Yuki Nakai: Warrior Spirit
Yuki Nakai is now relatively unknown among MMA fans. In fact, he really was never too well known among MMA fans, as he only had a mere 7 matches, and even those were still in the days of the sport’s obscurity. You may not know who he is, but this man did a great service for our sport at a time when the slightest negative press could have caused it to be outlawed or banned.
Nakai is a fairly small man, about 154 pounds. He became a champion of a newaza oriented Judo style when he was in the fourth grade. For those unfamiliar with the term newaza, it is a term used in Judo that describes ground fighting instead of the typical clinch work found in Judo, and it very closely resembles Jiu-Jitsu. He continued to master this style, and quickly became know for his great ground work and extreme flexibility. It wasn’t long before he became regarded as one of the better ground fighters that Japan had produced, which is quite a distinction.
He then began to test the waters of MMA, and he won his first fight via Heel Hook at Shooto in only 53 seconds. He lost his next bout, but quickly rebounded with two straight wins. He was a promising prospect for the emerging sport of Mixed Martial Arts to say the least when he entered into 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 Brazilian term meaning “No Holds Barred”, and is actually what the early UFC events were. 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 was in fact very close to what we know as modern MMA.
Nakai was well know as entering the tournament, and perhaps would have been the favorite if not for a few things. Firstly, his size. He stood only 5’7” and weighed a mere 154 pounds. Secondly, on the opposite side of the bracket from Nakai was the best fighter in MMA at the time, and the greatest combat sports competitor ever to don gloves to that point: Rickson Gracie. Rickson had not only his dozens upon dozens of amateur wrestling and world Jiu-Jitsu titles, but he had also won the Vale Tudo Japan tournament the previous year.
In the first match of the tournament, Nakai faced off against Savate and Karate world champion and former UFC 1 competitor Gerard Gordeau. He had gathered an awesome record in the Combat Sports. He even defeated the man who many think is the greatest K-1 fighter of all time, Andy Hug. Not only that, but he was also 2-1 and his only loss had come to the legendary brother of Rickson, Royce Gracie in the finals of UFC 1. He also tipped the scales at 216 pounds, a whopping 62 pounds more than Yuki. He also carried an incredible reach advantage, being 6’5” tall. He had also earned quite a reputation as a dirty fighter. He allegedly eye-gouged Kevin Rosier in UFC 1 in the semi-finals and also supposedly bit Royce Gracie in the finals. He lived up to his reputation when he attempted stop the takedown attempts of Nakai by ramming his thumbs into his eye. Although it did not work, and he was taken down 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. He never fought again in MMA, and rightly so. This is one of the most disgraceful acts in the history of MMA, and Gordeau is quite lucky that Nakai did not shatter his knee and shin beyond recognition, but instead Nakai only applied the needed pressure to get the victory and advance to the semi-finals.
No one really expected Nakai to come out for his next fight after the severe eye damage he incurred during his first match. Without hesitation, Nakai returned his next fight, 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 world champion in the heavyweight division. He was and impressive physical specimen, weighing 250 pounds. Not many people gave Nakai to big of a chance, seeing as he was 100 pounds lighter than the champion wrestler and also had an eye patch on one eye and severe swelling in the other. After a while, it became obvious that Nakai could no longer see at all, and that he was working on feel alone as he worked a brilliant guard game, including periods spent in the spider and De la Riva guards. After an incredibly grueling 15 minutes and 30 seconds, Nakai somehow found and armbar, forcing his opponent to submit.
To this point, he had put on an absolutely unbelievable display of heart. But no one expected him to come out for yet a third fight, and against the greatest champion of the legendary Gracie family, Rickson. Nakai however showed his courage again by again returning with his one eye crudely patched and the other completely swelled shut. Rickson was noticeably tentative to attack the smaller and injured Nakai, who showed no quarter to the most feared fighter in the world. For almost 5 minutes he thwarted all of Rickson attacks, using his flexibility and excellent hip movement, pulling Rickson back into his guard every time he passed. Finally Rickson secured the mount, and eventually the rear mount. It took more than 4 tries for Rickson to slip his bicep under Nakai’s throat. Before the match ended however, Nakai impressed Rickson with his heart and his technique. Nakai was equally impressed with Rickson’s art and immediately afterwards took up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and not surprisingly eventually became a black belt and even organized the Japanese Confederation of Jiu-Jitsu.
Nakai would never fight again but he did go on to be an extremely successful Jiu-Jitsu fighter and trainer. He has been the chief Jiu-Jitsu coach of the best submission fighter to come out of Japan in recent years and move to MMA, DREAM champion Shinya Aoki. But perhaps Nakai’s greatest contribution to the sport has been what he didn’t do, rather than what he did. He was permanently blinded in his right eye by the cowardly actions of Gordeau on that night in 1995. He knew that the sport was in its infantile stage, and that news of a man blinded in this sport would be nothing but ammunition to the politicians who sought to destroy the sport. So he remained silent about his blindness until recent years, to protect the sport. This may be one of the biggest contributions that the sport has ever received, and deserves to be remembered as such.
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