Let’s start by breaking down my personal absolute favorite fight in the manga: Sanji vs. Jabra.
Sanji initiated the fight with a kick that saved Usopp, and Jabra countered with a pretty strong attack against Sanji. He assumed that was enough to finish Sanji, and switched his attention to Usopp… then Sanji kicked back. This counter officially established that they are both equal.
This is important for two reasons. One, this type of fight I classified as “Evenly Matched fight” where two characters are assumed to be close to each other in skill level, this made victory uncertain (of course the good guy will win, but you know what I mean), which then makes the fight more fun. And two, you can actually see Jabra desperately struggle to maintain his superiority both physically and psychologically throughout the entire fight.
- Jabra kept telling Sanji several times that his kicks didn’t hurt (they did)
- Jabra tried to trick Sanji with the whole Robin is my sister thing, it’s insulting to think it’d work.
- Jabra kept commenting on Sanji’s choices during the fight, implying that Sanji is “new to this”.
- Jabra underestimated Sanji right until the very end. Who knew if he actually used his strongest attack in this fight.
Oda designed to fight to be very well balanced. In the first chapter, they basically traded hits. Then after the tricking attempt, Sanji got two big hits in and one small hit to the leg. Right after that, Jabra got Sanji with two consecutive big hits also, with the second one being an advanced version of what we saw before (and his strongest move in the entire fight, probably stronger than the one Sanji blocked midair at the end).
Oda also have Sanji having to use his Diable Jambe twice instead of just once. This could be for many reasons. Obviously seeing it twice is cooler, but it also opened possibility of an advance version of it. We aren’t aware of its limit until Sabaody.
To me, Sanji vs Jabra is a pretty standard fight, may be even too normal for One Piece (Oda did say early on he wanted the fight in One Piece to look as weird as possible). Okay, now onto the rest. I divided fights in One Piece into the following categories (not counting team fight):
Few-Hits KO are fights where the enemies, even the big bad, are significantly weaker than the heroes. Majority of One Piece villains are like this. So much so that I thought One Punch Man got the idea from early One Piece.
Luffy and Zoro are both strong. Even in Grand Line, a place that was hyped as extremely dangerous, only featured characters that matched them in terms of strength late in Alabasta arc. When characters pissed Luffy or Zoro off, most readers reaction would be “uh oh, you don’t want to do that.”
Now for Zoro there’s also another layer to that. He’s a swordsman, and most of his fights are sword fights. You don’t recover quickly from a well placed sword hit, so yes, most of this fight end with One hit KO. Even his longer fights, like the one with Mr. 1 (Daz Bonez) and with Kaku, the reason why they were long was that Zoro landed hits, but they just didn’t hurt the enemy for whatever reason. Even Kaku, as long as that fight was, Zoro wounded him only twice the entire fight. Those two are evenly matched fights though.
So how did Oda makes it interesting? Bad guys being so weak doesn’t sound very exciting. There are many ways. Some Few-Hit KO battles even extended to multiple rounds (like with Caesar). Enemy’s Devil Fruit Power are often used as a device to delay/break the fight. Weaker enemies like Mr. 3 almost knocked out Luffy before Luffy could even landed a hit on him.
And just because Luffy could Few-Hit KO an enemy doesn’t mean other Straw Hat members can. Many times Oda let the weaker members like Nami and Usopp faced a villain that would have been easy for Luffy or Zoro, and this would hype up their eventual demise.
- Eneru is a Few-Hits KO character since Luffy has so much advantage over him. He spent most of the arc terrorizing people who aren’t immune to his power.
- Vergo is also a One-hit KO character for Law. Most of the back and forth attacks were between him and Smoker.
A trick Oda used several time is to have minions break up the fight. This was when Monet interrupted Luffy’s fight with Caesar, or when Miss Goldenweek disrupted the fight between Luffy and Mr. 3.
I’m going to do something weird, I want to compare fight designs to a certain kind of video-game boss fights. Few-Hit KO fights to me, are like the end level Mario boss. Bosses in Super Mario Bro series are known to be extremely easy. What most modern gamers don’t understand is, that’s what originally boss are supposed to be. In a platformer, levels were the main draw. That’s why there’s a job called level designer, and not… boss designers (that I know of). The bosses were supposed to be the fudge at the bottom of a sundae. It wasn’t supposed to be hard, especially when the level was already hard.
Now, as video-game evolves, and some bosses are remembered fondly for being elaborate and epic. I appreciate both type of epic bosses.