Japan was once home to arguably the world’s greatest promotion, Pride. But now it looks like the magic that came with such mythical names as “The Last Emperor” and “Shogun” can never be recaptured.

A few have tried—out of the ashes of Pride rose Dream and World Victory Road’s Sengoku Raiden Championships. Sengoku was the first casualty, however, as its primary sponsor, a Japanese discount store chain called Don Quijote, ceased all funding for the promotion in early 2011. Dream marched on, but now, according to reports from MMA-Japan, it too has perished.

Pride struck the right chords. Reflecting on that period in time, one can recognize that there was something special going on there. But once news of Pride’s ties to the Yakuza came to light, the damage was done and the delicate balance appears to forever have been broken.

Zuffa bought Pride with intentions to continue the legacy, but found itself faced with insurmountable challenges and instead shuttered the promotion. Meanwhile, World Victory Road and Dream faced financial difficulties and struggles to gain sponsorships and lucrative television broadcast deals, eventually leading to their demise. Navigating the landscape of television and sponsorship deals, as well as sparking national interest, in the Land of the Rising Sun can be tricky.

But perhaps this is all for the best. Every fan who remembers the days of Pride longed for Sengoku and Dream to fill the void. Every once in a while, the promotions would deliver a great fight, but in reality it could never be the same. The fight cards were too inconsistent, in terms of both scheduling and the quality of the match-ups. And the fighters balked when they didn’t receive their promised pay.

The benefits of Dream’s death can already be seen: the UFC announced that it has signed reigning Dream bantamweight champion Bibiano Fernandes. Perhaps others will follow—just imagine a UFC talent pool that includes Tatsuya Kawajiri at featherweight and Shinya Aoki snapping bones at lightweight.

And another promotion, ONE Fighting Championship, is likely to fill the new void as the largest promotion in the Far East…just not in Japan. Although part of me wishes they wouldn’t, another part looks at this as a chance for a new beginning and a slightly different approach.

ONE isn’t looking to corner the Japanese market. The Singapore-based promotion is instead focused on the rest of Asia. With partnerships with the Filipino-based URCC, Thailand’s DARE Championship and the South Korean ROAD Fighting Championship, ONE has an impressive network of Asian talent from which to draw when constructing its event lineups. The promotion had also partnered with Dream recently, giving it an inside track on some talent that is now set to hit the open market.

ONE’s reach into Indonesia, the fourth largest country by population in the world, as well as the Philippines and even China makes for an intriguing audience. The UFC has been courting these markets as well, and perhaps the people of these countries will more readily embrace a homegrown promotion featuring Asian talent than would be possible in Japan. And ONE already has television deals in place, allowing it to grow a fan base amongst hundreds of millions of people.

Throw in the fact that the promotion has a soft spot for incorporating Pride rules into its regulations, and some of the Japanese and U.S. fans seeking a more Pride-like alternative to the UFC might be drawn in, as well.

And what of Japan?

Well, it would be nice to see some of its long-time promotions shine, out from under the shadow of the big dogs that ruled the spotlight for years and spent money to draw world-renowned talent to Japan’s shores. Instead of seeking the new alternative to Pride, maybe it’s time to let Japanese MMA grow organically again. Let’s turn to Shooto, Pancrase, Deep and Jewels.

But don’t demand these promotions start spending the big bucks, promoting the next Fedor Emelianenko versus some giant blubbery tomato can, or putting together television deals and sponsorships akin to those of Pride, Sengoku or Dream.

Instead, enjoy the talent that promotions such as Shooto nurture. Remember, that is where Shinya Aoki got his start. Ditto for Tatsuya Kawajiri and Takanori Gomi.

Instead of looking to the past, it’s time to acknowledge that Japanese MMA is different now. Pride is dead, and now so too are both of its successors. The smaller organizations soldier on, but expectations of a new rival to the UFC rising from the other side of the Pacific should not be entertained.

It’s time to move on.

Photo: Ikuhisa Minowa at Dream 17 (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

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