DNG|Hiromiki “Itabashi Zangief” Kumada was far and away the best Zangief player on the circuit last year. Unfortunately that was not enough to parlay his play into a berth for Capcom Cup 2016, as he narrowly saw himself on the outside looking in.
He continued along his path of the character specialist this year, and it paid off in dividends. While some things didn’t change — he is still the best Zangief on the planet — one thing did. This year he finds himself on the way to Anaheim in an attempt to muscle his way to a title. What are the odds of him flexing his way to glory?
True Muscle Power
One thing is for certain: Itazan is the greatest example of character loyalty there is. At no point in his career have we seen him deviate from the Red Cyclone. He knows this character inside and out, and makes it work time and time again.
One of his biggest strengths is paralyzing his opponents with his presence alone. Watching him at Evo 2017 — where he took fourth — I noticed so many times where he just simply churned SPD on meaty wake-ups, with full expectation that it would work. More often than not, it did. I commented to my friends around me, wondering why his opponents wouldn’t just simply jump back to evade it, knowing it was likely coming.
And from a casual perspective of looking at the game, I would be right. But there are more layers of depth to Itazan’s game that make the easy choice not so easy. While yes, he does a lot of SPDs, it’s the fact that he makes opponents afraid that he won’t that makes them not do anything. He does just enough normal throws on wake-up to make them think it won’t come. There’s also that looming threat of an air SPD, should you be convinced that he will SPD for the third time in a row. And it’s not just a threat — it’s something he actually does to make you stick to the ground.
That just shows a level of complexity to his mindgames that you really have to study to fully see. The things he does are totally read-dependent. And there are few players who read their opponents’ next moves like he does; this is what makes him a great player.
To also state that his entire gameplan revolves around the grab game would also be too linear for him. He also knows the exact instances to jump in for a combo. He also is highly patient and intelligent in his approach. Any disadvantages that he has to fireball characters seem to shrink, because he doesn’t feel the need to rush in without calculating when it’s time to. This is not just a ‘Gief who churns butter: this is one of the most calculated players on every aspect of the game.
The road of a Zangief main can be insanely tricky. The bracket can fall any which way, and you could see your tournament end early just because of bad match-ups. If you don’t try to mitigate that problem with a secondary, it’s made exponentially more difficult. This is something that RB.CYG BST|Snake Eyez has done, that Itazan simply powered through.
In doing so, he still puts up insanely consistent results. At DreamHack Summer, he finished third to Yukadon and Oil King. At Canada Cup — in one of the most stacked fields the CPT saw this year — he finished third yet again, losing only to Fuudo and Dogura.
In eight events, he only missed top 8 three times. For a Zangief main, that’s the equivalent to winning several majors. Given that one of three events that he missed top 8 in was the sole ranking event he competed in, that speaks a great deal to his skill, having amassed a large amount of points via Premiers only.
Countering the Specialist
The worry is, of course, that he isn’t winning events. This could well be attributed with his insistence on playing Zangief, who has a great deal of mobility issues. While a lot of effort has been made to make him more mobile — including armored moves, his V-Skill, and his lariat — that doesn’t mean those problems go away entirely.
This couldn’t have been any more apparent than when Punk — fresh off of a loss to Snake Eyez at CEO — countered him at Evo 2017 with Nash. This shows the difficulty Zangief has with pure zoning characters who don’t have to worry about playing the poke game with normals, something that Zangief wins more often than not. This was a calculated move by Punk that paid off tremendously for him, but sent Itazan into losers where he fell to yet another strong zoner in Tokido’s Akuma.
If you look down the line of players he’s fallen to, zoners outweigh any other character Itazan loses to. He lost to Dogura’s Urien at Canada Cup. He lost to Sako’s Akuma and Yukadon’s Ibuki at DreamHack Summer. He lost to a Taiwanese Ken player, and was later eliminated by stormKUBO’s Abigail — a character who actually can still outzone Zangief, despite his lack of a projectile — at TWFighter Major. And if you look at the roster for Capcom Cup, almost half of the players use a zoning character that will cause him issues.
To say a Zangief player can’t win a major is foolish. Snake Eyez proved that. But there’s still a difference: Snake Eyez has an Akuma to fall back on, and that did come out during CEO.
Itazan has no such fall-back character. He will rock Zangief no matter what. And while that is admirable, and he will do some damage — maybe even making top 8 — it’s unlikely he’ll win it all.
Check out our prior articles in the Capcom Cup 2017 Player Analysis series!