Friday, October 28, 2016

The best championships in fighting games, part 2

In the previous blog I had pointed out the unique belts and champions featured in fighting games. From the small symbolic belt of Russian boxer Andrei in the King of Combat to the gaudy bull horn belt of Antonov from King of Fighters. There was a championship for every form of fighting. The wrestlers in these games seemed to have the best titles. While Darun Mister of Street Fighter EX fame had a total of 3 championship belts he was nowhere near the most decorated champion. Hugo Andore, the German giant from Street Fighter III also had three championship belts and at least 5 other trophies and awards from different promotions. These were all visible in his stage from Street Fighter III 3rd Strike.


The accolades given to Hugo were based on real-world championships. Take a look below at some of the Japanese promotions that inspired the gold. In some promotions the best wrestlers are given statues, plaques or towering cups wrapped in streamers. They are the result of winning a tournament or even beating multiple opponents in a "battle royal." In the multiple endings in Street Fighter III: Giant Attack Hugo was written as having different tag team partners, there was a chance that one of his belts or trophies was won with the help of a partner. It was never established who the actual person was but many assumed it was Alex, the American MMA star.


Hugo was a Mad Gear Gang-member-turned wrestler. He along with the Andore family from the Final Fight series was inspired by Andre the Giant. The French wrestling star was huge (pardon the pun) in the '70s and '80s. He traveled the world and made a following wherever he landed. In his younger days he was quite athletic and could actually perform some high risk 1st and 2nd rope leaping moves. He had a large head of hair, almost like an afro which gave him a wild appearance when he debuted. As he got older he gained some weight, slowed down and cut his hair a little bit shorter. Age did nothing to curb his awesome strength and legendary drinking ability. The character of Hugo is a sort of amalgamation of the young and old Andre. He has some of the speed, moves and hair of the younger version with the raw power of the older self. One of Andre's great rivalries, and even tag team friendships was with Hulk Hogan. This insight from the developers was celebrated as a special animation whenever he fought Alex. The two would have a stare down before the round, similar to the Wrestlemania III match.


Andre had beaten many of the best wrestlers around the world. Yet he was not necessarily the person who would be considered the heavyweight champion for a particular company or promotion. He never held the title for any length of time because he was constantly travelling. Andre was a sort of sideshow attraction. He would only appear from time-to-time so that his marketability and thus legend would remain intact. Promoters knew that audiences would eventually tire of seeing him squash all of his opponents, so he was considered a gimmick fighter and only hired him for a few weeks at a time. Any belt he won was usually won back by the hometown champ before he left the country. Hugo on the other hand was a runaway terror. He took the belts and steamrolled every promotion he went to. There was no one in the Street Fighter universe that seemed capable of stopping the giant. But did that make him the best wrestler in the SF universe? I would argue no, he was not the best wrestler and certainly not the best fighter. Guy, Cody and Mike Haggar from Final Fight have all shown that they could take him, and his extended family of giants in a stand up brawl. Despite Hugo's collection of belts and trophies he is missing a very important one. He does not have the Capcom Wrestling Association or CWA belt. This would be THE title held by Victor Ortega in Muscle Bomber / Saturday Night Slam Masters. Hugo also does not possess the rival promotion Blood Wrestling Association or BWA belt.


I have talked previously about the middle-aged phenom known as Victor Ortega on previous blogs. This character and his title was created by Tetsuo Hara. The co-creator and artist behind Hokuto No Ken / Fist of the North Star. is a huge wrestling fan. Many of the big wrestling names from the '70s inspired several of the characters in his comic book series through the '80s. These in turn inspired the artists working at Capcom through the '80s and '90s. When they began designing the villains in Street Fighter and Final Fight series a few were based on the work of Mr. Hara. When the company wanted to create a wrestling-inspired brawling and later fighting game they went directly to Tetsuo Hara. He created a cast of characters and set the pro wrestling canon of the Street Fighter universe. At the top of the chain was Victor Ortega, based on the flamboyant and photogenic Superstar Billy Graham. Billy had a bodybuilder physique and looked incredible in televised matches. It didn't matter if other wrestlers were technically more sound, because they didn't look and act like a champion they often had to "work" (lose a match) to Graham.


The version of a champion that Mr. Hara created may have been visually inspired by wrestlers like Graham, however his in-ring skills were the real deal. Ortega had legitimate punching, kicking and grappling skills. Despite his size he was also very fast and very flexible. He needed to be a great all-around champion considering the different styles of wrestlers that filled both the CWA and BWA rosters. Some were technicians, some brawlers, some were high flyers and some were shooters (submission fighters). Victor Ortega was easily the most muscular character set in the Street Fighter universe. This undoubtedly made him intimidating, even to a giant like Hugo. I would like to think that not only did Hugo fail to capture the CWA title, but that he was afraid of Ortega.

In the real world Andre the Giant faced all sorts of opponents, including some almost as tall and as strong as he was. Outside of the ring he sometimes had to fight off hecklers, drunks and angry wrestlers. He beat just about all of them, most with ease. After all of his travels and all of his victories there were only two men that Andre was afraid of. According to former wrestler and manager Bobby "the Brain" Heenan the two men were Harley Race and Tonga Uli'uli Fifita. Both men had reputations for being tough as nails. They were strong, intimidating and did not appreciate being messed with. Both were also fiercely loyal, good to their friends and stand-up men whose word was their bond. The two men were also a foot shorter than Andre.


Tonga was the younger of the two hard legends. He was a trained martial artist and had actually been picked up as a teen to learn the art of Sumo by a Japanese stable. While in Japan he was able to adapt to life in the squared circle. He was gifted with great strength and stamina. These things came in handy as he fought many Japanese legends. They were trained in the "hard style" of wrestling where people barely pulled their kicks and punches. Karl Gotch was a pioneering grappler that took his classic techniques with him to Japan. Pro wrestling in Gotch's day was much more about grappling and submission holds than the "sports entertainment" it tries to be on television. He wanted his students and opponents to come at him with the same ferocity of the turn-of-the-century wrestlers. He wanted them to know how to legitimately catch holds and counter attack. Tonga was already a tough person but his time in Japan tempered him into a dangerous weapon. It was not hard for him to find work in any promotion acting as a heel or bad guy. In the '70s and '80s the large Pacific Islanders were often marketed as savages or wild men by the various promotions. This worked to their advantage as they intimidated opponents and audiences alike. The gimmick had gone over so well that one of the concept fighters for Street Fighter II was a Ugandan warrior. This character had elements of the Wild Samoans, the body paint of Kimala (the original Ugandan warrior) and the frame of Tonga.

The bar fights that Tonga participated in were the stuff of legend. The majority of the time all he wanted was a drink and to be left alone but trouble would find him. Many of his friends were astonished by how often people would pick fights with him. There are stories of how he took on groups of people and even the police in the melees. The scariest were stories of how he bit the nose off of an attacker, or how he reached into a man's mouth and pulled out his teeth. The stories were gruesome and certified by witnesses. He worked with Andre a few times and they got along great, possibly because Andre avoided him outside of the ring and never tested him. It would be interesting to see a redesign of this character by the people at Capcom, one that captured more of the presence of Tonga without pandering to the wild man mystique. The other person that Andre feared had an equally interesting history.


Harley Race was similar to Karl Gotch in that he came from a different era. Harley was a tough guy, even at a young age. As a teen he was thrown out of school for beating up his teacher. He decided that he wanted to be a wrestler and actually joined up with a carnival where he learned the ropes from actual carney catch-as-catch can fighters and strongmen. This was a direct link to another time, literally a connection to the 19th Century, when wrestling was real. Before promotions divided the talent and before television turned it into a soap opera. Harley had no amateur wrestling experience, unlike his opponents which often came from college backgrounds. As he went from town to town he had to take on any and all challengers. Some were men, some were teens but most had experience on the mat. Harley learned that he had to adapt quickly to these people and try to get a pin or submission right away. If he lost then he didn't get paid. Not only that but his handlers would beat him up as well. Harley survived a car accident as a young man and was told he'd never walk, let alone wrestle again. Harley recovered and became one of the hardest men in the business. He was a legit shooter and knew a countless number of ways to hurt someone. He picked up many things along the way from pro wrestlers which complimented his street experience. Harley was soft spoken but intense, his promos became legendary. It was his mastery of the ring and respect for the business that earned him followers the world over.


Harley, like Tonga, did not get into wrestling the easy way. He knew many different ways to seriously hurt people but instead worked to make his opponents look great and have long careers. He was just over 6 feet tall but had worked with many bigger men including Andre. Audiences soon forgot about the size difference in their matches because his presence was so commanding. It was Harley and not Hulk Hogan that had first slammed Andre the giant. Harley would often chaperone the big wrestlers when they traveled abroad. It was said that just a look from Race was enough to make the biggest wrestler back down when they crossed the line. Harley's old-school origin and NWA championship, which represented some 30+ or 40+ independent promotions / territories was the ultimate prize for a pro wrestler. There were other "world's" titles, including those from WCW, ECW, WWF and NJPW but among the purists you could not really consider yourself the heavyweight champ unless you held the same belt that Harley did. Andre the giant did not hold that belt. He once wrestled Harley to a 60-minute draw but that's as close as he ever got. When Harley joined the WWF he won the first Royal Rumble and became the King. When he felt ready to leave the business there was only one person he felt appropriate to lose the crown to and his name was Tonga.

Hugo may have been a beast but he was not the best. Mike Haggar had the chops to be the true CWA champion. Zangief and Darun probably have the chops too. As for Hugo, well, if he doesn't have the belt then he has not beaten the best. Or more likely he is scared to fight Ortega. Do you have a favorite video game champion? Or a favorite title? Who do you think is the best game wrestler? I'd like to read about it in the comments. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The best championships in fighting games, part 1

If you are a fan of fighting games then you're probably familiar with the different fighting styles represented. Kung-fu, karate, judo, muay thai and boxing are among some of the more common forms featured in the genre. One of the stand out forms is pro wrestling. In video games the pro wrestlers are often the characters wearing the brightest costumes and using the flashiest, most impractical moves. These days they are thought of less as fighters and more as "sports entertainers" thanks to the WWE. If you have been following this blog then you know that pro wrestling is among the oldest of the fighting arts. There are some legitimately tough fighters that know actual grappling moves. Many consider themselves true professional wrestlers.

In the fighting game genre the most memorable characters often represent the best fighters in a particular form. Ken and Ryu for example are not simply practitioners of karate or ansatsuken, they are the absolute best in the world. Chun-Li is not a very good kung-fu practitioner, she is the best living kung-fu artist. She represents a legacy that includes the earlier Street Fighter masters Gen and Lee. Sagat is not a muay thai expert, he was formerly the greatest fighter in the world. Zangief is not simply a massive wrestler, he is a Russian hero. Fighting games are designed to answer the question of who was the best fighter and what is the best style. What would happen if the best boxer that ever lived squared off against the best karate master?


A small detail that you may or may not have noticed is how few characters in fighting games are presented wearing a championship belt. After all, real pro fighters don't wear their titles while fighting. But this is something that makes some game characters visually appealing. Dudley has a great design but he doesn't go around with his belts. The aesthetic choice of having him dressed in civilian clothing worked well in the lineup. Street Fighter III was a chance to introduce a new generation of fighters, one that wasn't as campy as the original cast. Yun and Yang for example had classic Chinese shirts and pants but also paired that with modern sneakers. Alex was an MMA star but wore overalls and heavy combat boots instead of trunks. As long as Dudley wore his boxing gloves it was painfully obvious what type of fighter he was. In canon Dudley had at least two, of what can be assumed, world championship belts. Here's a short list of some memorable champions in the genre, if not their fancy belts.


Not many boxers flashed their belts in game, one of those that did was Andrei. The Russian boxer was featured in King of Combat. The young boxer had a great belt design. The star, sickle and hammer were supposed to conjure up images of the old Soviet Union. It was perfect for the upstart. He was proud of his country. It showed in his Cryllic tattoos, amulet he wrapped around his boxing glove and militaristic haircut. In the best designs from the various studios every detail of a costume has to reinforce the personality of the fighter. The details should each tell a story. Whether it's a torn sleeve, a spiked bracelet or even an eye patch. They all have to mean something and not simply be a superfluous detail. There were other fighters in the various games that were as accomplished as Dudley and Andrei.


Muay Thai master Prayuth had a hefty belt that he wore in the King of Combat. The large circular fur-lined plate was reminiscent of modern championship belts. Flamboyant champions are nothing new in professional fighting. The best in the world wanted to show off from time to time. Over the past century and a half many different champions would add their own flare to the titles. They would encrust their belts with ribbons, fur and eventually gold plating and jewels. Some belts were even made of leather that had been dyed to a brilliant red or bright green. Prayuth's belt was representative of modern belts but its fur-lining also served a practical purpose. It could be worn while fighting. It wouldn't scrape or irritate his skin even with sweat. The developers on King of Combat even had an alternate color scheme and with it an alternate belt for Prayuth. The alternate title was more in tune with a classic championship belt. Instead of the sponsor logo there was a head of the mythical Garuda. It celebrated the spiritual origins of South Asian, specifically behind Indonesian and Thai culture. If Prayuth was the best Muay Thai fighter in the world then his belt should reflect the culture that created that form of fighting.


A belt that celebrated a culture and also looked intimidating belonged to Hakan from the Street Fighter IV. I was not a fan of his design, how he misrepresented yağlı güreş or Turkish oil wrestling. I was not a fan of the color of his skin and absurd blue hair. One thing that I cannot deny is the costume he wore. The chain and strap symbolized strength but it was the roaring lion that really caught my eye. I cannot say with any certainty that this was a championship belt. Modern oil wrestling championships are sometimes a trophy and sometimes a belt that looks like a modern wrestling title. Hakan's belt might have simply been a family crest or his business logo. In all regards it was a fine belt, accessorized by large metal chains and rings. Anyone could tell that only the absolute strongest could wear this ensemble.


One of the biggest and possibly gaudiest championship belts belongs to Antonov. The self proclaimed original King of Fighters champion wears the belt in KOF XIV. Although I would argue the legitimacy of his claim with the iconic Geese Howard and Terry Bogard who had been there since the first tournament. Anyhow the belt is plated in gold, with thorn tribal patterns, gold chains and enormous bull horns. Aside from being bulky it would not be sensible to wear in a fight. The horns would limit the range of motion for the wearer. I can only imagine the number of times Antonov split his forearms open each time he threw a punch. The reason that Antonov wore it was two-fold. It showed off that he was the champion obviously but less known was that he was hooked on smoking and he kept his trademark cigars hidden in the front plate. If it were reproduced I can only imagine that a combination title and humidor would make it among the most expensive belts ever built. Antonov's belt was meant to be over-the-top, bigger and gaudier than any other title in any fighting game. It was not supposed to look like a traditional belt as with Dudley, nor was it supposed to have elements of a particular culture like Hakan or Prayuth. If I could find an example of a belt that balances culture and gaudiness it would have to be Darun Mister's Indian elephant title.


The main plate, in gold or bronze, is a sculpture of an elephant wearing a ceremonial headdress. The side plates are silver and have the outlines of the global continents. It symbolized that this belt had been defended or recognized by promotions around the world. The elephant has a number of details. The flower pattern on the trunk and filigree on the ears mirrors the long standing custom of painting the elephants as a sign of reverence. The elephant has powerful cultural context, especially when considering the relationship that the Hindus have with the god Ganesha. This belt is not representative of Ganesha but it is supposed to make Indians feel proud. There was more forethought to this championship title than say the stages created for Dhalsim in Street Fighter II and Zero / Alpha which pandered heavily the symbol of Ganesha. Unlike Antonov's belt there is nothing that would interfere with the wearer. The elephant trunks are short and stubby, they wouldn't catch a person like bull horns could.


Darun was a unique character, inspired by various legendary Indian wrestlers including the Great Gama. In Street Fighter canon I would argue that he was a greater wrestler and champion than Zangief. I could back up this claim by pointing out that Darun not only held the elephant title, his alternate costumes featured two other belts. The gold and silver titles had a flat cut to them, they seemed to be from other, possibly Western promotions. Darun was a multi-promotion heavyweight champion and possibly the best pure wrestler in Street Fighter canon. Darun however was not the most decorated fighting game champion. In the next blog we will look at the character that had more belts than any other Street Fighter icon combined! As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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