Fighting games have attempted to emulate the popularity and magic of martial arts in the digital world since their inception, and a lot of them started by taking inspiration from real life. There’s something special about the moments in kung fu movies where a character takes on a crowd of 15 people and beats them in creative ways that just isn’t seen anymore.
People like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jean Claude Van Damme have made their mark on so many different forms of media, and video games couldn’t escape that craze. Other than those three, there are other people who have made a lasting mark on the fighting genre that most people probably never realized.
Balrog is a pretty obvious reference to Mike Tyson, especially in the Japanese versions of Street Fighter. In the east, Balrog is actually known as Mike Bison but this was changed in the west to avoid getting lawyers involved.
The stance, hair, and tight guard are all reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s signature style and a great homage to a legendary boxer. In Street Fighter V, his V-Skill 2 is actually the signature Dempsey Roll Tyson would use to throw his opponents off, cementing the connection even further.
9 Lei Wulong
Lei Wulong is a love letter to Jackie Chan and his moveset makes it extra clear. Lei Wulong is a stance character who can switch between different kits that change his moves and mix ups. Almost all the moves Lei performs can also be found in Jackie Chan’s classic movies that showcase his tremendous range as a martial artist.
Jackie Chan’s legendary portrayals of creative fight direction are translated to tricky and unpredictable fighting styles in Tekken through Lei. Both are fun to watch, but probably extremely frustrating to get hit by in game, or real life.
8 Liu Kang
Of all the references to Bruce Lee in fighting games, Liu Kang is one of the subtler examples. Many characters usually straight up rock Lee’s iconic look but Liu Kang has his own style. Just because they look different though, doesn’t mean they have different fighting styles. Kang’s use of nunchaku and Jeet Kune Do are hard to mistake as anyone else’s moves.
Kang even recreates Lee’s iconic shouts and one inch punch moves in certain iterations of Mortal Kombat. One would think fans would get tired of having Bruce Lee in their fighting games but his charisma and unique style are almost impossible to forget or exclude.
7 Sonya Blade
Cynthia Rothrock is a female martial arts icon who specialized in seven different martial arts that transferred into acting. Martial arts fans can instantly recognize her style in Sonya Blade from Mortal Kombat, but for fighting game fans, it might not have been so obvious. Female martial artists in movies weren’t exactly popular when she was active, and even now don’t see much light in movies.
With the rise of women’s MMA competition, hopefully more movie stars will start to rise and make their names known. Some women like Ronda Rousey have already started to find roles in movies, and she even took over the job of voicing and doing the motion capture for Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat 11.
6 Johnny Cage
Another love letter to martial arts movies, Johnny Cage takes heavy inspiration from Jean Claude Van Damme. The classic split move Johnny Cage is known for is from the most iconic Jean Claude Van Damme moment in his movie career. On top of this, Cage openly becomes a movie star in Hollywood in later Mortal Kombat games and there’re countless gags about his obsession with fame.
The Mortal Kombat series does a great job of toeing the line between their games, martial arts movies, and reality because their characters can have so much personality. The story modes of Mortal Kombat have only gotten better with time and Johnny Cage has become one of the most recognizable faces in the franchise because of his charisma and charm, not because of who he was based on.
5 Josie Rizal
Josie Rizal is a young martial artist from the Philippines whose name is strikingly similar to Jose Rizal, a legendary kick boxer from the Philippines. This connection is mostly just by name, but it’s a nice nod to the culture she represents in the game. Tekken and other fighting games used to have the issue of making caricatures of cultures, rather than representing them. Josie Rizal is a nice step in the right direction of truly representing a culture with clothing, speech, and mannerisms, rather than just picking the stereotypes to base the characters on.
Sagat is an imposing figure and antagonist of the Street Fighter series who represents Thailand and their martial arts. His iconic stance is indicative of his kickboxing style and Muay Thai mastery. The name Sagat comes from kickboxing champion Sagat Petchyindee, who was active in the 70s and 80s.
Over his career, Petchyindee amassed over 250 wins in kickboxing and 12 wins in boxing as a professional. Taking on the name of Sagat is a nice homage to the champion from a small country that creates warriors worthy of taking on the world.
3 Axl Low
The Guilty Gear series takes a different approach when it comes to inspiration for their characters. A great example of this is Axl Low, who is based on Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses. Guilty Gear’s approach to homage is welcome since martial artists have become the staple source of inspiration in many games.
Axl isn’t the only reference in the Guilty Gear franchise. Many stages such as Nightmare Theater and Nirvana are direct references to hard rock and heavy metal bands or songs. Even the supers of Guilty Gear are called Overdrives, which is the same name as an effect pedal that’s commonly used in hard rock songs.
2 Hanzo Hattori
Hanzo Hattori of Samurai Shodown is based on a legendary ninja of the same name. It’s unclear whether that ninja really existed or not, but he apparently lived during the Sengoku era and played a major part in the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a legendary leader of Japan. Hattori fills the role of a classic ninja in Samurai Shodown, with moves like the inazuma drop and his use of traps and gadgets.
Hattori Hanzo is a name used widely in media when depicting ninjas. There are other examples found in movies like Kill Bill, video games like Overwatch, and basically any other source of entertainment that features ninjas.
Hugo is a gargantuan man with dark hair who doesn’t use his words very often. Just looking at him should remind players of a certain someone who also fits that description. That’s because Hugo is loosely based on Andre The Giant. Andre is another iconic actor who played so many roles in different action scenes and in the wrestling world.
It’s hard to imagine wrestling without Andre The Giant so Capcom included Hugo as part of Poison’s wrestling promotion as a nod to the Giant himself. It isn’t something a lot of fans notice until they dig a bit into his backstory and take a good look at the character since he doesn’t sound like Andre.