Combat sports are an ever-changing landscape of fighters, with new names popping up constantly. All fighters have heart, and all fighters have talent, yet of all the fighters who have stepped up over the years, there are some who stick in our minds, who changed the way we think about the sports we love, and who are truly inspirational to today’s generation of martial artists.
In this new series we wanted to take a moment to appreciate some of the true legends of fighting, looking at some of the most inspirational, most influential, and the most fearsome fighters out there. In the last few posts in the series, we’ve looked at daring Dutch Muay Thai fighter Ramon Dekkers, innovative boxer Muhammad Ali, and K-1 heavyweight legend Andy Hug. You can find the whole of the series here. Give us a shout in the comments section at the end of this article to let us know which fighter is an inspiration for you.
In this part, the focus is Yuki Nakai, a fighter who quite literally sacrificed his eye for the sport of MMA.
So who was Yuki Nakai?
Yuki Nakai’s story is one which I feel deserves to be better known than it is. It’s a story of the true fighter spirit, showing more heart and determination in one night than most fighters show across their entire career. Yuki Nakai is a now-retired Japanese mixed martial artist. Since his time fighting he’s gone on to teach shoot wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and is the president of the Japanese Confederation of Jiu-Jitsu. He competed in primarily in Shooto, back when MMA wasn’t as much of a fully defined sport as it is today.
Back in the 90’s when Nakai was fighting, Mixed Martial Arts was quite different, with competitors often sticking primarily to one martial art. For Nakai, the focus was on the ground game, with a strong background in judo and amateur wrestling. In his short career he fought a total of twelve times, although the last three fights weren’t fought at Shooto, but rather at a tournament for Vale Tudo Japan 1995, a night which changed his life forever.
The fights that will never be forgotten
As part of Vale Tudo Japn 1995, Nakai fought three times in one night as part of a tournament, facing three men who all outweighed him.
In the first fight, Nakai faced 6 foot 5 kickboxer Gerard Gordeau. While Nakai had control of his opponent’s arm, Gordeau purposely gouged Nakai’s eye, leaving it terribly swollen and causing damage which would be enough to deter any fighter from competing. Nakai didn’t stop or take a time out, but instead fought on, finally managing to capitalise on his position and defeating Gordeau.
Not many people would have the determination to step back into the ring again not just once, but twice the same night. But Nakai did.
In the second fight he was outweighed by 100 pounds. Despite his impaired vision and presumably suffering some immense pain, Nakai again managed to secure himself a stunning submission win. By this time he was completely blind in his right eye.
In the final fight he faced up with Rickson Gracie. Rickson is a legend in himself, who stepped into the ring undefeated. Even though he could have just given up then, Nakai faced the challenge once more. Whilst Rickson was respectful, he still managed to overpower Nakai.
After that night, Nakai kept his blindness a secret for years, not wanting to ruin the slowly improving reputation of MMA. Yuki Nakai literally sacrificed his eye for the sport of MMA.
After retiring from MMA, Nakai became interested on Brazilian jiu-jitsu, not due to his own defeat to Rickson, but Noboru Asahi’s loss to Royler Gracie in 1996. He learned from Enson Inoue, and a year later he participated in his first BJJ tournament. Nakai was eventually granted a black belt by Carlos Gracie Jr, becoming the first person from Japan to hold a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
To see more about the story of Yuki Nakai, check out the video below from MMA Videos.
If you liked this article, let us know. Let us know in the comments below which other inspirational fighters you think deserve to be featured in an article like this.
2 thoughts on “Inspirational Fighters – Yuki Nakai (The man who sacrificed his eye for MMA)”
Thanks for writing about Yuki.
I’ve had (what I realize in hindsight) the great honour if training with Yuki during his final year of kosen judo with Hokkaido University.
I showed up out of the blue in November 1991, and was graciously welcomed to train as much as I wanted. As the only caucasian in the club, and a skinny one at that, I could have easily felt ostracised. But the ‘culture’ was amazingly positive. Yuki, as co-captain, was very much the leader of that. He treated me with deep kindness, and we became friends… Swapping mixed cassettes of our favorite music (lotsa early 70s Stones…) And talking about Rickson and Machados, who he had not yet heard of.
More than anything, I remember how he prepared for the end of year NanaDaiGakko (seven University) kosen toirnament. While most guys were storing energy, eating well, resting up etc… Yuki trained super hard while undertaking a major fast. There were no weight classes, and he was barely 150lns soaking wet. Now here he was seriously trashing him body. A few days before the fights I asked him ‘why’. He kind of frowned saying ‘muzushashi’ (hard to explain…) then said ‘seishin’.
He was digging waaaay down inside, to build his spirit.
Hokkudai went on to win the tourney that year. And I am not at all surprised by how he has chosen to live life since…
What a great story to be able to tell. Thanks for sharing that experience with us.