Mike Tyson transcended the world of boxing after he burst onto the scene in the 1980s. Feared for his destructive punching power, menacing aurora and ruthless and clinical approach towards his opponents in the ring, it’s not hard to see why fight fans are still in awe at what a ‘prime’ Tyson achieved in the sport.
Outside of the squared circle, though, Tyson’s superstar status elevated him into popular culture for many decades. Whether it was crossing into the world of WWE in the late 1990s during the fan-favourite Attitude Era, making a spectacular cameo in 2009’s The Hangover or starring in Nintendo’s widely popular 1987 title Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! (now known as Punch-Out!!), it’s hard to dispute Tyson’s impact during and after his legendary boxing career. But ‘Iron’ Mike also shared a somewhat interesting connection to another widely successful — and legendary — franchise: Capcom’s Street Fighter series, specifically when it comes to the character Balrog.
Balrog made his debut in Japanese publisher and developer Capcom’s iconic 1991 title Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, which served as a sequel to the original Street Fighter released in arcades in 1987. The Tyson-inspired Street Fighter character was a non-playable character in Street Fighter II, acting as one of the four final bosses alongside Vega, Sagat and M Bison.
Balrog became playable in later iterations of Street Fighter, but his initial design certainly caught the eye of many fans at the time. No, we’re not talking about his blue tank top and shorts, red boxing gloves or brown shoes, but rather his face. Balrog’s in-game graphic for Street Fighter II showed him share eerie similarities with Tyson: a short hairstyle with cuts separating his hair at the front and on the sides, as well as a missing tooth much like the ‘Baddest Man on the Planet.’
By the time Street Fighter II was released in 1991, it was hardly surprising not to see how someone like Tyson could prove to be the perfect inspiration for a character like Balrog. That’s not to mention that Balrog isn’t even the character’s name in the Japanese version of Street Fighter II. So, the Balrog we know is called M Bison in Japan, with the ‘M’ initial representing — yup, you guessed it — ‘Mike.’
It’s believed the change was made for the western release of Street Fighter II due to ‘Mike Bison’ being close to Mike Tyson, which could have caused some potential legal hurdles for Capcom. So, in Japan, the Balrog we all know and love is M Bison, M Bison is Vega and Vega is Balrog. For the western market, however, the Japanese names were rotated so that Balrog became Vega, Vega became M Bison and M Bison became Balrog. Confusing on first read, eh? Yes, we know.
Mike Tyson’s Reaction To Seeing Balrog From Street Fighter II
Fast-forward to 2019, 28 years after Balrog’s debut, when a retired Tyson sat down for an interview with ESPN. After a chilled session playing Mario Kart 8 — an absolute must-watch in itself — presenter Arda Ocal decided to ask Tyson if he was aware of the story of Street Fighter II and M Bison (yes, we’re talking about the long-winded explanation we provided on the name changes). “No, I have no idea,” Tyson responded to Ocal, before the presenter whipped out photos of Balrog from Street Fighter II.
Unsurprisingly, Tyson was left stunned at what he had seen. “Holy moly,” he said, before adding: “Does he look like me?” Ocal then went on to explain the name change for Balrog when Street Fighter II was localised for its western release. Tyson claimed that he had never seen the character — or at least Balrog’s sprite from Street Fighter II — at that time, despite the game’s immense popularity since it was released. When asked if he had seen the character before, Tyson replied: “Never in a million years.” Tyson, on the other hand, candidly admitted that he was “honoured” with Capcom’s homage to him with Balrog. “I’m really honoured with that impersonation of me,” he added.
There were some boxing fans who were surprised to learn of the resemblance between Tyson and Balrog and of the name change from the Japanese release of Street Fighter II. Other fans, meanwhile, found it hard to believe that Tyson was blissfully unaware of the character’s existence, considering images of the former heavyweight boxer posing alongside people cosplaying (i.e., dressing up as a character) as Balrog have surfaced on the internet. But fans, if anything, were delighted to see Tyson’s reaction to Balrog captured in an interview, with Capcom’s memorable character being a fitting tribute to the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
One fan said: “I’m in shock that Tyson wasn’t aware of Balrog or the name incident with him! After all these years, I assumed he knew from the start! It’s cool to see his live reaction and that he is perfectly fine with it!” Someone else added: “Dude, I’ve played Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat for over 20 years and I didn’t know this. This is crazy!” A third posted: “He actually says he is honoured that he is immortalised in a video game, which is a good thing because [the] next generation will look up Mike Tyson knowing Balrog is based on a real-life person.” While another wrote: “I [have] been wanting to see Mike Tyson himself react to Balrog for years […].” And a fifth commented: “Imagine, Mike just learnt that we have always played using Balrog with the essence of Mike Tyson for nearly three decades!”
Did Mike Tyson Know About Balrog Before His Reaction?
Well, the verdict is out on whether Tyson knew — or, for that matter, even cared — about Balrog’s existence prior to the ESPN interview. Street Fighter isn’t the only franchise in history to draw inspiration from Tyson. In fact, one only needs to travel to Springfield in The Simpsons and they’ll find Drederick Tatum and boxing promoter Lucius Sweet, who are parodies of Tyson and ‘Iron’ Mike’s former promoter Don King respectively.
As we said, though, there are pictures of Tyson alongside someone dressed as Balrog and the boxing Hall of Famer has been asked about the Street Fighter character on his podcast, Hotboxin’ With Mike Tyson. When told about the story of Balrog and the M Bison name change in 2019, Tyson responded on his podcast: “They got me! […] They got me! Those dirty motherf*****s. Jacka***s.” However, Tyson’s aforementioned reaction isn’t the same as Hotboxin’ With Mike Tyson’s Twitter account, which tweeted the clip and tagged Capcom’s US Twitter handle. “Don’t forget about Street Fighter’s Mike Bison. Sounds an awful lot like Mike Tyson,” reads the tweet, which included a winking emoji. SPORTbible reached out to Capcom for clarification on the Tyson and Balrog comparisons but did not hear back at the time of publishing.
Balrog has remained a staple character in the Street Fighter series long after his debut, but his design has continued to change and evolve with each new entry. He’s retained his M Bison name in Japan, but his facial features have moved a long way on from the Tyson-esque sprite in Street Fighter II. In hindsight, though, Balrog feels like an ultimate tribute to Tyson, much in the same way as Drederick Tatum made a lasting impression on fans of The Simpsons. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it feels like a fighting character, based around a prime version of Tyson, who has featured in arcades and home consoles from the 1990s up to the present day best represents the impact of ‘Iron’ Mike’s lasting legacy.
Oh, and who do we think wins in a fantasy fight between Tyson and Balrog? Well, that’s a tough fight to call. Balrog does tower above Tyson with his height of 6ft 6in, while ‘Iron’ Mike is believed to be around 5ft 10in tall. However, we do know the perfect place to stage such a fight: Balrog’s home stage of Las Vegas — a place all too familiar for Tyson as well!