Turtle Kombat: How Vanilla Ice Almost Got Butt-Kicked by Johnny Cage
For what it’s worth, the following story has to be one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
Once upon a time, in May 2011, I was on eBay browsing game auctions when a listing caught my eye: an original script from one of the Mortal Kombat games.
If you ever visited an arcade sometime in the 1990s, you’ve most likely seen a bloodthirsty crowd around Mortal Kombat. I remember one hardcore Kombatant who’d stand there all day at my local arcade, typically in his Bart Simpson “Don’t Have A Cow, Man!” tee-shirt and white washed jeans, just waiting for a chump to challenge. An insufferable braggart, the lanky kid’s name was Jason, or JAS on the high scores list, and he knew every move for every character and all of the Fatalities. Recklessly cocky with the joystick, he’d talk trash before, while, and after he beheaded you. I played him once. I don’t like to talk about it. I’m pretty sure I saw him years later working behind the returns counter at Circuit City before the store folded. He was arguing with some lady over opened Seinfeld DVDs.
The fanaticism of Jason, and all the other Jasons spanning across the globe, helped make Mortal Kombat one of the most successful arcade franchises of the decade. The only thing greater than the game’s success was its controversy, the over-the-top violence of the Fatality finishing moves spurring on a Congressional hearing headed by Joe Lieberman, which eventually led to the gaming industry’s creation of a ratings system.
In spite of, or because of, the media hoopla, kids couldn’t get enough blood splatter and maiming. Could you blame them? Even a pacifist wimp such as myself couldn’t fight the allure of digital guts and skeletons. It didn’t matter if you were the birthday boy and I was an invited guest at your Sahara Sam’s blowout, I’d still finish you with an uppercut into a pit of spikes. And the theme song from the movie’s soundtrack? Still drilled into my brain to this day, the techno beat still makes me want to kick holes in walls and rearrange faces and wave blood-red glow sticks.
To further amplify the gore, Mortal Kombat famously made use of digitized sprites, in which real actors posed to achieve the game’s cutting-edge, literally photo-realistic graphics. This made the decapitations that much more disgusting… and fun!
But back to the story: I clicked on the script eBay auction, and up popped a photo of a scary-looking, bald-headed man making constipated faces at the camera in what appeared to be his backyard. He looked hauntingly familiar. Like out of a nightmare I once had.
Turned out, I had just stumbled upon a listing from actor Richard Divizio, who’s best known for his roles in the Mortal Kombat games as Kano, Baraka, Kabal, and Quan Chi.
Yeah, definitely had a nightmare involving Baraka when I was younger. I’m probably going to have another one tonight.
Honestly, I wasn’t particularly interested in buying the script from Mr. Divizio, but I did want to send him a message telling him how much of a fan I was of the series growing up. When else would I get the chance? To my geeky delight, he replied in mere minutes, and before I knew it, I was shooting the shit with a demonic mutant from the Outworld.
He told me how cheaply made the Baraka blades were, some sort of mylar on cardboard, and he went on to say how he had a small role in The Dark Knight as one of the street thugs. He talked about how far his acting skills had come from the time he performed in the 1997 video game Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero, to when he co-starred in the 2007 independent film Book of Swords. He sent me a link to a model railroad site that doubles as his acting page.
And that was when things got really interesting.
Only a few things in this world give me an instant mental erection. Not sexual erection—mental—when my mind elevates and focuses at a near obsessive level, and my brain starts jizzing dopamine. Video games are one of those things. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is another. And what do my eyes first see on the site? Foot Soldiers fighting a Ninja Turtle. A game actor-turned-Shredder ally. The two loves of my life finally met, and crazy passionate neurotransmitter sex was had all night long.
All this time I hadn’t been talking to just Kano, I had been talking to a member of Shredder’s Foot Clan who got his butt handed to him by Raphael in the second Turtles movie! Truly one of life’s unexpectedly precious moments.
After telling him how foolish it was to take on a Ninja Turtle in battle, I inquired about his time filming Secret of the Ooze in Wilmington, North Carolina. And as a Turtle lover and collector, I had to ask him about props. Without even thinking, I asked.
I expected to be denied, just knew I was going to be denied, but to my surprise, Baraka was as cool as Barack. He apologized and said he didn’t have anything but some cool behind-the-scene photographs, but that his friend, Daniel, who also played a Foot Soldier in the movie, had kept some stuff and that I should contact him. He gave me his friend’s workplace number.
I thought how ridiculous it would sound if I called up and was like, “Hi, you fought the Ninja Turtles in ’91, right? How was that? By the by, do you have the rat’s animatronic head?” I didn’t recognize the area code, so I put the number into Google, and a Wushu school in Chicago appeared (“Wushu” is Chinese for martial arts).
Upon discovering the school’s website, I decided to go the e-mail route so I could better hide the creepiness of my fanboy pursuits. After name-dropping Richard Divizio, I asked if I could speak to Daniel. A day later, I received a response from the person I was looking for, a man who turned out to be the head master of the dojo. He signed his name as Daniel Pesina.
The very same Daniel Pesina who played Johnny Cage, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, Smoke, and Noob Saibot in Mortal Kombat I and II.
You could say he was a regular gaming celebrity back in the day. You could say he was a bit of a hero to me.
I could hardly believe it, but we began discussing the Turtles. I began talking Ninja Turtles with the real Johnny Cage!
According to Daniel, he appeared as a Foot Soldier in the majority of the sequel’s fighting scenes, getting kicked, punched, or thrown, including in the notorious nightclub scene with Vanilla Ice near the end of the movie.
At one point during that scene, the actor who played Donatello (Leif Tilden) was supposed to roll him and then do a side kick, but he decided to do a roundhouse kick instead without warning Pesina, and as a result, Daniel almost lost his two front teeth.
The Foot Soldier actors could barely see where to move in front of whatever technique was being thrown with the giant Turtle heads on. During the cuts, a few of the Foot would run around and get hit again. In one instance, Daniel got hit four different times in the same fight. He laughed, “It was a bloody mess.”
I then pressed him on Vanilla Ice and what it was like working with the Ice Man. He told a story about the first day Ice showed up on set. The actor who dressed as Michaelangelo in the film (Michelan Sisti) went up to Vanilla Ice to give him a hug and welcome him aboard, and Ice’s overweight bodyguard stiff armed him—even with the full Turtle suit on—coldly stiff armed him. About 18 of the actors, including Daniel, stepped forward to pounce until Pat Johnson, the stunt coordinator (who used to work under Chuck Norris in the 70’s—you may remember him as the mustached ref in 1984’s The Karate Kid), stopped them from fighting right then and there.
“[Vanilla Ice’s] bodyguards almost got their butt kicked.”
Picture the Ninja Turtles and Foot Soldiers teaming up on one side, and on the other, Ice and his entourage getting ready to throw down. Something tells me Ice would’ve been the zero, not the hero, in that scenario.
Vanilla Ice’s interaction with the crew grew even more bizarre in a later encounter, but Daniel made me promise to keep the rest strictly between us. The least I can do is keep my word. Let’s just say his allegation has changed my perception of Van Winkle forever. I’ll never listen to “Ice Ice Baby” the same way again.
As you’re seeing, there is a definite connection forming between the Turtles’ Hollywood history and video games. But Pesina and Divizio were not the only game actors to appear in the movies.
Ho-Sung Pak, the stunt actor who played Raphael in the second and third films, was another alum of the Mortal Kombat games. He portrayed Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat I and II, and Shang Tsung, the final boss in the first game.
Anthony Marquez, or Kung Lao in Mortal Kombat II, did the stunts for Leonardo in Ninja Turtles III.
What’s more, Daniel’s younger brother, Carlos Pesina, was the stunt double for Elias Koteas (Casey Jones) in the same film, and he acted as Raiden in the Mortal Kombat games. Carlos continues to work on the series today at Ed Boon’s NetherRealm Studios in Chicago. The same cannot be said about Daniel.
Before we get into Daniel’s dark days, we need to go back to Mortal Kombat‘s origins and focus our attention on a man named John Tobais.
A friend of Daniel’s, and a fellow Chicago native, Tobias communicated to Pesina how he wanted to make a fighting game and asked for his creative input into the project. Who better to go to for help on designing a fighter than a highly accomplished, award-winning Chinese martial artist with three black belts?
After a number of brainstorming meetings, the initial idea to sell to Chicago-based Midway was a coin-operated game centered around Jean Claude Van Damme (who would, coincidentally, go on to star in Street Fighter: The Movie). That idea was eventually scrapped because of the investment needed to sign Van Damme. They had no other choice while working with such a small budget but to quickly create their own original characters. To honor and depict real fighting techniques, Daniel and other martial artists and athletes were hired to act out the game characters’ moves.
Daniel’s Johnny Cage was the first to go. Cage was loosely based on Van Damme, and poked fun at action movie actors in general. Shot in a storage space he helped clear out, Daniel made good use of his Wushu training to show off real martial arts action and poses.
Staying within a marked-off section in the room, Daniel stared straight ahead at a pole so he could focus his attention and would know where to land his blows. Tobias stood behind the camera, shouting out moves, and Daniel would perform kicks, punches, or splits over and over again until there was enough usable footage. In between takes, Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon would appear on camera, offering his remarks.
To achieve the flying kicks, Daniel balanced himself on a short wooden staircase and stretched out his legs as if he were gliding through the air. The process repeated with the other actors, and this original capture session would become the foundation for the rest of the game.
Once the game was put together, released, and became a certified hit in arcades everywhere, talks about porting the title to home consoles began. The initial agreement Daniel had made with Tobias only concerned the coin-op, but his friend assured him that he would be compensated for the home releases as well.
Not knowing what was to come, Daniel participated in promotional tours and events around the world, even making an appearance on the British TV show GamesMaster, where he challenged (and lost to) Elizabeth Malecki (a.k.a. Sonya) in a match on the SEGA Genesis version.
Despite his friend’s promises, when Mortal Kombat debuted on nearly every major game system of the day, Daniel did not receive any royalties. He took Midway to court. Other game actors like Malecki and Ho-Sung followed suit.
Around the same time that this was happening, Hollywood had its eyes on cashing in on the property by adapting the best-selling games into a movie. A producer approached the game actors for possible roles in the upcoming film. At the request of the producer, Daniel choreographed a fight scene and submitted the tape. The producer told Daniel that he would be put in the movie if he dropped his lawsuit against Midway. Rightfully suspicious, Daniel refused.
Up against a small fleet of Midway lawyers, Daniel lost his case, did not receive any additional money, and was not offered a role in the 1995 movie (nor its 1997 sequel). He was, however, finally able to claim credit for co-founding the game series.
In 1994, looking elsewhere to be compensated for his work, or perhaps to send a message to Midway, Daniel tested his might by dressing up in his trademark Johnny Cage outfit to pose in an advertisement for a competing coin-op fighting game called BloodStorm. The flyer featured Daniel shirtless and standing by the game’s cabinet, giving a thumbs up, with his signature written above the words: “Daniel Pesina, who starred as Johnny Cage in Mortal Kombat has switched to BloodStorm.”
He was fired by Midway for making that appearance. BloodStorm failed to sway fighting fans away from Mortal Kombat, and Strata, its publisher, went bankrupt.
When Mortal Kombat 3 rolled around in 1995, fans took notice of the missing characters, in particular Johnny Cage and Scorpion. Carlos Pesina’s Raiden had also been removed as punishment for appearing with his brother in Data East’s Tattoo Assassins one year earlier (a coin-op fighter that remains unreleased to this day).
In the graveyard level of Mortal Kombat 3, players could see a gravestone with “CAGE” inscribed. Midway had, quite literally, killed off Daniel’s most beloved character.
Due to the outcry from fans, an updated version called Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was released later that same year with more characters, and Mortal Kombat Trilogy in 1996 added Scorpion and Johnny Cage back to the roster—this time played by new actors. John Turk (Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Reptile, Smoke, Noob Saibot) and Chris Alexander (Johnny Cage) took over for Daniel. The other original game actors who had also sought compensation in court were replaced, too. The golden age of Mortal Kombat had come to an end.
In 1995, several former Mortal Kombat actors, such as Daniel and Ho-Sung, became involved with Atari’s Thea Realm Fighter for the Jaguar. The game was never released due to the commercial failure of the system (the Atari Jaguar was officially discontinued in 1996).
Many years later, in 2010, Daniel uploaded video footage of the original Mortal Kombat capture session on his YouTube account (“wushucoach”). Warner Bros. Entertainment has since removed all of his videos due to a copyright claim. Warner Bros. bought the franchise when Midway went under in 2009.
Fortunately, things did get better. Daniel would continue to stay in touch with the Mortal Kombat family over the years, including Tobias, and he’d co-star in 2003’s Book of Swords with Ho-Sung and Divizio and in 2007’s Press Start with his younger brother. He’d also go on to become the head shifu (Chinese for “master”) at Chicago Wushu Guan in Uptown Chicago, where he’s been teaching students young and old his passion for Wushu and Kung Fu since 2004. And although you won’t find any coin-operated machines inside of the school, kids can play Xbox after their lessons are over.
As for the closure to my story, fast forward in time to about a week ago when a package arrived in the mail from Chicago. The contents: a really nice letter, a signed picture, behind-the-scene photographs, and everything needed to open a floodgate of memories.