Remembering the career legacy and impact of Teila Tuli, the most important UFC fighter of all time

Teila Tuli died on June 20.
CBS Hosts Annual Sunset On The Beach Event Celebrating Season 8 Of "Hawaii Five-0"
CBS Hosts Annual Sunset On The Beach Event Celebrating Season 8 Of "Hawaii Five-0" / Darryl Oumi/GettyImages

One month after the passing of Art Jimmerson, another UFC 1 icon has passed as 56-year-old Teila Tuli — who would eventually become recognized as actor Taylor Wily — died on June 20. Hawaii local news show Island Life Live first reported the unfortunate news as host 'Lina Girl' opened up on her relationship with the fighter-turned-actor as a family friend. 'Lina Girl' confirmed that Tuli passed in the city of Hurricane, Utah and his cause of death remains private.

After retiring from his martial arts career, Tuli gained mainstream attention for portraying the character 'Kamekona' on the Hawaii 5-0 remake from 2010-2020. Tuli would also reprise his role in the following shows MacGyver and Magnum P.I., both of which were also based in Hawaii.

MMA fans, however, will always remember Tuli for his role in UFC 1. The clips of his fight with Gerard Gordeau still occasionally circulate MMA Twitter due to the visual image of his 400-pound frame going up against the significantly smaller Savate fighter. Tuli lost the fight in just 26 seconds after getting kicked in the face and losing several teeth, some of which remained in Gordeau's foot for the rest of the tournament.

His participation at UFC 1 was his one and only MMA fight as a career sumo wrestler. He represented the Japanese martial art at the event, making him the most notable sumo-based fighter in UFC history. But while fans recognize Tuli as just the "big guy" from the first-ever promotional event, his impact on the sport goes much further than most realize. While Tuli is credited as being a part of the first fight ever to occur in the UFC Octagon, his influence on the sport is actually much larger. Had it not been for the Hawaiian sumo wrestler, the UFC may not even be in existence.

Teila Tuli fought at UFC 1

As one can imagine, putting UFC 1 together was no piece of cake. Art Davie and Rorion Gracie were not only tasked with obtaining a professional fighter from each respected discipline but also had to convince them to participate in a non-traditional fight that did not have many rules.

Before the tournament could even begin, each fighter had to sign a bout agreement, a concept that still exists in modern MMA. As reports would later claim, the athletes who would eventually compete at UFC 1 were brought together in a room to explain the entire concept of the tournament and the reactions from the fighters present were hostile. None of the eight participants of the event were willing to risk their careers and reputations for what seemed like a circus.

According to The Denver Post, Tuli was the first man to sign the contract. Tuli described the emotions in the room as a "riot" as tensions increased between the fighters and UFC executives. After telling his brother that he just "wanted to fight," the largest man in the room silenced the group of yelling men by standing up, walking over to the contract, signing the documents and telling Gracie that he would see him in the Octagon.

Moments later, a few other fighters would follow in his lead and soon after, the rest of the athletes signed the contract to keep the event together. Had it not been for Tuli, the man that millions of people would grow to love as the kind-hearted Kamekona, MMA might not have ever become an organized concept.

What makes Tuli's feat even more impressive is the fact that he had already given up his sumo career by the time he received a call from the UFC. Tuli picked up the sport in 1987 and after moving from Hawaii to Japan, became a close friend and mentor of eventual sumo legend Akebono Taro. However, Tuli — who accepted the shikona name Takamikuni — retired just two years after beginning his career due to recurring injuries.

Following his retirement from sumo, Tuli dipped his hand into the world of Japanese pro wrestling, where he would get on the radar of the UFC. By that point in 1993, Davie had tried to acquire top-level martial artists to compete in his event but faced endless rejection, causing his desperation to lead him to the world of sumo wrestlers. Without even knowing much of the UFC concept, Tuli assuredly obliged.

In the end, Tuli was never a UFC champion, nor will his 0-1 MMA record ever be brought up as one of the best fighters of all time. But without the fearless big man who will always be remembered as the beloved Kamekona, UFC 1 would never have gotten off the ground.

He is not the greatest to ever do it, but Teila Tuli is the most important MMA fighter of all time.