially damaging to its modern reputation is the sumo industry's rigid sexism: Women are still barred from entering the clay circle of the sumo "ring." "It's just an old man's game," says Keiko Sato, a Tokyo college student and K-1 fan who wrinkles her nose in disgust at the mere mention of sumo.

Still, Japan's traditional ways may be a key factor in the current popularity of the newer promotions. Centuries of martial arts study and practice mean that many Japanese feel a cultural affinity with athletic, hand-to-hand combat -- forms of competition from which Westerners are relatively alienated. "Most kids here learn some martial arts in school, like judo, kendo and karate," explains Yukino Kanda, vice president of marketing, sales and talent management for Dream Stage Entertainment, the company that organizes PRIDE events. "Parents think it's a good discipline, both mentally and physically. So Japanese people automatically respect these fighters. We know what they've been through. But in the US and other countries, it's considered barbaric, like bar fighting."

Monty DiPietro, K-1's international publicist, agrees. "Honor, respect, dedication and fair play -- that's what's missing when you get Mike Tyson biting his opponent's ear off or threatening his opponent's children," he says, by way of explaining the burgeoning global interest in Japanese fight promotions. A tall, goateed Canadian with an appropriately mellifluous masculine voice, DiPietro recounts K-1's history with the studied fervor of a true aficionado -- and a seasoned journalist. DiPietro is also a freelance writer and photographer, brought on board by K-1 management to get the news out in English. "When you see a K-1 fight, and the fighters bow to one another and congratulate one another after the fight, you can see and feel the sense of honor. Our audiences respond to that."

K-1 is distinguished by its emphasis on kickboxing. Fighters compete from a standing position throughout, employing kicks, punches and other strikes learned from the primary sports of karate, muy thai and tae kwan do. Former fighter and karate-sensei-turned-businessman Ishii founded K-1 in 1993 as a way of enabling competitors in different disciplines to compete in a single tournament. The first event was called the All-Japan Karate Championship and was held in the 10,000-seat Yoyogi National Gymnasium in downtown Tokyo. The latest event, the 2002 Grand Prix Championship, was held in the home of the Yomiuri Giants, the massive Tokyo Dome -- and broke that venue's 14-year attendance records, selling out all 74,500 seats.

"For kickboxing, Japan is the place to be," explains trainer Lorentzi, who came to Japan five years ago at the behest of a Japanese promoter he met in Thailand. "The biggest money is here, no question. Pro boxing is still biggest in the States, but Japan has something different: a real fight culture. Back home, if I tell somebody I'm a fighter, they say that something's wrong with me. It's associated with roughnecks and criminals. But here, it's an honorable thing. You see handsome couples and pretty girls in the audience. And if you're going down but you manage to stand up, the crowd cheers you on. It's about pride and respect, and the fans here love it."

"K-1 has increased in popularity each year I've been involved," adds DiPietro, who joined the organization in 2000. "Viewer share has increased, sellouts have been faster, the number of shows has increased. But the main change has been the development of K-1 overseas."

K-1 now hosts 20 tournaments abroad, with events in Australia, New Zealand, numerous European markets and that North American stalwart: Las Vegas. Overseas fighters compete throughout the year for the chance to appear in the championship bouts every December at Tokyo Dome. The serial narrative climaxing in Tokyo creates a buildup of (literally) Olympian proportions: The fighters come from everywhere to face one another in the ring.

Japan's next biggest MMA promotion, PRIDE, was founded three years ago, when its promoters managed to bring together Rickson Gracie of the Brazilian Gracie family, famous for their development of the Brazilian style of jiu-jitsu, a grappling sport that originated in Japan, and Nobuhiko Takada, a superstar Japanese pro-wrestler. The event was billed as "the bout of the century," and PRIDE's presence as an anything-goes alternative to K-1's emphasis on the stand-and-strike style was aggressively established.

"K-1 is much easier to judge and to watch than PRIDE," says Kanda of Dream Stage Entertainment. "Just a knockout or some big blow and it's over. But PRIDE fans have to be more educated about the martial arts. PRIDE fans are more technical."

Kanda has been there since the beginning. As a friend of Gracie's, she helped arrange the very first match six years ago, and she now commutes periodically between Tokyo and Los Angeles, where Dream Stage has its US offices. PRIDE has been more assertive about cornering the American market -- despite K-1's far-flung tournament successes, PRIDE is the only Japanese fight promoter to have procured a regular pay-per-view contract with American television. And PRIDE is the only company with an official license to stage events in Vegas.

PRIDE and K-1 are competitors for Japan's fight crowd, even if, as Japanese corporations, they prefer not to compete. "I think there are separate fan groups," says Ogata, the freelance photographer. "But both are really popular now. You can see their matches on prime-time TV in Japan, and the fighters show up on commercials. I guess I prefer K-1 just because the rounds are so short. It's amazingly fast!"

DiPietro estimates that half the audience for K-1 is female, and that their numbers are increasing. "The girls used to come just as dates, on the arm of some guy. But now they come on their own, in big groups. You know, if you go to a martial arts event in the States or Europe, the females are outnumbered 10 to one. And the females who are there are tough as nails!"

DiPietro ascribes some of K-1's feminine appeal to what he calls "the groupie factor" -- women who become smitten with a given fighter and simply can't get enough of him. Some K-1 and PRIDE fighters achieve idol status in Japan. "A lot of women were in love with the late Andy Hug," DiPietro says, referring to the Swiss superstar who rose to celebrity heights in Japan before his untimely death from leukemia three years ago. "And now, some of these guys wear Armani and appear in television commercials. You can hear the women shriek when they step into the ring."

Women comprise approximately 30 percent of PRIDE audiences, according to Dream Stage VP Kanda. "Of course some of the fighters are handsome," she says, "but it's not just about sexuality. Our fighters are unique because they combine so many different styles. The audience learns at the same time that they're being entertained."

Japanese women are not only supporting the fight industry from ringside -- they're right inside the ring. Japan is the No. 1 market for female wrestling and the only nation to boast a full professional league for women. The combined success of women's pro wrestling and men's MMA events prompted former software producer and editor Yasuki Shino to found Smack Girls, the first all-women's MMA promotion. "No one could conceive of a woman doing what the men in PRIDE or K-1 do," says Shino. "But I saw an opportunity there. A lot of the women who got interested in the men's shows started training themselves. We provide them their only chance to compete on a stage, in front of a growing and appreciative audience."

Shino believes domestic interest in the men's MMA promotions has peaked -- "they can't do much more in Japan after selling out Tokyo Dome," he notes -- and that women's fighting sports are next in line. After two years of operations, Smack Girls has already been featured on numerous network and cable television programs, and in addition to VHS and DVD marketing, Shino has plans to incorporate his IT skills in the near future. He intends to broadcast women's MMA events live to fans worldwide via the Internet. "In three to five years, Internet TV will be where it's at. It will probably be the cheapest and fastest way to achieve an international audience."

International marketing only works if the fighters themselves have strong personalities. "The key is to build up good characters," says Chigusa Nagayo, GAEA's star wrestler and a 22-year veteran of the ring. "When you're in the fight, of course, you just focus on the match and your opponent. But afterwards, you're really in the spotlight. It's in the way you present yourself to the fans, the way you earn their support."

"This is an entertainment package," emphasizes Kanda, in an almost parrot-like repetition of what DiPietro tells me about K-1: fighting as Disneyland. "We produce the events to appeal to a wide variety of people." Fighters are paid on a wide-ranging scale, with some earning up to several thousand dollars, others getting several hundred thousand dollars for an appearance. "We value a fighter on marketability," she continues. "Of course, a championship belt means something, but we ultimately evaluate the fighters according to their popularity."

While the primary action is in the ring, the production around the arena combines Broadway spectacle with rock 'n' roll noise, American pro-wrestling bombast with a fetish for factoids and statistics. Recent events I attended left me dazed, as each fight surged to successive climaxes and the participants exited bloodied and bruised. At K-1's Grand Prix in the Tokyo Dome, an entire orchestra filled the stage, providing live string-swells to introduce each fighter. DiPietro sees K-1 fitting into a hip young couple's itinerary of leisure-time activities: "Our fans are not people who've been into martial arts for a long time. They look at it as just another entertainment option." A concert, a movie or ... the fights.

Such mainstream success is bound to breed contempt. Some longtime martial arts fans bemoan the emphasis on show over substance. A group of male fans huddled in the December rain outside the Tokyo Dome spoke longingly of the good old days, when fighters met in a gym instead of an arena, and when the only sounds were of the bodies colliding, the slaps of feet on the mat. The 171-kg K-1 superstar of the moment, Bob Sapp, is a former National Football League player and a virtual unknown in the States. Sapp began fighting for PRIDE and later K-1 in the spring of 2002; he is now a household name in urban Japan, appearing on television commercials and variety shows and fighting, or performing, for practically every promotion that will pay him, from boxing to wrestling to martial arts of all varieties. Sapp's constant mugging for the camera and genial silliness can sometimes seem more circus-like than fight-ready, and his skills, according to aficionados, leave much to be desired.

But fan critiques are the least of the problems facing the industry now. A day after K-1's record-breaking sellout at the Tokyo Dome, prosecutors raided the company's main offices, and a show slated for late January in Kochi prefecture was summarily canceled by local officials. Ishii's defense at the time -- that he had to pay exorbitant fees after a failed attempt to lure Mike Tyson to Japan -- was recently revealed to be bogus. In the wake of Ishii's arrest in early February, tabloids in Japan reported severe ramifications: corporate sponsors pulling out, TV networks canceling contracts, future events and revenues in doubt.

"The Tyson story was hard to believe from the beginning," says PRIDE's Kanda from her Los Angeles office. "I mean, an 8 million dollar penalty for failing? But still, it will be terrible if K-1 stops, and it's sad that Ishii's in jail. He was very poor when he started K-1 ten years ago; all of a sudden, he became a big shot with huge cash flow. He just lost his mind."

A month earlier, the tabloid media had another field day with PRIDE's Morishita. The official suicide verdict was harshly questioned, and speculations swirled: Had Morishita run afoul of the yakuza? Had he insulted someone in the upper echelons of his bigger competitors at K-1? Was PRIDE also in tax trouble?

"It really was a personal problem," Kanda assures me, backing reports of the married Morishita's rejection by a much younger lover. "Nobody expected this, except maybe his wife. But some of our people have been investigated by the National Tax Agency in recent weeks, and we've had to prove that we're clean. Morishita wanted to go public with an IPO in the future, which is very hard for fight promoters because of the darker perceptions of the business. It's a scary time, but at least we're clean. We've paid a lot of high taxes."

Both K-1 and PRIDE are proceeding with their next major events, on March 1 and March 16, respectively, and both seek to forge ahead with global expansion plans, greater television exposure in the US and Europe, events in Vegas and maybe, according to DiPietro, "a major venue in New York City." The challenges are significant. As Kanda points out, "The largest arena in Vegas holds a maximum 15,000, and once we put the stage in and the screens up, that number shrinks. Plus, ticket and merchandising prices are much lower in the US. We can't ask an American audience to pay $800 per seat or $40 for a T-shirt."

When I finally ask Ogata, the fight fan and photographer, why Japanese are willing to pay such high prices -- and pay so frequently -- for fight shows, she pauses thoughtfully. "Well, when the economy's bad, the fighting sports become popular," she theorizes. "People get energy from the fighters, and they feel inspired. Maybe they feel stronger." She arches her brow. "In America, when the economy's bad, you have a war, right? Maybe the war makes Americans feel stronger. In Japan, we don't have weapons or militaries. So the fights here -- they're like our special wars." @

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