A panda won the Tekken World Tour grand finals this weekend, rampaging through its opponents with all the anti-human rage you might expect of an endangered species. I say “panda”, I mean professional fighterman Hyeon-ho Jeong of South Korea, aka 'Rangchu', who mauled his way through the top 20 Tekken 7 players in the world using the black-eyed animal as a fighty pal. Eventually, ‘Rangchu’ faced off against Byung-moon Son, better known as 'Qudans', last year’s champion and fierce Devil Jin puppeteer. For the Tekken illiterate out there, Panda is generally seen as one of the weakest characters, since she is big and bulky enough to get hit in instances where normal-sized characters won’t. Whereas Devil Jin is seen as a top tier fighter worthy of many chef kisses. Tekken veteran ‘Qudans’ was also 3rd in the standings going into the contest, while ‘Rangchu’ was 13th, making him and his animal friend the definite underdogs.
So, imagine an entire hall filled with skeptical faces looking at this animal. But the panda was not fazed. She was here to chew bamboo and prove the doubters wrong. And by the time she landed the killer blow, she was all out of bamboo.
The grand finals took place in Amsterdam, the last stop of the nine-month long Tekken World Tour. Saturday was a bloodbath: a 320-person last chance qualifier to fill the final space among the biffing champs that would fight the following day. Basically, it was a day in which the world’s best Tekkenistas uppercut and drop-kicked one another in an effort to slip through that closing door and into the top 20. Out of this 10-hour chaos, Joshua ‘Ghirlanda’ Bianchi emerged, an Italian bruiser who became only the fourth European player to make the grand finals.
But when Sunday arrived, he might have been exhausted from the previous day’s bedlam, as he became one of twelve brawlers knocked out during the group stages. Sunday was a round robin, every knuckle sandwicher facing off against every other knuckle sandwicher in their own group. Many fell. Fergus McGee, the Irish champion and noted Ricky Martin superfan, was sorely decked. The French master, Vincent ‘SuperAkouma’ Homan was likewise dismissed with many kicks.
At one point, Korean superstar Hyunjin ‘JDCR’ Kim faced US punchpro Joey ‘Fury’ Bennett in a tense tiebreaker, only for the internet to shout in unison that the organisers had made a mistake: Joey Fury already had the points necessary to pass through to the top 8. His best-of-one brawl with one of the most feared players had been scary, high stakes, and totally pointless. But imagine how ‘JDCR’ must have felt, to be told: “Remember how you fought your way through to get here? Naw, turns out you’re out.”
With all the Europeans lying in a bloody pulp, two US players and a single Japanese scrapper waded in to to crack some ribs with five Korean sluggers. At this point ‘Rangchu’ the panda player started to turn heads. A panda in the top 8? That would be unusual.
And perhaps the zoo keeper thought so too, because he swapped from the panda to other characters to fight Jae Min Bae, aka ‘Knee’, the top-ranked player in the standings. The panda was sleeping through this one, and out came upsetting crime kingpin Geese Howard, and noted eyebrow model Feng Wei, both trying to defeat Knee’s feathery Devil Jin. It didn’t go well for the zoo keeper. He lost those fights and was sent to the loser’s brackets. But you know how pandas are. They are constantly on the verge of non-existence, and yet they refuse to die.
‘Rangchu’ from this point switched characters back to the beast he knew. So began the bear’s ascent back up the loser’s ladder. Sang-hyun Jeon, aka ‘Jeondding’, put up a dancelike fight against the panda with his long-legged Eddy Gordo but it was not enough to deal with the ursine can can. Seong-ho Kang (alias ‘Chanel’) was similarly devoured. One of Panda’s moves involves thrusting her bearish behind at her foe and crushing them with the sheer strength of that muscular bottom, and ‘Rangchu’ employed this method of dispatch frequently during his brawls. ‘Chanel’ would not be the last to fall to the animal’s antagonising twerk.
By now ‘Ranchu’ and his Panda were rallying the crowd’s support. They had become the Tekkenised embodiment of those old cheese advertisements, that disgruntled Panda who destroys offices and upends shopping trolleys. This was how it felt. A peaceful animal comically rampaging through fighting game champions like they were nothing but puny mortals.
In the loser’s finals, ‘Knee’ came face to face once again with the opponent he had already vanquished. But this time, the bear would not sleep through the fight. The vicious beast got off to a lumbering start but soon chowed down on Devil Jin the demon lad, subjecting him to that panda posterior. Commentator Mark Julio began to see things bear.
“What if a bear,” he asked, “becomes our global champion?”
In the end, the panda prevailed. A fumble from ‘Knee’ meant that even the bear’s stubby legs could deliver a quick killing kick. The panda was through to the final facedown of the tour.
This last ruckus would pit the monochrome monster of ‘Rangchu’ against yet another Devil Jin, this time controlled by last year’s world champion, ‘Qudans’. But the panda man would have to win twice: once to reset the bracket, and again to take the trophy.
Panda came storming out of her pen, and although the fights were often close, the savagery of the bear was working. She’d go into her low hunting stance and just claw at DJ’s ankles again and again, bloodying ‘Qudans’s demon son and taking chunk after chunk of flesh from his life bar. Were ‘Rangchu’ not already aligned with the panda, he would be a jackal.
But the fights remained close. One of the rounds even ended in fitting anime ridiculousness, as the demon boy and panda girl delivered simultaneous knockout blows.
Eventually, ‘Qudans’ succumbed to the animal’s wildness. The brackets were reset, and victory was within a claw's reach for Panda, for Ranchu, for Pandchu, for they are one and the same now, a unified beast of ursine power. ‘Qudans’ and his tribally tattooed toughnut started to adapt to the savagery, making a close fight even closer. Until the panda gripped the noughties edgelord in a death hold and rolled him around on her heels like he was nothing but a ball at the circus. She clawed at his shins, she swiped at his jaw, she crushed him to unconsciousness with that iron rump.
With DJ down to his last sliver of health, and ‘Qudans’ usual composure long since rattled, he pressed the dreaded buttons on his joystick, desirous of a life-saving nuke: the blue-coloured rage drive that every character has bottled up inside them. It struck the panda. But a nearby wall made the bear bounce awkwardly to one side, and the final strike of the demon boy’s combo missed its target. The bear woke up, and started swinging until she landed the knockout blow: a simple, final slap to the face.
“Panda,” said Tekken director Katsuhiro Harada when he awarded Pandchu the trophy. “REALLY!?”
So there it is. As remarkable as it is among Tekken 7 players for a bear to become the King of the Iron Fist Tournament, it’s a reminder of why the punch ‘em up is so much fun. It’s a silly place, where nearly extinct animals can face an incarnation of otherworldly evil, and come out on top. Well done to all players involved. And well done, Pandchu.