What 'Mike Tyson's Punch Out!!' Taught Us About Fighting

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! holds a place in history as one of the most challenging video games ever made. If you were one of the small percentage of the population who could actually beat the game's titular big boss, Mike Tyson, you might not see what all the fuss is about. If you're one of the hundreds of the thousands of people who got that far and couldn't beat Mike Tyson, you will fully recall the frustration and heartbreak involved.

Of course, the game is one of reactions and pattern recognition. There is a specific way to beat each opponent and once you find it, the game is a good deal easier. Compared to modern fighting games, this one seems more like a puzzler or rhythm action game. But in many respects Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! was far ahead of its time and had more to do with actual fighting than many of the high budget 'fight simulators' today.

Starting out in Punch Out!!, the player character, Little Mac, must fight his way up through opponents of wildly varying size and ability—all the while weighing just 107 lbs and standing just 4'8”. All while receiving the not altogether helpful or downright cryptic advice of Doc Brown.

He's seen too much.

The first few opponents one meets, on the Minor Circuit, are barely worth noting. Glass Joe, with his 1-99 record, wouldn't look out of place on an Xplode Fighting Championship card, and Von Keiser offers little to trouble the player. But the strategies learned and employed as one fights to achieve that bout with Mike Tyson can readily be seen at the highest levels of combat sports today, serving as game changers.

Lesson #1: Tells

The first lesson obvious to anyone playing Punch Out!! is that most opponents have some form of telegraph on their punches. A wind up, a crouch, or something else entirely to let you know that the punch is coming. The entire game, after Glass Joe at least, is built around evading punches and countering, so learning each character's tells is vital to success.

In some cases they are hilariously obvious. Terrible Japanese stereotype, Piston Honda, with his karate straight punches, wiggles his eyebrows rapidly before punching. In a rematch later in the game, he does the same thing but throws multiple punches for every eyebrow wiggle. Obviously an unrealistic tell, but the number of professional fighters whose eyes widen just before they punch is astonishingly high.

Now tells in the real world tend to be less obvious. The eyeball widening is pretty rare at the high levels of combat sports, but more common is a halt immediately before attacking. A guy will bounce around, loose and smooth, then suddenly stop stiff for a split second before he strikes. The most painfully obvious tell I've seen in recent years is UFC fighter, Leandro Silva, showing his mouthpiece before he punches.

In Punch Out!! the tells get slighter—down to Indian fighter, the Great Tiger's being that the tiny jewel in his turban flashes. Meeting Bald Bull or Mr. Sandman for the first time beautifully illustrates the old school method of hiding ones blows for those not into bouncing around: the act of 'milling'. Rotating the hands to hide the preliminary motion of blows, this trick was discovered way back in bareknuckle times and the only footage of an old John L. Sullivan shows him demonstrating his old method of milling to hide blows.

Lesson #2: Timing is Everything

Even though there is typically a specific way to beat each Punch Out!! character, you can scrape by them or dust them off easily, based on your timing. Obviously getting down the timing of their punches by recognizing tells is important, but equally, many of the game's characters can be intercepted as they punch—which rewards the player with stars which can be used to unleash a powerful uppercut.

We spoke about the difference between Delayed Counters and Simultaneous / Intercepting Counters in episode two of Jack Slack's Ringcraft—which you should definitely watch and share with everyone you know and their mums—but I'll recap here in brief. Delayed Counters are 'make em miss and make em pay'. Simultaneous Counters are a head to head collision as the opponent steps in.

For besting the majority of opponents in Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! delayed counters are the order of the day, but in a couple of instances the player can time the opponent coming in for an instant knockdown. Piston Honda can be sent down with a blow to the body as he steps in, and it's pretty much the only way to reliably beat Bald Bull in the rematch—which everyone hated.

It's no secret that intercepting counters are real hurting blows, but intercepting strikes to the midsection quickly make half the man of any opponent. Donald Cerrone's intercepting knee strikes are an excellent example of this. One or two of these and suddenly Cerrone's opponents are sucking wind or don't want to attack him anymore.

And the examples of fighters being knocked out by providing more force to their opponent's blow as they run onto it are too numerous to list. Andrei Arlovski leaping into Fedor Emelianenko's fist, Forrest Griffin running onto Anderson Silva's punches, Peter Aerts striding straight onto Stefan Leko's right hand. There are hundreds of examples where a fighter's attack has only served to add force to his opponent's counter.

Lesson #3: Sometimes You Gotta Give a Little to Get a Little

While Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! is a counter fighting game, it wasn't always straight forward. Several opponents would also only fight on the counter. Notably the aggressively Spanish, Don Flamenco only fights on the counter in the player's first encounter with him. In this instance, it is necessary for the player to lead in order to encourage the return, dodging that return in order to counter.

The same is true against Great Tiger, where the player must lead to encourage a return which he can in turn counter. This lead, evade, counter is something which you will see in the highest levels of combat sports and is something which is still largely absent in mixed martial arts.

Many of the finest fighters in the world have thrown leads purely to set up their own counters further into the exchange. For instance, Roberto Duran threw out his jabs with venom but their purpose was always to force the opponent to open up a counter opportunity for Duran.

What one sees over and over in MMA is the best counter punchers being absolutely ineffectual when their opponent isn't willing to march in and lead. Many, like the great Anderson Silva, simply never learned to commit and encourage the opponent to attempt counters. When faced with the measured but pressuring Chris Weidman, Silva seemed completely perplexed.

Lesson #4: The High-Low Principle / Tape is Dangerous

In the memorable bout with King Hippo, the player finds it impossible to land a blow. This is another case of having to give something up to get what you want. By exhausting Little Mac against King Hippo's guard, King Hippo can be encouraged to throw his downward chops. After dodging a couple of these to regain energy, the player can pop King Hippo in the mouth as he raises his arm (another one of those Simultaneous Counters!) and King Hippo's shorts will fall, revealing a bandaged torso which he had previously been concealing. Whacking away at this quickly fells the large islander and he is unable to rise.

Of course... aim for the X!

This highlights the importance of the high low principle—one of the building blocks of basic striking. Punching at a target isn't always effective in producing damage, but it can open other opportunities.

But more importantly than that, the bout with King Hippo illustrates the point that taping or bandaging for a fight can be a dangerous thing—providing an easy target for the wily opponent. Wear a knee brace on one leg or come in with a bandaged elbow and you are begging to have it punted for fifteen minutes. Kazushi Sakuraba used to come into bouts with an injured knee, but tape both up so that the opponent wouldn't simply target the bandaged leg. When Sakuraba began to injure more parts of his body (he was a mess by the end) he applied more and more bandaging, eventually looking more like a mummy than the great catch wrestler we all remembered.

We could talk more about just how real this gaming classic got. I often reflect on the tragic similarity between drunkard turned fizzy drink addict Vodka Drunkenski / Soda Popinski and the decline of the brilliant Red Scorpion, Alexey Ignashov, through alcoholism. Or I try to weigh up who I would trust more to referee  bouts, Super Mario or Mario Yamasaki. But really, your time could be better spent enjoying the game which is fiendishly difficult, thoroughly rewarding, surprisingly thought provoking, and available completely free online, in your browser, at your work desk.

Though let's be honest, most of us would leave work feeling more accomplished for beating Mike Tyson than for anything else we might do there today.

Pick up Jack's new kindle book, Finding the Art, or find him at his blog, Fights Gone By.


Check out these related stories:

Mike Tyson: The Panic, the Slip, and the Counter

Jamie Foxx Set to Star in the Mike Tyson Biopic