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After Saul Mena won the final Capcom Cup for Street Fighter 5, he slowly paced himself up the stairs toward the player’s lounge with his gaze ever forward and free of distraction. He acknowledged every passing congratulation from production staff and players alike before setting his bag on the press couch.

Before I went in for my time with the champion, I watched as he set aside his phone after answering some texts and saw him let out a long breath and a smile as he finally allowed himself some time to unwind.

For a player as dedicated and highly focused as Saul “MenaRD” Mena, even the smallest moment to let his guard down during a competition is rare. The expectations he places on himself and the pride in representing the country he put on the map, the Dominican Republic, provide all the pressure and motivation he ever needs in any given tournament.

So, it wasn’t a surprise that he is hard on himself and quick to call out that his inconsistencies throughout the lifespan of Street Fighter 5 prevent him from being in the discussion of the best player during its peak — despite being the only two-time Capcom Cup champion. It’s that level of self-awareness and work ethic that makes his immediate success in Street Fighter 6 such a nonchalant talking point. After his victory at CEO, you can call him the first super major winner in the Street Fighter 6 era.

“CEO was special because there was some chatter about the Dominican Republic being one of the strongest regions in the world. I wanted to prove that we were and to have [Christopher “Caba” Rodriguez] be at the top with me showed that. I wanted to win and not be in second place,” Mena said. “I prepared a lot and studied my bracket. The biggest difference in preparation was that I was just learning and practicing the new matchups and the mechanics. Even when I accepted the potential loss, I took it all seriously.”

Behind the “strongest bull” is an incredibly tight-knit support system

His strength in the game reflects all the work from his support system including close friends and family, the communities he plays with and his therapist. On the topic of friends, he thanks them for providing motivation and confidence to play the game. They told him not to be afraid to just play after he admitted to doubts of sticking with the game for the long haul.

“With my therapist, I’ve talked about my inspiration and what motivated me to play or win in the game. We’ve talked about legacy or reputation or sending a message through the game; it would only come across through success,” Mena said. “I was having trouble mentally outside of the results – thinking about how people thought about me and the negative things that were attached to the game were not really inside the gameplay. I talked about my confidence and motivation of wanting to play this game for the long haul and they told me to not be scared to play.”

SF6 is stressful

He admits that the new game is full of stress and requires your full attention – the mental stack is stronger because there are many options in the game that require good reactions and planning for success. The neutral game was a complete overhaul from something in Street Fighter 5. It’s a little more chaotic and exaggerated because of the freshness of the game. Overall, the navigation of learning a new game in addition to creating your own comfort and identity within the mechanics require a renewed focus and a dedication akin to a job.

MenaRD’s tournament results in the early going may not show the growing pains as he’s played well and won multiple weekly online competitions in addition to his CEO belt. However, the Street Fighter veteran understands that he’s still trying to grasp the concepts in the game. For now, he’s prioritizing the understanding of all the system mechanics instead of focusing specifically on character matchups. Mastering the game’s tools to better express yourself is more important than nuanced situations.

“I’m swimming in the process and getting used to everything. Even with good results, I’m still wading through and accepting all the stress of the game and the failures that go with it,” Mena said. “I just know I will get to where I want to get even if I let out some steam. Complaining is not a real solution and I try to adapt.”

MenaRD on Luke, Blanka and comfortability in learning a new game

Blanka crouching to use super in SF6

During CEO, competitors dealt with his combination of Luke and Blanka but even MenaRD was unsure if those were the characters he wanted to pilot. He originally wanted to give Marisa and Zangief a legitimate go, but both characters arrived in the final release different than how he wanted them to play. In his words, he was still grieving the loss of Birdie — the character he found the most identity in.

He used Luke, a character he was comfortable and excellent with during Street Fighter 5, as a bridge to learn the game and give himself some leeway toward competency in the game and admitted that he was lucky that he turned out to be strong. As for Blanka, a character he was surprised he enjoyed as much as he did, there are still doubts in playing him past a pocket pick. 

Even so, he talked about how Blanka was just very different from all the other characters and refreshed everything for him whether it was because he made scrambles awkward for the opponent or his unique move set, there was so much discovery with the character.

All that to say, this may be just the tip of the iceberg for MenaRD’s run at the top. He may already be the best player in the western hemisphere, but there is still more work to be done and much more preparation at hand.

“I need to continue to prepare for individual matchups and stay informed with updated information. The most important thing is to keep my focus stable throughout the entirety of the game and my results should be consistent,” Mena said. “I had to learn to be stable because I was always scared as a kid with low self-esteem, but I learned from the support of the people around me. The community and my friends helped me a lot to get to this point mentally and when I play like that, I play my best. My mom always said I was calm, but honestly, I feel like I had to learn it.”