Seconds out, Hollywood stars in, as Rampage Jackson dons the gloves in Saitama
Later this month, that bastion of bash-‘em-ups, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), makes a long-awaited appearance in Japan, giving fans an opportunity to see some of the best fighters in the world, including the latest incarnation of B.A. Baracus in the flesh.
The Japanese fight scene hasn’t been quite the same since Pride Fighting Championships (PRIDE) shuttered its doors in 2007.
As UFC holding company Zuffa bought the remains of the old company that year, it's no surprise the card UFC has put together is a mixture of new Mixed Martail Arts (MMA) stars and former PRIDE stalwarts.
For the curious, or uninitiated, it’s a chance to get a taste of a rapidly growing sport that has deep roots in Japan. MMA is unarmed combat that brings together fighters with backgrounds in karate, Brazilian jiujitsu, boxing, wrestling and various other disciplines.
If it involves pummeling your opponent in a ring, it’s in.
This month’s event, dubbed both UFC 144 and UFC Japan (the distinction is all about U.S. ticket sales, if you’re curious), is headlined by a title bout pitting light-heavyweight champion Frankie Edgar against Benson Henderson.
“I’m excited to be fighting in Japan,” Edgar said at a pre-fight press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Roppongi.
“It’s the birthplace of martial arts, and what better way to showcase your skills. Ben and myself, we’re very aggressive guys determined to win, so I don’t think it can be anything but exciting.”
Also scheduled to compete are U.S. fighters Jake Shields and Ryan Bader, as well as Japanese stars Takanori Gomi, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, Yushin Okami and Yoshihiro “Sexyama” Akiyama, among others.
“This is really a great moment,” Akiyama said. “I’m really proud to be fighting in UFC Japan. I’m a little bit concerned about how the fight will go, but I will fight with all my spirit.”
Spirit and belts aside, one of the show’s biggest selling points is the return of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson to Japan.
Before becoming an MMA superstar Stateside and portraying B.A. Baracus, Mohawk and all, in the 2010 retread of “The A-Team” TV series, Jackson rose to prominence in Japan with PRIDE.
“The one thing I love about the Japanese fans, why I love them the most, is they don’t care if you win or lose as long as you have samurai spirit and have a good fight,” Jackson said.
“That’s why Japanese fans are my favorite, and American fans are jealous when I say that.”
Eagle-eyed fans around the capital might even catch Rampage outside of the ring.
“I’m going to Roppongi win or lose,” he joked. “I like Roppongi because there’s a lot of foreigners there. "It’s a place where we can all get together and enjoy Japan together. I’m always in Roppongi after my fights.”
Not just a bloodbath
While there are still many competing MMA circuits in Japan, none enjoys UFC’s worldwide popularity. The company is hoping to expand its profile in Asia with an event that could be the first of many.
“I want to put on a good show for the Japanese fans,” Henderson said. “I know they’re very knowledgeable and very appreciative of true MMA, not just wanting to see knockouts, highlight reels and bloodbaths.”
While the fight card is nicely balanced, there was one question media members didn’t let go unanswered during the press event.
“We will absolutely have the Octagon Girls there,” UFC Asia managing director Mark Fischer said, referring to the company’s cadre of “ring girls.”
Of course, we’ll be there only for the action. Probably.
Getting there: UFC Japan is an all-day event on February 26, beginning 10 a.m. at Saitama Super Arena. General tickets are on sale now through Kyodo Promotion, e+, Lawson Tickets and numerous other sporting outlets starting at ¥5,800.