Mixed-martial arts events still exist in Japan, but many of the foreign stars who made the sport so exciting have moved overseas, where MMA events are still growing in popularity.
The biggest of them all is the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, which took over the Pride organization in 2007—and with it many of their prized fighters. This was a big boost to the UFC’s operations in the United States and elsewhere, but dealt a massive blow to major Japanese events. Though they didn’t disappear, they downsized somewhat and became markedly less visible in the media.
The owners of UFC however, acknowledging the potential in the Japanese market, announced at the end of November a major UFC event to be held at Saitama Super Arena on February 26. In the much-hyped event, UFC lightweight champion Frankie “The Answer” Edgar will defend his title against Benson “Smooth” Henderson.
“Japan is the spiritual home of martial arts,” UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta pointed out at the press conference announcing the event. “The world has learned from the Japanese many aspects of how to compete in hand-to-hand combat, but Japan also has a proud history of modern mixed-martial arts.”
UFC Asia Managing Director Mark Fischer emphasized the top quality of the February bill: “To mark the historic occasion of UFC’s return to Japan and Zuffa [UFC’s parent company]’s first event in Asia, we are bringing a truly stacked card, topped with a World Championship title bout. Frankie Edgar is one of the top pound-for-pound guys in the sport, and Benson Henderson is a former WEC champion who earned his title shot with three consecutive wins, including most recently over Clay Guida in one of the best fights of 2011.”
The supporting fights also boast some awesome talent with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson top of the list. Jackson, who will fight Ryan Bader, was the first Pride champion to simultaneously win a UFC crown when he beat Dan Henderson in 2007. As well as being a top MMA talent, “Rampage” is also a movie actor and starred in A-Team (2010). Another heavyweight MMA legend, Mark Hunt, will fight Frenchman Cheick Kongo. Hunt was the 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix champion. In terms of popularity, former judoka Yoshihiro Akiyama might be the biggest draw on the main bill. Akiyama, a zainichi Korean, is not only popular in Japan, he is a superstar in South Korea (noted for his singing). Akiyama became an Asian champion judoka for South Korea before he changed his nationality and won gold at the 2002 Asian Games (in South Korea) for Japan.
The Preliminary Card features two other very popular Japanese fighters. Takanori Gomi will take on Australian George Sotiropoulos, while Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto will face Englishman Vaughan Lee.
Saitama Super Arena, Feb 26 (listing).