We asked Nakai about his history, the old days of SHOOTO and his legendary performance in the Japan Vale Tudo tournament, which included his infamous bout versus Gerard Gordeau and an appearance in the finals against Rickson Gracie.
Sherdog.com: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.
Yuki Nakai (Pictures): No problem.
Sherdog: How did you start in SHOOTO? What was your background before you started competing?
Nakai: I was born in Hokaido and then came to Tokyo. I used to do judo and wrestling before, and I always wanted to do MMA, and because SHOOTO was the first total fighting style in Japan I really wanted to do it.
Sherdog: When did you come to Tokyo?
Nakai: It was Yokohama actually (city next to Tokyo). I came in 1992.
Sherdog: Did you come there for training?
Nakai: Yes I did.
Sherdog: What made you become a pro-fighter in the first place? I know that you trained with Tiger Mask (Japanese pro-wrestling legend, Satoru Sayama).
Nakai: It was always my childhood dream. I always wanted to be a pro-fighter.
Sherdog: At the moment before the Japan Vale Tudo, you were the SHOOTO welterweight champion, and then you were picked by the SHOOTO Commission to represent SHOOTO. Can you tell us your experience when you were in the Japan Vale Tudo?
Nakai: What I thought about it?
Sherdog: How were you feeling when you were going to the tournament? Rickson Gracie was in the same tournament. What were you thinking?
Nakai: I was 70 kilograms (154 pounds) and everyone else was bigger than me. In Vale Tudo at that time, there were not many technicians apart from the Gracie family, and SHOOTO was as popular at that time. I had confidence in my abilities and I was quite confident that I could win.
Sherdog: How do you think fighting in SHOOTO back at that time compares to fighting in SHOOTO today?
Nakai: I fought first in 1994, then in ‘95, and even the rules have changed to Vale Tudo, so I had time to prepare for Vale Tudo. Before that time there was no punching or kicking on the ground. And Sayama changed; they wanted Vale Tudo to be more sporting, so that’s why they slowly changed the rules to make it more like a sport.
Sherdog: I apologize for the question, but I know that in your first fight in the Japan Vale Tudo tournament you fought Gerard Gordeau, and you had an accident when fighting. Gerard was gouging your eyes. I want to know how you were feeling at the moment when that happened and what injuries you sustained.
Nakai: I was prepared that Gordeau would be using some kind of dirty techniques, and according to the rules, if you used dirty techniques two or three times you would lose, so I was expecting Gordeau to lose because of his tactics. I was expecting to win because of all the rule infringements.
Sherdog: Did you receive any damage from Gordeau’s tactics?
Nakai: I can’t see with my right eye, even now. Complete loss of vision in that eye.
Sherdog: You had three fights that night in the Japan Vale Tudo tournament. You won the first two fights — one by heel hook and the other by armbar — then you met in the finals with Rickson Gracie. You were very badly damaged from the previous two fights, how did you feel at the moment when you faced Rickson?
Nakai: He had good technique, and I did a lot of judo and ground work as well and I thought that I’d use my ground work to fight with Gracie. I was really confident that I would make it to the finals and I was very confident that I could beat Rickson.
Sherdog: After your loss in the fight with Rickson, how did it change you? What did you realize that you would have to change in your game?
Nakai: Rickson had superior techniques and I was a bit surprised because he was much better than I thought. But it was a good experience for me to understand the top-level fighter at that time.
Sherdog: I understand that after the fight with Rickson you decided to start training jiu-jitsu, basically bringing this style back to Japan with you when you returned. So what was the process? Who did you start training with? Who did you get your black belt from?
Nakai: For the first two years I kept it a secret that I was blind in my right eye because at that time many people were against Vale Tudo. I didn’t want people to think that Vale Tudo was a dangerous sport. I got my injury from illegal techniques; I didn’t want Vale Tudo to have a bad reputation. I had to give up my fighting career because I couldn’t see the punches coming at me. After that, for one year I didn’t compete. At that time a lot of Japanese fighters were not top class and they were losing a lot of fights, and then I thought what’s needed to win? At that time I was doing a lot of judo, but then I started to think OK, let me try jiu-jitsu, and then I started with a white belt.
Sherdog: So whom did you get your Black Belt from?
Nakai: I got it from the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation.
Sherdog: I heard once that when you went to the Mundials and you were in the Brown Belt division, I think you won your division or placed among the top. After that Carlos Gracie Jr. told you that, “you should not fight at Brown Belt anymore, you should fight at Black Belt.” So did you get your Black Belt from Carlos Gracie Jr.? Is that story true?
Nakai: Every time I fought with a brown belt I would ask the organizers “Can I fight in this competition with so-and-so belt?” and at the Pan-Americans they said that I needed the black belt, but I didn’t have a main teacher — I had a lot of different instructors but not one set teacher. For me, I got it from the Federation.
Sherdog: After that you came back to Japan and founded the Japanese Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation and the Pareastra gyms, what do you feel is the impact of your work?
Nakai: I thought Brazilian jiu-jitsu fit the Japanese.
Nakai: Japan is judo. Brazilian jiu-jitsu basics are judo. People who did judo were the people who were teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Of course, it’s not only judo but [also] a lot of ground work. But the basics of Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the same as judo, and for Vale Tudo it’s very important, lots of groundwork. And I felt that Brazilian Ju-jitsu would be popular in Japan. So, when I started my dojo, of course, we had Vale Tudo class. But I felt we should have a lot of jiu-jitsu classes as well.
Sherdog: Was opening a dojo something that you wanted to do for a long time?
Nakai: I thought about it since the time I moved to Yokohama. Then I had this idea that I’m going to have my own dojo.
Sherdog: When you opened your first gym, did you realize that it was going to be such a success? There are many gyms that represent your name, and out of that jiu-jitsu has spread all over Japan. Did you realize at the moment how big it was going to become?
Nakai: I was 100 percent sure that it was going to get big.
Sherdog: After all these years, are you satisfied with your success?
Nakai: Sure it’s all over Japan, but I feel that more and more people are going to pick up on this sport.
Sherdog: You’re basically a legend and champion for many SHOOTO fans and fighters, both inside and outside of Japan, especially because of the courage you showed in the Japan Vale Tudo. So a bit of a silly question: but do you really feel like a legend?
Nakai: I’m not a legend — it’s too early. I’m a jiu-jitsu practitioner.
Sherdog: Do you realize that you have a lot of fans outside of Japan, foreigners that follow SHOOTO in Europe and America?
Nakai: I’m thankful that people know about me. Ten years have past and still people know about me and I’m very grateful about that.
Sherdog: So what’s next, what do you want to accomplish?
Nakai: I want to be the world champion of jiu-jitsu.
Sherdog: What about your work in Japan with jiu-jitsu, your school, what do you want to accomplish?
Nakai: I want students of my gym to get stronger and go to the next level. Also normal people who come to the jiu-jitsu school, if they’re satisfied and they’re happy about what they’re doing, that’s good enough for me.