The Strange Saga Of Satoshi Ishii And Dana White

October 9, 2010
By Ross Everett

It may be a bit of a stretch to call Satoshi Ishii the Michael Phelps of Japan, but not by much. His victory in the heavyweight judo competition at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing was easily the defining moment of the games for his countrymen and was considered by most media outlets the #1 highlight of the year in all of sports.

Ishii himself is also a marketing dream. Hes especially big by Japanese standards with 240 pounds packed on his bulky 511 frame. Not surprisingly, hes tough as nails and a terror on the mat but away from the gym he comes off like an awkwardly cheerful overgrown boy. He definitely seems younger than his 22 years, but gives off the vibe of a nice neighbor boy who youd gladly pay to mow your lawn. Unlike his telegenic American gold medalist counterpart Phelps, who acts as if he spent as much time working on media relations as his backstroke heading up to the Olympic games, Ishii's demeanor is of an athlete who literally spent the bulk of his life in a gym only to emerge and find himself a national hero.

With the ability to offer him the most money and exposure, it seemed almost a fait accompli that Ishii would sign with DREAM and K-1 parent group FEG. Obviously its a good idea to keep your options open in negotiations, so he also reportedly talked to Sengoku parent World Victory Road and Antonio Inokis Inoki Genome Federation pro wrestling group. As expected, however, FEG reportedly presented Ishii with the most lucrative offer: 500 million yen (roughly $5.5 million US) to fight on DREAM and K-1 cards, with incentive bonuses based on his drawing power and performance. He would very likely become the highest paid mixed martial artist in the world before hed even stepped into the ring for the first time.

Ishii then shocked the Japanese fight sport world by categorically rejecting FEGs offer, saying that it was his lifelong dream to fight in the UFC. While this rationale might sound plausible to a US based fan, its akin to a top college baseball player from a SEC school turning down a big offer from the Atlanta Braves saying that its his lifelong dream to play for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan Central League. It frequently comes a shock to US MMA fans when immersed in Japans culture for the first time just how low the UFC ranks in the countrys fight sport pantheon. In MMA, their profile is lower than DREAM and Sengoku, but even smaller groups like Shooto and DEEP. Overall, the interest in and prestige of the UFC is well below not only boxing but even Japanese pro wrestling (puroresu). The UFC is making some progress, and big fights like GSP/Penn and Lesnar/Couture now get higher profile coverage (Lesnar/Couture owed most of its interest in the Japanese press to Brocks run as IWGP pro wrestling champ) but by no means is the #1 US MMA promotion considered on par with any of the major Japanese fighting groups.

Ishii then travelled to Las Vegas for UFC 92, with the Japanese media in tow covering his every move. Upon his return to Japan, he appeared at the Sengoku card in January addressing the audience from the ring and wearing his ubiquitous UFC shirt; his message was that he was going to fight in America for awhile but would eventually return to Japan.

At age 22, Ishii's got plenty of time to develop as a fighter. His biggest downside risk from signing with Zuffa is financial since hed be lucky to get a fraction of what FEG is willing to pay him. The competitive logic of learning his craft slowly notwithstanding, theres a huge risk in automatically assuming that he can fight for the UFC for a few years and then cash a big check when he returns to Japan as the potential of injury and changing market conditions could seriously impact his market value. On the other hand, it could be a risk hes willing to take given that hes got his celebrity both with the mainstream public and in the judo community to fall back on. Still, its a logical assumption that the goal of all professional fighters is to maximize their income while facing the best competition possible. For Ishii, a move to the UFC defies both components of that axiom.

Theres another very realistic scenario that it was all a negotiating ploy by Ishii. The UFC was likely willing to play along, figuring that their investment of a few plane tickets and hotel suites would be worth the resulting PR surge in Japan. Ishii and the UFC develop a cordial relationship which could be to the benefit of both parties down the road.

With the recent revelation that Ishii has broken off UFC negotiations to entertain offers from other parties thats starting to look like the plausible explanation for the once hot and heavy courtship between Ishii and Zuffa.

As a postscript to the Ishiis relationship with the UFC, it apparently opened the doors for his move to the US where hell be training with the Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas. That alone is a positive for his future development as a fighter, as hell be training with a whos who of professional fighting including the gym's namesake, Randy Couture. Training at a high level facility like Xtreme Couture among such an abundance of talent is a career move thats difficult to second guess.

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