Yuki Nakai • Class of 1993 • Debuted 26 April 1993 vs. Hiroki Noritsugi.
by Matthew Corsey
The MMA stars of today loom large in the sporting world, in part because they are "standing on the shoulders of giants" who have gone before them to pave the way.
Few of those giants cast a larger shadow than a diminutive, soft-spoken gentleman from Japan named Yuki Nakai. His story is a tale of quiet determination and superlative achievement. He has been a world champion. His performance in Vale Tudo Japan 1995 is arguably the greatest underdog story in the history of modern MMA. He has been an innovator and a trailblazer in his approach to martial arts education and philosophy, and to this day he is dedicated to teaching and inspiring the future stars of MMA in Japan and across the world. Through all of this, Yuki Nakai has retained a broad vision of the sport at large, sacrificing even his own physical well being to avoid casting a negative light on the sport he loves, and has consistently chosen to put the welfare of others before himself.
Nakai began his martial arts training as a child in Hokkaido, Japan, training as a judoka while still in elementary school. In the fourth grade, he won the shichitei Judo championship. He remained a diligent student, and continued to train and compete in judo through his high school and college years. In 1992, he moved to Yokohama, and began to compete in the Shooto organization, training under renowned fighter and pro wrestler Satoru Sayama, "The Original Tiger Mask."
Nakai was the first person to ever have a vale tudo rules fight in Japan. He fought a Royler Gracie student named Arthur Carthiard. Bringing vale tudo to Japan opened the door and paved the way that led to Shooto having VT fights, the VTJ promotion, and eventually Pride.
Nakai racked up an impressive 7-1 record in Shooto, eventually becoming Shooto welterweight champion and successfully defending his belt until an injury forced his retirement from MMA. It was shortly after his last title defense that he was selected to represent Shooto in Vale Tudo Japan '95, an MMA tournament featuring competition from around the world, with no weight classes and only minimal rules. By the end of that tournament, Nakai would be known as a real-life Rocky, and a legend in the world of MMA.
Announced at 5'6" and only 135 lbs., Nakai was the smallest fighter in the tournament by 50 lbs. Undaunted, and confident in his martial skill, Nakai faced Dutch kickboxer Gerard Gordeau, giving up almost a foot of height and 80 lbs. to the man who had knocked out 400 lb. Teila Tuli (and his tooth) en route to the finals of UFC 1.
Nakai fought a determined and technical fight, overwhelming the much larger Gordeau with an impressive display of technical skill. Desperate to avoid a submission, Gordeau grabbed the ring ropes and violently gouged Nakai's right eye. Nakai, demonstrating the essence of "warrior spirit," fought through the pain and finished a heel hook, submitting Gordeau at 2:41 of the fourth round.
Nakai could have very easily withdrawn from the tournament after fighting Gordeau. Unable to see out of his swollen right eye, and physically exhausted from four rounds against a much larger opponent, Nakai instead chose to continue, and in the next round faced 6'1", 250 lb. pro wrestler Craig Pittman. Once again, Nakai's iron will and technical prowess prevailed, as he won by armbar at 7:32 of the second round. Nakai finally lost in the finals to a much larger and much better rested Rickson Gracie, but this was not the end of the story.
Yuki Nakai sustained severe damage to his right eye as a result of the gouge committed by Gerard Gordeau. The reigning Shooto champion could not see out of his right eye, and was unable to compete. Nevertheless, in order to preserve the sport of MMA against a rising tide of media criticism, Nakai chose to keep the injury a secret, and did not seek necessary medical attention. In placing the sport above self, and in seeking to preserve the honor and welfare of his brethren in martial combat, Nakai ultimately lost 100% of his sight in his right eye, forcing him to retire from MMA competition.
Nakai's love for the sport did not wane when he retired from competition. On the contrary, he became more involved than ever, seeking to gain new skills and knowledge to elevate the level of Japanese MMA. In this effort, Nakai became the first Japanese black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and the only person in history to receive his black belt directly from the IBJJF. He is a 2X Pan American BJJ champion, a Brazilian nationals bronze medalist, and runs his own Shooto and BJJ gym, Paraestra, in Tokyo. He is the head of the BJJ Federation of Japan, and a Commissioner in the Shooto Organization.
Yuki Nakai is more than a pioneer, more than a warrior, more than an innovator, more than a student, and more than a coach. He is an advocate and defender of the sport he loves, and MMA could ask for no truer friend. Few men have sacrificed so much for a sport, and fewer legends will stand so tall.