Let the Debate Begin: Dream, 16 and out?

Dream’s final MMA show of 2010 was a mix of the old and the new. It was the past meeting the present with a primetime audience watching. Of course how big that audience was was more of a factor than the show itself.

With FEG’s financial state and the state of MMA of Japanese network television both in jeopardy as of late, how this event’s numbers did could go a long way towards whether MMA will be on T.V. in Japan much longer. Dream 16 was the promotion’s first live primetime broadcast—a sign in itself of the state of televised MMA in Japan these days—and all things considered, the show did very well. Maybe the fact that it was the first primetime broadcast of the year for the promotion, but the show ended up doing an 11.9 average, the third highest of Dream’s live broadcast on TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System). Despite having Shinya Aoki and Kazushi Sakuraba on the card, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the show’s most watched fight was its opener as the Satoshi Ishii/Ikuhisa Minowa fight—one made just days before the show took place—helped the show do an 18.1 quarter hour. And while the show itself was beaten by several broadcasts that night, the number was promising for two big reasons: it showed people in Japan still will watch MMA in primetime and people will watch Satoshi Ishii fight on T.V. That reason is the bigger of the two for the sport in general in Japan as Ishii has been hyped as the new native mega star of the sport in Japan since he announced he’d be entering MMA this time two years ago. The fact that his first live televised fight not on New Year’s Eve did the best number of the show is a sign that people in general in Japan still have interest in his MMA career.

As for Ishii himself, this brings up a big decision he will have to make in 2011 if not before the year is out: Dream or World Victory Road, or maybe UFC. Dream’s working agreement with Strikeforce does show how the power structure in MMA has changed where now the place to go for the big exposure and the big fights is the U.S. instead of Japan. But that is the reality of MMA today and that’s the main reason that King Mo jumped from WVR to Strikeforce and Yoshihiro Akiyama went to UFC after being Dream’s only real drawing card in its first year. Ishii initially did say he was going to UFC, began training in the U.S., and seemed ready to enter MMA inside the cage rather than in a ring. However, he pulled an audible some time later and signed with WVR, but hasn’t fought in a WVR event yet with his only fight even representing the promotion being his debut against Yoshida last New Year’s Eve. Ishii since has fought once in X-plosion, once in an exhibition, helped mess up Anderson Silva’s ribs while training with him before the Silva/Sonnen fight in August, and beat Minowa. The fact that this fight was made in general shows how much of a wildcard Ishii is as far as fighting somewhere consistently. He was able to take the fight because the contract he signed with WVR stated that the last fight on the contract (this was his third and final fight of the deal) could be for another promotion. I’m assuming that means that Ishii is now free to choose where he goes. With that in mind, UFC would seem to be the best choice because of its reach and exposure on a worldwide level. However, staying in Japan and being so young both in age and his MMA career could give Ishii a better chance of making more money and having a bigger impact all while staying home. But even that comes with some strings attached as the climate for MMA in Japan hasn’t been this rough since the beginning years of Pride at the end of the 90’s. Here are the factors that would go into Ishii choosing between either of the two big Japanese MMA promotions: Dream may not be around next year, WVR is still looking for a top draw and has no drawing power as a promotion, Dream has more fighters with established names and reputations, both promotions have a mix of known fighters and ones more at Ishii’s experience level in MMA, and neither promotion has a heavyweight division in place. To reiterate one point I just made, Ishii is young enough where he can make the wrong decision here and not completely lose because of it: if he were to stay and can’t help the sport, but still get the wins, he can go to UFC or Strikeforce with something of a reputation because of his Olympic background and the wins he would’ve acquired. Still, it’s not an easy decision and my gut tells me that if Ishii wanted to fight in the states right now, he would’ve stayed with UFC. Where he ends up in Japan is still up in the air, but since Dream still runs bigger arenas (even if they aren’t drawing much in them) they have the edge, but that’s all.

Dream 16 may have seen the final hurrah of one of the best the sport has known. Jason “Mayhem” Miller made Kazushi Sakuraba tap out to an Arm-Triangle Choke at 2:09 in the first round of their fight; it was Sakuraba’s first submission loss since his MMA debut fourteen years ago. Between those two submission losses has been one of the most eventful careers in MMA history with Sakuraba scoring wins over four members of the Gracie family as well as a host of other names within the sport such as Minowa, Vernon “Tiger” White, Carlos Newton, Ken Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki, Kevin Randleman, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Guy Mezger, and Vitor Belfort. Even in defeat Sakuraba’s fights were noteworthy as his three losses to Wanderlei Silva helped make Silva a star, his loss to Mirko Cro Cop came due to injury at the biggest MMA show in history, the loss to Ricardo Arona showed forever Sakuraba’s ability to withstand immense pain (as would his win last year against Zelg Galesic), his loss to Antonio Schembri is still one of MMA’s greatest (and least talked about) upsets, and the main reason he couldn’t continue against Igor Vovchanchyn in the 2000 Grand Prix was because he had fought and beaten Royce Gracie in a 90-minute fight earlier that night. And then there was the loss in the rematch with Royce at the L.A. Coliseum in ’07 that saw Royce failed his post-fight drug test. And there was the true “greasegate” in MMA history with Yoshihiro Akiyama greasing himself up to gain an edge against Sakuraba in their December 31, 2006 fight. Akiyama got the win by TKO initially, but it was later ruled a no contest when the foul play was uncovered. In some ways it is fitting that Mayhem be the one to tap Saku (he did say he was going to) as the two share many similar traits such as their knack for making their entrances fun—Sakuraba dresses up like someone be it a wrestler, an anime character, whatever and Miller dancing to the ring all dressed up with a parade of women following. They are both charismatic fighters with a real sense that the sport can have plenty of fun inserted into it. Case in point: Miller earned back a lot of points he lost with me after the Strikeforce brawl he instigated on national television by dressing up like Sakuraba for the weigh-in, wearing orange underwear fashioned into Sakuraba’s old orange tights and dying his hair in the appropriate places the same way Sakuraba did early in his career. I honestly do wish Sakuraba would retire, but if his post-fight comments are any indication, he’s not going anywhere. He’ll always be my favorite MMA fighter of all time, and maybe if he fights exclusively in his own weight division from here on out he could keep going for a while, but I really think it is time for him to step away from the combat element of MMA and focus more on training the future Sakuraba’s of the sport.

The wins by both Shinya Aoki and Gegard Mousasi at Dream 16 proved the same thing: these are two fighters that have no competition within their division. The other, and more important, thing that Mousasi and Aoki have in common is their embarrassing losses on Strikeforce’s only nationally televised card of 2010. Their fights were supposed to be the big U.S. debuts for two of Dreams best pound-for-pound fighters with both fights turning into pathetic slaughters in favor of their opponents. However, back in Japan, both men are as dominant as ever with Mousasi showing no signs of slowing down within Dream and Aoki brutalizing Kawajiri’s leg back in July before brutalizing Aurelio all around on this show. Mousasi’s win won him the Dream light heavyweight grand prix and made him the first Dream light heavyweight champion—something he did in the promotion’s middleweight grand prix two years ago—while Aoki’s dominating win in a non-title fight made it clear that he owns Dream’s lightweight division. The fact that Mousasi’s tournament win came in a four-man tournament shows the lack of depth in Dream’s light heavyweight division as the promotion itself seems to be the Japanese equivalent of WEC a few years back where the great majority of the promotion is made up of smaller fighters and fights in the heavier divisions are treated more as superfights or novelty fights. Even when Mousasi stated his intention to play Randy Couture and go between light heavyweight and heavyweight, it doesn’t change anything for Dream and how they will book him. Dream’s heavyweight division is only a little less non-existent than their light heavyweight division, and with Strikeforce not having anybody other than King Mo in their light heavyweight division that could make an impact in Japan before stepping into the ring, any sent opponents likely wouldn’t draw any attention to a Mousasi fight. Aoki’s problem is that he can be Georges St. Pierre and rule his division with an iron fist without the option that GSP has of moving up. Aoki tried that last year and Hayato Sakurai ended Aoki’s welterweight dreams real quick. Not only that, but without any kind of a standing game, there’s only so far Aoki can go as a fighter from here. While Mousasi will likely end up going to Strikeforce permanently or at least fight for them far more than for Dream, Dream needs Aoki and for that reason they will give him whatever he wants if it means that he will stay. What that means is more fights against guys that either have no business being in there with Aoki or are good enough to get in there, but having nothing on him when the fight gets down to the ground.

The show itself may not have been the best show that Dream has ever done, and it didn’t even feature “KID” Yamamoto, but this was probably the most important show Dream (or FEG as producer) has put on. For all we know, December 31st could be it for Dream, could be it for FEG, could be it for MMA on Japanese network TV for the foreseeable future. The fact that this show produced a good number without their top draw and did it mostly thanks to someone who is still new to the sport is a good sign for MMA’s survival in Japan. It’s a good sign and nothing more as one or two people leaving or a bad advance sale of tickets to Dynamite!! could spell the end before the year is even out.

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