This is the second installment of London-based writer Brian Mallon's column on the Ultimate Fighting Championship for The Asahi Shimbun. Mallon has been a martial arts practitioner, UFC fan and journalist for many years. The bi-weekly feature will appear every other Monday.
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In this week’s column we look back at a scintillating performance by Pohang’s Jung Chan-sung in what may have been the Fight of the Year and ask whether another Asian superstar may be the biggest loser from an action-packed midweek card. We also have a rare one-on-one interview with UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitia. The mastermind behind the UFC’s astounding global expansion speaks to us about February’s Tokyo event, the current state of Japanese MMA and his plans for the future in the Land of the Rising Sun.
This week’s UFC card produced the most rousing main event since Dan Henderson versus Mauricio “Shogun” Rua late last year. Jung, who goes by the nickname “The Korean Zombie” in the ring, displayed courage, panache and determination to school hot up-and-coming prospect Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier. It was a terrific back-and-forth affair which could have a decisive say in who gets the next tilt at featherweight gold following Jose Aldo and Eric Koch’s collision in July.
Nagoya’s Hatsu Hioki was previously seen as the next logical challenger at 145 pounds (66 kilograms) but things have changed markedly in the short time since he soundly defeated Bart Palaszewski at UFC 144. Hioki, as we discussed here last week, requested one more fight prior to entering the championship caldron and he may yet prove to be the biggest loser following Jung’s standout victory last week.
On current form, “The Korean Zombie” would prove the tougher test for Aldo--that is if the Brazilian is successful in his summer title defense. Against the talented Poirier, Jung displayed some exceptional footwork and a sharp fighting intelligence. He simply refused to wilt when the pressure was at its greatest. His innate ability to dictate the tempo of a fight was illustrated patently in this thrilling fourth-round submission victory. Aldo and the rest of the world’s top-tier featherweights will have taken note.
Hioki now looks set to lose out in the championship stakes to Jung as the latter appears to have more momentum and a considerable fan base who wish to see him get his shot at the title. An eagerly anticipated championship face-off now beckons later this year for the resilient Kyongbuk Science College graduate. The fact that the next featherweight title challenger will be one of Asia’s top two mixed martial artists is further testament to how well MMA on this continent is performing in the world’s ultimate combat sports proving ground.
We caught up with UFC supremo Fertitia and asked him whether the recent event in Tokyo in February lived up to his initial expectations in terms of fan reception and media response.
“You know, I was a little bit nervous going into Japan for the first time because of the rich history and tradition of mixed martial arts events ... and I’m talking big mixed martial arts events,” Fertitia explained. “When you are talking about the heyday of Pride and K-1, I mean there’s a lot to live up to in that manner. But with that said, one of the things we made a decision about was that we weren’t going to try to be like them, we were going to do what we do. We were going to bring the UFC as you see it on TV, whether it’s from Las Vegas, Toronto, Canada, Rio de Janeiro, it’s the same show.
“So we did that and we were well received by the media and the best thing is that we were incredibly well received by the fans. We legitimately sold the place out, all the tickets were sold ... we did a big gate. The crowd came early. They were very into the fights. I’ve been to fights before in Japan where the crowd is maybe kind of quiet. They weren’t, they were a little bit more vibrant, a little bit more involved, and from talking to some people who’ve been involved in mixed martial arts for decades in Japan, one of the things they pointed out is that they felt like it was a different crowd than Pride and K-1. It was a younger crowd, almost like a new generation of mixed martial arts fans. They sensed that they really appreciated the athleticism of the athletes and what the athletes were doing, as opposed to some of the older Japanese shows that were really focused on the production values and ... the showcasing of the whole thing. This was just a different thing, so overall it was a positive experience for us.”
Fertitia was then asked whether, in financial terms, the event was a success and whether the UFC will be returning to Japan in the near future.
“Yes, yes the event was definitely a success,” he said. “We will be back in 2013. We haven’t scheduled an exact date yet but Japan will be on our calendar and then we’ve got to figure out from there if there’s a way to do more than just one event per year. Is there a way to do maybe one big event and then do four to six smaller events, or something like that ... so we are working on that strategy now.”
Some industry insiders have highlighted how rival organizations have attempted to fill the void created following the winding up of Pride FC. Fertitia, whose Zuffa llc company purchased the iconic Japanese promotion, feels that there is room for other leagues to step into that void also.
“Well, I think there needs to be an industry in Japan,” he said. “You know we can’t, right now we are not set up to be able to do 10 or 12 events per year, so somebody does need to step up and fill the void. I know that there’s been recently ... rumors that some of the existing companies aren’t doing very well financially. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I would hope that maybe we could hopefully reinvigorate or kind of spark the market there to get more people interested in wanting to go to K-1 or Dream or something like that.”
We concluded by asking Fertitia about the possibility of introducing an “Ultimate Fighter: Japan” reality TV series for the Japanese viewing public.
“We’ve been in discussions with some networks in Japan and we are trying to figure out if the format that we currently use in the United States and Brazil, if that will work or not in Japan ... so right now we actually are talking to networks to try to figure it out, and it’s just a matter, really, of timing to get something launched.”
With Hatsu Hioki and Jung Chan-sung leading the featherweight charge and Lorenzo Fertitia’s ambitious Asian expansion plans, exciting times are ahead for Japanese mixed martial arts.
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