An exclusive interview with YUKI NAKAI: his personal account of the early shaping of MMA

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Yuki Nakai – fighter, coach, organizer – has contributed to the development of Mixed Martial Arts as a life long personal mandate. Few MMA icons are as recognizable for their efforts in the ring to the dojo as is the Paraestra and Japan Jiu Jitsu Federation founder. Nakai Sensei is a living vale tudo legend.

I had seen Nakai-san on many occasions, yet only once or twice did I summoned up the courage to smile and nod. It’s not that he’s intimidating – actually he’s not at all. He’s neither tall nor imposing, he has kind eyes and an almost childlike smile, and when it’s a more formal event his suits always seem as if someone forced him into them. But what is awe-inspiring is what he has been through and accomplished in his Mixed Martial Arts journey.

MMA-in-ASIA was recently granted an exclusive interview with Nakai-san. In this delightful opportunity, we spoke with the Master about his early beginnings in MMA, Paraestra’s raison d’être, his teaching philosophy over the years, and – of course – that infamous Vale Tudo tournament.

MMA-in-ASIA: Nowadays, many kids may have the exposure to MMA even before other martial arts because of the UFC, so I’m curious about how you got involved with it. How did you get from judo into full contact fighting?

Nakai: Actually, I’ve never explained how I transitioned from judo to MMA in an English interview. So there may be some confusion about this because of translations from Japanese articles.

Many people think it, but I didn’t transit from judo to MMA… because my first priority was always MMA. That’s why I started wrestling in high school, and judo in university. It is hard to explain the situation in Japan at the time – we had this “pro wrestling” culture. I completely believed that it was real. 100%. I wanted to be in that kind of “complete” fight. But I had no idea how to get in so that’s why I started wrestling and judo. I wanted to be a complete fighter.

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MMA-in-ASIA: How did your first full contact fight opportunity come about?

Nakai: Because Shooto became professional. I finally realized pro wrestling wasn’t real. When Shooto became a professional fight organization, I knew this was the perfect time for me to become a full contact fighter. Even though the name was “Professional Shooto” or shooting, almost all the fighters could not survive with their shooting! So when shooting became professional, I didn’t wait until I graduated from university. I was a senior, but I quit university and moved to Yokohama.

MMA-in-ASIA: What did your parents think about that?

Nakai: My father didn’t agree with my decision at all. But my mother was behind me because she thought this is just a Japanese boy’s way – fighting.

MMA-in-ASIA: Did they ever watch you fight?

Nakai: They had their own family business so they never could come to a venue to watch live.

MMA-in-ASIA: When you look back on the sport, what are the most important changes you have witnessed in the transition from vale tudo to modern MMA?

Nakai: I feel there’s not only one thing that comes to mind. Before the UFC, the first step was Shooto starting to use the open finger gloves, gloves we can grab with, not boxing gloves. This was the first step. Also, in the early days, it was when Shooto said they would become professional. In the early days, Sayama talked to Shooto – it was amateur – but some day he said it would become professional. That was before I joined. I don’t know why he thought that.

Shooto didn’t allow striking on the ground, and then came early UFC which was almost no holds barred. And then they started the weight categories. I can’t say that the UFC’s and Shooto’s visions were totally the same, but it was similar. Japanese MMA needed to take time to explode, but the UFC exploded, and that’s what made MMA a world-wide sport. It was their job to make it that way.

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MMA-in-ASIA: With Shooto’s rule changes over time, and Pancrase’s recent switch to “Unified Rules”, do you think the sport is growing further away from the original “true fighting” nature?

Nakai: I think that all MMA fighters have their own idea about what they like to do. For instance, I’m okay with soccer kicks. I even don’t mind head-butting! I don’t care about grabbing the ropes – it is what I wish to do. I don’t know if Japanese audiences completely accept “Unified rules” and cage MMA. It’s made by American culture. I can’t 100% say it will be successful here. I have an idea that the audience may not be able to see clearly through the cage and may not like it. I’m concerned that they can’t easily see something like an elbow that can cut and make so much blood as a sport. It depends on the person, this is just my opinion of why some Japanese might think this way. The Americans have developed the Unified rules and UFC has led the way, so that is what MMA is in America. But Japanese have different experiences to draw from.

On the same hand, the UFC did a really great job to spread MMA all over the world. Many people – including me – watch it and want to follow the UFC way, and hype up MMA in Japan with the UFC.

MMA-in-ASIA: There has also been a change in styles of fighting. At first, it was all jiu jitsu. Then wrestling became important. Then striking levels escalated and shooting decreased. Do you still feel that jiu jitsu is still necessary for MMA?

Nakai: If a fighter doesn’t have jiu jitsu technique, he will lose easily. Maybe in some crazy fighters, we cannot see the jiu jitsu in their attacking techniques, but still there are so many MMA techniques that are jiu jitsu techniques at the same time. Jiu jitsu is still alive in MMA. Jiu jitsu is still at the core of MMA.

Paraestra at the Asian Open 2012, courtesy Kinya Hashimoto
Paraestra at the Asian Open 2012, courtesy Kinya Hashimoto

MMA-in-ASIA: What is your opinion of the some of the top fighters who have become “point fighters”? In other words, that it’s more important to climb the rankings and stay on top rather than get a finish.

Nakai: We call that scoring. It depends upon the style of the fighter. Of course if the fighter can get a submission or finish the fight, and he can win by points, he’s great. I think that not all fighters can finish. Not everyone has the ability to submit or knock out. That’s an important factor in MMA. I can accept a fighter who wants to get a win by points.

MMA-in-ASIA: From being a fighter to becoming a teacher, how has your thinking changed?

Nakai: In the old days, the Shooto days, I must do striking, throwing, submissions, everything. I must work everything to the same level as much as I can. But now, I’m thinking, maybe it depends more on the fighter. The fighter needs his own style, and his own background. Then the fighter can get experience from the effect of MMA fighting, and will become a complete fighter. Nowadays, I don’t think we need to do everything on an average.

MMA-in-ASIA: So, are you saying that rather than teaching MMA as a complete sport, a fighter can come from one style or discipline and evolve it within the game?

Nakai: Maybe the opposite. Now I’m thinking that if you have a strong style, I like you to improve your own style. Before, I believed that if you had problems in one area, you needed to improve that area. But now, I would push your own style. If you keep fighting, you will be able to put in other styles as you gain experience.

My students are not all the same style. One may be jiu jitsu, one likes striking. I have found that if they focus on improving what they are good at, all the holes will eventually be filled.

Nakai Sensei with KOP Takumi Nakayama, courtesy Miyoshi Hide
Nakai Sensei with KOP Takumi Nakayama, courtesy Miyoshi Hide

MMA-in-ASIA: You’ve talked about cultivating spirit and not just physical aspects. Who are some fighters you believe embody this spirit now?

Nakai: I think that all fighters have spirit. After MMA improved a lot, many people thought fighters were rough characters, a stereotype. But fighters are individuals. For example, Masakatsu Ueda is not a very physical guy and he doesn’t have a great many excellent techniques, but he always has a good fighting heart. I accept every single fighter and their individual style. Top ranked fighters have spirit, and losers also have fighting spirit. If you are a fighter, it is because you have fighting spirit.

MMA-in-ASIA: Because you are born with it?

Nakai: Yes.

MMA-in-ASIA: Paraestra was founded on “communication”. Can you explain its significance?

Nakai: It’s hard to explain, especially in translation. We say “kakutogi” but the English word is “martial arts” or “fighting”. In Japanese, we don’t separate fighting from martial arts. Many people thought that if you do “martial arts”, you have to be polite. And if you’re thinking about combat sports, you’re thinking win. Martial arts IS fighting. We have to combine them. I can roll with everyone on this planet. If I roll with anyone from any other country, rolling – which is fighting – overcomes language, culture, and skin color. It is the best way of communicating.

The reason why I used “martial arts communication” instead of calling it my name or my gym is because I want to promote the concept of communication.

MMA-in-ASIA: If there were true vale tudo competitions today, would you be coaching students to compete?

Nakai: It’s hard to say because we don’t have it any more. We don’t have no-weight category tournaments, not even single matches. Back then, it was tournaments of open weights.

MMA-in-ASIA: In regards to your fighting career, do you have any regrets about engaging in the fight in which you ended up losing your sight in one eye?

Nakai: I never regretted it. This was just the beginning of MMA becoming a sport. But there wasn’t a sport, and at that time it was turning point. At that day, it was all about timing. If the sport of MMA was already developed back then, I would have joined it.

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