When Shinya Aoki steps into the ring tonight at Dream 18, in his corner will most likely be a Japanese fighter that most people will not recognize. Many fans may not know who he is, but this man did a great service for the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) at a time when the sport was facing intense scrutiny from regulators and negative press could cause severe ramifications regarding the future of the sport.
Yuki Nakai is a fairly small man, about 154 pounds. He began his martial arts training at a young age in the discipline of Kosen Judo. He excelled in the newaza heavy style, which focused on ground fighting similar to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and in contrast to throw-oriented judo. At the age of 23 Nakai began to test the waters of MMA, and he won his first fight via heel hook submission at a Shooto event in only 53 seconds. With a 3-1 record, he was a promising prospect in the emerging sport of MMA when he was invited to compete in one of the most prestigious events in MMA at the time, the Vale Tudo Japan 1995 tournament.
This was a vale tudo event only in name. Vale tudo is a Portuguese term translating to “no holds barred”, and is actually what the early UFC events consisted of. It is characterized by a very loose rules system; only a few rules were applied and even these were not always enforced. The Vale Tudo Japan event was held by Shooto, and it featured a much more strict rules set. It made strikes to the groin illegal, as well as headbutts. It made the use of gloves mandatory. It featured a set of rules that bears remarkable similarity to modern MMA rules for the time.
Nakai was well known as a skilled fighter at the beginning of the tournament, and perhaps would have been the favorite if not for a few things. First was his size. He stood only 5’7” and weighed a mere 154 pounds. Secondly, poised to compete on the opposite side of the bracket was the best fighter in the world in Rickson Gracie. Rickson had won dozens upon dozens of amateur wrestling and world Jiu-Jitsu titles, and had also won the Vale Tudo Japan 1994 tournament the previous year.
In his first match of the tournament, Nakai faced off against savate and karate world champion and former UFC 1 competitor Gerard Gordeau. The Dutchman Gordeu had reached the finals the first UFC event, losing to Royce Gracie, and in the martial arts world he held a victory over legendary hero of K-1, “The Blue Eyed Samurai” Andy Hug. He tipped the scales at 216 pounds, a full 62 pounds more than Nakai, and also carried an incredible reach advantage, being 6’5” tall. He had also earned quite a reputation in his young career as a dirty fighter. He allegedly eye-gouged Kevin Rosier in UFC 1 in the semi-finals and also reportedly bit Royce Gracie in the finals. He lived up to his reputation in this match when he attempted stop the takedown attempts of Nakai by ramming his thumbs into the eyes of the Japanese fighter. Although it did not work and he was grounded by the much smaller Nakai, he decided to try it again as a means to escape back to standing. It failed again, and he was soon submitted via heel hook. Gordeu never fought again in MMA, and rightly so. This is one of the most disgraceful acts in the history of MMA. Yet although Nakai was in a perfect position to rip apart every ligament in Gordeu’s knee, he applied on the pressure needed to illicit the tap and immediately released the hold.
No one really expected Nakai to come out for his next fight after the severe eye damage he had incurred during his previous match. However, Nakai returned for his next fight, now sporting a crude eye patch over his injured right eye. This time his opponent was a massive American named Craig Pittman. Pittman was former sergeant in the Marine Corps and was a multiple time Greco-Roman national champion in the heavyweight division. He was an impressive physical specimen, standing 6’1” and weighing 250 pounds. Nakai entered the match 100 pounds lighter than the champion wrestler and unable to see well out of either of his eyes. Working largely on feel alone, Nakai played a brilliant guard game and wore down his gigantic opponent. After a grueling 15 minutes of working from his back with spider guard, half guard and something resembling De La Riva guard, Nakai found and armbar and forced his opponent to submit.
To this point, Yuki Nakai had put on an absolutely unbelievable display of heart. He was not one to come out for yet a third fight, and against the greatest champion of the legendary Gracie family, Rickson. Nakai emerged from the dressing room ready for battle, though he was essentially blind at this point with massive swelling surrounding both of his eyes. Rickson was noticeably tentative to attack the 30 pounds lighter and injured Nakai, who showed no quarter to the most feared fighter in the world. For five minutes he thwarted the top game of the perhaps the greatest top-position fighter to ever live, reclaiming guard from the passing Rickson on multiple occasions. Finally Rickson secured the mount and transitioned seamlessly to the rear mount. Nakai showed a solid defense, using wrist control to retard the choke attempts of Rickson, but eventually succumbed to the masterful technique of Gracie. Rickson was greatly impressed by the display of heart shown by his Japanese opponent, and Nakai was equally impressed with Rickson’s mastery of his family art. Nakai would later take up BJJ himself, and is largely responsible for the art returning home to the Island Nation.
Nakai would never fight in MMA again, but he did go on to be an extremely successful Jiu-Jitsu fighter and trainer. He is perhaps best known for his work with the aforementioned Dream champion Aoki. However Nakai’s greatest contribution to the sport has been what he did not do, rather than what he has accomplished. He was permanently blinded in his right eye by the actions of Gordeau on that night in 1995. Knowing that the sport was in an infantile stage, and realizing that news of a man blinded in this controversial sport would be nothing but ammunition to the politicians who sought to destroy the sport, he remained silent. Only long after the sport had been firmly established did he break his silence and reveal the reason for his early retirement from the sport. This may be one of the biggest contributions that any fighter has ever made for our sport, and although he is oft forgotten amongst the important historical figures of MMA, when you see Nakai standing in Aoki’s corner remember what this man has done for our sport.
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