Immediate future of Japanese mixed martial arts rides of Aoki

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NASHVILLE -- Strain slightly and you may hear Hiroyuki Kato muttering Saturday night in Nashville, Tenn.

Mr. Aoki, I watched Kazushi Sakuraba. I knew Kazushi Sakuraba. Kazushi Sakuraba was a friend of mine. Mr. Aoki, you're no Kazushi Sakuraba.

Music City. Bridgestone Arena. A short rib's throw from the Ryman Auditorium. Foreign soil in a foreign country. Did it really come to this for the 37-year-old Kato, considered by many to be the most powerful executive in Japanese mixed martial arts? For Shinya Aoki, the standard-bearer, the current and future? For an industry and a country they cherish equally.

Aoki, 26, 5-foot-11, disdainful, proud, simple, stands burdened by the weight of expectation and anticipation. Slender surly young man, what role will you grasp? Savior? Can you resurrect what once was? Or are you the final nail? The one that couldn't get it done? The reason a feared man gargled difficult words under his breath?

"I haven't been nervous like this in a long time," Kato said from beneath a thinning, graying flattop. "It's very important."

* * *

In the U.S., scouts tirelessly scour every corner of the country in search of the next Clemens or Jordan or Elway. They do this because sport is big business. Because if they don't, someone else will.

Things aren't so different in other parts of the world, which is how Sotaro Shinoda came to know the name Shinya Aoki, a skinny kid with a hefty reputation for finding ippon (finishes) in his high school judo matches.

Shinoda worked alongside Kato and others at Dream Stage Entertainment, the parent company for the Pride Fighting Championships, and kept close tabs on Aoki as he passed through to university life. They watched him become a police officer, before he changed his mind. They watched him step into the ring for the first time. They watched, waited, and not quite three years into his career, still skinny, still searching for definitive endings, Aoki received an offer from Kato's management company, Real Entertainment, to compete in Pride, which in 2006 was the world's dominant MMA organization.

Aoki was the future, the next Sakuraba -- a master showman and the major reason Japanese audiences were so attached to Pride in its early years.

"Simply, he made the MMA business in Japan," Aoki said of Sakuraba. "Japanese fans will always remember him."

Yet less than a year after Aoki debuted in Pride's Bushido series, the company fell under serious pressure when reports linked its management to figures in the Japanese and Korean underworld. Coinciding with UFC's ascension in the U.S., the sport's power base shifted almost overnight from Japan to North America. Deep in debt and facing mounting public scrutiny, Pride CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara sold the company in 2007 to UFC majority owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

"That's when things became difficult to navigate because the power structure changed," said Strikeforce president and CEO Scott Coker, whose strong ties to the Japanese fight scene helped maneuver Aoki (23-4) into a cage on American soil against Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez (17-2). "Since Pride left there's been a void. I know fans are still hurt by the demise of Pride. It basically went away. It was like a subculture in Japan. They had a ton of fans. It was something that set the bar."

With an aging, battered Sakuraba taking a step back and Pride lightweight champion Takanori Gomi burning bridges with Kato, Aoki was given the chance to stand as Japan's preeminent fighter. The new platform, a congealing of old Pride and K-1 factions, was called Dream. Aoki has gone 9-2 in the organization, and currently stands as Dream's lightweight champion.

* * *

On Dec. 31, 2009, Japanese MMA was in a bad place. Dream was chugging along, pulling mediocre to moderately acceptable television ratings. Much of the top international talent that marked Pride's heyday had left for America. There wasn't any real momentum behind MMA anymore. Dream was coming off like a faux Pride and upstarts such as Sengoku, formed as a reaction to the sale of Pride to the UFC, seemed incapable of finding stability in a contracting market.

Combine that with what many believe to be the worst economic downturn in Japan's history, and it's no surprise that the MMA industry is diminished to the point where it may soon require a pressing of the reset button.

New Year's Eve at the Saitama Super Arena, a miraculous venue housing many of Japan's best fight cards, Aoki said he was possessed. Literally, by a demon.

Spurned on by Kato -- who hammered into Aoki just how important it was that he defeat Sengoku lightweight champion Mizuto Hirota in the rubber match of a best-of-nine series pitting the promotions' fighters -- the 26-year-old submission wizard grotesquely and unmercifully snapped Hirota's right arm in just over two minutes. Aoki rose to his feet, looked down on his victim and gave him the finger.

Months later, Aoki's decimation of Hirota is a piece of the Dream champion's mythology. During the promotion for his bout against Melendez, he repeatedly insisted he doesn't hold any regrets, nor does he maintain a sense of responsibility.

Aoki has tired of answering questions about Hirota. He doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

"I can't deny that it will happen again," Aoki expressed in baritone voice which takes on the raspy tinge of a post-March Madness basketball coach.

Who is Shinya Aoki?

For starters, he's isn't Kazushi Sakuraba. He isn't a darling of the Japanese television networks. The bout with Melendez won't even be televised back home. (It's relegated to highlights on Japan's national sports news broadcasts.)

He lives frugally, happy to compete and teach. Aoki's parents control his bank account, from which his mother provides a monthly allowance. Aoki's manager, Masaki Hasegawa, the president and owner of Koubudo, a chain of MMA related stores throughout Japan, pays him a regular salary via Dream that is separate to his fight purses. Aoki doesn't watch television. He doesn't have Internet at home either, only in the gym, which is where he spends most of his time.

"MMA is his biggest concern and interest," Hasegawa said. "He doesn't have anything else besides MMA. His only interest is to be stronger than he was yesterday."

Said Aoki: "I dedicate my life to fighting."

* * *

Hiroyuki Kato peered down at Aoki, who was sitting at a large round table surrounded by a dozen or so countrymen.

"I think Aoki knows" the immediate future of Japanese MMA is riding on his performance, Kato said. "This is a big deal, a Japanese fighter on CBS prime time. I expect that many circumstances will change, and people will become encouraged. I hope this fight will change everything for the better."

Asked if he's comfortable in the role of a next-generation Sakuraba, Aoki confirmed he was.

"Our generation has to lead Japanese MMA," he responded. "I feel I'm representing Dream and also Japan."

And what if Kato's prized fighter fails in his bid to capture Melendez's Strikeforce title?

"I don't know what happens," the powerful manager and producer admitted. "Probably, we have to start from the beginning. Even under these circumstances we will never give up to get MMA back to where it was in Japan."