MASAKAZU SAKAI, new Pancrase CEO: “My job is to give hope to Pancrase fighters”

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There’s a new kid in town who is making waves in the MMA scene in Asia. The organization he’s with isn’t new, but but the face of it is now bright and shiny, and the outlook for a future of MMA in Japan is beginning to look more positive than it has in years. Enter the whiz kid who has been working nonstop to make this happen: new Pancrase CEO Masakazu Sakai, businessman extraordinaire-turned-Japan’s MMA uber-advocate.

On September 29, 2013, Pancrase held its 20th Anniversary show, a massive card which featured two title fights, a retirement bout of a legend, an ISKA title kickboxing match, and the opening round of a whopping two tournaments in which almost 50% of the participants were foreign. The auspicious occasion was deserving of such and ambitious card and the magnitude of it reaches beyond the shores of Japan. Pancrase 252 followed upon the heels of several new happenings within the promotion such as the first live streaming of an event at 247 and the launch of Bayside Fights, a cage-held event with a North American-based ruleset.

To find out the reason behind these exciting developments and to find out what the next 20 years of Pancrase is going to look like, MMA-in-ASIA spoke with the man moving the mountain, Mazakazu Sakai.

MMA-in-ASIA: First of all, how did you start off in prowrestling with the Smash promotion?

I was running a consulting company that was rebuilding companies. I was asked in to consult on rebuilding Hustle, a prowrestling organization. This was the first time for me to learn about fighting events. Hustle not very well organized at all. I suggested they close the business because they were abandoning the fighters.  As a result of the fighters being abandoned, I started Smash Prowrestling.

MMA-in-ASIA: How did you sideline into MMA, and Pancrase?

A former shareholder of Pancrase, Don Quijote, asked me to buy Pancrase when they saw my business style. Don Quijote offered me Pancrase, and I thought it was a lot like Hustle, marginally operating in a business-sense, and they weren’t very concerned about the fighters. Actually, I already wanted to make some MMA industry movement in Japan. I was thinking about it for a long time, about one year. Why did I decide on Pancrase? It is MMA history in Japan. I thought I could go forward with it and make Pancrase better than before – make the Japanese MMA industry better.

MMA-in-ASIA: Pancrase has seemed to relaunch under your directorship. What changes have you made since you’ve taken over and what’s your reasoning behind them?

I never thought I changed it. Why Japanese MMA promotions haven’t been making good business is because they haven’t been trying to fit in with trends and the Japanese movement. I’ve tried to ride the wave of the Japanese economy. I’ve only repackaged Pancrase, so to speak.

MMA-in-ASIA: What is your ultimate goal for Pancrase in Japan?

Increase the value of the belt. This is very important, but it’s very tough. I want to make the fighter who carries the belt deserving of it and able to make a living. For instance, there are over 100 kickboxing “world champions” in Japan. I want to know if those belts are actually valuable. These promoters have ego, and that’s why there are so many titles. These one hundred “world champions” in Japan should all be making a living, but they are not. I want to make the Pancrase title more branded and valuable because wearing the belt should be the next stage for a better life for a fighter. So that also means that the fighter with the Pancrase belt must be on a level standard with the rest of the world.

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MMA-in-ASIA: What do you wish to accomplish with Pancrase on an international level?

Since Pancrase is well known across the globe already, I have received some overseas offers to co-promote in other places, but first I want to make Pancrase more valuable in Japan. I believe that it’s easy now to hold some events overseas, but right now these would be only one-shot deals focused on entertainment – not really a good business decision. So in the future, I do have some plans, but I want to make Pancrase fighters better first. Some co-promotions should be in the works for next year. In January I can announce some of our plans.

I think my job is to give hope to Pancrase fighters and I think that’s half done already. In addition let me say that Pancrase doesn’t use the words “world champion” for our title holders. If a promotion doesn’t have history, they have to use the world “world” but Pancrase is already extremely well-known globally – we don’t have to. That’s why we say “King Of Pancrase”. We also don’t use “Japanese champion”, just Pancrase.

MMA-in-ASIA: Speaking globally, what’s your opinion of the UFC?

UFC is the top fighting organization, no doubt. For instance, when the Japanese fighter gets to the UFC he becomes known world-wide. The UFC is a very business oriented organization, and the Japanese fighters need to learn more of the UFC style. Right now it’s a little difficult to make a Japanese fighter who can compete on this level, so we have to train them well mentally, physically, and (to think) internationally. The Japanese fighters need to learn more of how the overseas fighters – like the Brazilians – do it. I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to make our fighters achieve a world standard in order to be able to compete in the UFC. For instance, I’d like to organize gyms in other countries so that the fighters can go overseas to train and come back to share what they have learned with Japan.

MMA-in-ASIA: Do you mean actually open Pancrase gyms in other countries, or support Pancrase fighters to train overseas?

I support the fighters right now to go overseas to have training. A gym is a possibility in the future. Soon I plan to go to Canada to learn how they produce such good fighters. If I like a gym, I might ask them to cooperate with us, I might pay to send some fighters to them. I would like to bring back the positive aspects of overseas training ideas to influence the gyms in Japan. Maybe the World Slam tournament winners can go overseas to study as a reward. Maybe, for instance, Pancrase fighters who are on the rise can fight in local fights in other countries, and local broadcasts will expose the Pancrase fighters to those overseas markets. Then they could return to Pancrase in Japan to try for the belt.

MMA-in-ASIA: What do you think of other countries’ MMA markets, such as South Korea?

In the Korean market, I wonder what is their goal. We have an amateur system in Japan for the fighters to go pro, but it’s only half finished – JMA. It looks like they (ROAD FC) are trying to produce a PRIDE styled event based on entertainment, which should be alright, but amateur fighter education is the most important. In my opinion, it’s not a good idea for any promoter to imitate the PRIDE business style because they went out of business. There will be no future in it. Korean Top Team (producer of Top FC) has placed three UFC fighters so they should be able to successfully organize a promotion. But the amateur education is the most important.

MMA-in-ASIA: Competing promotions in Korea shows that the market for MMA is growing a bit. In Japan, there is already well-organized competition within the market, like Shooto, DEEP, Heat, Gladiator, RINGS. What is your opinion of the influence of such a competitive market?

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First, I never think about my competitors. But I do watch their events.  I just don’t compete with them; I think globally. I’m not out to win a war with the competition. Actually, I didn’t even realize that their were other events being held on the 29th (of September, 2013). On that day, I was angry only at the two fighters who didn’t make weight.

MMA-in-ASIA: Pancrase uses a ranking system which lends a linear and clear approach to title contentions, however there are so many fighters on the roster and now you’re adding a lot of foreign components. Who is doing the matchmaking for Pancrase?

This time I did it. Usually it’s 60% Sakamoto, 40% Sakai.

MMA-in-ASIA: How would you describe your personal style of matchmaking?

To make exciting fights, I look for four specific things: angry, happy, sad, pleasure – my key words of matchmaking. Emotion. We have to move the audience, to touch them. A fighter should already possess entertainment skills, but I also have to think about the audience. I want to make the fighters feel higher and more emotional right up to the event. It’s an emotional investment on both sides – to make the fighter feel his value is great within the organization, and to make the audience connected with each match on an emotional level.

MMA-in-ASIA: How did you come up with the World Slam idea and will this be the future of Pancrase?

I like the team theme – like we already have – AKA, Nova Uniao, Team Wand, Team Nam Phan. I want to make associations and friendships. I got an offer from another gym already that has UFC fighters. There will be a World Slam for all weight divisions, including the heavier divisions. It will be tough in Japan to find these fighters but we will do it and we will keep adding foreign components. I learned from the overweight fighters this time that I have to make stricter rules. However, I will also make sure all the information the foreign fighters need to support them while they are in Japan is easily accessible. There won’t be a chance for this to happen again in the future.

MMA-in-ASIA: Pancrase 247 was live streamed and many people around the globe have been voicing their wish for this to continue, but it hasn’t. What is the future of broadcast and internet streaming for Pancrase, for international exposure?

I think about television. Right now, specifically terrestrial broadcast (Japan). Everybody can stream on the internet – it’s easy. I want to to work more on the international broadcast, not the internet. We are working on a broadcast in 22 countries that will be delayed on air. For a live broadcast, then the US will be the first market. My first job is to make Pancrase valuable again in Japan, to reenergize the Japanese MMA industry, and then we will take advantage of global expansion. My main goal is to make Pancrase fighters able to earn a living.

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A sincere thank you to Mayumi Yamamaoto, Hybrid Fighters Manager, for her assistance with interpretation.