The man lost a tooth but might’ve saved a sport in the process. If you’re a UFC fan celebrating the mixed martial arts giant’s 25th birthday this weekend, be sure to save a piece of cake for 415-pound Teila Tuli — or as fans of the CBS drama Hawaii Five-0 know him, Taylor Wily.
“There was a different feeling when you walked through that octagon,” Wily, the 49-year-old actor, former sumo wrestler and the first knockout victim in UFC history, told The Post last week. “I was scared. I ain’t lying, I was scared.
“Now when I look back on it, now that I’m more mature, I’m just grateful to God to just have the opportunity to risk it. Because how many times are you going to have the opportunity to risk something that nobody else did before?”
Without Tuli’s signature in Denver, North America’s largest MMA promotion might never have gotten off the ground in the first place. At a rules meeting before UFC 1 — a fight that was billed as essentially having no rules — the participants, including Tuli, were gathered for the first time in a hotel conference room to hash out specifics. It didn’t take long for tempers to flare and threats to fly, leaving UFC 1 organizers to wonder if they’d have a card at all.
“My brother, he looked at me and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ Tuli recalled. “I said, ‘I’d like to fight.’ He said, ‘Sign the paper and let’s get out of here.’
“Because the energy in there — it was the energy of a riot.”
As the arguments continued, Tuli got up and started to leave the room.
“Where are you going?” UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie asked.
“I came here for a party,” Tuli told the fighters and UFC officials. “So if you’re here to party, I’ll see you in the arena tomorrow.”
He nodded at the contract he’d just signed, turned, and left.
The other fighters stopped screaming at one other and instead decided to follow Tuli’s lead. They signed their contracts, too. The show was back on.
“I sensed the danger of it all not happening,” Tuli said. “It was like, you want to go the big dance and the cops are going to shut it down and you never get to dance.
“I just wanted this to happen. We dreamed about this. It’s just, sometime, everybody needs a little bit of a push.”
UFC 1 was set up as an eight-man bracket, with each participant representing a different fighting style. Tuli, whose background was in sumo, got matched up in the first quarterfinal of the night with Dutch savateur Gerard Gordeau. The amiable big man took it on the chin, though – literally, as a Gordeau kick knocked a tooth clear out of his mouth, ending the fight after just 26 seconds.
Tuli suffered blurred vision in one eye for four or five years after that blow to the head, he said, and a bruised ego for several years after that.
“UFC fans are the freaking most loyal fans you can ever find,” Tuli said. “I mean, every airport I went after that, since the first (event), somebody walked up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, did you fight in the UFC? Are you a UFC fighter?’ For like five to 10 years I lied to them. I said, ‘That’s not me.’ Because who wants to talk about the time you got your ass kicked?
“But I’m very grateful for it now … because it was so special. UFC 1 was the opportunity of a lifetime. How many people get that opportunity? I’m just happy that it happened, and I stepped up to it.”
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