UFC in Japan: Just business as usual?

It was with considerable fanfare in September that the UFC announced its first trip back to Japan since the year 2000.

Given that country’s important role in the evolution of “modern” MMA, it’s pretty tempting to cast Saturday's UFC 144 as something more than just another step in the company’s ongoing international expansion. Japan was once the capital of a burgeoning MMA world; the fact that the UFC will now put boots on the ground there for the first time since its buyout of the Pride organization in 2007 has to mean, well, something.

But what, exactly?

Is it a throwback to the sport’s formative years, or a measuring stick of how far we’ve come? Is it an homage to the memory of Pride, or a Gilbert Yvel-style thumb to its eye?

As usual, there is no shortage of opinions on the subject. The UFC’s return to Japan has been hailed by some as a triumph -- not to mention a shot in the arm for a national MMA market badly in decline -- and lambasted by others as an empty gesture, the promotional equivalent of scaling Everest simply to prove it can be done.

It’s true that for years the UFC avoided Japan, and for the company to return only now that it’s established near-total dominance over the industry -- with a supersized, four-hour broadcast and a host of old and new stars -- it’s hard not to read it at least in part as a not-so-subtle flexing of organizational muscle.

In practical terms, though, there’s not much that separates this weekend’s effort from next month’s trip to Australia, or to Sweden the month after that, or to Brazil this summer.

If you ignore the history, UFC 144 will likely follow the same general script as most of the company’s overseas shows. The card will be stocked with homegrown talent, and one of the UFC’s lighter-weight champions will defend his belt in the evening’s main event. The other end of the card will get under way early in the day to serve a mostly American television audience.

So, yeah, pretty much by-the-book.

Wherever it treks, the UFC’s product remains its one constant. Short of breaking out Pride’s big, blindingly white ring and dusting off knees on the ground (both of which would be cool, if totally impractical), the “return to Japan” storyline has only so much juice if this UFC show is going to be just like any other. Japan likely won’t become a regular stop for the UFC, nor will it probably win the preferred status that markets like Canada and Brazil now enjoy. Japanese MMA will likely never again be what it once was.

In more intangible ways though, yeah, this one feels different. For those of us who have fond memories of crowding together at our buddies’ houses to watch mail-order DVDs (or even VHS tapes) of guys like Wanderlei Silva, the Nogueira brothers and that most elusive beast of all -- Fedor Emelianenko -- it’ll bring back memories.

There will no doubt be a slickly produced video package paying tribute to those days. And because the UFC now owns the tape library, that will also be our reminder that those days are gone forever.