Monday, August 31, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 27

As professional wrestling gained popularity in the early days of television the territories became tighter and tighter. Promoters wanted to keep their best talent from leaving by striking deals and setting rates with rival promotions. Some groups would do business and share talent. These cross promotional ventures would highlight the best fighters around to build interest in the companies. Others had freelance wrestlers that would travel through the territories but never stay for too long in one area. This helped some of the wrestlers build reputations and grow their popularity. In many of the bigger cities there were strict laws about boxing and wrestling. Insurance, safety, tax codes and other regulations kept many promotions from growing too big. The larger the draw the more the commissions wanted to drain from the till. The ways that some of these promotions were run kept the majority of the money at home in one way or another. Some upstarts needed capital to get off the ground, pay the bills and the talent. Instead of going to the bank they would sometimes cut deals with loan sharks and mobsters. Some promotions skirted the law despite wanting to stay legit.

These arrangements with the mob were not only done in the US though. There had been reports of wrestling and Yakuza dealings in Japan as well. This was not limited to modern wrestling though, remember that Rikidozan was stabbed by Yakuza enforcers in a nightclub back in 1954. In Engalnd and Europe some of the criminal elements went hand in hand with boxing and wrestling as well. In 1938 Gerald Kersh had a book published titled Night and the City. It was set in the London underworld and revolved around a petty criminal named Harry Fabian that failed from his get rich schemes again and again. He saw an opening in the pro wrestling game and tried to develop his own talent and compete in the mob ruled underworld. Unfortunately for him all of his choices were the wrong ones and he ended up owing a great debt to the mob at the same time the law was catching up with him. It was a dark story that was turned into a 1950 film by Jules Dassin.


The movie took a lot of liberties with the story and focused more on the relationship between Fabian, as played by Richard Widmark and his young wrestler Nikolas of Athens as played by Ken Richmond. To help the young wrestler get up to par he came across an old Catch wrestler named Gregorius the Great as played by Stanislaus Zbyszko to help train him. Stanislaus was actually Polish, playing a Greek immigrant. The son of Gregorius, Kristo as played by Herbert Lom, ran the mob and controlled the wrestling action. Gregorius was ashamed at the pre-determined spectacle that Greco Roman wrestling had become. Any honor or dignity that the sport and athletes once enjoyed had been stripped away by the mobsters.

In the pivotal scene of the movie a rival wrestler named the Strangler, as played by veteran tough guy Mike Mazurki,goaded Gregorius into fighting him. Stanislaus was 71-years-old when the scene was shot. Despite his age it was a convincing battle between the two grapplers. The authenticity of moves highlighted by the former champion helped the credibility of the fight. After dispatching the Strangler the elder Gregorius turned to his son and uttered the best line in the movie "that's what I do to your clowns." The scene had tremendous weight because Stanislaus was speaking as a real-life Gregorius. A lower quality version of the fight scene with the tragic outcome could be found on YouTube.


Catch wrestling never died but it also never gained popularity with the advent of "pro wrestling." Still it managed to survive through most of the 20th century. Thanks to people like Frank Gotch and Stanislaus Zbyszko. There were other pioneers that helped keep it going through the early days. Dan Kolov, the Bulgarian wrestler who emigrated to the US as a railroad worker and fought a bear with his bare hands while out hunting. He killed the bear with his rifle but when people saw the marks Kolov had left on the neck of the bear they knew he would make a formidable wrestler. Kolov might have been one of the legendary figures that inspired the character Zangief in Street Fighter II. Other catch practitioners that popularized the form in the US included Martin "Farmer" Burns, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, "Tiger" John Pesek, Billy Riley and Billy Robinson.

In the modern era there were fighters like Gene Lebell that helped promote Catch as well as other schools of fighting for wrestlers. Frank and Ken Shamrock, Josh Barnett and Randy Couture were MMA superstars that also trained under the Catch style. Kazushi Sakuraba had joined the ranks of fighters that predated the Gracie family. He had managed to make the transition from pro wrestler to MMA superstar without losing his roots. At the same time he was able to incorporate the showmanship he had picked up in pro wrestling and create a memorable character for himself. He often payed homage to the wrestlers that came before like the Great Muta and Big Van Vader.


The Catch wrestler and MMA fighter had started changing the course of character designs before Tendo Gai however. The next blog will look at the first MMA star that Capcom had created for the Street Fighter universe.

Friday, August 28, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 26

In the previous blog I had mentioned that pro wrestler Karl Gotch had influenced the development of the hard, shoot style of wrestling that the Japanese enjoyed. He would share his training, conditioning and grappling techniques with his fellow professionals. Helping them become better athletes and appreciate the roots of wrestling in the process. Karl was still alive when Sakuraba started his career. He would have offered insight on the advantages catch-as-catch-can or "Catch" school of wrestling to other martial arts. Moreover one of Karl's contemporaries Billy Robinson was also available to help shape the young wrestler as well. Both Karl and Billy had earned reputations as hard workers but also genuine shooters. They knew the business of wrestling but also knew how to seriously hurt someone or "stretch" them if they wanted. They had to carefully walk the line between entertainment and genuine combat for most of the 20th century. If they had been born a century earlier they would have been much better regarded as legitimate fighters.


Through the lessons of Billy and Karl the deficiencies of the BJJ system was exposed. In fact a major deficiency had been exposed in the early UFC battles featuring Royce Gracie. He seemed to have a weakness against people that were not dressed in traditional jujitsu uniforms, it was apparent when he fought Ken Shamrock and Kimo Leopoldo who only wore shorts. Helio had taught his sons to work while using a gi. The judo uniforms were what had helped Helio in his famous battles. The clothing could be grabbed to help generate leverage even for people that weren't as strong as their opponents. The clothing could be used to move opponents, get them off balance and even trap and choke people out. When Royce did not have something to hold onto it was more difficult to control his opponents and work a submission move. What Sakuraba needed was a system that could control his opponents arms and legs while standing or even from the ground but that did not rely on clothing to grab onto. He began studying Catch in early on in his wrestling career. By the time he had exploited it against the BJJ students and Gracie family he was well versed at what was capable using only traditional holds. In fact the uniform that had served Royce so well in his early competitions worked against him the first time he fought Sakuraba. The Japanese fighter would pull Royce upside down by his belt so that he couldn't escape from the floor. Then Sakuraba would throw a punch whenever he saw an opening on the upturned Gracie.


The more Sakuraba learned about the system the better he became at the grappling game. As a huge fan of pro wrestling he went out of his way to pay an homage to his idols each time he stepped into the ring. These outlandish displays hid the very dangerous techniques he was picking up. He studied the lessons of Billy Riley and Billy Robinson that had brought the fighting art over from England decades earlier. Riley's training ground was dubbed the Snake Pit, it had generated some tremendous talent. It would be knocked down and rebuilt over the century but never lost its allure. The current caretaker and trainer Roy Wood was the subject of a short documentary on catch-as-catch-can. It turned out that Catch had actually been a long time gaining a reputation in the West. Before the pro wrestling business became "sports entertainment" the best wrestlers were as well regarded as professional boxers. In fact to help himself get over in the business Karl Charles Istaz had taken the surname of the early US Catch hero Frank Gotch. Greco Roman wrestling was still practiced in gyms but a variation that had modern roots, an understanding of joint locks and submission holds was taking shape. This was in the 18th and 19th century well before the first "new" Olympic Games in 1896. In fact some of the modern wrestling forms predated the Kung-Fu taught by Ng Mui to Wing Chun, and heroes Huo Yuanjia and Wong Fei Hung. Frank Gotch, just so you know, was the first US wrestler to gain merit against the European champions.


Frank was one of the luminaries of the sport. Others included the Great Gama from India and Stanislaus Zbyszko from Poland. Those men were legitimate champions of the sport and proponents of the Catch school. In England the working class enjoyed the wrestling arts for both the calisthenic properties as well as the gambling reasons. The best were masters of the Catch school, then called the Scientific Method of wrestling, to differentiate itself from the Greco-Roman school. In the US the working class and farmers also enjoyed wrestling. Young Abraham Lincoln was said to have been a good wrestler but he was not the only US President with wrestling roots. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt were also wrestlers in their youth.

In the late 1800s traveling carnivals would put out open challenges to try and defeat their wrestler, usually also the circus strongman. The tradition had survived in remote parts of the world up until the modern times. In a previous blog I had mentioned the wrestler named He-Man was a circus wrestler up until his murder in 2010. Those foolish enough to try would and take He-Man and his kind would get bent over backwards. The reputation of the traveling performers often preceded them. The promoters learned the importance of creating a character and building a legacy. Legends would surface of men that had fought bears, alligators and mountain lions with their bare hands. Anyone foolish enough to grapple with them would surely be skinned alive. That cycle of hype and show would go on to shape the legends that founded the early US territories. It planted the seeds of pro wrestling as more of a staged battle than an actual fighting art. The Bleacher Reoprt had a great slideshow on the evolution of pro wrestling for those interested in seeing some archival footage.


Some wrestlers still held onto the old traditions though. When they could they would participate in genuine shoots, sometimes for the money but sometimes to build a name. These fighters had earned a reputation as being hookers, legitimate wrestlers that could easily break bones. Unfortunately the times were catching up with the sport. Media was changing the face of sports and entertainment. A long career was not guaranteed for those that pursued submission wrestling. The money and longevity was in entertainment. Wrestlers were expected to develop a character, a personality and "sell" moves and holds to the audience without actually hurting their opponents. Film had changed the landscape of the early sports reporting but not nearly as much as television. Some of the early stars did have high school and college wrestling backgrounds. Others were from track and field or football programs. They were filled in by other pro and catch wrestlers as they developed a gimmick. The biggest names would turn out to be the ones with the best mic skills and not necessarily the best wrestling abilities. This rubbed many veterans the wrong way.

 

This trend was not exclusive to the US alone. In Japan, in the UK and around the world where matches were being televised the genuine shooters were slowly being replaced by handsome men and women that looked great on TV. Skills could always be taught to the talent and to be fair some of the people that picked up wrestling became very good workers. The influence of every type of wrestler could be seen in the first few generations of fighting game character. Street Fighter did not only look to Muay Thai for real legends, it also looked to boxing and wrestling as well. It did not matter if the game were a 2D or 3D title because the designers gravitated towards what worked best and what was easily identifiable to audiences. I mean a person in a gi with a black belt was obviously a karate master and a person in wrestling trunks was obviously a grappler. It was relatively easy for the developers to put in a fighter that reminded people of Bruce Lee or a wrestler like Hulk Hogan because they had international exposure.

As technology evolved so too did the ability to present characters that kept pace with their real-life counterparts. For example, in the '80s Hulk Hogan was as American pride as a character could get but in the '90s the anti-hero was en vogue. Hogan ditched his clean-cut image and became a "bad guy" called Hollywood Hulk Hogan. There was a notable difference between Muscle Power and Bass Armstrong from the respective World Heroes and Dead or Alive series. It was uncanny how similar game characters would appear like their real world counterparts. Of course the developers at ADK and Tecmo knew to change just enough details so that they wouldn't get sued for trademark infringement.

 

Developers would even create alternate costumes to place on 3D models that made them look more like their inspiration. I mean Fei Long was very much a Bruce Lee clone but Capcom found that they could create costumes that mirrored those worn in several Lee films and sell them to audiences. Now if only the developers could create download packs to make the character fight differently, then you would have my attention. But I digress! I was talking about wrestling before I got sidetracked. Catch wrestling went underground but never disappeared. The narrative that kept the sport alive was similar to a popular book and groundbreaking film. The next blog will look at the seedy world that kept Catch alive.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 25

Kasushi Sakuraba had done some time in pro wrestling circles before his stint with the Pride and other MMA tournaments. Most professional wrestlers made poor MMA fighters and vice versa. Sakuraba seemed to be able to transition between the two worlds seamlessly. In fact he would return to pro wrestling and help give some credibility to his opponents by adapting some of his famous moves into his arsenal. The cartwheel and the foot stomp returned except this time his opponents knew that he would be pulling the majority of his strikes.



What many people did not realize was the pedigree that Sakuraba had inherited. Sakuraba was not simply a fighter with a personality. He was a rare athlete that understood the proper application and uses of the moves he had picked up in the ring. In pro wrestling circles the Japanese style was known to be very stiff or hard-hitting. The strikes were pulled to a lesser degree than those performed in the US which gave the fighting art some credibility to audiences. In fact some promotions prided themselves on highlighting realistic combat. The UWF promotion that Sakuraba worked with had rules that were closer to vale tudo than the pro wrestling that Westerners were used to. Fighters performed locks, holds and hard-hitting strikes that were designed to convince audiences that each fight was a "shoot" or a real battle.

There was a reason that the Japanese style of wrestling was hard-hitting. The man that helped shape the wrestling game in Japan was Karl Gotch. He trained many of the best fighters in the game, including Antonio Inoki. Remember he was the guy that fought Ali? Karl was considered the God of Wrestling to the Japanese, holding a place of prestige that may be even greater than Rikidozan. Gotch himself had been trained in a legacy that dated back to the birth of scientific or "catch-as-catch-can" wrestling from the late 19th century. Sakuraba embraced the roots of Japanese wrestling and began learning the moves from the other masters of the game. It would turn out to be the secret weapon that he used in getting past the BJJ system.



Grappling was the oldest known fighting art. It went well back in time when the earliest civilizations were getting established. Warriors and soldiers needed to learn how to fight unarmed in service of their emperors. Systems had to be established that relied on painful joint locks to subdue attackers and disarm opponents. Even laymen had to learn how to defend themselves in the event of a robbery attempt. The best fighters competed in early tournaments. In the Mediterranean the local nations would compete in regional wrestling tournaments before the rise of the modern Olympics. The ancestor to Roman-Greco wrestling had a second fighting art that developed alongside it. The pankration was a mix of wrestling and boxing, for all intents and purposes it was the first mixed martial art style or tournament. Fighters were allowed more leeway with their strikes but eye gouging and biting was still not permitted. Pankration, wrestling and boxing paintings adorned pottery, jewelry, statues and carved reliefs several thousand years old. Pankration was big in ancient times and the mythical heroes Hercules and Theseus were said to be masters of the art.



The names of the early champions were recorded by ancient historians. The legacy of those fighters survived more than 2,000 years. It showed that truly great fighters would indeed achieve immortality. A post apocalyptic animated comic named Pancratia by Ryan Benjamin was inspired by those heroes and their everything goes fighting style.

History books, as well as the graphic novel and movie series "300" reminded people that the Spartans were exceptionally dangerous because they trained in every form of combat from a young age. It was said that Alexander the Great surrounded himself with the best pankratia fighters from his army. According to historians other cultures were exposed to the fighting art during his campaigns and incorporated it into their own wrestling traditions.

 

In 326 B.C. Alexander's campaign had taken his army through India where the western arts cross pollinated with another equally ancient form of wrestling. The early Buddhists took elements of the grappling arts north with them into China. It turns out that the striking arts were not the only things that migrated East. As many martial arts fans know the kung-fu forms influenced the development of the fighting arts in the southern part of the continent, Thailand and Cambodia as well as in the north like Mongolia. By the time traders settled in the islands to the far east they had taken their cross pollination of forms and planted the seeds for karate, judo and jujitsu.



Japan developed Sumo wrestling. Sumo wrestling has a rich history, a detailed tapestry of ethnic identity. Religious, mythological and royal characters have all been associated with the sport. Sumo has been called the most physically demanding of all the martial arts. The best wrestlers or yokozunas are the stuff of legend, massive men whose speed and ability beguile their size. Why wouldn't E. Honda have worked in the Street Fighter series? His strikes and kicks were simply caricatured versions of actual sumo slaps and thrusts. This is something that you should remember of all the classic SF characters. At some point in their design we can trace back an actual art or purpose for their moves and looks. It was only in recent generations of the game that it became disconnected from the martial arts.


The further East we travel the more interesting the sport becomes. In Mongolia the form of wrestling Mongol Buh seems to have a little commonality with the techniques and strategies of stand-up, sumo style wrestling. Travel south a little and we discover that China has several variations of wrestling or Shuai Jiao. It is in the Chinese versions that we see a strong connection between wrestling and kung-fu.


Indian wrestling or "Pehelwani" gave rise to, what I believe to be, the greatest grappler in the Street Fighter universe. Darun Mister from the Street Fighter EX series was inspired by the actual undefeated pehelwani champion Ghulam Muhammad aka the Great Gama. My brothers and I like this character more than the Red Cyclone himself. That is not to say that Zangief was a poorly designed character but his concept version was lacking. A tattooed sailor originally named "Vodka Gobalsky?" With designs like that you'd think that Capcom of Japan wouldn't be surprised by how the west reacted to new characters in SF IV.


After a lot of fine tuning Zangief made his proud debut in SF II. Darun would not have worked as well without Zangief having established the fantastic qualities that wrestlers in the SF universe had. Darun had a Brahma Bomb or front-flip powerbomb to counter the Spinning Piledriver. The Banishing Flat and Spinning Lariat were combined through Darun's Lariat. But what was it about Darun that made him so special, so interesting outside of doppleganger moves? It could have been the cues that ARIKA used when creating the character.

The entire cast of SF EX was created to balance out the original world warriors. Ken and Ryu were balanced by Allen Snider and Kairi respectively. The strong females were balanced out, Chun Li had Blair Dame or Pullum Puruna. The oddballs were balanced out through Dhalsim had Skullomania. Military strongman Guile had Doctrine Dark and of course Zangief had Darun. Darun had to be as exaggerated in proportions as the burly Russian, and have equally fantastic wrestling moves. His dark skin color and trunks even balanced out the fair skin and bright shorts of 'geif. But there was a certain je nai se quoi that made Darun special. It was more than the upturned mustache or elephant champion belt, although those were cool touches as well.


The appeal of Darun came from an understanding and appreciation of Gama and the Indian Wrestling culture. This is a topic that my friend AerialGroove from FightingStreet.com and I have been going over. AerialGroove clued me in to a documentary titled The Physical Body: Indian Wrestling and Physical Culture. I picked up the DVD and was fascinated with the unique regiments, weight lifting and strength training exercises that traditional Pehelwani demanded. This was a form of wrestling and physical culture invented centuries, if not millennia, before the modern strength training became understood in the western world. Pehelwani students would dig pits, lift stones, swing the gada and do calisthenics to develop muscles, flexibility and endurance. Some of these exercises were simple and functional, climbing ropes to strengthen grip and upper body for example, other exercises were more unique like reverse bridges to flips in order to strengthen back and neck muscles, some Yoga moves were even used during conditioning. Pehelwani students not only practiced wrestling moves but spent some of their time in prayer, observing the religious ties to the sport. Darun takes some artistic liberties with the culture, in the game he is represented as a Hindu when the actual Gama was Muslim.

The Pehelwani techniques must have worked because Gama was a physical specimen as much as he was a wrestling spectacle. When you think back to the early 1900's there weren't many physiques that could have compared with modern bodybuilders, Gama was one of the few exceptions. Some of his strength training formats are still practiced by people around the world. Unfortunately for every up there was a down. He would find criticism for his reliance on standing wrestling skills without developing proper mat skills. This and the diet he was on helped increase his bulk but eventually lead to his heart condition. Early physical culture understood the importance of eating large amounts of protein to build mass but unfortunately did not realize that his diet also contributed to his heart disease. You could learn a lot reading about the life and death of the Great Gama. His final days were actually kind of sad as the man who inspired a nation seemed to be forgotten by his fellow Indians.


Gama went on to great success in his wrestling exploits in the early 1900's. In the thousands of matches he had reportedly been in he had never been defeated. He had drawn a few of his matches but none could have ever claimed a pin against him. His legend seemed to grow with every passing year. Even if some of his matches were met with controversy and less than flattering reviews none could argue that he was a fake. He travelled to England issuing challenges when he wasn't allowed to formally compete. Minorities were very strongly discriminated against for many sports. While there he defeated the Polish Stanislaus Zbyszko and eventually claimed the world heavyweight title.

Mr. Zbyszko was another titan of wrestling. He traveled the globe challenging the best in North America and Europe and winning more often than not. Only Frank Gotch had amassed a more impressive record in a tragically shorter time. Stanislaus' defeat at the hands of Gama took on some significance. Mr. Zbyszko probably had nothing to do with the creation of Zangief but Russians like Ivan Poddubny were very much feared at the time. Zbyszko was one of the few to defeat Poddubny.


When development of a 3D Street Fighter game came up ARIKA needed somebody that could not only be a worthy rival to Zangief but had genuine chance of beating him. They went back through the annals of wrestling lore and returned with the legend of the Great Gama. A man of exotic origin, dark of skin and well regarded for his unbreakable determination and undefeated legacy. ARIKA and Capcom then stylized his look turned him into a character whose scale and moves fit perfectly into canon.

This was when Capcom was going the extra mile in character design. No character could simply be added into the series just for visual appeal, they had to take on an additional context in order to both grab the audiences and compete against the returning legacy characters. Darun was just one of the characters featured in SF EX that was based on a legend. Darun and Zangief were presented as the genuine article. They were not gimmick wrestlers from modern times, or even showmen from the era of Gene Lebell. They were inspired by an earlier time, an era of authenticity. While modern gamers might not know exactly who or when they came from all can agree that they were exceptional designs, straightforward and to the point.


The Great Gama was the template for Darun. He was a wrestling God. He had the same mythical status that Oyama or Lee would enjoy in the modern era. Of course most of the people in the West had never heard of him. It was his contemporaries that helped popularize the evolution of wrestling from its ancient Greek tradition into something more scientific by the 19th century. These people were directly connected to the development of a system that Sakuraba and other practitioners of the modern fighting arts would exploit to great success. The next blog will look at these icons.

Monday, August 24, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 24

In Japan there was a new fighting promotion called Pride FC. It was similar to Vale Tudo or UFC in that it allowed just about any strike or grapple short of eye gouges or groin shots. A young Japanese wrestler named Kasushi Sakuraba was making a name for himself with his unorthodox style and amazing adaptability when battling people above his weight class. He was known for his over-the-top ring entrances. He would often put on a costume, dressing himself up like a video game character or a gimmick wrestler. He tried to honor some of the most legendary wrestlers with his costumes, such as the Great Muta and Big Van Vader. This was odd considering how reserved the Japanese were but it certainly helped him gain a following.

 

Despite the flash there was substance to the man. Sakuraba seemed to excel at defeating experts at the BJJ style. The people he defeated read like a who's-who of top Gracie students. The list included Paul Herrera, Conan Silveira, Vernon White, Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, Ebenezer Fontes Braga, Anthony Macias and Guy Mezger. Eventually his successes had caught the eye of the Gracie family. Determined not to let one person undo the half-century of work that Helio had put into the system they began sending actual family members to fight Sakuraba. Royler was the first and he was defeated using the same move applied to Helio decades earlier, the Kimura. In fact it was the first defeat for an actual family member since that encounter in 1954. The Gracie family was out for blood now. Unfortunately for them Renzo, Ryan and even Royce Gracie were all met with defeat. Before the dust had settled Sakuraba was awarded a belt by the Pride organizers in his trademark orange and was dubbed the "Gracie Hunter" by the press.


It was a proud few years for the nation. One of their own hometown boys had single-handedly defeated the system that had conquered the MMA universe. Sakuraba had stripped the mystique surrounding Gracie Ju-jitsu. Even when the Gracie family made stipulations before each match Sakuraba agreed to abide by them. He had exposed the flaws of the system and the practitioners. The mystique and air of superiority that the family once enjoyed had been shattered.

Yet it was not the first time a world champion had been humbled by the inevitable. Young "Iron" Mike Tyson had enjoyed an amazing run in his professional boxing career in the early '80s. Destroying most of his opponents in the first few seconds of the fight was impressive but made countless millions of cable subscribers furious. Yet the lack of discipline after the death of his trainer and mentor Constantine "Cus" D'Amato had started Tyson on a downward spiral. He began falling in with the wrong crowd, including promoter Don King, and before too long the mystique of Mike Tyson disappeared with his first defeat at the hands of James "Buster" Douglas. Tyson found himself on a downward spiral of self-destruction. His time spent in jail dulled his legacy and by the time he was given a chance to reclaim the title it was apparent to all that Tyson was no longer an immortal. For a fighter to remain at the top hard work, technique and natural ability were all important assets but the one wildcard was presence. If a fighter appeared to be impossible to defeat, or got into the head of an opponent then they would gain the advantage.

The Gracies and BJJ practitioners had the reputation going for them. The techniques had been proven on the streets, in the bars, in the dojos and on the professional stage. Gracie Ju-jitsu was a serious fighting art, capable of disabling or even killing a person. Yet once there was a crack in the armor, something that could be exploited, then other fighters would no longer believe in the superiority of the BJJ practitioner. They would no longer allow themselves to be intimidated even by actually dangerous fighters. What Sakuraba had done to the system was dull its reputation. He went into each fight prepared and fearless.


A similar thing had happened in 1971 when Joe Frazier knocked down Muhammad Ali. Considered the greatest heavyweight boxer that ever lived few ever stood toe-to-toe with Ali and even less managed to drop the man. Joe Frazier had actually been worked into a frenzy by Ali. The constant ridicule and trash talking had gotten into the mind of Frazier. They had once been friends but Ali raised the stakes when he tried to assert his presence over Frazier. What Frazier saw in the mocking by Ali, being called an "Uncle Tom" and a gorilla to the press was not promotion but betrayal. The heavyweights had said all that could be said about the man. Frazier was the only fighter ever to talk back to Ali in the ring, even when he was getting beat. George Foreman even admitted that he feared Joe Frazier. It was said that when Frazier stepped into the ring against Ali he was prepared to die. What he did was show the world that the great Ali was mortal after all.


Sakuraba was rewarded for his efforts with more than a belt and the admiration of millions. He also influenced the character design of Tendo Gai for SNK's Buriki-One. The flashy young fighter could never be mistaken for a master of one of the traditional arts. The game did in fact feature karate, sumo, tae kwon do, muay thai and wrestling characters. Each of the fighters wore traditional uniforms save for Tendo who wore the shorts and gloves of a modern MMA superstar. Gai was also influenced by the character Baki from the manga and animé series Baki the Grappler. In the series Baki was a gifted teenager with impossible strength, speed and stamina. He was capable of destroying older, larger fighters. He used creative training techniques, beat up wild animals and did all sorts of amazing things in the graphically violent series. Tendo Gai was only 17-years-old in the game. He was a self taught master of "Total Fighting" which he developed after graduating from middle school. It would make him one of the younger fighting game masters ever developed.


Buriki One featured blocky characters, an odd control scheme and lacked the smooth gameplay that audiences were used to. Few saw the title and many forgot it was even part of SNK canon until they brought back a few of the characters in the King of Fighters series. By then the studio had adapted a few of the actual fighting moves of Sakuraba into something that would work for a game. For example the Gracie fighters would sometimes lay prone on their backs and try to trick fighters into engaging them on the ground. It seemed like an easy target for most but the BJJ fighters excelled in ground grappling and often made opponents submit just moments after taking the battle to the floor. Sakuraba kept a cool head during his fights with them and refused to engage them on the ground. Instead of trying to mount his opponents Sakuraba would kick at their legs and try to do as much damage as he could to them while they laid prone. This would slow them down and weaken their resistance as the rounds went on. By being on their backs they could not generate much force when they kicked back. When Sakuraba saw an opening he would actually take a running leap at his opponents and try to kick them as he came down. After a few attempts at this he would sometimes trick opponents by running at them and hitting them with a baseball slide kick. These attacks would be included in Tendo Gai's move set for the KOF series.


In one Sakuraba's more flamboyant moves he would try to close the distance between the prone grapplers by performing a cartwheel and going after an exposed arm. This move was also given to Gai as the character dashed forward to close the gap between he and his opponent.

By controlling the pace of the encounters Sakuraba managed to throw the BJJ experts off of their game. What was interesting about the development of Tendo Gai was that he was given moves more grounded in reality than those usually reserved for KOF or even Street Fighter characters. He existed in a world where some characters could throw "fireballs" or topple giants with "dragon punches" but it didn't matter. His all-around moves, solid combo system and painful joint locks were just as destructive and much more plausible.


Sadly the era of Sakuraba would close almost as quickly as it came. Another Brazilian would dethrone the man but not with the BJJ techniques. Wanderlei Silva aka the Axe Murderer was an exceptional striker and excelled at muay thai techniques. His barrage of strikes and knees defeated Sakuraba in all three of their encounters. Sakuraba would lose more than he won through a period in the early '00s. Eventually he would end up splitting the difference between wins and losses for the rest of the decade. To many Sakuraba had stayed in the fight game for too long. The next generation would try to make a name for themselves by going after a man past his prime. Royce Gracie got a much anticipated rematch and won the decision. He later tested positive for steroids so the match was declared a no-contest. A Gracie family member would finally manage to defeat the man but under controversial circumstances. Ralek Gracie, the son of Rorion defeated Sakuraba in 2010. The ref stopped the fight and allowed Ralek to pull up his shorts after Sakuraba had applied a submission move. To add insult to injury Ralek was 24 at the time and Sakuraba was 41.

To many the legend of Sakuraba would never die. He had proven himself time and time again against some of the best in the world at their prime. As an old man he could still pull a rabbit out of the hat. His submission of the decade against an up-and-comer Zelg Galesic was the stuff that dreams were made of.


What the fight community wondered aloud was whether Sakuraba was a flash-in-the-pan, a fluke. He was a pro wrestler that knew how to throw bombs. But wrestlers never faired well in most MMA tournaments no matter how well they punched or kicked. What was the community overlooking if anything in the ability of Sakuraba? The next blog will try to unravel the mysteries of wrestling and see it as the fight science it actually is.

Friday, August 21, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 23

In the early '90s the various fight communities had debated about which style was the best. Each assumed that their own school or method was superior. Some business savvy people, including Rorion Gracie got together and formed a pay-per-view event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. They meant the tournament-style format to be a one-time contest to determine which martial art was the best. The first tournament had few rules, no time limit, no weight classes and the winner of each match would advance to the next fight until there was only one man standing. Royce Gracie was selected to represent the family. Royce went on to quickly dispatch a boxer, shoot fighter and savage / karate expert before taking the title of Ultimate Fighter and a $50,000 payout.


The take from the PPV was so great that the creators began to think that there might be a market for this type of show. The audience rose exponentially for the subsequent UFC fights. Royce Gracie won three of the first four battles. He could not finish the 3rd UFC fight because he was too exhausted after battling Kimo Leopoldo. Otherwise he demonstrated the superiority of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu when compared to all the other fight forms and fighters. He went through his opponents in rapid succession with most fights lasting less than a minute. The BJJ system was insanely efficient and he got to demonstrate it again and again to the millions of people watching on television. It did not matter if he was fighting men bigger or stronger than he was, just like his father he made the most out of technique rather than brute force.

Even nonbelievers were converted as they watched Royce dispatch with fighters from different backgrounds year after year. The Gracie schools took off in popularity and expanded all over North America and the world. Before too long the UFC-style of fighting had become part of the mainstream consciousness. It was apparent when Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi used the staple "ground and pound" system in a battle between Yogi Bear and Ranger Smith in the animated short "Boo Boo Runs Wild."



Students of the BJJ school, and not solely Gracie family members began winning tournaments the world over. By the end of the '90s and the start of the new millennia the system had garnered a tremendous reputation. Fighters in the UFC, Pride, and other promotions were beginning to favor BJJ practitioners. The promotions themselves wanted to make sure that they kept themselves closely aligned with the Gracies so that the name could help guarantee viewers. Whenever a Gracie battled they wanted certain stipulations on the matches so that any advantages might be evened out for a competitor. The larger promotions did not want to risk losing the biggest names in the game so they conceded to most of their demands.

In true heroic tradition a caricature of Royce would be adapted for fighting games. This time the country bypassed the manga and animé series and went right to video games. SNK was fairly certain that by now the entire world was familiar with the legend of Royce and the contribution of Ju-jitsu to the fight universe. To prevent any similarities with persons living or dead the studio changed up some details for their character in the game Buriki-One. The Judo expert Jacques Ducalis was French and not Brazilian for one, but he also had a birthmark which discolored his hair, it was just enough to keep the Gracie family out of court but also appease gamers that followed real-world fighters.


However Jacques was not the poster boy for Buriki-One. Nor was "Mr. Karate II" Ryo Sakazaki the star. Ryo had made his debut in the Art of Fighting and was considered a Yoshiji Soeno-type character. His father Takuma Sakazaki was the original Mr. Karate and modeled after Mas Oyama. In less than a decade since Street Fighter II and the Art of Fighting had been released both karate and even jujitsu had fallen out of favor. The world (or at the very least the Japanese) had embraced a new fighting hero. The star of Buriki-One was a flashy Japanese striker named Tendo Gai, the person he was based on had accomplished a tremendous amount in a short span of time. The next blog will look at "the Gracie Hunter" Kasushi Sakuraba.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 22

After Helio Gracie lost to Masahiko Kimura the Brazilian Ju-Jitsu scene exploded in popularity. The Gracie family would open schools and spread their technique all over South, Central and North America. Tragedy seemed to follow Kimura by comparison. Kimura had done some pro wrestling to help make ends meet as judo instructor did not pay as well. It was said that the only reason he became a pro wrestler was to make enough money to help pay for his wife's tuberculosis medication. He had partnered with another pro wrestler named Rikidozan before and after the fight with Helio. The two decided to start a feud to raise their profile and generate ticket sales. In case you don't know much about "pro" wrestling, many of the big names often start a feud and go town to town generating buzz through highly publicized matches. These matches are often pre-determined and no wrestler ever seems to get the upper hand. Many times the matches end at a draw or disqualification. When the audiences can take no more, usually after a few months, a world champion match is set where both of the performers get a big payout. Unfortunately in the first match Rikidozan decided to fight Kimura for real and put himself "over" as the better athlete. He delivered a neck chop with full force to knock Kimura out in December 1954.

 

The loss was a few months after Kimura had defeated Helio. This win made Rikidozan an even larger-than-life figure than he already was. The Yakuza was incensed at the betrayal, chances were they were taking part of the gate and expected a big return on an ongoing feud. They called Kimura to let him know they would kill his opponent. Years later they made good on their promise by stabbing Rikidozan in a club. He died a few weeks later from an infection.

The life of Rikidozan was actually a unique case of martial arts storytelling. The man was born Mitsuhiro Momota, a Korean-Japanese that tried to hide his heritage. Koreans were and continue to be looked down upon socially by the Japanese. It was interesting that Mas Oyama and Rikidozan were seen like fighting gods to many of the same people that considered Koreans inferior people. But I digress! Mitsuhiro wanted to be a sumo wrestler and faired decently in many matches. But the social stigma was getting to him and he needed to find another source of income. Mitsuhiro had an impressive physique and was destined to find greatness in pro wrestling. He was a bit of a "stiff" worker, that was he was green and didn't always pull his punches. What he lacked in in-ring ability he made up for with a strong gimmick. During the '50s pro wrestling was as hot in Japan as it had ever been in the USA. Rikidozan would often partner up with another Japanese wrestler to fight against the US talent. Back in the wrestling heyday the matches would have several rounds, like a boxing match. For two rounds the US performers would "work" over the Japanese wrestlers. They would sometimes use illegal moves and cheat and somehow never get caught by the referee. This made the audiences have a great sense of despair during the matches. The US were occupiers after all and following the events of World War II nobody wanted to see the Westerners beat up any more Japanese.

 

Just as everything seemed at a loss Rikidozan would turn up in the third round and absolutely crush the Americans with broad "Mongolian" chops and big kicks. The audiences exploded as they watched Rikidozan seemingly rise from the ashes like the fabled Phoenix and destroy his opponents. It was very cathartic for the fans, no matter how far down the Japanese had been beaten they would find a way back. A similar experience could be said to have happened to the audiences that watched the first Godzilla movie. The monster of atomic warfare had a name and a face and the Japanese would withstand his worse time and time again. But again I digress. When Rikidozan traveled to the US the gimmick was reversed and he was the heel or bad guy. He would dominate and cheat when he could but always lose in the end. Rikidozan was as big a star as any wrestler could be in Japan. He was like Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin and Ric Flair all rolled into one. He was also a very hard living man. He drank and partied like there was no tomorrow and became very full of himself. Through the '50s his battles and style became the template for Japanese pro wrestling or "puroresu," sometimes written as "puro" for short. By the end of the decade he assumed that he could begin calling the shots. His streak ended in the early '60s when the Yakuza had tired of his antics. Japanese game developers grew up with the legend of Rikidozan and all of the wrestlers that followed in his footsteps. Many of the big stars in the US worked in Japan where they developed very strong gimmicks. Those with the biggest personalities often found themselves being repurposed as fighting game characters.

One such personality was Leon "Big Van Vader" White. His large frame, extreme physicality and in-ring presence gave kids nightmares and delighted adults. He had a mask and shoulder pads fashioned that made him look like a live action "henshin" villain. It would even blow smoke as he made his entrance. He was such an inspiring figure that several characters were molded after him in the early days of fighting games. SNK created Raiden and Big Bear (Raiden without the mask) for the Fatal Fury and King of Fighters series. Capcom developed Sheep the Royal aka Alexander the Grater after Vader in the Muscle Bomber / Saturday Night Slam Masters series.

   

I will spend much more time talking about the influence of pro wrestlers in fighting games a little later on. Right now lets gets back to seeing how mixed martial arts developed in the new world.
The next few decades would see a lot of interesting, controversial and lethal consequences for being in the fight game, this was not limited in Japan either! The Gracie family pretty much had a target painted on their back after the Kimura battle. The sons and grandchildren of Helio and his brothers were pretty much guaranteed to be enrolled in the school of hard knocks from the get go. They would have to defend the family name and school wherever they went. When doing clinics they would get called out to prove the superiority of their style. On the street, in the gym, on the beach and in any other public venue the family would get called out. Such was the case for Rickson Gracie, the son of Helio, when he had to deal with Hugo Duarte for slandering the family name. Even in the professional ring it was a tough going. Fighters from every background would test their mettle against the Gracie clan again and again.


One such character was an underground legend that went by Rei Zulu. Literally the "Zulu King." The big man, about 6' 4" and had earned a reputation on the street for being a natural born fighter. He was tough, wily and adapted well to his opponents. He had compiled an undefeated streak in some of the toughest parts of Brazil. He had a record of allegedly of 150-0 when he challenged Rickson Gracie to prove who was the best "Vale Tudo" fighter. In Brazil the fighters were called luttadores, or wrestlers. Luta Livre was their version of pro wrestling and a pretty rough version at that. They had a more violent form of fighting as well called Vale Tudo or anything goes. Knees, elbows, just about anything was allowed short of eye gouges. Instead of closed fists most of the fighters had to use open hand slaps or palm strikes to subdue opponents. That rule was not always observed however.

Anyhow in 1980 Rei Zulu was served with his first ever defeat. It seemed that everyone in Brazil witnessed the fight or knew someone that was there in person. Rickson and the name of Gracie had become even bigger. For some Zulu was a hero from the streets that could never be defeated in a fair fight. For others he was like the neighborhood bully and used his strength and natural ability to push people around. Unfortunately for him natural ability did not prepare him for the techniques that the Gracie family had been refining for over two generations. Zulu called out Rickson a few years later. The rematch in 1984 drew an even bigger crowd. Zulu lost again. Unlike the manga comics that were made on the life of Oyama there would be no caricatures made of Rickson or Zulu. It would be a shame too. Both men had such different upbringings that they had deserved the same treatment of the Japanese superstars.


Not everyone would or could become a hero like Helio Gracie even in defeat. It was the sad reality of fighters that lost and Rei Zulu was no exception. The man was born, raised and lived in poverty for most of his life. The Gracie family cleverly marketed their name, built their schools, legacies and successes. The family would end up very well off while Zulu would be relegated to the outskirts. The people Rei faced seemed to be as big characters and underground legends. This included the blonde wrestler from Paraguay named He-Man. Lenine "He-Man" Alves Batista pulled his look and gimmick from the Mattel toy and cartoon character. He was beloved by all audiences because he extolled the virtues of clean living, represented wrestlers from America and could prove they were the best fighters. The fight between Zulu and He-Man was a high point in many young South American kids eyes. It was like Hulk Hogan fighting and beating Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania.

Sadly He-Man would hold onto the gimmick well past his prime. The long haired barbarian with a bit more paunch still plied his craft in Brazil until 2010. He worked for a circus and would take on all challengers, in a way it was a nod to the wrestlers of old. For the right money capoiera fighters, karate fighters, vale tudo fighters and even random people could step into the ring to challenge him. He fought 30 men at once in one encounter, in another he fought a group of women. The ring was makeshift and falling apart but fans still packed the stands. They had grown up watching the man wrestle in the late '80s and early '90s. They gave him all the awe and respect that people in the US would have reserved for Hulk Hogan or Roddy Piper. He was shot by his father-in-law for unexplained reasons when he returned to Paraguay. The martial arts community didn't seem to notice. Had the wrestler been doing the same gimmick a century earlier, without cameras to capture the battles and only eyewitness testimony to go on then he would probably be written about as a fighting god.


It was tragic when the heroes fell, got old or never grew out of their character. He-man and Zulu suffered much in the same way. Never quite becoming superstars in their own right, never being recognized out of their own neighborhood. Zulu, alive today, still lived in relative poverty and despite being over 60 was still looking for a fight if the money was right. His legacy would also continue through his bruiser-of-a-son named Zuluzinho. The "kid" was 6' 7" and neared 400 lbs. The son of Zulu did not gain his reputation by going building to building and beating up the local tough guys. Instead he tried making his money in legal cage fighting tournaments. His record was not as impressive as his father's, in fact more people seemed to be interested in the spectacle that his fight provided more than the idea that he could win. Thankfully he had the support of sponsors and media coverage to ensure that his moment in the spotlight would generate more money for him than his father had earned in a lifetime. People like Zulu and his son were spectacles that would find a modicum of success in professional fighting.

It is true that larger and heavier fighters hit harder than small fighters. It is also generally accepted that they tend to be able to absorb more damage than smaller opponents. But it comes to a point where the fighters are so massive that they end up being too slow to achieve a world championship. Well, this is not necessarily true in the Sumo arena, but in the mixed martial arts arena the most massive fighters rarely fare that well. They do attract audiences because of the spectacle they provide like Zuluzinho. It becomes apparent however that no amount of size or strength can compensate for a lack of technique or speed, especially against slightly smaller opponents.

 

The massive fighter is still a fan favorite around the world, and doubly so in the pro wrestling community. These fighters become recreated in various fighting games, including those from Capcom as well as SNK, Namco and Tecmo. Certainly they change some of the details, alter the color of the skin or nation of origin but the inspiration is unmistakable. People like Zuluzhino, or the more muscular Bob Sapp (6'7") or Bill Goldberg (6'4") look very much like the templates used for the massive fighters in 3D titles. Okay, to be fair the Australian wrestler and actor Nathan Jones (7') was also an inspiration for Marduk from Tekken and US wrestler and actor Stone Cold Steve Austin (6'2") was also influential with the design of Von Heyting from Buriki One. In gaming form the massive characters tend to stick around a little longer than they do in real life. That's a good thing for fans.

It turned out that Brazil had only just begun influencing the fight community. The next blog will explore how the younger brother of Rickson Gracie would change the way the world thought about Ju-jitsu as a fighting art.

Monday, August 17, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 21

Many of the most influential martial artists from China were fighting at the same time that the legends of the "Wild West" were being written in the USA. Wong Fei Hung and Huo Yuanjia were alive and fighting martial arts masters in Asia while William H. Bonney "Billy the Kid", Wyatt Earp and John Henry "Doc" Holliday were shooting up the west. These mid and late 19th century legends lived during a time where photographs and the printing press could spread their legend. Imagine the fighters that were lost to history simply because there were no newspapers to tell their story! There were some great things that this era had going for it. People were able to travel around the world much faster thanks to the advent of the steam ship. This along with the telegraph meant that news traveled much faster than at any other period of civilization. People emigrated in large numbers and helped take local cultures across the ocean. The fighting styles of Central and South Asia would become sprinkled across Japan, These forms would influence the development of Judo, Jujitsu and Karate. The masters of the Asian fighting arts would sometimes tour Europe and the Americas to demonstrate their particular fighting forms. Sometimes the western boxers and wrestlers would go to China and Japan to try their luck. These travels helped build the legend of people like Huo Yuanjia. Yet there were pioneers that visited the Americas that could be considered the true fathers of mixed martial arts tournaments.

Mitsuyo Maeda nicknamed Count Koma was born in 1878. He excelled in Ju-Jitsu, think of it as a combination of the striking arts of karate with the grapples and throws of Judo. On tour he presented an exhibition of Ju-Jitsu in Brazil, the year was 1914. He toured the Americas for months and returned to Brazil a few years later. He beat boxers and wrestlers from different nations in the contests, he came right on the heels of Yuanjia, making the two men some of the first documented champions of mixed martial arts encounters.


When Kouma was in Brazil in 1919 a fight was arranged against Capoeirista Pé de Bola. Capoeira was a fighting form that was adapted by African slaves and hidden from the masters in the form of a dance. The Brazilians were proud of this fighting form, especially since it survived centuries of oppression during the slave years. There was a stipulation against Count Kouma, his opponent would be allowed to use a knife in the fight. Some of the more dangerous capoeira fights, those using knives and razors were called maculele. They were loosely derived from ancient Angolan knife fighting. Kouma won the fight and earned the admiration of the Brazilians. In 1916 Gastao Gracie was a business partner that had Maeda perform demonstrations as part of a circus side show, his son Carlos Gracie became his student, the techniques were passed down to brothers Osvaldo, Jorge and Helio.

While it could not be considered an early MMA tournament the jujitsu battle between Masahiko Kimura of Japan and Helio Gracie was a turning point in the history of the martial arts. Helio was like a God to grapplers. Born in 1913 the Brazilian was the youngest of five brothers and learned to fight early on. He had a natural acclimation to judo and jujitsu and began teaching at a young age. Helio and his brother Carlos founded the Gracie school of Ju-jitsu or as the rest of the world calls the system Brazilian Ju-jitsu (BJJ). Count Kouma was a defining factor in the form but many Japanese immigrants had brought with them many traditions from overseas and the Brazilians were eager to learn more about the martial arts. Helio was the tallest of his brothers but very thin. Many judo throws and jujitsu submission moves relied on strength and mass. Helio had little of both but learned ways to make the form work for him. He began modifying the traditional hand, hip and leg positions to generate the maximum amount of leverage with the minimum amount of force. He excelled at escaping and counter attacks. Helio began holding his own in tournaments and even defeating opponents that were well above his weight class. He had defeated many Japanese judo practitioners and other martial artists in his career. In 1951 he had two of the most famous matches of his career and one of the few that he had ever lost.


The first fight was against a jujitsu specialist known as Kato. Helio had openly challenged the Japanese champion Masahiko Kimura to a match but Kimura deferred. Saying that Kato would be more than a match for him and would beat him easily. fight lasted less than ten minutes and ended with Kato being choked unconscious. Kimura could no longer assume that Japan had any superiority when it came to the fighting arts. The match against Helio took place 23 days later. Although the two were fighting in the same "style" the techniques exploited by both were very different. The "victor" would turn out to be the one that could adapt to his opponent. It was the same lesson that would turn great fighters into legends. People like Mas Oyama and Bruce Lee were by no stretch of the imagination the first to try their style against other established forms.

When the contest started Kimura wasted no time threw the smaller Helio on the mat again and again, hoping to knock him out in the process. Since they were fighting on padded ground that never happened. If the contest were using a traditional scoring system then Kimura would have won on points alone. But this was a different contest, one designed to see who could get the other to into a submission move. Even then Kimura said that if Helio could last longer than three minutes then he should be declared the winner. Helio managed to elude hold after hold but was eventually caught by an arm bar. Helio refused to tap out and had his arm broken in the process. Kimura kept the pressure on hoping to make him submit but he did not relent. Helio's brother and business partner Carlos threw in the towel to end the match. Even in defeat Helio became an icon to the Brazilian people. He was talented, defiant, tenacious and had an unbreakable spirit. Essentially he was like a real-life grappling Rocky Balboa. The Gracie family name would rise following the battle and members of which would go on to capture regional, national and international championships. the schools they established help produce champions on every corner of the Earth.


In North America judo and jujitsu were becoming well known through the '30s and '40s. Film and television had exposed the mainstream to the secretive fighting arts of the "ancient orient." In many early representations the Asian arts were often seen as people swinging their arms with broad open-hand chops, this was absurd but worked for audiences. More than two decades before Bruce Lee would rewrite martial arts cinema there were some actors in Hollywood that got the importance of knowing and respecting the actual fighting arts. James Cagney was one of those people and it showed. He had few memorable battles highlighting various judo throws and submission moves in the movie Blood on the Sun. He played Nick Condon a newspaper editor working in Japan just before the onset of WWII. The 1945 movie a won an Academy Award for best art direction for a black and white film. Fans of the fight game in North America were interested in how well the Eastern fighting arts would hold up against the sweet science of boxing. In 1963 pro wrestler "Judo" Gene Lebell fought boxer Milo Savage. Although their fight took place a decade after Oyama had beaten kung-fu and muay thai masters on their home turf the Lebell / Savage fight would be considered another major milestone. It was the first filmed MMA encounter in the US, if not the world. Remember that Bruce Lee fought Wong Jack Man a year later in San Francisco! The US was still learning the nuances between Japanese and Chinese fighting arts and an explosion in popularity was steadily building.


Speaking of Lee, Lebell was a stuntman on the Green Hornet and eventually befriended the actor. The two traded moves at Labell's gym for the better part of a year. Labell learning Lee's strikes and Lee picking up the wrestling and submission moves in return. There was some controversy doing the Labell and Savage fight. Special rules had to be drafted to ensure the fight was more fair for both parties. Savage was allowed to wear speed gloves rather than boxing gloves, the lighter gloves were capable of doing more damage if they connected. But he also had to wear a gi top so the grapples could be applied. Labell was not allowed to use kicks but only traditional grabs and throws. It was said that Savage knew some wrestling moves so he could be able to break holds. Not only that but there was possibly some metal within his speed gloves so he could seriously damage Labell. The fight lasted four rounds and Labell won by choking out Savage. After the fight Labell did not claim it was one particular style that won. In Black Belt Magazine he said "I represented all the martial arts. I never said I was doing only judo or karate or kenpo. I never said one art is better than the others. They're all good. You should learn everything. You're not a complete martial artist unless you do everything."

The reputation that Labell had as a genuine fighter followed him through most of his career. In 1976 there would be a rematch of sorts between a boxer and wrestler. Labell was invited to be the referee. The two men that fought this time were very high profile athletes. The Japanese superstar and founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling Antonio Inoki would be facing the incomparable Muhammad Ali. The fight was scheduled to be one for the ages. Unfortunately there were many challenges in agreeing to the format and rules. Ali was a huge fan of wrestling and had been raised on a steady diet of pro wrestling while growing up. The flamboyant attitude he sported and outlandish microphone skills were undoubtedly influenced by the wrestlers he had seen on television and in person as a boy. Unfortunately a stand up fight with wrestling rules would have put Ali at a disadvantage. There was no way for him to break out of holds with boxing gloves on.


Stipulations were placed on Anoki from the get-go. He was not allowed to throw punches or elbows at Ali, nor was he allowed to grapple with him. Even though the two knew it was a "work" or not a full-out battle so that neither man would be seriously hurt they still wanted to put on a good show. The downside was that there was little for Inoki to do as a student of both wrestling and karate. He resorted to throwing drop kicks and lying on his back kicking at Ali through most of the match. The bout ended as a draw much to the chagrin of those in attendance. It was not much of a show for spectators but those in the martial arts knew the significance of this encounter. Ali lent his name to help raise the legitimacy of wrestling as one of the martial arts as well. In return he ended up going to the hospital because of the massive bruises that Inoki had left him with. Doctors were afraid that Ali might get a blog clot and suffer a stroke or heart attack from the ordeal.

Before Count Kouma, before the "Greatest of All Time" the fighting arts had been subject to vigorous debate. Which was the best form and who was the best fighter that ever lived? That debate lives on today through heated internet forum debates, television analysis and even video game reenactments. Those that studied the martial arts, like Labell knew that there was not one superior school, simply ones that had strengths in particular areas. It did not stop fighters from trying to show that they and their style was the best. Television and news stories on these fighters would help spread the word all around the world. The next blog will compare how the mixed martial arts evolved in Japan and the Americas.

Friday, August 14, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 20

Great fights made martial artists legends, but only if there were witnesses. Thanks to the advent of film and video the modern fighters had the luxury of being very well paid for their efforts. Cable television deals and prime time programming meant that audiences could enjoy a steady diet of violence and adrenaline from the comfort of their own homes. Unfortunately the ease of access meant that the spectacle once provided by underground matches became commonplace. Even if two fighters were great they were still judged by points, a system, a set of rules. The true contest of man-vs-man, no rules and no holds barred would never be aired. The fights that were settled in the back alleys and in secretive dojos were never recorded. Finding the real legends was becoming harder and harder in the era of film.


When the fighters were exposed under the bright lights they either rose to the occasion or withered away. The downside was that when they made a mistake, when they fell, the witnesses moved onto the next fighter. It did not matter if the person that had made the mistake was the better overall fighter. A defeat was a defeat. These fans did not always acknowledge that they had witnessed an era of greatness. The fighters that were once world champions, dominating ones at that, were like modern gladiators. Adored by the public when they won and discarded once defeated. Muhammad Ali and Fedor Emelianenko could be considered two of the best heavyweight fighters that ever lived. Their battles were not always easy, yet both managed to grasp victory from the jaws of defeat time and time again. Both men had also beaten some amazing fighters before they had even stepped into the spotlight. Some were remembered but most faded into history. Time eventually caught up with Ali and Fedor. Before they knew it the next champion had arrived, the kings were dethroned and left without a kingdom.

The key to immortality was elusive for a fighter especially one in the public eye. Only those that retired undefeated or died at a young age seemed to reach mythical status. The opponents that the legends defeated were like world champions that never sought fame or glory. The fights that they had were passed down by word of mouth because there were no cameras, and sometimes not even witnesses. Such was the case for young Bruce Lee. The young martial artist had been in plenty of fights during his lifetime, the majority on the street. The martial artist was eager to expose traditional Eastern fighting arts and philosophies to the West. This raised the ire of classical masters of the fighting arts. They forbade him from teaching non-Chinese the fighting styles. When Lee refused the elders sent a young master to beat him into submission. That was how the legend went. Unfortunately the circumstances surrounding the fight were nebulous because of the inconsistency of witnesses.


Wong Jack Man was the fighter that was sent to battle Lee. It was said that the older teachers were mad at Lee, not for teaching outsiders, but for bragging about how ineffective the fighting styles were. They wanted to have a contest with rules and regulations so that neither man got seriously hurt and settle the debate. They knew that in ancient China a fight to the death may have been permissible but in the modern world, especially in the US, there would be consequences for these actions. According to some witnesses Lee refused to fight under the limit of rules. Either everything was fair game or nothing was. Eventually they agreed to more lax rules and from the get-go the witnesses agreed that Lee was the more aggressive fighter. To some people Lee was fighting dirty, attacking the eyes and throat of Man throughout the fight. Lee was described as doing everything in his power to finish the fight as fast as he could. Man did everything he could to defend himself. The fight was not a quick battle as Lee later boasted but seemed to drag on. After 20 or 25 minutes Lee was declared the winner although neither man managed to knock the other down or cause serious injury. Different accounts of the contest were reprinted in local Chinese newspapers and each one went more favorably to Lee. Man told his account of the fight and challenged Lee to a public battle and settle the argument once again. Lee would decline.

The legend of Bruce Lee grew as he pursued better fighting and training techniques. The exposure he gained from the Black Hornet television series and later his film series made him an icon. Most people that would consider themselves fans of Lee might have never heard of Wong Jack Man. Wong later said that the fight had taken place because both men were young, prideful and headstrong. If anything if the truths from their encounter were revealed it would only serve to hurt their reputations more than help. Some facts managed to disappear through time much to the favor of one fighter. Fiction was malleable, easier to work with than historical accuracy. A decade and a half before Lee rose to prominence a different martial artist was the hero of millions. Mas Oyama, born Choi Bae Dal, was called the "God Hand" of karate. He could beat most fighters with a single punch. He was good but lacked control. He killed a man in a bar fight after the person pulled a knife on him. He realized that he had the ability to disarm the man but let his temper get the best of him and chose to strike instead.


Oyama became a hermit and lived in the mountains. Training his mind and body until he thought he had reached his peak. Then he set out trying to prove himself. He went dojo to dojo and challenged the masters of each school. He beat each one handily and his legend grew. Then he set out to prove that his style was the best. He traveled to the US, China and Thailand to try himself against other masters. Boxers, wrestlers and other fighters lined up for the challenge. Most fights were settled in private, away from the spotlight and the law. Imagine what would happen if a fighter today went to every martial arts school in the city and beat up all the teachers. Chances are that the police would be waiting for him in the next town. Fighters enjoyed their reputations and didn't always want to be proven wrong in their own school, let alone their own country.


The story of Oyama in turn went on to influence the development of Street Fighter. Ryu played the role of Oyama. The opponents in the original game mirrored the types of people that Oyama faced. Karate, boxing, kung-fu and muay thai were some forms represented. Oyama beat the masters of each style. Only when he had defeated the best Muay Thai fighter, a mysterious person nicknamed the Black Cobra, did he consider his journey complete. There were no photos of the 1954 encounter even though the battle was highly publicized affair that took place in Lumpinee Stadium in Bangkok.


Oyama's understudy Yoshiji Soeno also traveled to Thailand, a decade later to prove which form of fighting was the best. It was reported that the one-eyed Thai fighter Reiba was as good if not better than Black Cobra. Soeno never got a chance to battle Reiba as a Triad or mafia hitman gunned him down before the battle. It did not matter however, he was such an interesting character that his myth managed to live on.

While the actions and reputation of Oyama were the basis for the Street Fighter mythos we should be clear that the look and mannerisms of Ryu were more closely aligned with Soeno. From Street Fighter II to today Ryu has had a very similar face. His eyebrows were large and bushy and his expression was very stern. The similarities between Soeno and Ryu were more than skin deep. There were two competing designs for the updated Ryu. One version had the character wearing leather and armor similar to Kenshiro from Hokuto No Ken / Fist of the North Star. The other version, named Sakurada Gashou had him in a much more traditional uniform. Note that in this version the character did not have his trademark headband.


Soeno went on to learn greatly from various different fighting forms. He studied Judo first but then excelled at Oyama's Kyokushin karate. He also picked up techniques from Goju-Ryu ("Hard Soft Style) which had older Okinawan roots, Shotokan Karate and Muay Thai. Soeno eventually broke his ties with Kyokushin to develop Shidokan Karate in 1980, which translated to"The group that lives and trains in the way of the samurai warrior." Shidokan practitioners were very good at striking, but they were also good at grappling and throwing opponents. They were well-rounded athletes and Soeno was very much like Ryu in that he could literally do it all. There were actually older schools called Shidokan, those with Okinawan roots as well as the more "mainstream" Shorin-Ryu form of Karate. Soeno founded over two dozen schools and still oversees his organization.

The legend of Oyama and Soeno became the backbone of the manga and animé series Karate Baka Ichidai. The characters featured within were adapted for Street Fighter as well. Sagat replaced Reiba in the game. Interestingly enough the character was shot in the Ryu Final manga by some poachers instead of triad members. Sagat survived the encounter so that audiences could look forward to seeing the seven-foot monster turn up again and again in the game series.


The competition of different fighting styles by Oyama and Soeno could be considered the roots of modern MMA tournaments. Around the same time a similar trend was happening in the Americas. The 20th century would see an explosion in the popularity of martial arts not seen since ancient times. It turned out that the same mass media that was shining a light on the last traditional martial arts masters was also creating a new generation of legends. Film, television and newspapers would help shape the careers of some of the most famous and infamous characters in the fight game. The next blog will explore these pioneers.