“For me to be a complete grappler, to get a real black belt, I have to learn how to wrestle...That’s a part of my game that I’ve ignored for a long time."
37 professional victories despite no wrestling skill whatsoever.
Arguably the worst wrestler that elite MMA had to offer from the year 2000 all the way through 2010.
Here’s the stone-cold truth: We will probably never see another like Miguel Angel Torres again in our lifetime. A legendary fighter who defied conventional wisdom, ignored the wrestling aspect of his sport altogether, and still won a world title and ruled the bantamweight division for the better part of a decade.
So I ask him, “Miguel, in 40 bouts, when’s the last time you took somebody down in a live fight?”
“Never,” he responds.
That’s right -- zero takedowns. And it’s not like the Purdue University graduate’s takedown defense was much better. UFC.com statistics show that Torres has stuffed a paltry 11 percent of his opponents’ takedowns, which might be a record low for a seasoned veteran in the organization.
The reason for Torres’ incessant neglect was simple: He held a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under the late great Carlson Gracie. He owned sick submission skills. Torres didn’t bother to shoot on foes because he could beat every one up standing (thanks in part to a massively long reach). And he didn’t concern himself with stopping takedowns because he was far superior to his adversaries on the ground, too. Take down Torres? Please. You were doing the guy a favor.
But along came Joseph Benavidez, a former state champion wrestler who single-handedly changed Miguel Torres’ life, changed the way Miguel Torres trains, changed Miguel Torres’ antagonistic relationship with wrestling. The Team Alpha Male fighter took Torres down at will in their battle last March and bloodied the East Chicagoan with a vicious elbow that literally required hundreds of stitches and the services of a plastic surgeon. Benavidez showed Torres the light, so to speak.
“I had to branch out,” said the 30-year-old Torres. “I had to learn how to wrestle.”
Indeed, the 135-pound weight class has been all but hijacked by high-caliber wrestlers who have added deft striking skills to round out their games. UFC champ Dominick Cruz fits the description, as does former kingpin Urijah Faber, top contender Scott Jorgensen and Japanese sensation Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto. Torres’ next opponent, Chuck Liddell teammate Antonio Banuelos, is another fighter who hails from the evolved wrestler ilk.
“I always knew we’d fight sometime and it just happens to be for my UFC debut,” said Torres, who meets Banuelos this Saturday night to jumpstart the UFC 126 main card.
“He’s a tough guy and he likes to throw big combinations. He’s got good takedowns and good ground-and-pound. He trains at a great team, ‘The Pit,’ so you know he’s in shape and he’s not going to get tired.”
Six months ago Banuelos would have been a bona fide lock to manhandle Torres in the wrestling department. But after hearing Torres rave on and on about wrestling -- how he’s training with many of the same wrestlers who molded Georges St-Pierre, how he’s added Olympic-style weightlifting and studied lots of wrestling videos – it’s enough to make a man forget the pre-2011 Torres. This “new” Torres, reinvented under widely respected trainer Firas Zahabi, sure sounds transformed.
“I even demoted myself from a black belt to a brown belt,” Torres noted, referring to his rank in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He proceeded to give the rational for this self-imposed stripping. Zahabi was still ranked as a brown belt several months ago. Torres owned a black belt, an honor he had held for years.
“I can’t be a black belt and he’s a brown belt,” Torres explained. “I did it out of respect for a guy that I’m training under and call my “master.’”
“He’s one of the only guys I’ve ever called master,” Torres said.
(Incidentally, John Danaher awarded Zahabi his BJJ black belt on New Year’s Day).
“When Firas feels that I’m ready to get a black belt then I’ll get my black belt from him,” Torres said. “For me to be a complete grappler, to get a real black belt, I have to learn how to wrestle. I have to 100 percent be able to decide whether the fight is going to be standing or on the ground. That’s a part of my game that I’ve ignored for a long time. I thought I could remedy it by doing better jiu-jitsu but the game has changed, it’s totally different. I’m studying wrestling in-depth now.”
This rebirth is happening amid the frigid temperatures and snow-lined streets of Montreal, where Torres has called Zahabi’s basement home for the past two months.
“I’m a hermit. I come up only to eat and take a shower and then go back downstairs,” said Torres, who for the first 10 years of his career trained in Chicago or his hometown, East Chicago, Indiana. “I don’t have my car for the winter so I’m pretty much at the gym or (Firas’) house. I just try to keep my eye on the prize. I went back to square one and got away from all of my comforts.”
The charismatic former champ believes that this relative solitude and simplicity will lead him back to his lost throne. It is striking, I must say, how frequently Torres mentions Firas’ name during our interview. Rarely a minute passes without the occurrence, giving the distinct impression that Torres is utterly convinced that the man who helped architect GSP’s ascent will deliver the same impact on his own career.
“During the first month we would have talks until like four or five in the morning,” Torres said. “It was crazy, but he’s a great leader, a great coach and a great mentor. Firas is a great fit.”
Zahabi, he says, has tried to reform him from an all-out brawler into a strategic thinker.
“Firas talked to me about not going in for guts and glory every time,” Torres said. “I’ve always gone out there to out-tough somebody, but just because you’re the toughest doesn’t mean you’re the smartest. The biggest thing I’ve changed is my mentality … I’ve watched a lot of my fights with Firas and he’s showed me a hundred times how every time I go in with a combination I’m going in elbow and shoulder deep with punches and kicks and it’s very dangerous. So he’s trying to clean up my striking.”
Torres began working with Firas last year, two months before his bout against Charlie Valencia, a contest he won handily to break a two-fight losing streak.
“We watched that last fight and it was a huge difference from the other fights that I’ve had,” Torres remarked. “I didn’t get hit at all in my face. I got kicked in my leg two or three times. I just controlled the distance and totally frustrated my opponent. It’s exciting to know that I can win a fight by being smart and not taking damage.”
Such a smooth and one-sided performance meant he didn’t need to show off Torres 3.0. But he expects to continue to impress on Saturday night, and, for anyone wondering – yes, his notorious mullet will once again be in full effect inside the Octagon.
“It’s a long time coming. From watching the first UFC with Royce Gracie to actually being able to call myself a UFC fighter, it’s a great honor,” Torres said. “The most important thing is to get back on track with my fighting career, especially now that my weight class is in the UFC now.
“I made a whole new family out here in Montreal. If I wouldn’t have lost that fight to Benavidez then I would have been training somewhere else. So everything happens for a reason. My mind, my heart and my body are in the right place now. I’m chasing a dream. I want to be a UFC champ and I know I can achieve that. I expect big things in the next couple of years.”