Zoro joined up with Luffy for one reason: to strive to become the world’s greatest swordsman. Specifically, he’s hunting down a certain man: Dracule Mihawk, the current reigning champion of swordsmanship. As luck would have it, while Luffy is stuck working at the Baratie, Mihawk happens to show up while chasing down the crew of Don Kreig for fun. Zoro challenges him to a duel, but he’s no match. He can’t even land a blow on Mihawk, even when Mihawk is fighting him using a toy dagger. Zoro resigns to his fate, accepting that he’s no match for him, but his pride won’t allow him to have a scar on his back. Impressed by the nobility of the young up-and-comer, Mihawk strikes him down using his main sword but avoids cutting any fatal spots.
Importance to the Story
Up until Mihawk’s appearance, Zoro had very few real opponents to test his abilities. Zoro got backstabbed by Buggy before his fight with Cabaji and had to go up against 2 opponents at once from Captain Kuro’s crew without all his swords, but that’s about it. Without those handicaps, he would have been perfectly fine. But Mihawk was different. The man considered second only to Luffy couldn’t even land a hit against a man who wasn’t even taking him seriously.
This fight did a lot to set up the various threats found in One Piece. First of all, it set up the sorts of opponents that the Straw Hat Pirates would be up against in the Grand Line. While we talk about Zoro here, Luffy couldn’t do much against Mihawk either when he finally stepped in. Suddenly it was made apparent just how much of a big fish in a small pond Luffy truly was. When it comes down to it, the threats of the East Blue are nothing compared to what lies ahead for the Grand Line.
Mihawk also set up the absurd power of the Shichibukai, or Seven Warlords of the Sea. One of One Piece’s greatest strengths as a shounen action series has been its variable power levels as defined by titles. Whenever you hear the term “Shichibukai” come up in regards to an upcoming character, you know how much of a threat they are based on that alone. Not all the Shichibukai are necessarily equal in power. Mihawk coming first though sets an incredibly high expectation for them, which leads right into the following arc with Crocodile. Even now, 900-some chapters into the series, the title “Shichibukai” carries some serious weight. Heck, Mihawk still hasn’t even been matched yet!
Impact on the Fandom
Even though Zoro has had plenty of great battles, his fight with Mihawk is easily the most iconic one. It’s when we see Zoro at his most vulnerable, completely helpless against a greater threat. Zoro is often the most serious and overtly cool member of the Straw Hat crew. This loss went a very long way to humanize Zoro beyond just his badass swordsman persona. He’d be a hard sell to take seriously if he couldn’t be confronted with his own weakness.
Zoro’s battle against Mihawk was the first time we saw the depth of the writing in One Piece. It establishes the story as being more than just fun pirate adventures on the high seas. Now the battles had some real weight to them knowing that loss was something in the cards