Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How fight culture became fighting game history, part 28

Buriki One was released by SNK in 1999. The game tried to capture the spirit of the early MMA competitions. To help ground the game in reality none of the characters could throw fireball-like projectiles. It also featured character designs that were inspired by actual fighters. Royce Gracie had influenced the development of Jacques Ducalis and Kazushi Sakuraba had influenced Tendo Gai. Those weren't the only high-profile athletes whose fingerprints were in the game. Multi Olympic and World Gold Medalist Alexander Karelin influenced the inclusion of Ivan Sokalov. At his peak Alexander was considered the most dangerous man on the planet. More than a decade had gone without a defeat in international competition, and not only that but during that time an opponent could not manage to score a point off of him. He had a list of incredible statistics that would make him a shoe-in for the pantheon of wrestling Gods. Possibly his most outstanding accomplishment was that he would routinely pick opponents off of the mat and flip them upside down in the air. These were men weighing almost 300 lbs and most of that solid muscle, they would kick, squirm and flail and still they would be tossed like rag dolls. it was something not seen before or since Karelin. Yet since he was not a striker then most people did not know about his legacy or his contribution to the fighting arts.

Rival studio Capcom had actually incorporated an MMA fighter years before Gai. Instead of basing a character on real world fighters Capcom invented their own legend. This was one thing that Capcom did better than any other studio. They took cues from various fighting arts and real legends and adapted them into new and refreshing designs. In 1997 they introduced the world to the star of Street Fighter III. The first of the "New Generation" fighters was named Alex.

In keeping with tradition the studio had to tell a story through the design of the character. They made Alex tall and incredibly muscular. His costume had to show off enough skin to highlight his massive frame, as well as two massive scars that ran under his eyes and down his shoulders. His clothing consisted of fingerless gloves, a pair of green overalls and green combat boots. Street Fighter characters had typically been assigned a primary color to help them stand out in a lineup. Chun-Li wore blue, Ken wore red and Ryu wore white for example. A large red bandanna kept Alex's long hair out of his face. Designer Kinu Nishimura had considered placing him in the more traditional MMA uniform. However it was not believable that a half naked person wearing only shorts and sparring gloves would have been able to wander from town to town without drawing the attention of local authorities.

Alex was in essence a new fighter that was following in the traditions of Ryu. The red bandana was partially an homage to Ryu as well as his mentor Tom. Instead of traveling from place to place fighting the masters of the martial arts he was learning from them. Alex wanted to be the best fighter the world had ever known so that he could get revenge on a powerful Illuminati leader named Gill.
The fighting style given to Alex was unique for SF characters yet also eerily familiar. Capcom wanted to make it very obvious who his fighting influences had been. Unlike Ken and Ryu who shared a similar form of karate or any of the Kung-Fu fighters, Alex had strikes and special attacks that crossed the spectrum of schools. The attacks were meant to remind players of older characters.

Long time fans of the series could pick out the moves that Alex had learned and who he had learned them from. He had the scrappy street brawling style of Birdie from the original Street Fighter and Street Fighter Alpha. From Birdie he also picked up a dangerous headbutt strike. Alex had a flurry of vicious elbow strikes that could only come from a master of muay thai. However he did not have the knees or kicks of Sagat so the flashy elbows were undoubtedly from Adon, the understudy. Adon was also from the original Street Fighter and Street Fighter Alpha. The grappling moves, throws and rolling German suplex attacks could have only come from the Russian Zangief.

Capcom managed to create a character that was textbook MMA, as in he had bits and pieces of very effective systems, and combined them into his own form. By not making him look like any fighter living or dead they would not date themselves to a particular era. Overalls and combat boots could be found in any time of the modern world yet could have also worked a century ago. Some of the fighters featured in Buriki One were based on real people and thus marked a particular era. By 2013 most of the original fighters from Pride and K1 had retired from competition and some of the promotions that hosted early MMA tournaments had closed as well.

To be fair Capcom had also inserted a character that looked eerily similar to a certain BJJ master. The character of Oro was an ancient fighter that was looking for a worthy understudy. He was so powerful that he would only use one arm in combat. That was all he needed too! He could choke out opponents and even throw them effortlessly with his single arm. Oro had been influenced in part by the One Armed Boxer, a character created by Jimmy Wang Yu, but his physical appearance was very much based on Helio Gracie. That was if Helio were 140-years-old and had lived in a cave for the past half century. The arm tucked into his gi was also a nod to the toughness of Helio and his refusal to ever tap out.

Capcom had actually featured a different MMA fighter earlier. A year before Street Fighter III was released the character Blair Dame appeared in Street Fighter EX. The game was rendered in 3D rather than 2D as Street Fighter had traditionally been done. Blair had a number of strikes, takedowns and bone-breaking locks that she could use in rapid succession. Yet despite this few people acknowledged the contribution of the EX designs even though they were done by current and former Capcom employees.

Additionally ARIKA held the rights to the EX characters so most did not recognize the first lady of MMA in a Street Fighter game. A decade after Street Fighter III was released Capcom returned for a sequel. One of the bruisers they introduced in Street Fighter IV was modeled after the God of heavyweight MMA fighters.

Unfortunately audiences in the west had made up their minds as to the authenticity of wrestling and wrestlers. To them only boxing or karate were real fighting arts and any wrestler trying to convince the public otherwise was looking for a big payday. This perception only grew through the 80's and 90's as gimmick gave way to attitude and wrestling shows began to be scripted by Hollywood writers. This shift began to polarize the audience and those that grew up on a steady diet of wrestling were looking for something more genuine. By this time Japan was going through a mixed martial arts renaissance.

The MMA concept has actually been around for thousands of years in one format or another. Not content with being one of the first cultures to establish both wrestling and boxing the Greeks also developed pankration which was a hybrid of the two. It was the closest thing to no-holds-barred fighting. The modern world would rediscover this type of combat and package it with all the spectacle of pro wrestling, with pyrotechnics, ring girls and hyped match-ups. The K-1 Grand Prix and Pride Tournaments were becoming very popular.

The US was slow on adopting the format as the UFC and King of the Cage tournaments followed at a slower pace. Young grapplers, eager to show their skills and become television superstars were more than willing to try out for reality shows like WWE's "Tough Enough." One of the challenges had hopefuls taking on Olympic gold medalist and WWE superstar Kurt Angle in a wrestling match. To ensure that Angle looked unbeatable the challengers were forced to do wind sprints and other exercises for an hour before accepting Angle's test. The organizers assumed that the activity would tire them out and they wouldn't be able to put up a decent fight. The opposite turned out to be true.

Daniel Puder was trained in various martial arts and had already competed in UFC matches before auditioning for Tough Enough. He was eager to fight Angle and give the audience a taste of some real fighting. In the video you can clearly hear the fans cheering on Puder with chants of "UFC." Angle did not dominate the match as management had hoped and was angered at being shown-up on national television. A rift between the entertainment product, the audience and the wrestlers had grown tremendously on that night. Rather than embrace the MMA community and audience WWE instead went out of their way to downplay and humiliate Puder for his efforts. Fans of the sport argued that WWE management had no idea what the audience was looking for and should have capitalized on the rivalry between Angle and Puder, between wrestling and MMA.

Angle was furious for several reasons. Had the hold Puder put on Angle lasted a few more seconds he would have separated Angle's arm from his shoulder. Severely injuring the star wrestler of a company you are trying to get a contract with is not only bad for business but it also made Puder look selfish and reckless with his skills. This was also a severe blow to Angle's ego. Angle had won a gold medal competing in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as he likes to remind people, "with a broken frickin' neck." So Angle had genuine wrestling skills and in a competition under greco-roman wrestling or freestyle wrestling he would have outclassed Puder. Unfortunately he was not well versed in the trappings of jujitsu and could not have foreseen that Puder would try to get him in a submission move. It was probably Angle's pride that took the biggest hit.

Over the next few years many pro wrestlers would begin adopting submission moves into their repertoire. The "Dead Man" character the Undertaker even adopted the gogoplata jujitsu submission move to make him more fearful. Even without formally saying anything about the contribution of mixed martial arts, the wrestlers were slowly taking on more of their cues in an attempt to broaden their appeal. None more so than Angle. After leaving the WWE Angle maintained his wrestler gimmick a while longer before slowly changing his look to more of a MMA fighter. He ditched the stars and stripes wrestling suit and boots in favor of shorts and taped up hands and feet. Without saying he had renounced wrestling it was easy to see that Angle had taken on the guise of MMA fighter to appeal more to the fans.

This part of the draw of modern mixed martial arts. The reason why it, above all of the combat sports, has been growing in popularity around the world. Many fighters hungry for fame and fortune began seeing the sport as a way to reach the top. To achieve what we call the "American Dream." Beating the snot out of people is appealing in and of itself for the majority of the fighters. However the challenge is more than being able to dish out the hits but to be able to take them as well. You would think that burly guys would reign supreme in the culture. Several strongmen have tried their hand at the sport. Bouncers, professional football players and yes indeed, champion wrestlers like Brock Lesnar have all stepped into the cage. The results have been varied. It seems that it takes more than brute force to be a successful MMA fighter.

The best, or at least longest-lived MMA fighters were more than gifted athletes or strongmen. They proved their dominance by learning to adapt and build on the legacy of several martial arts. The angles exploited by boxers, the punishing strikes of karate, the close work of muay thai, the grappling of judo and jujitsu and even the mat skills of wrestling. As the name implies, these fighters practice under a mixed bag of martial arts. Some of them were better on the mat and some were better strikers on their feet, very rarely would we find fighters that could do both well. It would make sense that the brutal art would find favor in the most recent fighting game sequels.

Even with the rise in popularity of MMA tournaments Pro wrestling would remain as popular as ever. The pioneers of the sport were some of the most colorful performers ever to step into the ring. In North America they reflected a culture steeped in centuries of tradition. The next blog will highlight these people.

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