The first edition of Occupy The Throne with Samer Kadi takes a look at UFC 144; how the event was promoted, our expectations, and whether or not the show delivered.

JL: Unless you’ve been living in Japan, you may not have known that the UFC was in the Land of the Rising Sun until the event started on Saturday night. How was the marketing, Samer?

SK: For years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been gradually attempting to broaden its horizons by trying to leave its mark in new markets. After managing to dominate the PPV industry, and recently securing a monumental FOX deal that would finally bring the UFC to network television, global expansion became the next big company goal for the Zuffa brass. Having established their brand in Canada, England and Australia, Dana White and company have long expressed their desire to bring the Octagon to Brazil and Japan – two countries with rich mixed martial arts history.

The overwhelming success of the two “UFC Rio” cards in the past six months came as no surprise, as with an ever increasing number of elite Brazilian fighters – many of which enjoying remarkable success in the UFC – Brazil is currently experiencing an MMA boom. The PPV numbers weren’t exactly spectacular, but the cards’ success or failure were never going to be measured by PPV buy-rates. Instead, ticket sales, fan interest and local media fanfare were going to be the deciding factors, and on each front, the UFC managed to knock the ball out of the park.

Japan on the other hand, was always going to be a trickier issue. Unlike its South American counterpart, the Japanese MMA scene has taken a severe hit since the dissolution of Pride FC back in 2007, and it hasn’t recovered since. In fact, the rapid decline of some of Japan’s most iconic fighters, coupled with DREAM’s dire financial state, has seemingly left Japanese MMA gasping for air. Furthermore, the country’s recent troubles in light of last year’s tragic earthquake, as well as the Yakuza-related hurdles Zuffa had to overcome further added to the complications, leaving the UFC with an uphill battle to make the most out of their return to the land of the rising sun.

JL: This is why Samer Kadi is the best folks and why he’s going to make me look awesome for as long as we do this column. He took a simple question and not only answered it, but gave you a little bit of history as well. Appreciate what you’re reading everyone.

SK:In terms of marketing and match-making, the UFC were faced with a true test. The former in particular, would prove to be a real headache. As always, overseas cards tend to have very little coverage stateside, in large part due to the UFC not going all-out with their media campaigns. Instead they often choose to use their resources elsewhere, and intensify their promotional work in the country in which the event is taking place. Luckily, they caught a break: if nothing else, surprisingly strong ticket sales and a last-second television deal which saw the show broadcasted on free television in Japan guarantee a measure of success for the UFC’s trip to the Far East.

JL: The UFC definitely dropped the ball when it comes to marketing in the US. The video promo they put out that ran 100 times a day on television was garbage, not only in selling the two main fights, but also letting people know that the event was four hours and taking place in Japan, which should have been a big deal. A fan put out a much better video, that seemed to be a hit with everyone, that used Japanese animation and a song made famous during an episode of South Park. Granted the UFC couldn’t have run that video on TV, but the video was still so much better than anything put out by the organization, including their YouTube releases.

The problem with the UFC is that they rely way too much on social media to market their non-US shows and it just doesn’t work like they think it does. I guarantee you that at least half the casual viewers who watched this event didn’t realize the show was taking place in Japan until the card officially started.

Luckily they redeemed themselves with their marketing in Japan as they conformed to the wacky Japanese ways and released posters featuring animated versions of the fighters on the card and probably did a ton of other things that went unnoticed by people stateside.

SK: Match-making wise however, Joe Silva, Sean Shelby and Dana White blundered big time. Stacking the card with some of Japan’s most recognizable names was a no-brainer, but giving away a title fight in a division struggling for fan interest (as evidenced by previous PPV buy-rates) on a card that few people were going to witness in North America was a gross miscalculation. Despite its status as MMA’s most exciting division, the 155 lbs weight class has been struggling to make inroads on PPV since the end of BJ Penn’s title reign. Frankie Edgar’s two fights with Gray Maynard, while phenomenally action-packed, were nothing short of PPV flops. And with the now former champion’s fight with Ben Henderson taking place on an overseas card with minimal hype and coverage, many may not be aware of who the current lightweight champion is. Edgar-Henderson was a fight tailor-made for FOX, and the UFC dropped the ball by failing to capitalize.

JL:This is where I disagree with Samer.

I think Joe Silva and company put on a hell of a card for their return to Japan. Is a it shame that they wasted Henderson vs. Edgar on a PPV that no one watched? Yes, but had this card taken place in Las Vegas, would it have really done that much better? Sure they would have marketed it better in the US, but that doesn’t mean it would have done 100,000 extra buys. The UFC had to put on a strong card in their return to Japan and they did. The main card was seven fights for a reason, because all seven fights were main card worthy.

Where they blundered was not having a big time Japanese draw on the card, which I can’t blame them for as they couldn’t get Kazushi Sakuraba and the two big stars they have on the roster, “Kid” Yamamoto and Takanori Gomi, have failed to establish themselves in the UFC. They also only had one PRIDE star on the show and he apparently had to beg to get on the card. Dana’s logic was that he wanted to build towards the future, not live in the past, which I can understand.

SK: Had this card taken place in Las Vegas on PPV, it wouldn’t have done much better, no. Which is why I pointed out that Edgar-Henderson was a fight tailor-made for FOX. It would have provided both the UFC and FOX with a big main event to showcase on free television, while simultaneously allowing both competitors to display their skills in front of millions at home. Would this exposure guaranteed additional buys for the next time either fighter is on PPV? No, but it would have at least given people the opportunity to know that the current lightweight champion is in fact not the guy who knocked out Michael Bisping at UFC 100.”

JL: Dan and Ben might not be the same person, but Benson praises Dan’s chin after every fight. Can I get an AMEN on that?

I’ll agree with you that putting the fight on FOX would have given them more exposure, but the idea of the FOX card was to set up future title fights, which would hopefully lead to big PPV numbers. Granted it turned out horrible since Chael Sonnen barely won and Rashad Evans didn’t turn in an exciting fight, but I get what they were going for there.

With the marketing out of the way, what did you expect from the show in terms of production pageantry, fight quality, and anything else?

SK: On paper, the show looked like one of the most stacked fight cards in recent memory, and with it being the UFC’s long overdue return to Japan, there was a unique sense of anticipation among the hardcores. However, I wasn’t expecting anything else than a UFC show in Japan, in the sense that the production, overall presentation, and the general flow of the event was always going to be like any other. Many were discussing the possibility of using a ramp – perhaps in hope more than anything else – as well as other elements that would have given the show a Pride-esque feeling, but realistically, that was never going to be the case. And frankly, it didn’t really need to be. Of course, the overall spectacle during Pride events was something to behold, but that was never the UFC’s thing, and it was a bit rich to expect that to change simply due to the show taking place in Japan.

JL: Maybe it didn’t need to be, but it would have been nice if they did a little something different. After Dana came out and said, “this is going to be a UFC show in Japan, not a reincarnation of PRIDE” then I obviously expected nothing different.

Here’s the thing though, unlike when UFC went to England or Brazil or anywhere else, MMA was never as big there as it was in Japan with PRIDE. No one has found memories of Cage Rage or IVC so no one cared that the UFC didn’t give them a little shout out when they went to Birmingham or Rio. Would it have killed the UFC to introduce the main card fighters all at once at the start of the PPV or play the US National Anthem before the main event? I would have been fine with either one of those. Instead Bruce Buffer said, “Konichiwa” and got no reaction. I guess he didn’t know how to say, “the winner” in Japanese.

Thank Dan Henderson’s chin for the nice looking translator with the technicolor poof ball pen otherwise nothing would have felt different.

SK: Even the crowd didn’t sound too different than that of any other country. In fairness, the UFC tends to do a poor job of capturing the overall “feel” of the arena, but I didn’t think the crowd was your typical quiet Japanese card — at least that’s not how it came off on television. They booed a couple of decisions, jeered at one point when Ryan Bader was on top of Quinton Jackson, and rooted for their local fighters, as you would expect. Thus far, the one country where the crowd really managed to distinguish itself and give the show a whole new dimension is Brazil.

JL: Obviously Samer didn’t take his headphones off when watching the show, otherwise he would have heard just how quiet the crowd was during the event. I agree with him though and actually laughed at how hard Rogan and Goldberg tried to make it sound like the crowd was any different than any other event.

Overall, what did you think of the show?

SK: As far as the fights go, the card was mostly excellent. There were some quick finishes, stunning knockouts, a memorable come-from-behind victory, and an action-packed main event that lived up to its promise. Even “Rampage” Jackson’s uninspired performance was at least able to provide fans with one vintage moment that belongs in the highlight reels. For one reason or another, magic happens in the Octagon when the UFC visits “exotic” countries, and we’re better off for it.

JL: I’ll remember this card for one thing and one things only: Ben Henderson beating Frankie Edgar and pushing me to 3-0 against Samer in head-to-head main event picks.

It was also the first time Joe Rogan apologized for over exaggerating, which that alone makes it a pretty historic event. Overall the fights delivered, and even though I was disappointed that they didn’t make the event feel as special as they could have, in the end it’s about the fighters and I have no complaints about how most of them performed, especially the greatest heavyweight of all-time Mark Hunt.

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