K-1 and mixed martial arts used to dominate the 7-10 p.m. prime time television slots on New Year's Eve in Japan, but this year boxing will rule the coveted spots.
New Year's Eve is considered the most popular day on the TV schedule in Japan, comparable to Super Bowl Sunday in the United States. This year, the K-1 matches and mixed martial arts shows that had long been aired during prime time on commercial channels will disappear from terrestrial TV.
Instead, two broadcasters will be airing professional boxing matches where world championship belts will be at stake. Professional boxing will be going up against public broadcaster NHK's extremely popular annual live music program, "Kohaku Utagassen," enjoyed by people of all ages. Other broadcasters are counting on boxing, a sport in which Japan is producing many world champions, to grab some of those viewer ratings.
TV Tokyo will be airing world title matches featuring WBA super-featherweight champion Takashi Uchiyama and WBA featherweight Satoshi Hosono. Tokyo Broadcasting System will be showing WBC minimumweight champion Kazuto Ioka's second defense of his world title, this one against Thai challenger Yedgoen Tor-Chalermchai. This will be the first time that three world title matches will take place in Japan on New Year's Eve.
Recently, martial arts that claim to be "serious fights" have been dominating prime time on New Year's Eve. The main sports were K-1, which only allows kicks and other forms of attack in the standing position, and a mixed martial arts form called PRIDE, which allows fighters to use ground techniques and choking techniques as well.
TBS had triggered this trend. The network began live broadcasts of K-1 and mixed martial arts in 2001. It gave priority to broadcasting highly anticipated K-1 fights, such as Bob "The Beast" Sapp against former yokozuna Akebono. That fight scored a maximum 43 percent viewer rating in 2003, according to Kanto regional data analyzed by Video Research Ltd. Other TV stations soon followed suit.
In 2003, when Fuji Television Network aired PRIDE, and Nippon Television broadcast professional wrestling and a mix martial arts event called the Inoki Festival, the three commercial networks won a total of 41.8 percent of the viewer ratings on New Year's Eve (based on simplified calculations). The networks almost collectively beat NHK's New Year's Eve music program, which won 45.9 percent of the ratings for the second half of the show.
That heat, however, has begun to fade in recent years. In 2006, Fuji dropped broadcasts of PRIDE when it was reported that the event's host organization had ties to Japanese crime syndicates. K-1 also suffered from a scandal this summer when the host organization's alleged lack of payment to some fighters surfaced. That's when TBS decided to stop broadcasts for fear of the scandal negatively affecting the network.
"For a TV network, the image that their programs create is a major element in determining what to air," says one media critic. "Networks also probably lost interest in mixed martial arts that failed to produce new stars."
So, what prompted TV Tokyo and TBS to switch to boxing instead?
TV Tokyo had been suffering from 1 percent viewer ratings in its documentary programs in recent years. As the network searched for mixed martial arts to broadcast, it decided that boxing had more substance than style, compared to MMA.
"Boxing appeals to the public because the content of the fight is what matters, compared with mixed martial arts that depend more on the personalities of the fighters," says TV Tokyo official Akinori Tomoda.
Uchiyama, who is the main boxer in this year's program, is a true champion with a current string of 17 consecutive undefeated fights and 14 knockouts. He will take on Mexico's Jorge Solis on New Year's Eve.
"He's the real deal in anyone's eyes," says Tomoda. "I think we'll get support with people of all ages tuning in."
Also on the TV Tokyo card, Hosono, ranked eighth by WBA, will step into the ring with champ Celestino Caballero of Panama.
TBS is counting on the 22-year-old Ioka to revive its sluggish ratings. Ioka is a new star who won his world title after just seven matches, the fastest pace among all Japanese boxers. Ioka's first title defense on Aug. 10 gave TBS a 16.6 percent viewer rating.
"Other networks are airing mainly variety shows and music programs," TBS producer Koichiro Kitamura says. "Ioka has the glamour to nab audience attention and put us on top of the ratings. We want to regain the top rating among commercial networks."
For the boxing world, this is a great opportunity to promote the sport.
TV broadcasting rights hold the key to the financial success of boxing matches, and industry insiders want to use this chance to recover from the current slump. Boxing used to enjoy high ratings in the 1960s and '70s, but the only bout to get a rating over 40 percent after the retirement of former boxer and entertainer Yoko Gushiken in 1981 was a fight featuring the young Koki Kameda.
Japan Pro Boxing Association Chairman Hideyuki Ohashi would tune in to the MMA programs, but often pondered whether his sport was missing out.
"I would watch mixed martial arts fights on TV (on New Year's Eve) but I always wondered whether boxing could replace mixed martial arts," says Ohashi.
Former boxing champion Fighting Harada, who pulled a 60 percent-plus rating while he was an active boxer, says, "Japan has eight world champions right now, the most ever in Japan's boxing history. I want the public to focus on boxing, which Japan can be proud of."
In mid-December, a mixed martial arts organization, which is separate from K-1, announced that it will host a match on New Year's Eve between a gold medal-winning judoka and a foreign fighter. The organization searched for a network that would air the match on a terrestrial channel but failed to find one. This clearly demonstrates the gap in popularity that boxing now enjoys compared to mixed martial arts.
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