No champ is safe, it seems, from the fearless and unflappable 18 year-old who has Evo domination in his sights
Playing PG Punk in Street Fighter looks terrifying. You jumped too early, ate a perfectly placed fireball and a sublime 30 percent combo. We all know Punk doesn't drop combos. You're on the ground again. Whatever, it's a rookie mistake. Fixable. Stay closer. Keep the pressure up. Play aggressively. Don't let him breath. Round 2. Block high, low, high again, low, low, low, now high. He grabbed. Of course he grabbed. You should have countered. It's too late now. You're on the ground again. Hit the rematch button. You're not going down without a fight. Pick a stronger counter. A better stage. A cleaner stick. Wait, did he just jump over my flash kick? How did he bang out the Super that quickly? Doesn't matter. You're on the ground again.
We're in a Holiday Inn conference hall on a musty Philadelphian afternoon. Two gleaming chandeliers glare overhead, and the soft beige walls sequester us from the Phillies fans drowning their sorrows in the grim hotel bar. This is the sort of place that hosts corporate receptions and high school proms, but today it's the site for the final leg of Red Bull Proving Grounds – a multi-city event that hosts tournaments in Injustice 2, Pokken Tournament, Tekken 7, and of course, Street Fighter V. These are the warm-up rounds. Plastic picnic tables prop up dozens of glowing PS4s – attendees wait in line patiently, with custom-plated fight sticks under their shoulders. Naturally, there's a small congregation behind PG Punk. He's taking on all comers, and he wins over, and over, and over, and over again. In April, Punk beat reigning Capcom Cup champion Du "NuckleDu" Dang in the NorCal Regionals Grand Finals. That same month, he took a set off Daigo Umehara – arguably the greatest fighting game player of all time – in the Top 16 Dreamhack Austin bracket that he'd later go on to win. His legend is growing, and the kids punching their ticket with a $20 registration fee don't put up much of a fight. I ask Punk if he ever likes getting booed. He cranks his head around, looks at me, and smiles.
PG Punk was born Victor Woodley. He's an 18-year old kid from South Philly, and you'd get no sense of his mean-streak in casual conversation. Today, he's wearing a knitted panda-cub cap, a swag-bag tournament shirt, and the sort of brown utility pants you can zip off to turn into shorts. If the fighting game thing hadn't worked out, he'd be in college, studying to be an accountant. But instead, he's taken first place at the last three majors he's played in – including the life-changing $150,000 grand prize at the ELeague Street Fighter V Invitational. Punk is, without a doubt, the most promising American Street Fighter player in a very long time, and up close, he's shy. Awkward, even – still very much a teenager, still adjusting to a new reality.
"Some guy asked me to sign his arm. I was like, that's really weird, but I'm not gonna say no," he says. "I guess it's pretty serious when guys are asking you to sign their body or something."
Punk grew up playing other fighting games, and competed in Street Fighter IV brackets during his adolescence, but he's only recently risen to the top of the heap – he's been a pro player for all of eight months. The gatekeepers in the fighting game community seldom change – guys Infiltration and PR Balrog are deep into their careers, and Justin Wong is in his second decade as a pro – so naturally, it meant a lot to Punk when he started earning his props. In a recent interview, the 31-year old Wong mentioned that Punk gave him some pointers on his Karin play. "We've been getting closer, we're good friends," he said. "He's been giving me tips. He DMs me. It's been really helping me." The man who put competitive fighting games on the map is exchanging notes with a kid who grew up watching him, and if that sounds surreal, it's because it is.
"They're like historic in the fighting game scene," says Punk. "If those players recognize you, it's like dang. It makes you feel like you really made it in the FGC!"
He tells me he borrows his name from Phil "CM Punk" Brooks – the pro wrestler who made his name in WWE as an interloping, anti-establishment underdog. Punk might not be as brash as Brooks – he's never cut a vicious promo on Capcom, nor does he command a trio of SWAT-geared assassins – but don't let his guilelessness fool you: they share the same deadly self-confidence. At SXSW in March, NuckleDu faced up against Punk after making some cheerfully disparaging comments in an interview a few weeks prior. "This kid is destroying everyone, right? But I think if we play, it's gonna be heavily favored towards me. It's gonna be 3-0," he said.
Punk claimed the match, three games to one. In the second game, after cornering NuckleDu's Guile and blitzing his health bar to 20 percent, he took the time to issue a few highly disrespectful teabags before dealing the coup de grace. It was all lighthearted – NuckleDu and Punk are friends – but the message was loud and clear. Talk all the shit you want; you'll still be the one on the ground.
"I keep it mellow. I never pop off. I just shake hands and walk off the stage. I think if you pop off, you feel like you shouldn't have won the match," says Punk. "I don't think I shouldn't win any matches. I think I should beat anyone I play against, so I don't see it as a big thing."
Nothing is guaranteed in fighting games, and time will tell if Punk can carry his swagger for life. He isn't the first Street Fighter pro to catch fire for a few months, and there are already people taking umbrage with his cockiness. There's a chance that he'll eventually be solved by the rest of the competition picking apart his game. But then again, part of Punk's success can be chalked up to his icy boldness. He's unshakable. Immune to tilt. It's just a game, even when he's sitting next to Daigo. Most players remind themselves of their superiority to shore up a fragile self-assurance, but Punk seems to play from a place of destiny.
"Punk's playstyle is that he has no fear of anybody. Anybody he sees. He doesn't underestimate them, of course, but he's like 'I'm going to go in, whatever happens happens, if I lose, I'll just run it back,'" says the 15-year old Cameron "KillaCam" Harper, another competitor at Proving Grounds and someone who looks up to Punk. "Other players are scared of a certain character or something. That's their demon. I have demons as well. But Punk is like a solid steel wall. I wanna be like him. I wanna have that 'no fear' mindset."
Punk is impassive when I mention the impression he gives off to his peers. "I don't really care about winning or losing. If someone beats me, I'm not gonna say 'you suck,' because everyone loses. You can't win everything, so there's no sense in getting defensive," he says.
I'm not sure if I believe him. Punk is a competitor on top of the world. We'll see how he handles his first high-profile losing streak, but there's certainly wisdom in his composure. After Punk beat NuckleDu at SXSW and made it to the top 8 finals, he was swept by Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez and lost a close 3-2 series to Justin Wong. Those are two great players, but Punk went on to blame his performance on nerves in an interview with ESPN. He said it was the first time a high-pressure bracket affected the quality of his play.Two months later, Punk came all the way back from the loser's bracket to win Eleague. Like all great players, he's at his best when he's having fun.
In July, Punk will be one of the hundreds of players competing for the Street Fighter title at the Evolution Championship Series, or "Evo." If you're unfamiliar with the tournament, Evo is both one of the longest-running esports events on the planet and hands-down the most prestigious stage for fighting games. Think of it as the Super Bowl and Comic-Con wrapped into one weekend. You'll spend the day watching the best players in the world compete for thousands of dollars, and then take in 4 a.m. Third Strike cash-games in abandoned Sheridan lobbies around Vegas. It's been a long time since an American won a prime Evo Street Fighter tournament – seven years, specifically, when Daryl "Snake Eyez" Lewis took the title in Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. But U.S. players have been shut out in both Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter V. There have been other prospective saviors who've tried to break the drought, but Punk might be our best hope.
"It's the only tournament I truly want to win," he says, considering his chances. "It proves you're the best. Not many people have won Evo."
It seems like a tall order. A teenager only a few months removed from an aspirational accounting career on – literally – the grandest stage of them all. But Punk isn't going to wait for you to catch up with his greatness. In 2011, right as CM Punk's career was heating up, he dubbed himself the "Best in the World." The WWE's scriptwriters painted him as an insurgent star, overcoming the vested interests of a complacent old guard, until eventually, the title belt was around his waist. The "Best in the World" moniker was a great way to sell t-shirts, but it also served as a protest against those who refused to believe their eyes. Deny it all you want, I'll keep proving I'm better than everyone else.
Maybe PG Punk's rise won't be as dramatic, but he's already reshaping the Street Fighter landscape.