20 years of Def Jam Vendetta: Ranking the best fighters

Ludacris knocking another fighter onto train tracks.
Image: EA

Wrestling games took on a new form back in 2003, when Def Jam Vendetta was released. The epochal experience gave users the chance to play as and compete against their favorite rappers in virtual form, which was a relatively new idea at the time. Some folks remember when the Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style video game came out in 1999, and there were of course a few rare instances where artists made appearances in other games, such as Q-Tip in Knockout Kings circa 2000. But DJV is widely credited as hip-hop’s first video game.

Back in 2003, hip-hop was one of the more dominant genres of music in the United States. To give further context, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” had the most success on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart across all genres. With rap music turning a new corner in terms of popularity, games like Def Jam Vendetta allowed kids and adults alike to bring the genre into their living rooms in a full form that was previously non-existent. Navigating through a storyline of gaining respect as a street fighter, fans had the option of playing as characters who were signed to Def Jam Recordings back then, such as DMX, Joe Budden, and Ludacris. Fighting rounds could be won via K.O., submission, or a pindown. Each playable character also came equipped with signature sound bites and finishing moves, which were activated by achieving ‘Blazin’ mode.

Elsewhere, the soundtrack was all rap too, featuring songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” N.O.R.E.’s “Nothin’,” Method Man’s “Bring the Pain,” and much more. Previously, games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and NBA 2K dabbled with adding hip-hop songs to their soundtracks, but none had exclusively that until DJV came to life. With general success across PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube releases, Def Jam Vendetta was followed by two other games in the years following: Def Jam: Fight for NY (2004) and Def Jam: Icon (2007). The franchise was discontinued after that but has lived on in the nostalgic memories of fans all over who take to social media every so often, begging for another installation of the coveted series.

Just a few years ago in 2020, the official Def Jam Recordings Twitter page posted a screenshot of DJV and teased that there would be a “special announcement” soon. People thought that a new or remastered version of the game was coming out, but that post unfortunately hasn’t led to anything. However, April 1, 2023, does mark the 30th anniversary of the game’s first release. On top of that, hip-hop turns 50 years old this summer. So with that combination in mind, here, we decided to rank the best rappers to play with and against on Def Jam Vendetta. Based on the criteria of their attributes, finishing moves, soundbites, and more, the full list can be found below.

11. ScarfaceScarface looking down at the camera

Scarface’s character started his matches by saying, “Oh, you’re about to get your ass beat!” Those words were provided with conviction and backed by his lower body power. As the inaugural fighter to The Face Club, Scarface’s Deadman Dives did a ton of quick damage, similar to the impact of his Showin’ Colors gut punches and his Silver Platter slams. Now, even with those cool moves in mind, Scarface’s general attacks didn’t hit that hard. His Blazin’ moves (Hammer Throw and Chicken Wing), were an upgrade from that. But he typically wasn’t a go-to character that people would pick to go up against the best of the best, so that’s why he ranks so low.

10. Keith MurrayKeith Murray in a dark tank top.

Keith Murray’s character on Def Jam Vendetta was a quick grappler, so if the defense wasn’t intact, it was a wrap. He could wrap opposing players up with the quickness, further leading to his Joyride arm bars, Murder Rap body slams, and his Givin’ Props stomach kicks. It didn’t take long for him to gain enough steam to land his Oh My Goodness and Sychosymatic Blazin’ moves. But in story mode, Keith was the first person that players encountered in the Def Jam Tournament, which speaks to his level of ease in comparison to other acts. He was definitely a hitter, though, so people can’t sleep on that.

9. Joe BuddenJoe Budden in a red hoodie.

The threat “I’m gonna smack ya head off yo shoulders” is the first introduction to Joe Budden, who was one of D-Mob’s crew members. Though he didn’t appear in a story mode fight, exhibition matches revealed the type of persona that he embodied in Def Jam Vendetta. His character was a python when it came to submissions, whether they were being applied to the upper or lower body. Users also noted how quick he was to actually put people in those compromising positions. His two Blazin’ moves (Representin’ Jersey and Hell Ridin) paid homage to that notion and his home state. He was also known to reach that level quicker than many other characters, building up strength via his Hail Mary jump moves, Crutch leg-shatterers, and Tangled Web body slams. Budden’s character is kind of underrated. Equipped with an outro he was solid, effective, and could hold his own against whoever. So, his placement mid-way through this list is accurate.

8. GhostfaceGhostface Killah with his arms outwards

Like his Wu-Tang Clan brethren Method Man, this was Ghostface Killah’s second go-round as a video game character. However, in Def Jam Vendetta, he was bigger, stronger, and better than ever before. Users figured that out when they came across him in the semi-finals of the Def Jam Tournament. Ghostface was known for his strength, toughness, and health: a holy trinity that was tougher than diamonds. If he landed one of his Street Chemistry kicks (with the Timberland boots), Full Eclipse submission move, or his Blind Fury eye-gouger, it was hard to come back from. That’s why his victory outro was “Get up punk! Get up,” because down on the mat was where users would find themselves if he was on the other side.

7. CaponeCapone fighting WC

Capone had one of the coldest finishers in the entire game. His Punching Bag Blazin’ move could crack the face of any and all competition. Elsewhere, his streetfighting IQ was known to be high. His skill set wasn’t anything fancy, but it was commanding, as he created a lot of damage with punching combos such as the Fists of Fury. His Backbone Breaka was pretty deadly, too. He often overpowered whoever he was going against. Throughout the game, users would fight against Capone pretty early on in the second round of the Def Jam Tournament. But his early arrival had little to do with the actual difficulty that he presented. If players didn’t come correct, they would fall victim to his upper body annihilation.

6. RedmanRedman with his hands together.

In story mode, the earliest Redman encounter came as he was one half of a tag team that also included Method Man. When the charismatic character did step into the ring himself, he would hit his opponents with an onslaught of kick combos such as the Cleanin The Streetz move, Burnin Roundhouse attack, and Westside Hustle knees to the stomach. Those attacks usually preceded his Blazin move of the Jersey Turnpike. Redman was also held in high regard due to his defense, as one of the few characters who would rack up points from dodging contact in a signature way. His speed and health helped ease things along on both offense and defense as well. In true Redman fashion, his sound bites were gully. Take for example his victory outro where he said “You just embarrassed ya self son. Go home, beat it!” Moreover, there were very few flaws in his character development. Though some could give him a run for his money, defeat and Redman mostly stayed at a distance from one another.

5. N.O.R.EN.O.R.E fighting Briggs.

N.O.R.E.’s boss-level character in Def Jam Vendetta used to be posted up in Grimeyville, perfect for a man who helped popularize the word slime. His Blazin’ moves Nothin’ and Percolator were coded with the backbone of toughness and strength, similar to how he presented himself outside of the game. Because of that, many people regarded N.O.R.E. as being one the hardest people to go against in the gaming experience. Submission moves like the Debt Collector, sneak punches like the 40 Oz Surprise, and high-flying Hit N Run combinations presented constant challenges in a fight with N.O.R.E.

As the instrumental to his track “Nothin’,” played in the background, N.O.R.E.’s character was good for handing out whoopings that made users want to pull their hair out in frustration. Along with DMX, he was known for his difficulty, and the most taxing characters are often stuck in the memories of fans.

4. LudacrisLudacris in a Phat Farm t-shirt

There’s a reason why Ludacris is one of the most notable figures in the entire Def Jam video game series. In Vendetta, he was known for whooping folks around with his combined style of martial arts and kickboxing. Due to the latter, his leg strength was elite and his toughness was impenetrable. Additionally, his health lasted longer than most, so if he got the chance to land either of his two Blazin’ moves (Throw Dem Bows and Ludacrisification), he could likely beat opponents off the strength of endurance.

Luda’s character was a boss-level opponent in story mode. Users knew him as the owner of Club Luda, a venue that brought upon the soundtrack of records like “Get Back” by him and Jeezy’s “Soul Survivor.” His Hotlanta Haymakers, Breakin Jewels nut-crackers, and DDT Dental Work composition perhaps provided one of the most unique depositories of moves that the game had to offer. Luda’s most remarkable sound bite was “Man, come on, y’all, give me somebody who can really hang,” because the truth of the matter is that many people couldn’t.

3. WCWC fighting Proof

WC was a cheat code in the gameplay of Def Jam Vendetta. His martial arts style of fighting was known for Drawin’ Blood punches, Bow To Tha King back breakers, and Marked 4 Death choke slams. Possessing an immense amount of power, WC’s health and durability also stuck out in the pool of other characters.

A member of D-Mob’s crew who was found in the third round of the Def Jam Tournament, WC possessed two Blazin’ moves deemed as A Real G and Stakin’ Turf. With the efficiency of those, he would pack people up quickly, lowkey giving users a sigh of disappointment once they heard the outro quote “Yeah get this peon outta here! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!” All in all, he was a monster to play with and against. When it came to mercy, his character gave the least amount of it.

2. Method ManMethod Man leaning towards the camera.

The Def Jam Vendetta version of Method Man was his second appearance as a video game character. The new iteration was upgraded far beyond what 1999’s Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style had to offer years prior. Method’s Def Jam character, which he advised in real life, could be found hanging out at the Da Bridge.

What made him such a potent character to play with traces back to his toughness and power. If he landed hits on the lower and upper body of his opponent, it was pretty much game over. Users know that from coming across Meth in a tag team championship match in story mode. His charisma shined in the game as well. Most remember him saying, “A’ight y’all! Who wanna see me break this kid up! Right now!” That he did with Blazin’ moves such as the Methalize and Method 2 Madness. Those were knockout guarantees. And other moves like the Power From Above body slam and Snuffed Out stunner were hell on an opponent’s health. If Method Man was good for one thing in Def Jam Vendetta, it was for bringing the pain. So it would be hard to put him anywhere but in the top five of this list.

1. DMXDMX shirtless in the ring.

DMX set the bar and the tone when it came to brawn. In story mode, users had to go through X, a member of D-Mob’s crew, to qualify for the Def Jam Tournament. His strength, defense, and speed created a steep challenge no matter how good someone was on the sticks. Not to mention his Ruff Ryders Anthem and Dish Washer Blazin’ moves that felt impossible to survive, all while the instrumental to “Party Up” boomed in the background.

Remembered by many, X’s victory quote was “Stop acting like a bitch! Dog!” And fittingly, his hangout in the game was The Junkyard, home to combative pit bulls who foughtght their way up to the top spot. When people think back to the overall experience of Def Jam Vendetta, DMX is highly regarded as the best character to play with and fight against. From his soundbites to his combat arsenal, which notably included Blood N Sweat submissions and a Gritty Crescent Kick that would knock the wind out of someone, X was a force in the virtual space just like he was in real life. May he rest in power.