The Ultimate The Ultimate Fighter: TUF 16 v. TUF: The Smashes – Week 1

For the first time ever, there are two versions of The Ultimate Fighter running side by side.  Last year, TUF 15 (aka TUF: Live) and TUF: Brazil had some overlap, but there was enough distance between the two that a direct comparison wasn’t warranted.  However, with the Australia/UK edition of TUF and the American edition having started on September 20 and September 21 respectively (not including the previous week’s preliminary fights), it makes a lot of sense to put the shows head-to-head and see which version is superior.  Despite the experience of “TUF Classic”, I actually have The Smashes going in as a slight favourite due to it naturally feeling fresher, but let’s see how this shakes out.

Team Colours:

Team Carwin (actually yellow on the show, but brown for the purposes of this article)
Team Nelson
Team Pearson (actually blue on the show, but red for the purposes of this article)
Team Sotiropoulos

(TUF: The Smashes – September 19, 2012, TUF 16 – September 21, 2012)

The Cast

TUF 16 got a lot of the fighter backgrounds out of the way during the preliminary show leaving them free to focus on team dynamics during the first in-house episode.  There are a couple of Canadians in the house, Mike Ricci and Michael Hill, and they immediately bond over an air of superiority and wine.  I’m filled with national pride at this point.  From a talent standpoint, Shane Carwin’s team has three guys who have fought for major promotions: “Smilin’ Sam Alvey (Bellator), James Chaney (Tachi Palace Fights) and Bristol Marunde (Strikeforce).

Huh.  I wonder how ol’ Sam got his nickname…

I don’t know much about the Smashes cast, but at a glance it definitely feels like TUF 16 has the stronger roster.

Since it’s meant for a new audience, Smashes has to provide some extra scenes in the introduction, including a look at the selection process and footage of the fighters saying good-bye to their friends and family.  It’s a nice touch, even for veteran viewers.

5 minutes in and the accents are already making everything better.  Richie Vaculik talks about his enjoyment of surfing.  An Australian who surfs?  Get outta town!  At age 19, Patrick Iodice is the youngest TUF contestant ever and he reminds me of a young Kenny Florian.  Speaking of resemblances, Brit Michael Pastou looks a lot like my friend Daryl…

…if Daryl were on a steady diet of horse steroids.

UK Daryl serves as the focus of the first episode, drawing a lot of attention for being one of the bigger lightweights in the house.  He shares the story of how his wife left him due to his passion for MMA.  This focus all but foreshadows something horrible happening to him and sure enough, he hurts his arm during training and has to go to the doctor.  Sorry, UK Daryl.

Other highlights are Valentino Petrescu (who is both Romanian and an ex-carnie making him my cousin Derek’s favourite fighter by default) and Colin “Freakshow” Fletcher who arrives at the house wearing some kind of blue bodysuit and a bowler hat.  He looks like the lovechild of the Green Man and Mr. Mxyzptlk.

Even though the TUF 16 guys could likely kick the majority of the Smashes’ guys asses, the Smashes’ gang is showing way more personality right now.  Also, accents.

Advantage: 10-10, Draw

The Coaches

Carwin and Roy Nelson act exactly as you would expect, with Carwin being the educated and straight-laced coach while Nelson plays things a bit more laid back.  It’s almost like a cliché-ridden buddy cop movie.  One’s an engineer!  One has a mullet!  Together, they are…Heavy Duty!  Pew Pew!  They editing team is really going to have to play up that difference, because neither guy seems too interested in being on television.  It should be noted that while we haven’t seen Nelson’s trainers yet, Carwin brought in the big guns.  His staff includes Trevor Wittman (a prominent figure on Team Rashad Evans during season 10), UFC fighters Pat Barry and Duane Ludwig, and reigning Strikeforce Welterweight Champion Nate Marquardt.  It’s unfortunate that Roy Nelson was denied his coaching staff of TNA superstar Kurt Angle, former Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion “King” Mo Lawal, BALCO president Victor Conte and José Canseco.  I may have made that last one up.

George Sotiropoulos and Ross Pearson on the other hand seem way more involved, undoubtedly spurred on by the Australia vs. UK angle.  They seem genuinely invested in the success of their countrymen.  This is also the first season to have two coaches who are a product of TUF (Sotiropoulos – season 6, Pearson – season 9).  Another quirk that I like is that the contestants are close enough in weight to the coaches that they could actually fight some day.  So if they feel like beefing with the opposing coach, it could actually end up going somewhere (unlike the Cody McKenzie/Josh Koscheck feud, in which Koscheck came off as being totally gay bones for McKenzie).

Advantage: 10-9, TUF: The Smashes

Shenanigans

If I never see another prank on the show, it will be too soon.  The TUF 16 “hilarity” revolves around Julian Lane setting up a jug of flour to fall on Ricci.  Ooh, sick burn!  You know it’s a bad sign when you long for the days of the “upper-decker”.

The Smashes doesn’t fare much better as the Aussies decide to (brace yourself) move the UK team’s bags to another room!

Still, the new edition is going to run away with it due to some unintentional comedy courtesy of Petrescu and Benny Alloway.  During the post-weigh-in photo op, Petrescu pushes Alloway’s arm out of the way, which leads to the never homoerotic forehead to forehead showdown.  The situation is not helped by Alloway saying, “I just want to go to him, and, you know, f**k him.”  I’m not paraphrasing.

Advantage: 10-9, TUF: The Smashes

Drama

TUF 16 showcased a growing rivalry between Lane and Matt Secor who addresses Lane’s mohawk, saying that it’s pink and “the colour of pu**y, that’s why we like it.”  For whatever reason, Lane doesn’t take this as a compliment.  Amusingly, the two share a bed right next to each other.  So I guess anytime Secor is feeling lonely he can just look over at Lane’s hair and think warm thoughts.  I didn’t find their bickering particularly compelling, but next week’s teaser promises a dispute revolving around one housemate whistling too loudly.  Hoo boy.

The Smashes centred on the predictable segregation between the two teams and UK Daryl’s arm injury.  It turns out that he has a torn bicep and when the news is delivered it crushes him instantly.  It looks like he’s going to need surgery, but the episode leaves it open to whether he’s going to try and work his way through it.  It’s not a positive in any way, but I’m a sucker for injury drama so another point to The Smashes.

Advantage: 10-9, TUF: The Smashes

The Fights

TUF 16 Welterweight Bout: Neil Magny d. Cameron Diffley via UD (20-18 x3)

Nelson won the coin flip last week and decides he wanted to pick the first fight.  He tells Neil Magny he got him something for his birthday: a fight with respected Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu trainer Cameron Diffley.  Nelson believes that Diffley’s specialty will put Magny in some awkward positions, but it’s Magny who controls the fight with a nice jab and takedown defence.  When the fight does go to the ground, Diffley takes too much time going for leg submissions instead of sweeping as Nelson suggests.  Unable to get his BJJ game going, Diffley drops the unanimous decision to a sharp Magny.

TUF: The Smashes Welterweight Bout: Benny Alloway d. Valentino Petrescu via TKO (:42, R2)

It looks like a mismatch as Petrescu has several advantages going in his favour: he’s bigger (Alloway looks like he could make lightweight easy), one his coaches trained with Alloway in the past, and the motherf**er used to be a carnie!  None of that seems to matter when they get in the cage as Alloway shows good evasiveness while waiting for an opening.  Petrescu lands some solid shots, but an errant kick leads to Alloway executing a beautiful takedown that likely wins the round for him.  It’s a moot point in the second as Alloway lands a funky half hook/half uppercut that Pearson calls a “shovel punch” that leaves Petrescu all shook up.  He falls face down on his knees and Alloway follows up with punches to win by TKO.  The Smashes fight was definitely more exciting and surprising especially considering how I thought Petrescu would have Alloway for breakfast.

Advantage: 10-9, TUF: The Smashes

Final Score: 50-46, TUF: The Smashes

So the expansion series takes first blood, as I thought it might.  There’s a different feel to it that you can only get from a dramatic change in setting.  There’s less cynicism.  Other Smashes highlights that I didn’t have a place for in the column are the magnificent seaside view from the Australia house, a stirring visit by Dana White and two new ring girls, Kahili Blundell and Kristie McKeon (who is apparently Pearson’s girlfriend).  Take us out, ladies!

All Apologies

For lack of a better phrase, I am someone who partakes in the UFC Kool-Aid.  I buy into the hype, I accept their excuses and I maintain that, for the most part, the company has been onward and upward for the better part of the last decade.  This mindset has proven rewarding, but also frustrating especially in recent months.  I’ve made my feelings on the UFC 151 debacle be known, but there were two more happenings that I wanted to address.

By the grace of God, UFC 152 actually went down this weekend with its card only having undergone few revisions (one major loss was a Rory MacDonald-B.J. Penn match that has been pushed back to December).  The event had a weird vibe in the wake of UFC 151’s cancellation and there’s no secret that ticket sales were not as brisk as they were for the last two trips to Toronto.  While watching the show, I would describe myself as being relieved rather than excited.  It was like watching a Raptors game after the NBA came out of their strike last year.  Then again, I’m never relieved or excited about watching the Raptors so that might not be the best example.

As it was, the action felt oddly listless.  Cub Swanson started things off with a chilling knockout of Charles Oliveira.  After getting slammed with a hard body shot followed by an overhead right, Oliveira looked like someone who just smelled a vicious fart.  I’ve heard of the “stanky leg”, but that might have been the first “stanky face”.  The next three fights all went to decision, which isn’t a bad thing and spoke more to the level of talent than any shortcomings on the fighters’ part (with the exception of Matt Hamill and Roger Hollett.  Hamill looked rusty in his comeback fight despite being spoon-fed Hollett, a debutant who was clearly not ready for prime time).

It was the co-main event, a battle between Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez for the right to be crowned the inaugural UFC Flyweight Champion, which brought renewed drama.  The fight itself was good.  Both men are gifted athletes (in my opinion, Benavidez has been a top 20 pound-for-pound fighter for a while), but they were so evenly matched that it was difficult for either guy to gain a noticeable advantage (other than a knockdown and attempted guillotine in the 4th by Benavidez).  It was a fine technical match that failed to win over the Toronto crowd who periodically booed.  This drew the ire of Dana White:

Let me tell you what: If you didn’t like that flyweight title fight, please, I’m begging you, don’t ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again.

Don’t ever buy another one.  I don’t want your money.  You’re a moron, you don’t like fighting, you don’t appreciate great talent, or heart, if you didn’t like that flyweight fight.

Guess what: Every fight you see in the UFC, two guys aren’t going to run at each other and just start swinging like mad men.  These two guys have worked their entire lives to get to this point, and it’s a five-round title fight.  If they can get the knockout or the submission quick, sure they’re going to go for it.  But the guys are so talented.  You have the world champion here and the second-best guy in the world.  It’s just insane.

Suffice to say, White didn’t agree with some fans on this night.  I’m not sure what he expects though.  All we see in the advertising is highlight reel knockouts and submissions.  That’s the sort of thing that brings in the casuals, which makes up a large part of the modern UFC viewership.  Paying for a ticket doesn’t give fans an excuse to be jerks (I don’t care how much money people spend on things, NOTHING gives you an excuse to be a jerk), but I strongly disagree that anyone who didn’t enjoy the fight is a “moron”.  White decries the notion that all fights should be mindless brawls, but on that same token, not all well-fought contests are instant classics.

The other news that irked me was his disregard for the plummeting ratings of The Ultimate Fighter, another topic that has my attention.  It’s one thing to defend your product; it’s another to claim that criticisms of the program are without merit.  He even admits that while FX is happy with the Friday ratings, it would be doing better numbers on Wednesday.  I’m well aware that they dominate their demographic (males, age 18-34), but demographics aren’t everything.  The court of public opinion matters too and the verdict has been loud and clear: we don’t care about this show anymore.

I’ve always liked how upfront White is with fans and the media and I firmly believe his confrontational attitude does far more good for the company than most people give him credit for, but now that the UFC is in a state of flux (an evolving fan base, an increased emphasis on ratings and advertising dollars, dealing with widespread injuries) he’s going to have to start measuring his words.  It’s easy to ignore the faults when you’re on top, but you have to be prepared when the foundations start to wobble.

What’s Up With The Ultimate Fighter?

For the last few years, The Ultimate Fighter has become increasingly irrelevant and it’s not hard to see why.  The format of the show has remained mostly unchanged for the last few years, with the exception of last season’s switch to a live format that resulted in the lowest ratings in series history.  So what are some of the problems and what can be done to fix them?

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What works:

Single weight divisions

The first four TUF seasons all featured two different weight classes and it wasn’t until TUF 5, when the UFC sought to revitalize its lightweight division that we saw 16 fighters competing for only one contract.  The single division format allows for a better comparison of the fighters on the show plus the winner has a more difficult road to the championship.  It also allows fighters who have beef with each other to potentially settle it inside the cage instead of with half-assed arguments.  On the “UK vs. US” season, teammates Jason Pierce and Santino DeFranco didn’t get along, causing Pierce to challenge him to “jump weight”.  Of course, the whole incident resulted in nothing and was absolutely pointless.

Pre-recorded fights

Near as I can tell, the reason they went live last year was two-fold: one, to avoid any chance of the season being spoiled and two, to create that buzz that can only come with live television.

I, for one, have never had any season of TUF spoiled for me and it seems to be easy enough to avoid if you aren’t looking for it.  The show has always had a slew of experienced reality television producers behind it and they seem to know how to keep their results hidden, probably through some combination of money and the threat of violence.

As for creating buzz, that concept fell flat on its face.  Live or pre-recorded, the anticipation for a fight is always going to depend on the fighters themselves.  Not to mention the fact that other than being live, the filming of the fights was exactly the same as every other season.  If I showed you clips from different seasons of TUF including ones from last year, you wouldn’t be able to tell me which ones were live and which weren’t.

Fight to get in

I actually wasn’t a proponent of this at first because I felt like it gave the show runners less control over who makes it into the house, putting an emphasis on talent over personality.  That sounds ideal, but in reality television casting is everything.  I’m not sure I’d want them to throw 16 drunken jackasses into the house, but you need compelling personalities to keep viewers tuned in.  I can remember maybe three or four cast members from each of the last few seasons and I’m someone who still gives a damn!  Ask any fight fan about that first season and they can probably tell you something about the majority of the cast.  Even Jason Thacker is “that guy who had his bed pissed on by Chris Leben”.

Still, I can’t deny that it makes for an exciting first episode and it allows us to form strong opinions about the fighters right out of the gate.  We get to see how they talk, how they move, how hard they hit, how they celebrate…even beyond the brief pre-fight packages, everything we see about a fighter in the cage informs us about him, whether we realize it or not.  With a television show, you’re never getting the whole story but it’s nice to be able to get a small morsel to nibble on.

What doesn’t work:

Friday nights aren’t alright for fighting

This is such an easy fix and it drives me crazy that they won’t move the show back to Wednesdays.  Last season was the first time the show was broadcast on a Friday night.  Last season was the least watched season.  Last Friday, TUF 16 had the lowest ratings for a debut episode.  Is there anything else that needs to be said here?

People have lives.  They want to go out and dance and drink and screw.  That core group that’s going to get together with their buds to watch the show is going to be there no matter what.  They could put the show on at 3 AM on a Tuesday and I’d probably still set aside time for it, but I’m not who they need to appeal to.  Wednesday was a perfect night to catch casuals in the middle of the week who are just flipping around looking for something interesting to watch after Survivor and American Idol.  The only kinds of people who are out of the house drinking and causing trouble on Wednesdays are college kids and the Latino side of my extended family.

Save the drama for your mama

On the flipside, the antics that were once so integral to drawing in viewers aren’t as necessary anymore.  I know I wrote that we need compelling personalities, but that doesn’t mean guys should be getting smashed and going on a rampage every episode.  While the emotional breakdowns of Chris Leben, Jesse Taylor and (*sigh*) Junie Browning were undeniably entertaining, the shtick gets old quickly and worse, it paints a bad picture of professional fighters.  If you focus on the malcontents, what is the public supposed to think?  Judging by last week’s post-episode teaser, proudly mohawk’d Julian Lane looks to be this year’s “breakout star”.  I’m rolling my eyes already.

Coaches shouldn’t have to fight

This might sound silly as the show provides an excellent vehicle for a storyline to be built up between two name fighters, but what’s the last fight you really looked forward to that was facilitated by the show?

Chuck Liddell/Tito Ortiz III?  Please.

Georges St-Pierre/Josh Koscheck II?  This title fight was scheduled anyway, so why did it need the show?

Brock Lesnar/Junior dos Santos?  Hmm…okay, I was down for this one.

Michael Bisping/Jason Miller?  Oh, the “Mayhem” Miller who was 0-1 in the UFC?

Dominick Cruz/Urijah Faber III?  See GSP/Kos II.

Even worse, 3 of those 5 bouts were changed due to injury (4 of 6 if you include TUF: Brazil, where Vitor Belfort was unable to meet Wanderlei Silva for their rematch).  Delaying the fights only increases the likelihood of misfortune.  The last matchup to truly benefit from the show was Rampage Jackson/Rashad Evans and that was over three years ago!  Building up the fights was once a wonderful ancillary benefit to the show, but that was during a time when there were fewer events so it didn’t matter if a fighter was put on the shelf for six to eight months.

Case in point, from Liddell’s fight against Vernon White at UFC 49 in August 2004 and his TUF showcased rematch with Randy Couture at UFC 52 in April 2005, there were two UFC events.  From August 2011 to April 2012, there were almost twenty UFC events.  There are more opportunities for fighters these days and now we’re just changing fighters’ schedules to fit the show.

The other quirk I’d like them to consider is matching up coaches from different weight classes.  This has only happened once so far (TUF 2, Matt Hughes & Rich Franklin) and it didn’t hurt the show.  If anything, it allowed the coaches to focus more on coaching than awkward trash talk.  Why not match up dynamic personalities even if the fight never happens?  Forrest Griffin and Ben HendersonMatt Serra and Chael Sonnen?  Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva?  Oh, wait…

What might work:

The Ultimate Fighter should consider going bi…ennial

A popular complaint I keep seeing on message boards is that only the lighter weight classes are being featured, but that’s the nature of the game.  Finding big guys who can put on a decent looking scrap is not easy.  If you’re a giant who can fight, it’s likely a major promotion will sign you outright rather than force you go to through a television contest.  The last season to feature fighters heavier than 185 was TUF 10.  Including TUF: Brazil and the upcoming TUF: The Smashes, that’s 8 straight casts without light heavyweight or heavyweight participants.

Having the show broadcast every two years would give them more time to scout and mark potential candidates for the show.  Even considering how much the UFC roster has swelled, there are bound to be fighters who slip through the cracks over that period of time and those are the ones who should be sought out as TUF cast members.  This would also create more anticipation and give the winner even more credibility.

The problem with this idea is that the UFC has a contract with whatever channel happens to be broadcasting their show and I’m sure that deal demands content.  You gotta feed the bulldog.

A league of their own

The next idea would by no means be a long-term fix, but it would definitely create a ratings spike: Yep, I’m talking about letting the ladies into the house.  Dana White has said in the past that he won’t start putting on female fights until the talent pool grows and he was absolutely right.  However, when the time comes, I fully expect Zuffa to be all over it and what better way to capitalize than with a TUF season featuring only women?  I say you go atomweight (105) and bantamweight (135).  You get Gina Carano and Ronda Rousey to coach, possibly resulting in a season ending superfight if Rousey is willing to go back up a class.  With Carano’s deceptively sweet personality and Rousey’s brash persona, the two would naturally clash.  It doesn’t hurt that they’re both downright stunning.

Why atomweight and bantamweight?  Bantamweight is an obvious choice because it’s the most competitive female division and the championship that Rousey currently holds.  Atomweight because…

Michelle Waterson, that’s why!

If the UFC doesn’t want to go all the way, they could also use my second suggestion of featherweight women and heavyweight men, though that might result in several lawsuits and/or pregnancies.

Camp wars

This is an idea that I’d like to elaborate further on some other time, but how about a season dedicated to two prominent camps?  It would be good publicity for the camps themselves and their young fighters.  The cast mates wouldn’t be forced into a team dynamic, instead training with friends who they already like and trust.  There’s even the possibility of including more than two teams (something that Survivor has done before with great success).  Just imagine the possibilities: American Top Team v. TristarJackson’s MMA v. Xtreme CoutureTeam Nogueira v. Alliance MMANova União v. Team Alpha Male?  If a team is too dominant, it could even result in teammates having to face each other (though their reluctance to do so would be a major hurdle for the show).

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The Ultimate Fighter isn’t irrevocably broken in any way, it’s just not drawing in new fans and it’s also in danger of bleeding out the old ones.  The lowest rated episode snagged 821,000 viewers, which was still over 100,000 viewers more than the last Strikeforce event.  There is a dedicated fan base for the show and it is still an effective way to cheaply market a mid-level fighter, even if it doesn’t churn out contenders like it used to.  I’ve touched on a few issues of the show, but there are still plenty of questions to answer.  The most pertinent being whether the show runners care about growing the program at all.

HELLO Japan Part 5 – Leftovers

My father told me that he disliked the overly polite service of the Japanese.  He considered it to be “fake”.  I, on the other hand, adored it.  I’m a creature of routine so to be greeted and sent off with the same honorifics was comforting and pleasant.  Sure, they probably picked up on the fact that I didn’t speak Japanese and they could have been telling me to “go suck a fat one” for all I know, but I choose to believe that’s not the case.  I actually looked forward to shopping and eating out, something I can’t always say about home.  In Canada, there is such an emphasis on individuality that that can translate into “I’m allowed to act like an a-hole.”  I much prefer the false modesty of the Japanese over the up-front rudeness of North Americans.  They’re brought up to follow an ideal and that’s a noble endeavour.  Besides, when you’re asked to act like a decent person for long enough, you might actually become a decent person and I can’t see how that’s a bad thing.

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I don’t know why, but this scene just made me feel, like, super sad you guys.

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This is my brother.  He’s not big on smiles.  We were both that way for the longest time.  My house is full of pictures of my brother and me looking completely blasé in various situations.  I remember when my mother would get the photo packages from our school picture days and she had to choose the least awful set to order.  It’s not that we’re a couple of miserable bastards, we just find the whole process exhausting.  There are so many muscles involved in a proper smile.  I’m getting tired thinking about it.  I know I’ve loosened up quite a bit over the years though and if I’m in the right mood you can usually catch me with the dumbest grin on my face.  You might even see my teeth.  I smiled a lot on this trip.

Case in point.

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Middle row, third from the left there was one written in English:

I WISH MY FAMILY GOOD FORTUNE AND THE NINERS WIN THE SUPER BOWL NEXT YEAR – NATHAN J.

I’m more of a Titans fan myself, but you have to respect the fan who invokes the Japanese gods to give his favourite NFL team that extra push.  If San Francisco actually does win the Super Bowl, I’m heading back over there and covering that board with about a hundred prayers for the Raptors and Blue Jays.

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 This is the legendary Korakuen Hall and no, your eyes do not deceive you, it’s about the size of a public school gymnasium.  The gentleman in the middle of the ring covered in confetti, standing next to the large trophy is Ryusuke Taguchi, otherwise known as “The Funky Weapon”.  This is why:

The photo above was taken at the 2012 Best of the Super Juniors Tournament finals.  Despite being a lifelong fan of professional wrestling, I’d never been to a live show before.  Wrestling has an illustrious history in Japan and it’s not as taboo for a mature (or immature, in my case) adult to follow it over there.  Considering the above clip it’s a wonder that it isn’t taken more seriously in North America.  I was familiar with a few of the performers, whether from YouTube clips or their work with the bigger promotions.  I was most excited to see Low Ki, a wrestler with a reputation for taking things a bit too seriously and putting on sickeningly brutal matches as a result.  He made it to the finals where he seemed to have mistimed a chop and nearly took out Taguchi’s eye.  You could see it swelling up badly by the end.  Still, Taguchi went on to win and danced his heart out, God bless him.

If I were to describe live pro wrestling to someone who had no interest in it at all, my best comparison would be a “panto”.  A panto is a form of musical theatre (occasionally geared towards children) that encourages interaction with the audience.  It’s silly and lighthearted and if it’s done right, you’d be amazed at how engaged the audience can get, clapping and singing along with their favourite songs and hissing at the villains.  Being able to relive moments from beloved stories is part of the appeal of musicals.  Think about people who make it a ritual to watch The Sound Of Music every year.

Wrestling is much the same.  I’ve seen thousands of matches in my life so when I finally got to see it in person it was like knowing all the actors lines and the words to every song.  I knew when a guy was going to throw a clothesline or fall off the top rope or kick out of a pin or play to the crowd…and that knowledge only made things more enjoyable.  I was like a kid again and not in that sense that “oh, this is so silly it’s something only a child would enjoy”, but that it reminded me how liberating it is to give in to your imagination and get caught up in the act.  Korakuen was as loud as any sporting event I’d ever attended and you could look around and see people from all walks of life completely invested in the story that these guys were telling in the ring.  I mentioned in an earlier post that there were few things my brother and I bond over.  This was one of them.

Also, this:

That’s supposed to be a look of disbelief on my face, not a look of “I just swallowed a large insect.”

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Anytime you travel to a place that gives so much to you, you have to feel like you leave something behind as well…in this case, the adapter next to my head that I forgot to unplug.

I forgot to post a picture of my capsule before, so here it is.  The photo was taken by a Korean fellow named Hector.  I figure he must have been a student.  He seemed nice and trustworthy and not uncomfortable with the idea of taking a picture of another man sleeping in a bed.  I really should have made an effort to talk to more people.  Wherever you are, Korean Hector, thanks for the photo, mate.

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I would have died if they ever opened up a Spice Girls themed cafe.

One of the most fascinating phenomena I came across in Japan was the pop group AKB48.  Anyone who reads pop culture news sites and travel blogs are probably already familiar with these ladies, but if you aren’t I’ll do my best to catch you up.

AKB48 are a group of 64 girls (AKB = Akihabara, 48=…I have no idea where the 48 comes from) divided into 4 teams: Team A, Team K, Team B and Team 4 (obviously).  There’s apparently going to be some shakeup with the groups soon, but I haven’t kept up with it and the four team arrangement is how it’s worked for the majority of their existence.  Each team has 16 girls.  The benefit of having this legion of performers is that it makes them more accessible to their fans (a huge factor in the idol culture of Japan) and they’re able to have performances every day.  That’s right, every freakin’ day.  So Team A might perform on Monday, then Team B on Tuesday, then Team K on Wednesday, then Team A on Thursday and so on.  Or you could have two straight days of Team A and then the same deal with Teams B and K.  All the while, members of Team 4 exist as substitutes, just waiting for misfortune to strike so they can get off the bench.

You would think that sort of strategy would quickly create oversaturation, but with Japan’s population, tourism and dedication to their young idols, the demand has actually risen to meet the supply if that makes any sense.  The AKB48 machine cranks out all kinds of gimmicks to maintain interest: a lottery to determine who gets tickets to attend shows at the AKB48 Theater, fans voting to decide who gets featured in the singles and concerts, and singles being packaged with ballots to allow the fans to vote in the first place.  Grown men (and make no bones about it, a large majority of the fans appear to be adult males) will buy multiple singles so they can have their say.  Not to mention multiple albums, with the promise that some of the albums contain a rare ticket that gives you the opportunity to meet and shake hands with your favourite member.  The fact that the entire operation exists under the guise of bubblegum pop and grade school dance choreography makes the whole thing utterly insidious.

It also got my gears going trying to figure out how this could work in North America.  We love our pop stars, don’t we?  Isn’t there a lot of money to be made here?  But my brother kept reminding me that our continent is filled with selfish jerks and that getting 4 girls to work together in a group is hard enough, much less 64.  I also remembered that we have a more cynical view of celebrities here.  While the Japanese fawn over their idols, we are eager to burn ours to the ground.  Both mindsets are kind of despicable.

*****

When I saw the entrance to this mall in Harajuku, I urged my brother to cross the street with me so we could check it out.  When we were actually passing through it, we began to regret our decision.  It was a scorching hot day.  Mirrors, as you may have heard, reflect light and heat.  We may as well have gone down to the beach and wrapped ourselves in tinfoil.

*****

The only picture Chris and I took together during the trip.  He had just treated me to some delicious okonomiyaki.  It’s one of those foods you prepare yourself that reminds you of the ingenuity of folks, especially when it comes to satisfying their stomachs.  I can just imagine some poor farmer throwing a bunch of batter on a grill and mixing it with some crops and serving it up to his fifteen kids.  “Eat up kids!  Okonomiyaki!”  I imagine pizza having a similar origin.  You can blame the blurriness on the drunken Australian holding my phone.