While post-match handshakes have become commonplace in the fighting game community, they rarely come laden with dense layers of history. Japanese competitors Naoki “Nemo” Nemoto and Hiromiki “Itabashi Zangief” Kumada have turned these brief moments of sportsmanship into yet another opportunity for showcasing their deepening rivalry. The two had a very tense post-match handshake this past weekend at TOPANGA League 7, and that handshake has a big backstory.
Nemo and Itabashi Zangief (this story will refer to him by his other nickname, ItaZan, to avoid confusion with the character he uses) took two very different roads to Street Fighter. The former is an old-school Guilty Gear competitor, while the latter is a national Virtua Fighter champion.
In the past year, they’ve become fascinating figures in Street Fighter V competition, thanks in part to a budding rivalry that has spilled from the game and into real life.
The first handshake standoff happened at the TOPANGA League 6 competition in March 2017. ItaZan handed Nemo his only loss in the finals group, a 7-1 beatdown that left Nemo stunned. Although Nemo would go on to win the entire tournament, his reaction to the single defeat—getting up and walking away while ItaZan waited for the customary handshake—quickly became iconic.
The pre-match interview, during which ItaZan claimed he would “make [Nemo] realise that he loves Zangief,” only added fuel to the fire.
Despite ItaZan’s best efforts to mend fences, Nemo seemed to hate the Street Fighter veteran, and made his negative feelings apparent in a June 2017 reply on Twitter. When asked about the best character to start with in Street Fighter V, Nemo answered by saying that his rival’s go-to fighter, the Russian grappler, “might be good because you can win by just rotating stick around, but as you play more seriously, you and your opponent will spend more time doing nothing, wasting the time of your life.”
The grappler archetype in fighting games is known for being particularly frustrating to fight against because they demolish defensive norms. The most basic defence against the average character is simply blocking, but blocks can be bypassed by throws, the grappler’s bread and butter.
Nemo’s comments echo a common frustration in fighting games, one that well-known grappler players like ItaZan use to their advantage in competition.
At the time of Nemo’s comments, Zangief was the closest thing Street Fighter V had to a true grappler, making him a perfect fit for the player that had chosen him as his namesake. ItaZan responded to Nemo with a Japanese phrase that fans roughly translated as “listen, buddy” or “why you,” and from then on, the fighting game community began to pay close attention whenever the two competitors stepped up to play in tournament.
The next time Nemo and ItaZan met was in July 2017 at a three-on-three tournament known as Shibuya Casual Party 9. When their teams met in the finals bracket, Nemo wiped the floor with ItaZan and his teammates—celebrating with every win—and approached them with a smirking handshake after the match. While the rest of the team jokingly refused to shake hands, ItaZan himself smacked Nemo’s hand away, which only seemed to make Nemo happier.
Even after a wild pop-off, Nemo finally got that handshake after defeating ItaZan at August 2017’s LanStory Cup in Shanghai, China.
September 2017 saw the pair face off yet again in a Tokyo Game Show exhibition. Nemo tallied another victory, and when he stood up to ask for a handshake, ItaZan refused to acknowledge Nemo for an excruciating amount of time before finally congratulating him.
A couple of months later, they met at Capcom Cup 2017. While ItaZan had earned a spot in the main event by accruing points throughout the year, Nemo was able to sneak into the tournament by edging out 163 other players in the last-chance qualifier. Nemo’s Urien again eliminated ItaZan, allowing the cocky victor to leap out of his seat for a handshake, this time on one of the biggest stages in Street Fighter V competition. Again, ItaZan complied.
But a change was on the horizon. Zangief had been strong out the gate, but subsequent Street Fighter V patches had slowed him down. ItaZan found a new hope in Abigail, a newcomer to the Street Fighter series that immediately made a mark on competition with his enormous size and offensive power.
It was only a matter of time before ItaZan picked up the strange grappler, and he began to use Abigail at tournaments as early as January 2018.
The rivals had a chance to square off during the RAGE All-Star League, during which both players lead a team of fellow Japanese players in competition. There were very little fireworks, but ItaZan made a point of saying “he’d never seen a team with worse teamwork than Nemo’s” in a post-match interview after his team had won.
In his first major match against Nemo after switching to Abigail, ItaZan almost got the better of his perennial foe at Final Round in February 2018, but came just short of clinching the win.
As per usual, Nemo held out his palm for a handshake, this time with a bit of intensity, while ItaZan reeled back in his seat. Afterwards, Nemo quickly disappeared into the crowd.
Seven months went by with no serious confrontations between the two, but that doesn’t mean the rivalry had fizzled out when Nemo and ItaZan finally met up this past weekend at TOPANGA League 7.
ItaZan hadn’t defeated Nemo in a singles tournament since the last TOPANGA League event, but he came into this competition ready. Nemo tried to mix things up by using his own newcomer, the presidential G, but ItaZan soundly defeated both G and Nemo’s Urien.
ItaZan’s relief was palpable. After finally getting one over on Nemo a year of defeats, he bowed deeply between their separate setups, asking him for his hand. Nemo, however, looked disgusted at the thought of closing the space between them, and initially refused the handshake before giving up a weak congratulations and touching his hand to ItaZan’s for the barest fraction of a second.
ItaZan continued to bow before the cameras cut away to the laughing commentators.
Given that this handshake bit started over a year ago, some fans might not even realise why the post-match congratulations between this pair looked so icy.
Similar to wrestling superstars, many fighting game competitors have adopted stage personas that act as an exaggeration of who they are in real life, providing an air of pageantry to the skill-based competition of games like Street Fighter V.
Nemo and ItaZan weren’t the first to project an air of antagonism in their battles, their put-on animosity and cockiness makes this rivalry one of the most compelling and fun stories in the scene today.