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Street Fighter: Punk hopes to return to form in 2019

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Victor "Punk" Woodley is looking more and more human these days. Maybe that's not a bad thing.

The kid from Philadelphia who calls himself a god is gone, and in his place is a player in search of redemption as the next step in his journey in professional Street Fighter V.

Punk's fall from grace was as quick as his entrance into the fighting game community. His first tournament results were successes: a qualification to the 2016 Red Bull Battlegrounds and victories at Northwest Championship and Winter Brawl. His entry into the Capcom Pro Tour was historic with a top placement on the standings at a robust 3,080 points. The person in second, Street Fighter veteran Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, had only 2,125 points; and no other player touched 2,000. Punk was undeniably the best player in the world.

But his picture-perfect first year as a professional fighting game player might be better remembered for its shortcomings. The tears he shed on the Evolution Championship Series main stage after a second-place finish. His slumped shoulders with his head in his arms after a ninth-place finish at the Capcom Cup.

For the best player on the planet, it was not the storybook ending people thought it would be. And while his signature Karin tore through the competition in his first season on the tour, Punk ended 2018 outside the top 20 in the Capcom Pro Tour standings.

Punk has heard all the rumblings during his descent. But, he insists, this isn't pressure getting to a player thrust into the spotlight.

"I didn't reach other people's expectations [in 2017], but it was my first year experiencing Evo and Capcom Cup. They can't expect it to be as easy as they want it to be," Punk said. "I didn't collapse toward the end of the last season."

Last year was not a failure by any extent: a No. 23 finish on the global leader board, 13th at Capcom Cup with many close matches and a big victory at the North American Regional Finals bookended the season. But it was not the "signature Punk" the audience was used to when he debuted. Without a big target on his back and renewed motivation to become the force he was in 2017, the expectation will fall only on Punk's capable hands.

"A lot of the pressure to succeed is gone because there are lower expectations of me. I'm going to take it one step at a time and try to work back up," Woodley said. "This season, I'm less nervous. If I win or lose, there's just not a lot of pressure anymore."

A combination of many things contributed to Punk's fall from grace, including the pace of the game, his choice of character and the skill of the players around him. Pace and his character selection, in fact, were a large part of what got Punk to the top of the pro leaderboards not too long ago.

A Street Fighter V meta that was once an offense-first game that favored Punk's offensive mentality and spacing has evolved into the footsie hit-and-run style that made Street Fighter IV so popular. Gone are the opportunities to score easy knockdowns off a stray heavy normal, replaced by the light normal hit-confirms that turn veteran players into champions.

Punk has had to slow down as a result, and he doesn't seem as comfortable with the poking and prodding. Punk's signature Karin is also no longer a character he completely trusts; he blamed his loyalty to her for many of his struggles and said that it's likely he'll have to mix and match characters.

But finding a character that fits his style while navigating the pace of play is difficult. On top of all that, the overall skill of the player base is better. The gap is closer than ever between elite and good, and the rest of the world is done catching up. Somehow, in the middle of that race, Punk got left behind.

Humility was a new look for the 19-year-old in 2018. He was a far cry from the gunner that goaded audiences to criticize and boo him, but that was not necessarily a negative. Punk entered every tournament with the hope to win, but his approach to every opponent was dramatically different from the past: He treated every player as an equal.

Punk said he had to emphasize the little things to build himself back up, and it began with his mental process. Instead of looking ahead to the next round, he focused on the present danger and substituted slow-playing with reading and understanding his opponent's weaknesses. He traded his lengthy grins for furrowed brows but also threw away the slow slinks of his head into his arms after losses. A quick nod took their place.

"I'm not a tournament favorite, and my current play warrants that. When you're on top and fall, it takes a toll. You think about it a lot, and you try to figure out what happened," Punk said. "I try not to think about it during tournaments, but as a human being it's hard not to. I need to work on all the little things mentally to get back on top. I'm trying to look for more weaknesses in the opponent's play because it is not as obvious as last year."

Punk knew he wanted to play Street Fighter in 2009, when a commercial for Street Fighter IV inspired him to drop first-person shooters, but his parents and high school didn't allow much time for competitive gaming. Shortly after graduation, he shot into stardom and infamy all at once. But after an inconsistent 2018 season, he has a chance to get back to the top with a cooler head and a more mature mindset, a second chance few can ever claim.

Nerves played a big part when Punk started his professional journey, but the past season forced him to adapt to adversities he never faced before -- an underdog status. It was something he acknowledged was an issue that needed to be overcome, and it was one of his most persistent problems on stage, but Punk said Tokido, the man who beat him at 2017's Evo, inspired him to improve both his on-stage presence and his preparation.

Tokido's ability to truly perform on the biggest stages with his focus is something Punk wants to emulate. He also wants to continue to shut out the criticism that followed him as he fell down the standings the past two years.

"Some people accept you, and some won't, and I don't look into those that dislike me. The fans that reach out to me help, but I do not get too upset over the negativity because I don't look for it," Punk said. "If you do anything well or in a professional matter, it should not bother you or get to you. I don't care too much for people's opinions of me because I have my own opinion, and I value my own opinion over everything."