The cheers had stopped. Then came the fight you didn’t see. Miguel Angel Torres had just defended his WEC bantamweight title for the third time, cementing his place on the mythical pound-for-pound list with a stirring five round slugfest against Japan’s Takeya Mizugaki.
The 25 minute scrap at Chicago’s UIC Pavilion on April 5, 2009 was unquestionably a Fight of the Night winner, and praise rained down on the champion at the post-fight press conference just before he heard even more of it at an afterparty thrown in his honor. By the time it was over, it was 4am and Torres had just enough time to hit the hotel, grab his bags, and get to the airport to grab a plane to Mexico for a week of PR work.
“As the plane came down, I guess the elevation made my eye swell shut, so I landed and got off the plane and it literally looked like I got mauled by a cougar or gorilla or something,” said Torres. “My eye was swelled shut and purple, I had scrapes all over my face, my lip was split open, and I was doing television interviews from Monday through Saturday non-stop. No amount of makeup or no sunglasses were gonna cover that up. I felt myself getting sore as the day went on. My ribs, my hands, my feet, my shins, pretty much everything hurt. Even my hair hurt.”
It’s the side of the game few, if any, see. I once asked the late Arturo Gatti what the morning after was like following one of his epic wars, and he laughed. “Well, I don’t see the daylight because my eyes are swelled up.”
When repeating this quote to Torres, he knew exactly what Gatti was talking about. The East Chicago, Indiana native told of there being no soap at the venue that night a little over three years ago, forcing him to water himself down just to get the blood off.
“It was that hectic,” he said. “I pretty much felt like s**t for a good four or five days, I got home Saturday, and I wasn’t right for about three of four weeks. In the middle of that I’m teaching class, doing appearances, doing shows for ESPN, and it’s already the middle of June, end of June, and they’re telling me I’m gonna fight Brian Bowles in August, and I basically had six weeks to train for the fight and it was a learning curve for me.”
As he puts it now, “I didn’t know I could say no to certain things. I was saying yes to everything and traveling for all these different things. I know better now, but I wouldn’t take that experience back. I learned a lot from that. I learned who my friends are and what I’m really about, and it’s led me to the path that I’m on now, I’m in a good place, and I’m very happy.”
Plenty of road has been traveled for him to get to this place, days away from an important UFC 145 clash with rising star Michael McDonald this Saturday in Atlanta. Torres would get knocked out by Bowles in their August 2009 bout, losing his title and the air of invincibility that accompanied a 17 fight winning streak. He dropped his next fight as well, getting bloodied and submitted by Joseph Benavidez. He would switch training camps, eventually settling in with Firas Zahabi at the Tristar Gym in Montreal, and he has won three of his last four bouts. Last December though, an off-color tweet got him ousted from the UFC, and while he was brought back in less than a month, the time outside the organization felt much longer to Torres.
“It was short, but it was the longest period of my life,” he said. “Every day felt like a year and I had no idea what was gonna happen. That’s what made it seem like it was so long. You don’t know what’s gonna happen the next day, and you’re just trying to correct things. You’re getting advice from a hundred different people a day, and phone calls and emails, and you should do this or this, and it’s one of those frustrating things, but everything happens for a reason, and it made me a stronger and better person in the end, and all I can do is thank God and thank my manager and all my friends and supporters who stuck through everything with me.”
Through it all, Torres still has his sense of humor, still has a healthy dose of irreverence, and still has the ability to be the best bantamweight in the world. But life isn’t as simple as it used to be when he was coming up on the Midwest circuit and taking on all comers with a style that most would deem reckless. Even in his WEC days, no matter who stood across from him, Torres was not only willing, but expecting, to make it a war. And while that’s fun for those on the outside to watch, it doesn’t spell a long career for the one throwing and taking the punches.
“People don’t understand what it is to win a fight and come out banged up for a month,” Torres explains. “You come back and you’ve got to fight again in three or four months. You gotta get back on the ball and you just can’t take two or three months off and recover and get back and start training again. You gotta be done with your fight, be healthy, get back and see what you did wrong and see what you did right, fix what you did wrong and get back in training and get better before you start training for a fight again. Being in a fight shouldn’t be getting in shape. You should always be in shape. But you can’t be in shape when you’re hurt.”
When you’re a fighter, these things just become part of the everyday routine. It’s an inconvenience, not a deal breaker. Torres was no different, but one day Zahabi sat his new charge down and gave him a heartfelt talking to.
“Firas basically told me that if I kept fighting the way that I was fighting, that I was not gonna last long,” said the 31-year old Torres. “You can’t make a war out of every fight you go into because your body’s not gonna hold up. There’s always gonna be a younger, stronger kid out there that wants to go to war too that’s not gonna have the injuries you have and the stress you have. He made me look at fighting differently, and he brought my daughter up. He said ‘look, you have a daughter. You’re not gonna fight forever. You gotta be healthy because when you retire you don’t want to have a messed up head, and be punch drunk, and have your hands all messed up.’ And he struck a chord with me because he was one hundred percent right.”
Four year old Yelana is the light of her father’s life. Fight mode Torres turns into dad Torres as soon as the topic of his daughter comes up, and he admits that while being in Montreal for training camp, “The biggest problem I’ve had is missing my daughter. She’s four, she’s a beast. (Laughs) I don’t want my daughter to grow up. I wish she could stay four forever.”
Any father would likely agree with Torres, as these are great years to see children go from toddlers to that next stage of life, where they actually start developing into little people. That makes the time away even more difficult, but Torres knows that what he’s sacrificing now is for his daughter’s benefit later.
“I talk to her on the phone often, and she knows that I’m training and she knows what I’m doing,” he said. “She thinks I’m friends with Iron Man, and I tell her that Iron Man’s my best friend. (Laughs) For her birthday party I dressed up as Iron Man and made an appearance. She knows I’m training for a fight, and of course she misses me, but she doesn’t have a good concept of time yet. So I tell her I’ll be home in a month, and she’s like ‘tomorrow?’ It’s really hard because she loves me and wants to see me, and it’s hard being away from her, but I know after my fights, every fight that I have, every purse I bring home is change in the bank for her and for her future, and I’m gonna be able to afford her certain things that I wouldn’t be able to otherwise, and when her college is paid off in a couple years and she has her future set, she’ll grow up and look back and be able to know that I took care of her.”
If Torres’ upcoming opponent, Michael McDonald, was in college, he would be approaching graduation day shortly. Instead, “Mayday” has opted for the school of hard knocks, where a win over the former WEC champ would definitely afford him the MMA equivalent of Magna Cum Laude status. It’s an odd situation to say the least, with Torres “official” pro debut coming in March of 2000, when McDonald was just nine years old. If that won’t make you feel old, nothing will.
“I don’t think it’s weird at all,” said Torres. “I know he started early; I think he was 14 when he started competing, so it’s not weird at all. I think the biggest thing is the experience level. I train with a lot of younger guys that are super tough and they’re really good, and all my training partners are his age. They’re 19 to 22, 23, with great wrestling, great jiu-jitsu, great striking. They’ve got explosion and they’ve got youth on their side. But the one thing that always gets me through is my experience. And I know this fight’s gonna be super tough, and I’m not looking past him at all. Everyone’s telling me ‘oh, you can’t look past this kid,’ and for me, every fight I have is a title fight, and this guy’s coming out to take my head off. I know he’s taking this fight super serious, and anybody that fights me is gonna try to make a name off of beating me.”
It’s the curse of being the man who once ruled the division, the grand master of the bantamweight class who basically put the 135 pounders on the United States map during his time as king. Yet as Torres explains, he’s always had a target on him back.
“I’ve been that guy forever,” he said. “Even before I had a record, I was the small guy that everybody wanted to beat up, and then when I was winning all my fights, I was the undefeated guy that everybody wanted to beat, and after I lost, I was the legend that everybody wanted to beat again. I’ve always been the guy that somebody’s wanted to beat up, and I’m totally used to that and there’s no pressure at all from that. For me, a fight’s a fight, and I’ve never lost a fight that I’ve trained a hundred percent for. If I was healthy and trained a hundred percent, I’ve never lost a fight. I’m totally healthy, and this is the first time I’ve gone into it with no stress from my home life and my gym. I hired my sister, she’s been doing a great job since January, and I’ve had not one problem, not one phone call with something going wrong. So there’s no stress from home, I’ve been training clean for the past month and a half, and stresswise and mentally, I’m free to train and just be able to enjoy myself out here and do what I gotta do to get ready for my fight, and I haven’t had that before, even when I was home.”
After over a decade full of battles, some more taxing than others, Torres sounds like he has finally figured things out in this Rubik’s Cube of sports. But at what cost to the fans eager to see him throw down like he did with Mizugaki and so many others? It’s a question many have asked when looking at his UFC decision wins over Antonio Banuelos and Nick Pace, fights in which he was disciplined and effective, but not as visceral with his attack as he used to be. It’s a topic Torres has grown tired of.
“There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and people were really criticizing me, saying ‘oh, you’re scared and you’re ultra-passive now,’ and all these things, and that’s not the case at all,” he said. “When you learn a new style, it takes time to develop that style and mold it in and mesh it with your old style. I’m still naturally aggressive inside, and I’m more aggressive than people think. I’m that pissed off Mexican everybody used to watch. I fight myself a lot to control how I fight and how I approach my bouts. But Firas is a very smart guy, I trust him with my life and my career, and even though everybody puts me down or says they want to see the old Torres or whatever, I know what’s right for my daughter, for my gym, for my students, and for my future, and no one’s gonna send me any other way.”
So what way is Miguel Angel Torres heading? Back to the top of course, and when he gets there, he can’t wait to celebrate with the faithful and scoff at the non-believers.
“It’s always sweet, but I think the second time around is the sweetest,” he said. “I’m always the underdog and I always look at myself like that. Even when I was on top, I was the underdog. It comes natural to me, I’m used to it, and I’m most comfortable when I’m the underdog, and I’m the most dangerous. I have a ton of supporters that I love and I appreciate, and I have a ton of haters that have no idea what it takes to do what I do or live how I live. Everything I do is to prove someone right, or prove someone wrong.”
Torres Coming to Atlanta with a Lot to Prove
"I have a ton of supporters that I love and I appreciate, and I have a ton of haters that have no idea what it takes to do what I do or live how I live. Everything I do is to prove someone right, or prove someone wrong." - Miguel Angel Torres