The last time the UFC trekked to Japan, Tito Ortiz won the company’s vacant light heavyweight title with a unanimous decision victory over Wanderlei Silva in the main event.
That was April 2000 and the win touched a run of five successful title defenses that lasted until September 2003 and made Ortiz’s bones as a surefire future hall of famer. For Silva, it was his last appearance in the Octagon for seven and a half years, but in the meantime he fought 25 times in Pride (almost exclusively in Japan) won that organization’s 205-pound title and solidified his place as one of MMA’s all-time greats.
Funny how things work out. As the UFC on Tuesday officially confirmed Feb. 26, 2012, as its first trip back to Japan in more than a decade, Ortiz and Silva are the only men from that original card at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (it was UFC 25, in case you’re wondering) who are still on the promotion’s active roster.
While a rematch been a resurgent Tito and a 185-pound Wanderlei seems unlikely (sure would be fun, though), the mere fact that both could potentially be available for the planned show at Saitama Super Arena is the first clue to exactly how pretty the UFC is sitting as it prepares to re-invade a Japanese MMA scene mired in a chaotic, half-decade long slump. With a recent show in Rio de Janeiro drawing rave reviews from fans, analysts and company employees alike, UFC brass also have a pretty good template for how to ensure these one-off international events are successful.
Fewer full beers will likely be heaved in the direction of the Octagon, fewer soccer chants will likely sung during the fights, but look for the company to make sure UFC: Japan is framed as a tribute of sorts to that country’s rich history in MMA, just as it did in Rio in August. Especially with the event planned for an arena that was previously the old stomping ground of the Pride organization -- and with Zuffa now owning the vestiges of that former promotion -- expect frequent nods (and probably a few knowing winks) to the past.
As promised during this week’s official announcement, the company will surely stock the card with homegrown talent, in similar fashion to when Brazilian fighters went 7-1 against foreign opponents at UFC 134. That means expect top draws like featherweight phenom Hatsu Hioki, middleweight Yushin Okami and newly minted welterweight Yoshihiro Akiyama to get the call. Akiyama especially appears to have been kept on the UFC roster for the express purpose of making his 170-pound debut at home.
In addition, the UFC has a wealth of non-Japanese fighters who are nonetheless known to fight fans in that country. Fresh off his win over Brendan Schaub in Brazil, former Pride heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has already said he wants to fight on the Tokyo show. With Brock Lesnar scheduled to return to the UFC in early 2012, and possessing his own modest fame in Japan from his days in professional wrestling (not to mention his only non-UFC MMA fight), could a meeting with Nogueira be in the offing? If not Big Nog, Lesnar could potentially fight former Pride and K-1 fighter Alistair Overeem oversees too, as soon as Overeem's signing is official. The major sticking point to those potential bouts could be the UFC’s ability to convince Lesnar, the notorious homebody, to make the trip.
No matter. With former multidivisional Pride champ Dan Henderson reportedly on the verge of a UFC return, and Pride standbys like Mirko Filipovic, Quinton Jackson and Mauricio Rua (just to name a few) under Zuffa contract, there is no shortage of other potential matchups that might make sense for the Japanese show, some of them very compelling. Oh, did I mention Tito versus Wanderlei II? A guy can dream, right?
As others have already pointed out, a single, stand-alone UFC show won’t be enough to breathe new life into the flagging Japanese fight scene. Yet UFC brass came away from Brazil claiming the country had sufficiently wowed them during UFC: Rio as to make it a frequent future stop. Certainly Japan is capable of similar fervor for MMA, as evidenced by the huge crowds and monster TV ratings the sport used to draw in Pride’s heyday. Perhaps the biggest unspoken possibility of all is that (if the political and social climate seems to its liking) the UFC might decide that, going forward, Japan is worthy of more than one show every 10 or 11 years.