MMA History Part IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan

As we discussed in our last installment, Japanese wrestling had been evolving toward MMA for a couple of decades by the time UFC launched.…

By: Nate Wilcox | 16 years ago
MMA History Part IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

As we discussed in our last installment, Japanese wrestling had been evolving toward MMA for a couple of decades by the time UFC launched. Nevertheless, their reluctance to incorporate strikes on the ground into their training and competitions left them in for a rude awakening when they ran up against the Brazilians who’d been competing Vale Tudo style. King of Pancrase Ken Shamrock’s quick loss to Royce Gracie at UFC 1 sent shockwaves through the Japanese scene. Royce’s quick defeat of Daido Juku champ Minoki Ichihara got the attention of Japan’s martial arts traditionalists as well. (More on Daido Juku in the extended entry, including vids).

So the Shooto people set up a Japan Vale Tudo event and invited Royce’s big bad brother Rickson. He swept through a fairly weak field including Shooto veteran Kenji Kawaguchi who got KO’d by Dutch kickboxer Jan Lomulder in the first round and 40 something Judoka Yoshinori Nishi. After his loss to Rickson, Nishi went on to found the Wajyutsu fighting camp which spawned such UFC vets as Caol Uno and Yushin Okami.

Here’s some highlights of Rickson that provides a pretty good run through of both events plus some fights from later in the 1990’s.

In the 1995 tournament, the field included pro-wrestler from RINGS Yoshihisa Yamamoto, amateur wrestler Koichiro Kimura, future olympic bob-sledder Todd Hayes, UFC 1 vet Gerard Gordeau and shooto lightweight Yuki Nakai.

Here’s the final round between Rickson and Nakai. Note Yuki’s swollen eye, Gordeau had literally gouged it out in their first round fight. THEN Nakai beat a 250lb Craig Pittman before getting to Rickson.

In the extended entry there are some excerpts from a great Sherdog interview with Yuki Nakai that gives his perspective on the fight and the state of Japanese MMA before and after it ran headfirst into Rickson. Plus some videos of Japanese proto-MMA.

Also check out this documentary of the 1995 event, Rickson Gracie: Choke

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.
Sherdog: Why?
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.

Here’s a HL clip of some Daido Juko competitions. It combines Kyokushin Karate with Judo and has been going since 1981.

And here’s a clip of an exhibition match between Rickson’s Vale Tudo 1994 opponent Yoshinori Nishi and Shooto Founder “Tiger Mask” Satoru Sayama. I believe it’s considered an exhibition match because of limited striking. This occured at the Tournament of J Lumax Cup event of April 1994.

Previous installments of MMA History:

XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba’s Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion’s Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie’s Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

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About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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