- Thank you for taking time out from your very busy schedule.
Sakakibara: You are quite welcome.
- I understand that you are planning to make a major announcement very soon about the future of PRIDE.
Sakakibara: Yes. I'm making two big announcements on March 27. The first one is about me. I am resigning the post of the representative of PRIDE.
Sakakibara: And to continue the interview we had in the last issue of Kamipro, I have found a very good suitor for my "daughter" to marry (calmly).
Sakakibara: Please don't misunderstand my comment, PRIDE will continue. Personally I have mixed feelings. However, I have made my decision about the future of PRIDE.
- Who is your "daughter" marrying?
Sakakibara: (By interrupting the question) Before I give you the answer to your question, I have to make sure that I give a clear explanation and the background of my decision to the fans, otherwise they won't understand. I am going to say similar things at the press conference on March 27th about the various offers of investment and acquisition for PRIDE that came from many sources. I started to consider these offers or proposals after Fuji TV gave us a one-sided notice of termination for terrestrial TV broadcasting for PRIDE, totally out of blue, which happened in 2006.
- You are talking about the major incident that occurred last June, called the "Fuji TV shock."
Sakakibara: Because the sudden cancellation of PRIDE broadcasting was decided only by Fuji TV, on top of the negative affect caused by PRIDE losing TV broadcasting, our credibility was hugely damaged. They suddenly turned their backs on us.
- Because Fuji TV cut their relationship with PRIDE, the general public started to believe some magazines articles reporting PRIDE has touch point to an "anti-social organization."
Sakakibara: Their sudden decision to force PRIDE from the air gave credibility to the completely groundless articles which compromised my reputation and the reputation of DSE. Their influence was devastating. Many sponsors immediately decided to cut off deals. Hotels that we've been having a quite good relationship with, and using for our fighters, refused to allow them to stay, and vendors refused to work with us unless we paid in advance. A negative chain reaction triggered by the decision of Fuji TV was almost laughable and really appalling. If I could, I want to say it out loud that it is undeniable reality and fact that nothing happened to me or DSE up today. In fact, there was nothing to hide and no serious incident which would cause Fuji TV to finish broadcasting. As I have said on many occasions, the hardest thing is to prove what doesn't exist. One friend told me "Time provides the best cure".....but we cannot wait for time to heal the wounds.
- Also the big "tsunami" of the MMA boom in the US spearheaded by UFC was about to reach the shore.
Sakakibara: That was another big factor: The entry of powers with abundant financial resources and the big success of the UFC. Last year saw a major shift in the balance of power in the MMA market. If you compare the size of the MMA market between the U.S. and Japan, the U.S. market is 30, 40 times the size of the Japanese market.
- I had no clue how big it was, but I know it's a fact.
Sakakibara: The UFC have almost 1 million PPV subscribers, which is impossible to match for the size of the Japanese market. They are even coming neck and neck in ticket sales where we've been outperforming them. I also have to mention the sponsorship, and I am telling you that the sponsorship we've got for the show in Las Vegas was way higher than what we usually get in Japan.
- That's why PRIDE wants to go to the U.S.
Sakakibara: Come to think of the market value, you cannot ignore the difference in the market size between Japan and the U.S. So, the bad faith of Fuji TV and the booming American Market are two factors that have made it harder and harder for DSE to protect the best ring in the world.
- Haven't you ever thought that you wanted to keep doing PRIDE even if you had to lower the level of the ring?
Sakakibara: I feel kind of sad to marry off my "daughter," but that's better than making PRIDE a second-rate show, which would no longer be PRIDE. It's been 10 years since the birth of PRIDE, and PRIDE has always been presenting top-class fights by inviting the best fighters, i.e. top athletes, for the eternal human quest to be "the best in the world". It would be the American Major League, if it were baseball or Series A, if it were football. How could we make it the finest MMA show in the world? I guess one of the main reasons was the fight money being higher than other fighting organization.
- Higher than other rings, than any other organization?
Sakakibara: And because we had higher exposure and better fighters than the others, we could create an ideal pattern of fighters bringing in other fighters. Without a doubt, fighters all around the world placed a high value on fighting in PRIDE and they were proud to say "Being a champion in PRIDE proves he is the best in the world." Therefore, there were two things I thought I had to do before everything else when Fuji TV stopped broadcasting PRIDE. One, of course, was to restore confidence, i.e. to revive TV broadcasting. I set a deadline in my mind for this goal, and that was last New Year's Eve......
- But, you couldn't make it?
Sakakibara: To my regret, no. And the other challenge was to fill the corporate power gap between us and new comers such as Bodog and Elite XC, as well as the UFC, which was exponentially increasing profitability.
- In short, you wanted to reinforce the financial power and credibility in the worldwide market.
Sakakibara: Right. And in order to quickly accomplish these two goals, I needed to have rounds of top-secret negotiations and backroom meetings in both a patient and fearless way, which required a totally different mindset from the one for working to make the coming show successful. I can't go into details, but I've been working in Japan, as well as in the U.S., looking at all the possibilities.
- How do you evaluate the two PRIDE shows that you've done in the U.S. as part of these efforts?
Sakakibara: "PRIDE.32 - THE REAL DEAL" on October 21 was a trigger to build confidence and financial power in the U.S. market.
- You mean you got something very important beside the revenue from the show itself?
Sakakibara: Yes. I met with many investors and people from broadcasting before the show, but they didn't seem interested in PRIDE, or they took a wait-and-see approach. You may wonder why. That's not only because we have never had a show in the U.S., but also because they were wondering why Fuji TV stopped airing PRIDE in Japan, as well.
- Fuji TV had influence overseas as well (laughing)?
Sakakibara: They wondered why Fuji TV wasn't airing this excellent content. Fuji TV didn't give a full explanation about why they stopped broadcasting. But after the American people had first-hand experience of PRIDE on October 21, I felt a little shift in the tide.
- You can't feel it in Japan, but I heard the show in Las Vegas built up a really big reputation.
Sakakibara: We made such a good presentation to the U.S. market that I was contacted by many people with specific investment proposals and even for a buyout from the next day of the show. I also met Vince McMahon of the WWE who was interested in "joining together". He made me a very interesting proposal. Other people who contacted me included NBA officials, Wall Street investors in the entertainment businesses, and investors in Hollywood films. All of them really appreciated PRIDE and showed a lot of interest.
- I see. As you had many choices, which one did you look at in particular?
Sakakibara: The most important point was whether they had every factor required for protecting, maintaining, and developing PRIDE, which has been supported by Japanese fans and created by fighters and committed staff working together. If they have money but no knowledge or connections for setting up broadcasting and promoting in the U.S., they aren't the right choice.
- Whether they are able to make PRIDE shine more.
Sakakibara: PRIDE itself is perfect content. If we aired "Otokomatsuri (Shockwave)" show on TV last New Year's Eve. Tt should have got as high a rating as the same show did two years ago.
- So your decision is based on your regret that you can't present this wonderful show to the general public.
Sakakibara: Right. PRIDE cannot come back on TV because of the stigma placed on me, as I was picked on as a representative of DSE by Weekly Gendai magazine. You would say "Time is a great healer" though ...I thought if it's because of me, I should not stay here. I've done everything I could to protect PRIDE, to make it shine. I would have drunk muddy water if I had to. I've done everything I could to create an exciting place where fighters and fans can come together, at the cost of my private time and time with my family. So, I've been looking for the best way to revive TV broadcasting and to reinforce our financial clout and credibility since the beginning of this year, based on the premise of my resignation. There can be no breakthrough on this issue, other than by my resignation. That was my conclusion.
- You've been saying many times "If I resign and the problem is solved, I would resign today" haven't you?
Sakakibara: I would have resigned sooner if my resignation solved the whole problem. But setting up the environment for a stable and successful future for PRIDE was the major premise behind my resignation, and I didn't want my successor to take over a negative legacy. I couldn't make up my mind until everything was ready, because you can't marry off your "daughter" to a dubious man, can you? (laughing)
- Might be a marriage scam(laughing).
Sakakibara: That's why I couldn't resign from my position until everything was ready for immortalizing PRIDE. I made the subtitle of the New Year's Eve show "Fumetsu (Immortal)" because I had a picture of the coming press conference on March 27 already in my mind.
- Really! It sounded quite provocative for some reason, though.
Sakakibara: I was finally able to achieve my last mission to immortalize PRIDE. I will tell this to fans and the people working for us on March 27. I want to revive the tarnished image of PRIDE by my resignation. I will have no stake in DSE, and I will leave the boardroom. Then I want to ask Japanese TV stations, especially Fuji TV, what's wrong with PRIDE. I want them to submit a three-page report explaining why they can't broadcast this show. I mean it (laughing).
- Ha, ha, ha!
Sakakibara: I wouldn't say that I have no personal grudge or resentment, but I can tell you that it is nothing but a misfortune for the audience, the fighters, and the production staff not to have PRIDE shows on regular broadcasting. I believe that nobody would say "Don't bother to air PRIDE on TV!"
- You have my total agreement on this. And Rep, my question goes to a man who is marrying off his "daughter"....
Sakakibara: Yes, the men I have chosen as the new owners of PRIDE are ... Lorenzo and Frank, the Fertitta brothers.
- You mean UFC!!
Sakakibara: Don't go too fast. This is the conclusion I have reached after long consideration. It's NOT that PRIDE is being acquired by UFC. UFC is managed by Zuffa Entertainment and Mr.Dana White is the president of that company. The Fertitta brothers are the owners, and they will also be the new owners of PRIDE.
- In short, PRIDE will belong to the same group as UFC, being of equal rank to UFC.
Sakakibara: Right. Since the Fertitta brothers own the capital, PRIDE can now stand on an equal footing with UFC, officially able to meet it in head�to-head competition. It's not exciting at all for fans if UFC takes in PRIDE, and fighters cannot see any dream in that kind of setting. Needless to say, PRIDE and UFC cherish their own characteristics and will have fierce clashes for the better.
- Then PRIDE Light-Weight Grand Prix planned in May will be....
Sakakibara: � held as planned. And the biggest reason I have chosen them as the new owners is that they are in some ways my brothers in arms, fighting together to make MMA a popular sport worldwide. We have been the biggest rivals and competitors, but respected each other. Our competition has actually contributed to the growth of this sport to match other major sports such as boxing, football, and American football. Lorenzo and Frank love this sport, and they have experienced many hardships and learned a lot.
- No matter how rich he is, he has to love your "daughter" to marry her.
Sakakibara: That's why I can't give my "daughter" to a spoiled rich kid like BodogFight or Elite XC (laughing).
- Ha,ha,ha! Stay away from her (laughing).
Sakakibara: But seriously, we are seeing many big players jumping into this industry. To me, they all seem like the promoter of "Inoki Matsuri" in 2003.
- Uh-ha (laughing).
Sakakibara: Do they really know this sport? Do they sincerely love this sport? Are they really thinking about how to develop it? They buy fighters' minds with money and have them fight. What does Bodog want to show to the fans? What does Elite XC want to do? I have no doubt that their words are all lip service. They just want to do something like PRIDE or UFC is doing just because they might be able to make money. That's why the fans never get their message or understand their concept.
- But I bet you think that it's absolutely necessary to have competition in order to expand the mixed martial arts market.
Sakakibara: Of course. But there must be a certain set of rules or manners between the promoters in order to ensure the sound growth of the industry. As I have discussed with Lorenzo and Frank countless times, now that we have taken the trouble to raise MMA to become a popular sport, it makes no sense for the market to fall apart because of stupid competition for self-interest or nasty egoism of the promoters. If so, the "Major Two Brands" - UFC and PRIDE � should have a healthy competition, through give and take, by mutual support and understanding, and sometimes by changing. What can we accomplish if we work together in this way? We can realize one dream match after another that fans all around the world are dying to see.
- Dreams that could not be realized due to organizational obstacles will come true.
Sakakibara: It will be easy to make a match-up of Wanderlei Silva, representing PRIDE, vs Chuck Liddell, representing UFC. If Mirco Crocop becomes a UFC champ, he can come back to PRIDE to fight Fedor. Furthermore, you might be able to see an MMA "Super Bowl." You can have the ultimate dream of the UFC champion and the PRIDE champion fighting once a year in National Stadium or Dodger Stadium.
- They are not unrealistic dreams though, if UFC and PRIDE work together.
Sakakibara: So, there is no point if we keep saying self-righteously "PRIDE is the only place for deciding the best in the world!" If Fedor is gone, Mirco is gone, Nogueira is gone, Wanderlei is gone, and Gomi is gone ... we end up finding ourselves deciding the best in Tokyo.
- Ha, ha, ha! The best ring in Tokyo doesn't sound very intriguing or exciting (laughing).
Sakakibara: The history of PRIDE was written always by realizing what fans wanted to see. Over the last 10 years, we've been giving answers to the ultimate question, "Who is truly the best and strongest man?" among number of champs of various martial arts. If you want to keep doing it for the next 10, 20 years, you definitely need enormous amounts of capital. In fact, as this is a professional sport, we can't stop Mirco from leaving PRIDE for UFC. That was the saddest news for me and the staff, and of course for the fans. But business is business. No point in being sentimental and telling him "We've been always together, right?" Before we have the second case of this sort, and in order to protect the value and attractiveness of PRIDE, I wanted to ...
- Before PRIDE fades away, before it falls apart, you needed to pave the way.
Sakakibara: Plus, the honest feeling of the fans would be like "We don't care who the hell the president is. We just want to see PRIDE as it is!!" I personally want to see a rematch of Mirco and Fedor. Besides, if Mirco becomes a UFC champ and storms into the ring of PRIDE with the belt on, where Fedor is standing and waiting, ready to fight... No doubt their appearance alone will give you goose bumps. In fact, PRIDE Light-Weight Grand Prix on May 20 will be full of top UFC fighters. It will be the best place for deciding who the best lightweight fighter in the world is.
- This is the first benefit that the "union" brings about.
Sakakibara: Other benefits will also be brought about one after another. I want the loyal fans of PRIDE to say "There you are!", "Yes!" and dance with joy, and at the same time, I want the people losing interest in PRIDE to say "Seems interesting!" and turn their attention to PRIDE again. I have never seen such overwhelming dynamism of this sort in the history of martial arts, so if I can realize dream matches or dream stages which fascinate the fans by throwing away some of the passion and obsessions that I personally have, I can't miss this great opportunity.
- And the chance is quite high that PRIDE will come back on TV.
Sakakibara: This way, we can kill not only two birds, but three or four birds with one stone, and I can set up the best path for PRIDE to take for their eternal bright future as a brand. That's why I decided to ask them to be the owner.
- But what about Dream Stage Entertainment?
Sakakibara: DSE will remain as it is, but all the employees except me will resign DSE and move to the new organization which is going to manage PRIDE. They have been in a rowboat, and now they are moving onto a massive aircraft carrier which can cross the Pacific Ocean in a single thrust...leaving me in the rowboat (laughing).
- ...quite right (laughing). So, you are sending off PRIDE to set out for its renewed voyage.
Sakakibara: The captain of the rowboat will row the boat by himself away from PRIDE. And I am seeing off my sweetest, dearest "daughter", PRIDE, wishing her a happy future on the new aircraft carrier and wishing the crew of the next generation further success for another 10 years, based on the last 10 years.
- So is this a cheerful separation for you?
Sakakibara: Indeed, whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow, and come to think of it, you may know that every year a Buddhist monk chooses one kanji(Chinese character) word which best represents the year.
- Yeah, it was "inochi (life)" for the last year, maybe because there were many suicides of bullied students.
Sakakibara: For me, it was "Uragiri (being betrayed)" for 2006 (laughing).
- Rep, that's not even one word.
Sakakibara: One word is not enough for what I've been through (laughing).
- "Wakare (separation)" could be a better choice (laugh).
Sakakibara: As I said, there is a parting on the flip side of a meeting, and there is betrayal on the opposite side of trust, and I think I have got over every kind of feeling. What Fuji TV did was a big betrayal for me, and there were many who followed suit for whatever reason and betrayed me and PRIDE. But there were as many fans and guys who tried to support PRIDE, trusted me, and loved PRIDE all the more because we have been through difficult times. It has become clear to me over the last year, among all the people around me, who were the most precious. And I really appreciate the support of fans who kept shouting for us until they went hoarse. We couldn't make it through without them. I want to take this opportunity to say heartfelt thanks to those who gave PRIDE and me such huge support.
- What these fans want to know most should be whether PRIDE will continue being PRIDE. No matter how much you assure them that PRIDE is here to stay, they will worry that PRIDE might end up being a minor league of UFC. What would you say about that?
Sakakibara: No, that's not going to happen (firmly). There is no reason for PRIDE to back off, let alone draw back. There will be no change at all � from the production to the operation staff to the ring announcers.
- The world of PRIDE will never fall apart, right?
Sakakibara: Never ever. As I said in an interview with Kamipro magazine, if it is a factory or real estate or anything tangible, you should sell it to someone who gives you the highest bid. But PRIDE is a living thing, an intangible "space" created jointly by fighters, staff, and fans.
- You mean that PRIDE provides the crowd with something that has no shape. Right, it's not Fedor or Nogueira but that entire space, that "heat" that the crowd appreciate the best in the show.
Sakakibra: Yes, but that's invisible. It's not something that you can show to your friend and say "See? It's red and shaped like this." But still they come to see the show, looking for excitement, thrills and inspiration in that surreal space. Since our business is to create something shapeless and transform it into sales value, it is not necessarily the best option to sell to a company which pays the most. In case you don't know what has brought Lorenzo and Frank into the martial arts business, I can tell you that it all started when they saw 2000 PRIDE Grand Prix in PPV in the US.
- So they are fully aware of what PRIDE is all about?
Sakakibara: Yes. They were so impressed with the wonder and beauty of this sport that they have become owners of UFC. So they love PRIDE more than anything else. They know everything about PRIDE, and they even say that PRIDE is Japanese culture created by Japanese people so it should be left untouched. PRIDE should be presented clearly as PRIDE, as it always has been, or may be beyond that. If it survives only as a minor league show, it's better to just kill it.
- Being a minor league, that's the end of PRIDE.
Sakakibara: It doesn't make sense at all to keep PRIDE in the industry this way, and I am telling you that the name of the new organization is PRIDE WORLDWIDE. The message behind it is "Let's spread PRIDE all around the world. Let's make it worldwide!!" I proposed PRIDE ENTERTAINMENT, but Lorenzo told me "Why don't we let people around the world know about PRIDE? This is a wonderful show!", so his passion influenced the company name. It's got his message: "Let's be more aggressive than ever in marketing this show as the No.1 ring in the world. So, I want to let the fans know that PRIDE and UFC will stay rivals forever. But if the two organizations hate each other to death, they just end up in tug-of-war for fighters or might be bogged down in a box-office war. That's why we share the owners who serve as a sort of commissioner to avoid this kind of mess.
- To sum up, the Fertitta brothers will own both PRIDE and UFC, and Dana White is leading UFC. Who will be the leader of PRIDE FC WORLDWIDE?
Sakakibara: It's still under careful discussion, but Lorenzo and Frank will decide the American representative in a few days. Mr. Takada � Mr. PRIDE � will remain as the Japanese spokesman.
- So, we can hear again his famous "Torihada Tatta!! (I got all goose-bumpy!!)" can't we (laughing)? And the show is not going 100% to the U.S. We can still see the show a few times a year in Japan, right?
Sakakibara: Of course, Japan is always the home of PRIDE. Plus, needless to say, there will be a show four to five times a year in the U.S.
- Can we go back a bit? I mean when did you make the final decision?
Sakakibara: We didn't sign a contract till March. In Los Angeles, I met their lawyers,my lawyer and Lorenzo joined through the phone. We said "All right, let's close the deal", but for some reasons, I couldn't sign right away.
- Though you were in agreement?
Sakakibara: I guess I really hated or I was afraid to see things going on mechanically and inorganically. I happened to be hungry at that time, so I said "Give me 30 minutes for a cup of coffee", went to Starbucks alone, and thought hard wondering "Is this really the way to make PRIDE happy?" I wasn't happy at all!
- That's exactly the feeling of a father who is marrying off his daughter.
Sakakibara: You bet (laughing)! I had thought I would have been happier or relieved to be able to pave the way for the future of PRIDE, but I was kind of sad....no wonder because PRIDE was flying out of my hands. Looking back at the last 10 years, I find myself spending 80 to 90 % of my life for PRIDE. I have never thought about separating from my beloved PRIDE. I never doubted my belief that when I was gone, PRIDE would be gone, too, and when PRIDE was gone, I would be gone. So I was obsessed with extreme sentimentalism, but told myself that I should go the way I believe to be the best. I knew that although I was personally sad, that was the best road to take for the fans, the fighters, and the staff. So, I went back to the room and signed the contract.
- Could you tell us the most impressive bout for you in the last 10 years?
Sakakibara: .................If I look back at the whole history of PRIDE, I would say Takada vs Rickson Gracie in PRIDE 1.
- The very first PRIDE match.
Sakakibara: I met Mr. Takada, I met Mr. Rickson Gracie, and that gave birth to PRIDE. It was when I was working for Tokai TVJ that I drew up a two-page project proposal to make their bout happen. I submitted it to a general meeting, and everybody gave no reaction, just scornful looks (laughing).
- Like "What the hell is this boy talking about?"
Sakakibara: It was nothing but a stupid two-page proposal of a young kid sitting in the little corner of a local TV station, so they weren't excited at all. "What? Tokyo Dome? Have you ever booked Tokyo Dome?" "No, I haven't even been there!" (laughing)
- Ha, ha, ha! "But I want to do it!" (laughing)
Sakakibara: That's why I cannot forget that fight. Nothing has affected me as much as that moment. That first experience was so shocking and frustrating that I couldn�t move for 10 minutes after the match. The fight was over in four minutes and forty-seven seconds! What a contrast between the time I spent making it happen and the time of the match. I was suddenly caught with an idea "What I did was just all wrong?" But as I told my guys, "We might be where we are because he lost."
- If he defeated Rickson Gracie, he might not have been in the PRIDE ring ever again.
Sakakibara: But what I was drawing in my mind was a picture of victorious Takada. I wanted to make it a dream only for one night. However, negative energy out of his loss brought about the next show, and the next, and the next, up until now. I think that Mr. Takada himself wasn't so passionate at first, too. He had some struggles in his mind until he decided to fight against Rickson, but his decision actually was the first step to rewrite world martial arts history, so that's really something.
- It's unbelievable that that "one night of fantasy" was almost ten years ago.
Sakakibara: It's miracle! Nobody thought 10 years ahead at that time. Nobody even tried to dream about it. There was lots to learn from losses and failures. People say that fighters become stronger by losing a fight, but so does the promoter. This is something BodogFight or Elite XC can never experience. PRIDE and UFC have a history built on their own experiences. I believe that they can continue growing as long as they have them.
- And PRIDE 34 on April 8 will be the final PRIDE for you as the representative....
Sakakibara: It also marks the 10 year anniversary, so I am thinking about a commemorative project for looking back at the whole history with some nostalgia.
- You definitely need to flood the crowd's memory if it's a commemorative evening.
Sakakibara: You can be nostalgic because PRIDE has a history and stories to tell, so we'll do the best to have everyone remember April 8 forever ... You know, I am very proud of the fact that PRIDE, which started with a two-page proposal, has won over people's hearts and minds and has been spotlighted not only as a sport, but also as also as a business, and � I don't deny my egoism and personal desire or goal, but we should not be obsessed with these kinds of petty things. We have to draw a bigger picture. I would like the new staff to do it, too.
- Got it. The last question The history of PRIDE is also the history of Kazushi Sakuraba, right?
Sakakibara:PRIDE wouldn't have been what it is without him. There is no doubt that I am so into him after Mr. Takada. That's why I even want him to make his retirement match in PRIDE while I still represent PRIDE ... No idea what he thinks about it, though (laughing).
- You are so passionate about him.
Sakuraba: I have had sincere passion about him, and although there were some misunderstandings, it's wonderful if he comes back and makes his retirement match with PRIDE. I am so sick of hearing "I don't like that guy", "He did that to me", or things like that. These are nothing but tiny, petty things happening in the small island of Japan, so.....
Sakakibara: Retire with me, Sak! (laughing)
- Ha, ha, ha! Don't force him to retire, please (laughing).
Sakakibara: Just kidding, but he is really working very hard, so I will keep giving him my humble support.
- That reminds me that Kamipro was first published because PRIDE started, thanks to your two-page proposal.
Sakakibara: Oh, yeah? Then shall we quit together? (laughing)
- Yes! We are willing to have Yamaguchi resign (laughing). And then we are very much looking forward to the next show, PRIDE.34 "KAMIKAZE"!