Yuki Nakai remains committed to teaching true spirit of martial arts

Yuki Nakai remains committed to teaching true spirit of martial arts Yuki Nakai Photo by Benjamin Parks

TOKYO —

Yuki Nakai expected Gerard Gordeau to fight dirty. What he didn’t expect on that fateful night 15 years ago was to be gouged in the right eye so badly that he’d lose his sight.

The Vale Tudo Japan Open 1995 at Nippon Budokan propelled Nakai to the status of legend in many Japanese mixed martial arts (MMA) circles. Since then, he’s continued to give back to the sport, becoming one of Japan’s most influential fighting figures in the process.

Oh yeah, and somewhere along the way he might’ve also helped save MMA.

Despite suffering a severe injury at the hands of Gordeau—he’ll never see out of his right eye again—Nakai still harbors a deep love for the sport. So much so, he’s made it his mission to spread the positives of fighting at his gym, Paraestra Tokyo, where he spends six to seven hours a day training fighters and non-fighters alike.

“I would like to make society better through martial arts,” he says in an interview at his gym just before class starts. “In martial arts, you can overcome things and communicate with others using only your body. There is no language barrier. So I think it’s a useful tool for making friends from around the world.”

Paraestra is a gym only in the sense that people train there. It’s not a sprawling complex, nor is it filled with state-of-the-art equipment. Instead, the facility is an exercise in simplicity; its location in the basement of a building in Nerima-ku is far from the glitz, glamour and distractions of the current MMA landscape. The floor is a soft, thick, turquoise mat used for breaking falls, and padding runs along the bottom half of the concrete walls. Just above eye level hangs a row of fighters’ gloves, while a few posters and a calendar serve as makeshift decorations.

Nakai founded his Spartan gym in December 1997, and uses it as a base to promote the positive elements of a sport whose violent tendencies more often than not get the best of it.

“Fighting is a good way of protecting yourself, of course,” says Nakai, who at 170 cm and 70 kg is far from a large man, but who has the muscular frame, cauliflower ears and hard facial features of a fighter. “But I would rather think of martial arts as a way to help people improve themselves as human beings.”

It’s just before his first class of the day, and Nakai is sitting cross-legged on the floor. Behind him is a shelf with a row of belts draped across the front. They come in a variety of colors—white, blue, yellow, brown and, of course, black—hanging in silent confirmation of their owner’s skill.

Nakai was born in 1970, in Hamamasu village in Hokkaido. He went to high school in nearby Sapporo and attended Hokkaido University, where he was a member of the judo club. After moving to Yokohama in 1992, he first made a name for himself in Shooto, a more physical and realistic form of pro wrestling, where he trained under Satoru Sayama, better known as the original Tiger Mask. Nakai later became one of the Japanese pioneers of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, after learning it at the feet of some Brazilian masters. His accomplishments have garnered him the admiration of countless fighters both in Japan and overseas.

“I’ve always done what I wanted to do,” he says, “so I don’t particularly think I’ve done anything major. What I often did was take the initiative here in Japan. That’s why I am seen like that.”

Nakai has trained a number of current fighters, including Japan’s top MMA star, Shinya Aoki, aka the Tobikan Judan—roughly, “Master of Flying Submissions.” Aoki is the current DREAM lightweight champion and is expected to headline the upcoming MMA event on Sept 25 in Nagoya.

Legacies shaped by infamous incidents

Ironically, teacher and pupil share a common bond in that their legacies have been shaped by two of the most infamous incidents in Japanese MMA history.

During his match against Mizuto Hirota at the PRIDE Dynamite!! event last New Year’s Eve, Aoki applied a hammerlock, which involves grabbing the opponent’s arm and pressing it against his back. Against a fighter of Aoki’s caliber, escape was impossible, yet Hirota refused to signal defeat by tapping the mat. So Aoki simply locked in the hold until Hirota’s arm broke, twisting at a sickening angle. His opponent vanquished, Aoki leapt up, bent over and laughed in Hirota’s face, flipping him off for good measure.

Condemnation came swiftly from across the globe, forcing Nakai to post an apology on the Paraestra website and fire Aoki as an instructor at the gym. Yet even though he condemns Aoki’s post-fight actions, Nakai still has tremendous respect for his pupil, whose controversial antics in and out of the ring have earned both scorn and praise.

“Fighters are meant to perform,” he says. “Aoki is only showing what he has learned. He may seem unique and different from everybody else, but in my opinion, he has his own style.”

The outrage over the incident stemmed solely from Aoki’s boorish behavior after the bell: the breaking of the arm, however brutal, was mostly seen as a part of the sport, and a consequence of Hirota’s failure to surrender. Things were different during Nakai’s heyday in the ’90s, when that type of injury may have set off a firestorm of criticism.

Back then, MMA still faced opposition from many areas and was fighting to gain more mainstream acceptance. So even though he had been blinded by Gordeau, Nakai kept quiet, a move that most likely saved the sport from calls for a ban.

“I received a thumb to the eye, which is an unspeakable thing,” Nakai said. “If it had been a legal move, it wouldn’t have been an issue. But people might have thought that something like this was a legitimate part of the sport, and Sayama-sensei suggested that I not reveal the injury for a while.”

So Nakai fought on and—unbelievably—defeated Gordeau and then Craig Pittman that same night to advance to the final. There, he was defeated by Rickson Gracie, a member of the famed Gracie fighting family—and one of the most skilled Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world. The fortitude that Nakai demonstrated during the tournament earned him a tremendous amount of respect.

“At that time, I was doing Shooto, which was considered to be the most advanced mixed martial art,” he says. “Even compared to the fighting in the United States, we thought we were more advanced. So I thought I could beat those bigger fighters… because technically I was ahead of them. So whether it was a karate guy or a wrestler, I didn’t think it would be a problem to take on anyone. Of course, the Gracies were going to be tough, but from the start, I didn’t think I would be beaten.”

After his loss to Gracie, Nakai concealed the full extent of his injury for nearly two years. His semi-blindness eventually forced his retirement from MMA, but it also led to his other contribution to Japanese fighting: after watching a fellow Japanese competitor lose to Royler Gracie, Rickson’s younger brother and a skilled practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Nakai was inspired to change his specialty to the Brazilian martial art.

“That was when I started to think that, although I wouldn’t be able to return to MMA, if I was able to become successful in jiu-jitsu, it would eventually lead to an improvement in the level of Japanese fighting,” he says. Jiu-jitsu’s focus on grappling and ground fighting is one way for a smaller fighter to defeat someone much larger. Nakai learned the style and began teaching it to Japanese fighters.

“Since I was originally from judo, it was relatively easy for me to learn Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques,” he says. “At the same time, I learned techniques I wouldn’t have otherwise learned in judo from great Brazilian jiu-jitsu masters. I was able to broaden my horizons by learning it, and it has led to the development of the sport.” Nakai ended up receiving a black belt in the art.

“Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s greatest trait is its ground techniques, and the origins of those are in judo,” he explains. “Unlike Western-oriented combat sports, getting taken down doesn’t necessarily result in a loss.”

Although Nakai has been out of MMA competition for some time, he still follows the sport.

“There are so many organizations,” he says. “Since many of my students compete in nearly all of them, I have ties to those organizations and I sometimes go to visit.”

DREAM 16 sees Japanese MMA at a crossroads. It’s hoped that the recent tie-up between the organization’s parent company, Fighting and Entertainment Group, and PUJI, a Shanghai-based investment bank, will help it to expand internationally.

Nakai continues to do his part away from the spotlight, and is committed to seeing Japanese fighters improve their stature worldwide.

“If there are fighters who want to go abroad, I would like to help them,” he says. “I want Japanese fighters to be successful overseas—not just the ones from our gym. If we have more Japanese fighters become successful abroad, ultimately winning titles, that would be the best thing for this nation’s MMA scene. I would always like to aid that.”

DREAM 16 takes place Sept 25 at Nagoya’s Nippon Gaishi Hall. See www.dreamofficial.com for more information.

Paraestra Tokyo offers classes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Shooto, jeet kun do and more. 1-6-13 Toyotama-Kita, Nerima-ku. Tel: 03-5984-3209. Open daily. Nearest station: Shin-Ekoda, exit A2. www.paraestra.com

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

  • 0

    djuice

    That is cool dude. I wish you much success, and may MMA soon replace sumo!

  • 0

    Frungy

    I have serious problems with these being called "martial arts", because competition fighting isn't a martial art (an art of war), it's a sport. It's the same difference as kendo to katori, or sword fighting to fencing, simply put there's no lethal intent in a sport, while in a proper martial art there are movements which are undeniably designed to kill your opponent. This is why these tournaments are always won by ground fighting specialists, because one can only fend off an opponent with slaps and tickles for so long, in order to mount a proper defense against a ground fighter you need to be allowed to hit them somewhere critical. Ground fighters only feel free to charge in simply because they KNOW that the real martial artists aren't allowed to hit them anywhere important and they'll just have to absorb one or two painful but not life-threatening strikes.

    The relevance to this article? They defend the arm-breaking as a movement that was legal because there was a plausible alternative, tapping out. To my mind this is sophistry, the viable alternative to avoiding a throat shot is simply a good defense and not charging in, but the rules outlaw throat shots but permit arm breaking. It's not martial arts, this is just a sport and has nothing to do with which martial arts are best.

  • 0

    jason6

    I'm sure if lethal were allowed, pure MMA folks would have just as much of a chance at throat shots, eye gouges and neck breakers as pure martial artists. The whole advantage of MMA is that it integrates all the best practices of various fighting styles into a whole. You forget that all these submissions come from jujutsu, striking from muy thai/boxing/kickboxing, acrobatics from taekwondo and capeoira etc. That's why it's called mixed, genius.

  • 0

    japanesejoe

    Uhh... all MA's are made up and changes all the time. There is nothing "pure" or "traditional". It's all made up by some guy, often illiterate and with severely dysfunctional. All this mister miyagi last samurai cow manure stuff has to go.

  • 0

    LoveUSA

    No doubt a real man! what a hero!

  • 0

    vulcan

    I'm happy to read that is is "semi blindness" makes me feel better for the man. It would really suck worse to be totally blind in an eye due to dirty tactics. Anyone can cheat an eyegouge, but should never be done unless in the street and fighting for life or to protect family.

  • 0

    dotherightthing

    Yuki Nakai for President!

  • 0

    presto345

    If MMA is a sport it is supposed to be governed by a set of rules. If these rules permit severe bodily harm then these rules are seriously flawed, permitting thugs like, what's his name, Gordeau, and Aoki to do their vile work. But Nakai does not seem to be fazed by that. This man is a tough guy indeed.

  • 0

    crazygaijin

    in 1995 MMA was very much a fledgling sport without anywhere near the safeguards and safety precautions that it now has. unfortunately it usually takes an incident like this one to light a fire under officials to enact better safeguards; which is exactly what happened.

  • 0

    tantantanuki

    >

    I have serious problems with these being called "martial arts", because competition fighting isn't a martial art (an art of war), it's a sport. It's the same difference as kendo to katori, or sword fighting to fencing, simply put there's no lethal intent in a sport, while in a proper martial art there are movements which are undeniably designed to kill your opponent. This is why these tournaments are always won by ground fighting specialists, because one can only fend off an opponent with slaps and tickles for so long, in order to mount a proper defense against a ground fighter you need to be allowed to hit them somewhere critical. Ground fighters only feel free to charge in simply because they KNOW that the real martial artists aren't allowed to hit them anywhere important and they'll just have to absorb one or two painful but not life-threatening strikes. The relevance to this article? They defend the arm-breaking as a movement that was legal because there was a plausible alternative, tapping out. To my mind this is sophistry, the viable alternative to avoiding a throat shot is simply a good defense and not charging in, but the rules outlaw throat shots but permit arm breaking. It's not martial arts, this is just a sport and has nothing to do with which martial arts are best. >

    Adding attacks to vital/vulnerable areas in a fight would not negate or neutralize grappling and/or take-down skills. It would add a new dynamic/danger to said matches. But, as was pointed put by Jason, both fighters would be aware of these attacks, would have to defend against them and both would be able to apply them. Gordeau wasn't trying to tickle Nakai's eyeball. He was gouging it. Clearly an attack to a vulnerable area. But despite this he submitted and lost the match (via heel hook). He's damn lucky Nakai is a class act and released the submission. Can't say I'd be so quick to release someone that had just gouged my eye. In fact, I think it is safe to say most people would complete the submission, inflict a serious injury, and then look to do some eye gouging of his/her own.

    Nakai is a class act.

  • 0

    spudman

    good article, thanks Jason. Looking forward to more.

  • 0

    vulcan

    Frungy is correct! He isn't advocating a no rules fight, he is just stating it should be called something besides "martial art".

  • 0

    Zenny11

    As a TMA with nearly 40yrs experience I agree that MMA , Judo, K1, etc should NOT be classed as Martial Arts.

    The training for Sports "MA" and true "MA" is very different as is the mindset.

    Where I and many TMA get heated is the claim that MMA after dabbling in a few styles is superior as they take the best, etc. Also few TMA will agree that a style is superior to another one, reason there are NO Martial Arts styles only different Training Systems. It is all marketing.

    Most TMA are already a mix of training systems and personal interpretation/likings of the founder.

    All TMA teach the same skills and at a high enough level you can't differentiate between the training systems.

    As a TMA we don't train in traditional clothing(keiko-gi), soft flooring, protective gear, etc. Reason those are not available when you get into a real fight. Injuries are also common.

    Ditto for the fancy moves, they look good in the Dojo or on a competition floor but in most real scenarios they are either too slow or simply can't be executed due to space, whatever.

    Ditto for belts, ranks, etc = useless.

    People buy into a hype and spiel and think what they know is the real deal.

    Don't get me wrong I FULLY respect the Sports MA guys and it is tough to do what they do. Same way I respect the WWE Guys.

    I spar a LOT with MMA guys and they are tough, etc don't get me wrong. Said that Sports MA often also don't include weapons training(which benefits H2H Combat).

    The guy in the article obviously trained TMA vs Sports MA as did one of his students.

    I respect him, just as much as I do the "Kennedy" guy in UFC but if you look into his views he sees UFC as easy & safe compared to what he was trained in.

    Just a different perspective.

  • 0

    chineseguy1

    I'm sure Kimbo Slice would take this guy down.

Login to leave a comment

OR

More in Lifestyle

View all

View all