HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki widely is considered a torchbearer for MMA in Japan. And he's very protective of its landscape, particularly when it comes to the interests of stateside promoters.
UFC president Dana White repeatedly has said he's interested in returning to Japan for the first time since Zuffa, LLC purchased the promotion in 2001. But he blames "dirty, sneaky, bad guys" from keeping the promotion out of the country.
White will not throw in the towel on going to Japan. But Aoki believes the UFC – to put it nicely – is fighting an uphill battle.
"I think the UFC in Japan will not be successful," Aoki told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
) through a translator on Wednesday during a press conference promoting his April 17 fight with Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez at "Strikeforce: Nashville." "It's a very special market."
Next week, it will be three years since the UFC purchased PRIDE Fighting Championships. After the buyout, it was widely expected the American promotion would use the acquisition to enter the Japanese market either by continuing to hold shows under the PRIDE banner or rebranding the Japanese promotion.
Instead, PRIDE was shuttered and all its employees let go. Aoki, a breakout star in the fallen promotion, was suddenly out of a job. A huge void opened in the Japanese MMA scene.
White later said he wanted to keep PRIDE alive but implied that the people around the promotion did not want to cede its control.
"We brought PRIDE to keep PRIDE running," White said this past July. "But that wasn't their plan over there. That was their plan when they were sitting across a table from us telling us when we were buying it, but they had other plans. They can shut things off and basically do whatever they want over there."
Aoki refused to follow many PRIDE fighters in signing with the UFC, though he welcomed a fight with UFC lightweight champ B.J. Penn as one of his "selfish" wishes and said he respects the American promotion.
Nearly a year later, several former PRIDE staffers banded together with members of Fight Entertainment Group, the promotion behind the country's other powerhouse, K-1, and formed DREAM, where Aoki instantly made a home and eventually won its lightweight championship.
Talk of a UFC return to Japan periodically has surfaced with the promotion going so far as to create a "UFC Japan" Web site in 2009. But the prospect of seeing an octagon in the country seems no further along than it was three years ago. It was December 2000 when the promotion last touched down in Tokyo for "UFC 29: Defense of the Belts."
A breach-of0contract lawsuit filed against the UFC by PRIDE's former owners alleging that Zuffa, LLC misrepresented its intentions to keep the promotion afloat was dismissed in January.
Unsurprisingly, Aoki believes only Japan-based promotions – DREAM, World Victory Road, and DEEP – can succeed in the marketplace.
This past August, Strikeforce and DREAM announced an alliance that would allow them to swap talent. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker, once an employee of K-1's American branch, said importing DREAM talent such as Aoki is a priority.
Aoki said the goal of his first trip to America is to send a message to the MMA world, not fulfill a goal to face stateside fighters.
"It's not a goal because I don't think the U.S. (is) the No. 1 (place to fight in the world)," he said. "I feel DREAM is No. 1."
White, meanwhile, promises the UFC eventually will have have its day in the Land of the Rising Sun.
"They're going to have to kill me," White said. "That's where they're going to have to do. We're coming there no matter what. We're coming there. We're going to break through this thing. We're going to get past these dirty, sneaky, bad guys in Japan, and we're going to make it happen."