Amidst the rumors of the drowning of DREAM, with their last show being held on the close of 2011 and announcements of subsequent events quietly ebbing away and once title holders retreating into DEEP, have come few yet surging signs of a 2012 rising tide for MMA in Japan.
A staple of the sport, Shooto, produced its tenth batch of Rookie Champions at the close of the year, much a similar annual event as the epic New Years eve events have come to be. Past Shooto champs have gone on to stellar careers and have symbolized the strength of JMMA: Tatsuya Kawajiri, Takeya Mizugaki, and Hatsu Hioki. The decade-old Rookie tradition is still throwing its progeny into the international spotlight: this year recent Rookie champs Kyoji Horiguchi and Issei Tamura have gained top prospect status, and Yusuke Kasuya debuted in Legend FC.
Young Japanese athletes aren’t the only ones benefitting from the tempering mettle that is the JMMA scene. Following the list of foreign fighters making a record in Japan such as Antonio Carvalho, Joachim Hansen, and Marlon Sandro, now South Korea can name Parky WongSik Park and Doo Ho Choi as top prospects, Australia can celebrate adopted Gustavo Falciroli, and Brazil can claim a champion in Bibiano Fernandes.
Granted the top tier of Japanese fighters has seen its share of a mixed bag internationally, with may players choosing to remain tied to the JMMA scene and signing too late to international promotions thus suffering a declining record or being left with no promotion to call home, but the trend is reversing. Previously mentioned Mizugaki along with Hiroshi Nakamura and Masakatsu Ueda are athletes who transitioned from homegrown JMMA into international promotions, and afore-mentioned Fernandes, Kawajiri, and Shinya Aoki have positioned themselves with new Asian heavy-hitter ONE FC. Riki Fukuda is making a name for himself by going the distance in all three of his UFC fights, following the tough act that is mainstay Yushin Okami. None of these fighters have careers on the decline; quite the opposite in fact.
The international blossoming of Japanese MMA is especially noticed in the women’s ranks with the inclusion of female bouts in Strikeforce and the birth of all-women’s roster Invicta FC. Hiroko Yamanaka went 12-1 before she hit the wall that was Cris “Cyborg” by 16-second KO, later reversed to a NC due to doping findings. Invicta picked up Hitomi Akano, veteran of Strikeforce and ProElite, and the still undefeated Ayaka Hamasaki.
Then there was the UFC’s return to Japan after ten years, with a card that was more a homage to Asians in MMA rather than a catering to the JMMA audience. A success by all standards, the prelims alone garnered a million and a half views. Although nothing is discussed in the way of a return event by the UFC, there are other players in line to make a splash in the JMMA pool. Vale Tudo Japan has announced a return to operations with a Christmas eve event. RINGS leaped outside the Outsiders series and began producing pro cards again. DREAM has partnership agreements with both ProElite and ONE FC and there is still a rumor of a 2012 New Years eve event. And DEEP, Shooto, and Pancrase are starting to get the hint that there’s an audience for JMMA so online streaming is beginning to trickle out.
Even without a major Japanese promotion broadcasting, Japan is still arguably the most developed and prolific amateur through professional MMA culture in the world. Athletes that ascend to cult status, throngs of young athletes clamoring in numerous promotions across the country, a deep and continuous history that attracts the most diehard of MMA fans – all of these coupled with events in 2012 refocusing on MMA in Asia – proves that JMMA is not the rock that lands in the ocean, but the ripples themselves.