“Charlie is tough and he’s been around a long time like me so I can’t underestimate him. But I match up well with him in all areas of the game. I’m looking to make a statement with this fight and I have to show everybody that I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m still here and I’m dangerous. I’m not looking to just beat Charlie; I want to put him out."
Ten years into his illustrious career, Miguel Torres finds himself at a crossroads of sorts. Fans used to wonder, “Is there anyone at 135 pounds who can beat him?” Now they are asking, “Are the former world champion’s best days in the cage behind him?”
It is the kind of obvious question that arises when an MMA pioneer, once considered the pre-eminent bantamweight on the planet, loses two straight for the first time. The aura of invincibility began to fade last April, when fistic sharpshooter Takeya Mizugaki gave the mulleted legend all he could handle in a topsy-turvy five round war. Torres escaped with the victory, but succumbed months later during his fourth title defense to Brian Bowles, who became the first man to knock Torres out. When Torres tried to bounce back earlier this year, Joseph Benavidez became the first fighter to submit the highly-acclaimed Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt.
Which is why Torres’ looming Sept. 30 clash with fellow veteran Charlie Valencia holds such high stakes. Plenty of fans will surely “write off” Torres as a championship contender if he drops a third consecutive match. Fortunately for the stubborn 29-year-old, he is not among those doubting his place among the sport’s elite 135 pounders.
Ever prideful and mentally tough, the native of East Chicago, Ind., is now fully healed from a grotesque cut to his forehead (courtesy of a perfectly placed Benavidez elbow) that required dozens of stitches and plastic surgery. Most importantly, Torres, who has predominantly trained himself since the death of his mentor Carlson Gracie, Sr., in 2006, began training under Firas Zahabi (head trainer to UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre). While some may perceive Torres’ stock to be in decline, the quick-witted Purdue University graduate declared that he is more driven than ever to reclaim his standing as king of the division. Valencia is the first step toward rediscovering that glory.
“Charlie is tough and he’s been around a long time like me so I can’t underestimate him,” said Torres. “But I match up well with him in all areas of the game. I’m looking to make a statement with this fight and I have to show everybody that I haven’t gone anywhere. I’m still here and I’m dangerous. I’m not looking to just beat Charlie; I want to put him out.”
Valencia, who is riding a three-fight win streak, is similar stylistically to Bowles and Benavidez; he is also an explosive wrestler with heavy hands. At 5’3”, Valencia must overcome a huge reach disadvantage in the standup realm, but Benavidez faced the same predicament and managed to thrive.
“He’s a great athlete and he’s showed it many times,” Valencia, a married 35-year-old who lives in East Los Angeles, Calif., said of Torres. “He’s always going to be a dangerous fighter and I respect him for what he’s done for the bantamweight division. He’s a standup guy, he speaks well and he’s a Mexican-American – he speaks very good Spanish and represents MMA real well. His record speaks for itself and it’s an honor to fight someone of his caliber. He’s one of the best and I love to see where I stand against these types of athletes. That’s what motivates me.”
Like Torres, Valencia is also a well-respected pioneer for lighter weight fighters who, in the early days, fought at 170 pounds because there was no real 135-pound class in the U.S.
“Me and Miguel were supposed to fight a long time ago, I think it was back in 2002, in another show in Florida,” Valencia said. “We signed and in a couple of weeks the whole card fell apart. That was it. I never really set out to fight him at all. He’s paved his way and I’ve paved mine and it never happened that way. Fortunately, at this point of our careers, I’m just happy to fight him.”
Torres, meanwhile, said that although Valencia and Benavidez possess similar skills sets, he expects a different outcome because he is reverting back to his ultra-aggressive form and has improved his wrestling significantly.
“The big difference is that I fought Benavidez wrong and tried a different game plan and a style that wasn’t me,” Torres said. “This fight I’m going to push forward, bring pressure and I’m going to come at him with everything. I’m working on being able to come forward and not get taken down. My aggressive style will be there without being taken down.
“Before I was just using wrestling and trying to get by. Now I’m actually taking guys down and I’ve incorporated wrestling into my game. You can’t look past wrestling and hope to get by with your jiu-jitsu or boxing anymore.”