It was my birthday, I was mashing the buttons on the controller without mercy, and my friend looked like he was about to start crying. I’d been playing Street Fighter II: Champion Edition for months—ever since I first put the cartridge into my Sega Genesis on Christmas morning, I subordinated the rest of my life to comic books, Beavis and Butt-Head, and that game. So when my 10th birthday party rolled around and someone said we should have a Street Fighter II tournament, I was on board. I might have even suggested it.
My friends and I sat on the couch in front of a TV with the convex screen, and I grabbed a controller. I selected M. Bison, the game’s fiercest character. Bison did a special move called the Psycho Crusher—basically, the character summons some demon power, goes airborne, and spirals into his opponent like a missile. The friend I ended up playing against, by contrast, selected some hapless victim. When we got to playing, I hit the buttons that produced the Psycho Crusher over and over, slamming into his character relentlessly. Even as I was doing it, I knew how cruel it was. With every strike, his power meter fell until it couldn’t fall anymore. Once defeated, my friend's eyes welled up. I was being cheap, he said—unfair. But I didn’t care. It was my birthday.
All of my adoration for mixed martial arts originates with playing Street Fighter II. The game, first released in 1991, followed a cadre of martial arts experts with colorful backgrounds in some bizarre international tournament, where fighters bludgeoned each in other in lawless one-on-one settings to progress through the tournament—a simple and brutal concept, and the game’s popularity is a testament to its brilliance as well. Recently, the video game Web site Polygon published “Street Fighter II: An Oral History,” and it’s well worth the long read to stoke the flames of nostalgia. In between talking about how the game came to fruition, the Polygon story includes a lot of interesting revelations about blunders that were weeded out before the game went to market. For example, the game’s original opening credits featured a white man punching out a black man in front of an audience exclusively comprised of white faces. The creators originally named Zangief, a scarred-up Russian wrestler, “Vodka.” And Chun-Li, the game’s lone female character in a fictionalized world populated with muscle-bound males that were the picture of comic book masculinity, almost had a shorter power gauge compared to the male characters; according to one of the principals involved in developing the game, that’s because “women are not as strong.”
Beyond any erring toward racism and sexism, Street Fighter II was violent in the way that suites the tastes of adolescent boys. I gave up video games a long, long time ago, but even in absence of playing it, I’m partial to Street Fighter II. I know I’m not the only one: Former UFC heavyweight Pat Barry counted Sagat, Street Fighter II’s eye-patched Muay Thai specialist, among his heroes. I suspect there were other barely athletic grade schoolers who saw the same things in the game that I did—the sense of wonder at the world beyond your bedroom, where you could fly off to exotic locales and beat the shit out of willing participants. But more than that, there was the feeling that martial arts were something special and worth further exploration. The next stop for me was the 99-cent rack at the video store for 80s martial arts movies. Then there were karate classes. (I’m probably part of the last generation of kids to take karate classes with the assumption that the techniques would work in real fights.) One day, a teacher that had been training Gracie Jiu-Jitsu showed some armbars from the guard. Once Google searches made available the sum total of human knowledge, I learned that MMA and BJJ were separate entities. And here I am.
The funny thing is Street Fighter II plays on perceptions of martial arts that, when it was released, were just about to be proven false. The implied premise of the game is that each style-versus-style match-up took place without rules, not unlike the first installments of the UFC. But beneath all of the otherworldly special moves, almost every character had a striking pedigree: Ryu’s karate, Balrog’s boxing, Dhalsim’s yoga-based fighting that allowed him to extend his arms and shoot fire. Fighting generally takes place at a distance. Except for a few throws when characters got in close, the game is light on grappling. Of course, having fighters collapse to the ground and vie for submissions was probably inconceivable for a host of reasons. And it further illustrated a Gracie family precept that most martial arts aficionados didn’t know: Only in a video game could a no-rules fight stay on the feet for so long.
For me, Street Fighter II is a 16-bit relic of when no one really knew what fighting looked like, least of all me. It was that video game that sparked a lifelong love of martial arts. Sometime after I stopped playing it, I finally saw what real mixed-style fighting looked like. And somewhere along the way, I stopped making my friends cry.
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