Victor “Punk” Woodley’s meteoric rise in competitive Street Fighter V is one of the hottest stories in 2017.
Punk’s best performance to date came in the group stage of SXSW’s Fighters Underground, where he went 7-0 in his group with a total combined record of 21 wins and six losses in those seven matches. He beat Arubi “RB” Kao, Yusuke Momochi, Ryan “Filipino Champ” Ramirez, and defending Capcom Cup champ Du “NuckleDu” Dang 3-1 each. He also beat Kenneth “K-Brad” Bradley and Arman “Phenom” Hanjani 3-0 each.
You would never guess Punk is only 18 years old by watching his matches. He plays like a long-time veteran. He has great awareness and immaculate neutral game, knowing when to punish a whiffed move or to simply bully his opponent. His main character might be Karin, but he can legitimately win with multiple characters.
“I was really confident going into group stage because I knew my opponents and I had time to prepare,” Punk told Yahoo Esports. “I was proud to go 7-0 because that group was hard. It means a lot against those types of players.”
However, no matter how much experience or success they have under their belt, every player gets nervous. Punk showed he is human on finals day at SXSW. Riding high on his 7-0 group stage performance, Punk was arguably the favorite to win the $20,000 Invitational. It would have been the biggest win of his short pro career.
Punk lost a tight 3-2 set against Justin Wong and followed that up with a terrible 3-0 loss to Filipino Champ. Just like that, Punk’s tournament was over. The realization hit him hard as he sat in his chair on stage during the stream with his head in his hands. It was a show of emotion viewers rarely get to see.
“Going 7-0 in the group stage made me nervous and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I’ll have to work on my nerves for the next tournament. I can’t be overconfident. I didn’t perform as well as I should have,” Punk said.
Leading up to SXSW, Punk earned the adoration of the fighting game community for his incredible gameplay and his propensity to back up his trash-talk. In the few short months he has been in the spotlight, he has proven himself to be one of the top players in North America.
Last November at Red Bull Battle Grounds, Punk burst onto the competitive scene as he played through the winners bracket, beating Filipino Champ, Chris Tatarian, and Justin Wong. He made Wong look mortal by beating him at his own game with perfect spacing and footsies. Punk also took Hajime “Tokido” Taniguchi to the limit in a 3-2 loss in Winners Finals.
Shortly after he beat Wong, Punktold me it didn’t matter who he played and that no victory was different from another. I didn’t believe him. He got emotional during that short chat, and I knew deep down that the wins against legendary North American pro fighting gamers meant a great deal, even if he wouldn’t come out and say it.
Since Battle Grounds, Punk has gone on to win NEC 2016 (pre-Season 2 update in December,) Winter Brawl XI, and had a short run as the “King” in ESL’s King of the Hill tournament series, where he would gain more notoriety for video featuring himself and Peter “Flash” Susini trash-talking each other.
“I’m just a one-hit wonder but you just got cooked by my secondary,” Punk told Flash.
That’s arguably the greatest line of trash-talk I’ve ever heard, and it’s pretty obvious why he got picked up by Panda Global. He makes for a pretty good villainous replacement after Filipino Champ left Panda Global for Splyce.
Losing on the big stage is hard, but the top players find a way to overcome it. It’s clear to me Punk is one of the brightest players in the game right now. He studies the character and opponent match-ups. He goes into a match versus Wong or Momochi knowing what they want to do and he’s adept at forcing them to adapt to his gameplan.
“I learned I’m very entertaining to watch. I can compete with the best of the best. I beat Momochi. I feel good because he’s one of my favorite players. Before, I wasn’t too sure if I could, but going into ELeague, I feel I can,” Punk said.
ELeague is his next challenge, and to say it won’t be easy is an understatement. Punk’s group was the second most difficult in our ELeague group rankings. Group A looks like a top 8 at a Capcom Pro Tour 2017 Premier Event, featuring Punk, Lee “Infiltration” Seon-woo, Julio Fuentes, Yusuke Momochi, Thomas “Brolynho” Proenca, Ricki Ortiz, SXSW winner Bryant “Smug” Huggins, and Martin “Marn” Phan, who recently signed with Rise Nation.
How Punk responds to his devastating loss at SXSW will be the true mark of his character. Punk is already looking ahead to ELeague and his Group A opponents and match-ups. He will no doubt come back stronger and prove he belongs in the conversation of the best Street Fighter V players. Not just in North America, but in the world.
Michael Martin believes Punk is one of the top three players in North America. Follow him on Twitter @Bizarro_Mike to agree or disagree, but mostly to agree.