Little Big Man

“You a wrestler?” A bizarre question even under normal circumstances. Miguel Torres takes it in stride. He hears it every time he takes his large WEC championship belt through airport security. “You a wrestler?”

Torres often jokes that he is, even though he’d make a pitiful looking luchador, all fi ve-feet-nine-inches of him, 150 pounds, topped with a cheesy smile and a mullet-hawk haircut that’s equal parts Euro trash and Mexican soccer star. “You a wrestler?”

A bizarre question, this time in a bizarre circumstance. And Miguel Torres still takes it in stride. After all, the World Extreme Cagefi ghting bantamweight champion is now standing, gloved and shirtless, in a Taco Bell on the edge of an Atlanta ghetto, with that jewel-encrusted belt slung over his shoulder.

Today’s inquiry comes from a woman who is curious but not invested in his response. It’s a moment when this kind of conversation usually takes a detour to Whocaresville, where one person earnestly explains mixed martial arts, its history, and its sociological implications while the other person’s eyes glaze over. But Torres keeps it loose, smiling and telling the woman that he whoops ass for real.

Strangers keep asking, and Torres keeps answering. After all, East Chicago’s hometown hero didn’t arrive on the national scene until September of 2007.

Torres began competing nearly a decade ago, when he was a scrawny 17 year-old in northwestern Indiana taking on fi ghters from rival gyms in smoker-style bouts attended by a few dozen students and friends. When he turned 18, he began entering tough man brawls at Finke’s Sports Bar, in Highland, Indiana. Guys would sign up, and the promoter would make matches according to each fi ghter’s size and whatever claims he made regarding experience or lack thereof. Soon enough, hundreds of people were turning out for monthly Monday night shows to watch the small, scrappy Latin kid knock out gang bangers, bikers, and servicemen who often outweighed him by 50 pounds or more.

It didn’t seem like a big deal to Torres. After all, that’s what martial arts is about, little guys smashing bigger, stronger guys, just as Bruce Lee did in The Chinese Connection. When he was young, Torres plastered his bedroom walls with posters of Lee, his fi rst hero. “My brother and sister hated me because we all shared a room,” says Torres. “They knew they couldn’t rip [the posters] down because I’d kill somebody.”

When Torres was seven, his parents enrolled him in a community center karate program, but they were forced to withdraw him after the free trial period expired. He began studying Tae Kwon Do at 12 and fared well in competition, but didn’t do so well when scrapping with friends who wrestled. “My instructor told me that, when I became a master, I’d be able to beat them with one punch, one kick,” says Torres, smiling. “He never showed me how that worked, so I quit Tae Kwon Do.”

Full contact fi ghting wasn’t in the cards for Torres just yet, so he opted for another deck altogether. Always imaginative, he immersed himself in Magic: The Gathering, a collectiblecard strategy game set in a world not unlike that of Dungeons & Dragons, involving battles between wizards. Torres was consumed by those imaginary battles until he watched the fi rst Ultimate Fighting Championship, with the help of a so-called cheater box. The video signal would cut out every few minutes, leaving just the audio. “It was kinda like listening to the radio,” he says.

The sight and sound of Royce Gracie submitting bigger, stronger guys reignited the geeky kid’s Bruce Lee fantasies. Magic cards and video games were fun, but he wanted to whoop ass for real. His chance wouldn’t come until four years later, when a high school girlfriend told him that her older brother practiced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Torres tracked him down and fell in with a small group of aspiring fi ghters: two Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu players, a boxer, and a Muay Thai practitioner. At 16, the fi ghter had found his calling, in a Spartan room of a community center every night at six.

“I got beat up by those four guys for a while. Then I had my fi rst fi ght and I won,” he says. Torres kept taking fi ghts whenever and wherever, and winning, for little or no money. “I started training at different gyms, getting better. I got better than the two Jiu-Jitsu guys. I started beating one guy and he didn’t come anymore. Then I got better than the boxer and he didn’t come anymore,” Torres says.

When all his training partners left, he inherited the keys to the community center, as well as the small group of students the group had attracted. At 20, Torres was running his own small gym and making a bit of cash in the process. It was normal for prospective students to watch classes, but one night an employee of the city’s department of parks and recreation scanned the room. She watched a kickboxing class and a Jiu- Jitsu instructional, and stuck around long enough to see a group of guys strip down to Vale Tudo shorts and start training MMA. The following day Torres was told to vacate the premises immediately, and the nascent trainer was forced to fi nd a new space for his gym just days before leaving for a six-week training trip to Brazil with his mentor, Carlson Gracie, Sr.

In 2000, when the city of Chicago outlawed mixed martial arts, promotions like the Ironheart Crown and Total Fighting Challenge headed east on I-90 and set up shop in Hammond, one of the cities in the northwestern Indiana metroplex. Torres had built a reputation as a solid local draw, and he began taking fi ghts with multiple regional promotions, negotiating better terms each time.

“I’d sell 15 tables and then they’d all get up and leave after my fi ght,” Torres says. No promoter wants the room to clear out after the fi rst fi ght, so Torres’ pay climbed to two or three hundred dollars a fi ght, and his matches were pushed further and further up the card until he was the main event, walking into the ring accompanied by a 20-piece mariachi band. “If the bout made it past the fi rst round, they would play for that minute break,” he says.

By 2006, the fi ghter’s reputation had traveled farther than he had. An Absolute Fighting Championship show in Florida was Torres’ only foray outside the stretch of I-65 that connects Chicago with Indianapolis, but he shared cards with name fi ghters like Clay Guida, Stephan Bonnar, Spencer Fisher, Jeff Monson, Bart Palaszewski, Jeff Curran, Brian Gassaway, and Terry Martin. In February of that year, WEC president Scott Adams asked Joe Goytia, the promoter of Total Fight Challenge, if he had a solid 135-pounder to compete for his organization’s title. Goytia offered two names: Torres, who would be favored to beat Adams’ guy, Antonio Banuelos, and Eddie Wineland, a Duneland Vale Tudo product who would present Banuelos with a stiff challenge.

Adams signed Wineland, and was surprised when Torres showed up to corner him that May. The WEC’s head honcho began courting Torres after Wineland beat Banuelos, but Torres backed off, fi guring it was better to make the same money at home, without having to devote time, energy, and money to traveling. Besides, he was waiting for fi ghts with BodogFight that were promised in his contract. Torres waited a year for that promotion to book something, but opponents kept falling through. BodogFight was disintegrating around the time Adams called Torres again. Adams couldn’t fi nd Wineland, who had gone underground following his 2007 loss to Chase Beebe. So, the WEC president needed a fi ghter just when Torres needed a home. The timing and money was right this time, and, two weeks later, Torres stepped into the WEC cage with Jeff Bedard. “I am
a big believer in fate,” he says.

Fate delivered Torres to Las Vegas, but Torres made himself a star on basic cable by choking out Bedard two minutes and thirty seconds into the opening frame; by tearing through thenchamp Chase Beebe, fi nishing him by submission in the fi rst round; and by defending his belt by beating veteran Yoshiro Maeda until doctors stopped the bout because of a grotesque swelling around Maeda’s right eye.

Strangers keep asking, and Torres keeps answering. He behaves like a gentleman. After all, he owes at least that much to every person who helped him build his life and career.

Northwestern Indiana, or “the Region,” as many refer to it, is not a happy place. This cluster of cities—East Chicago, Hammond, Gary, Merrillville, and a slew of smaller municipalities—represents the southernmost point of Chicago’s urban sprawl. Tucked against the shore of Lake Michigan, the Region was hit hard by the death of the American steel industry, and now it struggles with high levels of unemployment, crime, and vice.

The area’s blue-collar jobs attracted immigrants over the last century, fi rst from Eastern Europe and then from Latin America. Arnulfo Torres jumped the border nearly 40 years ago to look for work, and for a place where his children could thrive. He and his traveling companions took jobs as laborers, tradesmen, and craftsmen, helping each other build new lives in a new world. Arnulfo worked at jobs so that his children could have careers, and he preached the importance of education.

“That was the story I heard my whole life,” says Miguel, the fi rst in his family to attend college. The younger Torres paid his way through Purdue University Calumet , earning a marketing degree while fi ghting and running his gym. It was a lot for a young guy to handle, but Torres isn’t impressed with himself. After all, he knows that there were a lot of hands holding him up along the way. “It wasn’t hard for me [to succeed]. People were helping me, I was winning my fi ghts, the gym was going well, and so was school. Everything was falling into place the way it should. It was like a machine. The machine kept getting bigger and it kept producing,” Torres says.

The gym was part of the machine, providing Torres with fresh bodies to experiment with, eager young fi ghters who inspired Torres as much as he inspired them. St. Catherine’s Hospital, where Torres worked as a radiological assistant, was also part of the machine. The father of a friend got him the job and helped him manage the demands of attending school, running a gym, traveling to Chicago four times a week to train under Gracie, and fi ghting professionally. The hospital staff became fans and students of Torres, and, according to the uninsured fi ghter, “I still have doctors to this day who take care of me.”

The northern Indiana kid takes a lot of pride in his community, his heritage, and the sacrifi ces the immigrant generation made for its children. He wants to make good on the investment that has been made in him by representing that community, that heritage, and that immigrant generation well. His parents still aren’t thrilled that he makes a living fi ghting, but they are in the minority. Torres is a hero in the neighborhood, the guy who gets the best cuts at the local carnicería. He tells of eating at a restaurant in his hood, the only kind of place, he claims, where you can get good, authentic Mexican food—a hole in the wall where the owner is the waiter, cook, cashier, and dishwasher all in one. An older couple approached him and chatted for a bit. “They’d never seen MMA before, ever, and then they see my fi ght and they’re so proud to see a Hispanic guy from the community do something good,” Torres says.

Most athletes who have some fi nancial success move to the suburbs, returning to the old neighborhood for victory parades and motivational speeches. Torres refuses to leave, instead redoubling his efforts at home. He bought a house in Griffi th, Indiana, ten miles south of Hammond, for his wife, Jillian, and their year-old daughter, Yelana. In August of this year, Torres Martial Arts moved into a new, 7,000-square-foot facility in Hammond. “I painted the walls,” he says. “I put the mats down.” One recent morning, he arrived at the gym after spending the weekend on the road and hauled building materials from the newly renovated restrooms to the dumpster, looking much like the laborers who have cheered him on over the years at the Hammond Civic Center.

Torres oversees the development of homegrown talents Juan Magana and Anthony Gomez, and counts upwards of 75 kids participating in his youth program. Not all of them can afford it either. Torres remembers having to withdraw from martial arts classes because his family didn’t have the money to spare, so he works with families on an individual basis to determine manageable fees, or he lets them train for free if necessary. The kids’ classes, like his own training, are intense, and not every kid who comes through the door sticks with it. “The ones that stick with it…those are the ones who are going to be champions,” Torres says.

It’s not a sacrifi ce for Torres. He’s just paying it forward. “I feel like I owe it to them to be [in Hammond] for the people who helped me out,” he says, “I’ve been blessed, man, I’ve been really blessed.”

Strangers keep asking, and he keeps answering, because he believes that one day they will tell their grand kids that they met Miguel Angel Torres, the greatest 135-pound fi ghter who ever lived.

“I want to be the kind of fi ghter that 30, 40 years from now, 100 years from now, people will say that Miguel Torres was the Muhammad Ali of 135 pounds,” he says. In just three bouts, Torres was transformed from a relative unknown to a televised main-card fi ghter making noise on multiple top-ten pound-for-pound rankings. Of course, this has less to do with an improved game than it does with his previous lack of exposure. Given his overwhelming game, oversized personality, and eccentric haircut, Torres is ready for prime time. And it’s none too soon. At a point when most athletes are entering their prime, Torres is starting to feel the physical effects of a fi ghting life.

A grizzled veteran at 27, Torres sports small scars on his face and large scars on his knees. His wrists and ankles are creaky from years of beatings that he’s given and gotten. “My body is starting to feel more pain from the fi ght game, but I have more of a break now [between fi ghts],” he says. Torres intends to fi ght 10 or 15 more times and retire, when he’s 33 or 34. But he jokes that escalating paydays—like a potential super fi ght with WEC featherweight champ Urijah Faber—may keep him in the game until his mid-40s.

Torres claims more than a dozen fi ghts that don’t appear on his offi cial record, which starts in 2000. He calls those wild, early days of MMA his “experimentation phase,” and he’s a believer in Lee’s primary philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, which holds that martial arts “is about taking what works for you and your body and making it a part of your armor.” Even though he remains affi liated with the late Master Gracie’s federation (Torres was awarded his black belt by Carlson Gracie, Jr. in September of this year), the fi ghter has been his own primary trainer for much of his career, relying on in-ring experience, creativity, and imagination to augment his skill set.

When he has faced a much larger fi ghter, Torres says, “I’d have to hit his ears to get him to move, I’d have to hit him in the ribs to get him to drop his elbow, I’d have to kick his thighs to get him to reach back so I could get a kimura. Every fi ght, instead of hitting the
kidney, I’d hit the thigh. The kidney is going to hurt a lot tomorrow. The thigh is going to hurt right now. A punch in the temple is disorienting,” he says. Torres smacks his closed fi st into an open palm repeatedly, and continues, “He gets up and there is a second where he’s going to be disoriented. When I started fi ghting guys my size, it was overwhelming for them. They couldn’t handle it.”

Torres overwhelms his competition, and he doesn’t want them to catch up to him anytime soon. He works diligently to develop his game, identifying techniques he likes in other fi ghters and incorporating them into his training sessions. “When I see Fedor pick somebody up and power bomb them, I know I can’t do that, but when I saw the way he was in his guard when he fought Nogueira twice— posturing up, staying out of trouble and landing bombs, keeping that pressure, that constant pressure—I knew I could copy something like that,” he says. “So when I am in someone’s guard, I pretend I’m Fedor and I posture up and keep my hips heavy.”

As if ten years of training and competitive experience weren’t enough, Torres also brings natural advantages to the cage. He towers over most of his opponents, including many competitors from two weight divisions above his own. That extra reach allows him to execute submissions and strikes, like thigh-numbing heel kicks from the guard and vicious up kicks from his back, which few fi ghters can duplicate.

Torres also expends little energy cutting weight, one of the fi ght game’s most stressful requirements. He walks around at 150 pounds when he isn’t training, but drops to 147 as soon as camp begins. His weight then slowly ticks down, reaching 135 pounds by the time he has to weigh in. His metabolism is so reliable that Torres once ate dinner at a weigh-in just to psyche out the other fi ghters on the card.

“I just got out of school, I hadn’t eaten all day,” he says. En route to the weigh-ins, Torres stopped at a local spot for carryout. “Everyone’s cuttin’ weight and I come in with a Polish sausage and cheese fries from Zell’s,” he says, laughing. “They absolutely hated me, man.”

That metabolism, that appetite, led us to this Taco Bell on the edge of an Atlanta ghetto, where Miguel Torres is stuffi ng his mouth, that jewel-encrusted belt slung over his shoulder. Never mind that he had eaten a big plate of steak, rice, beans, and plantains just an hour before. It’s a silly scene, but the champ is at ease, smooth talking the girls behind the counter until he has the run of the place. No shirt, no shoes…no problem, baby. Take as many pictures as you like.

Torres doesn’t look like a fi ghter, but he walks like one. Even though nobody in the restaurant knows who he is, everybody knows he’s somebody. So, strangers keep asking, and he keeps answering. After all, sometime in the not-so-distant future, they will stop asking because they will know who Miguel Angel Torres is, and what he does, and that he does it better than anyone else ever has.

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