Flashback: The Real Miguel Angel Torres

Starting today, I’ll be dipping into my extensive archive of MMA stories dating back to 2005 for a new series I’m calling Whizzered Flashback. I blatantly stole this concept from David Bixenspan’s excellent Babyface v. Heel newsletter, which you should subscribe to if you are a pro wrestling fan. These will be sporadic and are in no way a replacement for new stories here at Whizzered; I simply enjoy looking back at the stuff I’ve done over the years, mostly because they are a reminder of how far I’ve come.

Introduction:

The story below was my first full profile of Miguel Torres, just prior to his UFC 139 bout against Nick Pace. He was coming off a controversial loss to Demetrious Johnson at the time which, in hindsight, was the moment his career began trending downward. He’d been swindled out of money by his former manager, but his signing with Glenn Robinson seemed to give Miguel hope.

Eight years later, Robinson is tragically dead. Torres lives in Chicago, where he runs a busy jiu-jitsu school and, from time to time, still believes he can beat anyone in the world, just as he did when I wrote this piece 8 years ago.

The Real Miguel Angel Torres

November 11, 2011
Originally published at Heavy.com

It’s Wednesday night, and Miguel Angel Torres is telling a story that, like so many others, is probably not fit for public consumption.

Here in a makeshift workout room at the Marriott hotel in San Jose, Torres is holding court after an intense workout. The brothers Zahabi – Firas and Aiemann – are gathered with kickboxing star Tyrone Spong and Miguel’s confidant and long-time friend Bobby Joe Maldonado.

Torres finishes the story, gathers up the crew and leaves the room. In the hallway leading to the elevator, there is an awkward moment when Nick Pace, Torres’ opponent on Saturday night, walks by. Pace, a fighter still fairly new to the game, at least in comparison to Torres, appears in awe of a guy he probably grew up watching in the cage. He casually says hello in the way that only fighters who are facing each other can, but Torres doesn’t have much of a response. After a brief moment of levity with his team, he’s back in the zone.

****

Torres wanted to fight in the UFC from an early age, but that really wasn’t possible in 1999, when his 120 pounds of skin and bones got him picked on by just about everyone. He wasn’t an athlete at East Chicago Central high school, but he wanted to compete, so he’d show up to wrestling practices. Maldonado was on the wrestling team at the time, and though he didn’t consider Torres a friend at the time, he couldn’t help but be impressed with the little guy’s attitude.

“He’d come in there, this skinny little kid, and he would try to do everything. He’d come in there and wrestle with us. He was trying to live the dream, to chase the dream of actually being in the UFC,” Maldonado says. “Everybody pushed him to the side. ‘Yeah, kid. It’s a joke.’ Everybody thought he was crazy.”

Maldonado went away to college for wrestling, and when he came back in 2006, his path crossed with Torres again. It was a very different version of Torres, though, one who had gone on to continue studying mixed martial arts and jiujitsu in particular. He’d opened a gym adjacent to the one where Maldonado used to work out in high school. Torres asked Maldonado to come into his gym and just wrestle, so that’s what he did.

Torres eventually convinced Maldonado to come into the gym and train. Within five minutes of sparring, Maldonado was caught with a knee that split him open and required ten stitches to close. Miguel was profusely apologetic.

“He was worried about what would happen, that he injured me in the first five minutes. He didn’t know what was going to happen because he didn’t really know me yet. I told him not to worry about it, that I would be back. I’d say it was an accident.”

Maldonado did return to the gym and continued training. Six years later, he’s never left Miguel’s side.

****

It’s July 2, 2011. Torres is standing in the cage after losing a hard-fought battle with Demetrious Johnson. He was confident that he’d won the fight, but MMA judging seems to hinge on a set of criteria that can’t really be defined. He blamed himself for the loss, hated the fact that he went for the kill in the third round instead of maintaining top control like his trainer Firas Zahabi told him to do. He’d gone directly against his master’s instructions and he’d paid the price.

“I felt like it was my fault. My biggest regret was that I didn’t just lay on him for the entire last round. I got the mount, but I couldn’t really hit him because he was so short that he could turn his hips and escape,” Torres says. “I can see it in my mind very vividly. I could hear him breathing and I knew he was trying to move, but I could hear people starting to boo. I should have laid on him for the last minute and a half, but he put his neck up for a guillotine, so I went for it.”

Zahabi told him throughout the entire training camp that he shouldn’t give up position just to go for a submission, but he didn’t listen. Johnson ended up scoring a takedown at the end of the round that secured his win in the mind of the judges.

“The worst thing for me was looking at Firas’ face. He was so disappointed, because he told me what would happen and I didn’t listen. He told me to stay there and do damage, but I went for it,” Torres says.

The aggressiveness created in Torres during his early years of being pushed around was just too much for him to resist. He’s a good person by nature, but no matter how hard he tries, he still can’t quite turn off the pain of those early years. Zahabi tries to control Torres and his emotions in the cage to the best of his ability, but even the master game plan artist can’t quite undo all of the years of torment Torres suffered through as a kid.

“Whenever I played sports, whether it was basketball or soccer or football, I was always the smaller kid, always playing with older kids. If I wanted to fit in, I had to be tough, and I think that’s where it came from,” he says. “Even when I started training, I wasn’t as big as everyone else, so I had to work harder. I had to be extra tough. And for so long it was like that. And now I’m at the level where I have to pull it back and stop being so crazy.”

The decision to start playing things safe wasn’t made just for career considerations, at least not in terms of wins and losses. Torres had gone so hard for so long that his body was suffering. All of the press engagements, all of the non-stop training and commitments to other people made him tired, and his body never really recovered from the beatings. He knew he could outwork anybody he’d faced and never lacked for confidence when it came to the work he put in during training camp, but he was tired. In Zahabi, Torres found a trainer who would reign him in, keep him from getting too aggressive and perhaps help him heal his nagging injuries and extend his career.

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The fall of 2011 was a cathartic one for Torres. After experiencing untold problems with previous management, Torres finally had enough. A meeting with Authentic Sports Management head Glenn Robinson in Houston led to an invitation to train at the Imperial Athletics gym in Boca Raton, Florida.

He journeyed to Florida and began training with the self-named Blackzilians. His first day at Imperial Athletics got off to a rough start when he and Maldonado missed their flights from Chicago. It was a Saturday afternoon, and Torres was worried that he would be too late to train with anyone, but K-1 star Tyrone Spong volunteered to stick around and hold pads. Spong, one of the deadliest strikers in the world, with legs the size of tree trunks and one hell of an impressive resume, wanted to see what Torres had.

It was a match made in heaven, or at least, in Boca Raton.

“Within five minutes, Tyrone had me throwing five times harder than I ever had,” Torres says. “He just changed some little things around. We clicked right away.”

Torres signed with Robinson, embarking on a completely new and unfamiliar phase of his career. He spent two weeks in Florida and then traveled, with Spong in tow, to Montreal to continue his camp with Zahabi.

The decision to sign with Robinson and Authentic Sports Management was a purifying moment for Torres, a fighter who constantly struggled to make ends meet even while fighting on the biggest stage in the sport. For the first time in a long time, his training and financial situation came together as a whole, giving him a sense of peace that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“It’s a big relief. When I met Firas and all of these guys, it felt good training-wise. But there were still issues. I got audited twice and I had $60,000 in bills to pay with only $10,000 in the bank. I didn’t know what to do,” Torres says. “I had the gym, I had my daughter. I have all of these things to take care of, and now I have this huge bill, and they’re telling me that if I don’t repay it within 2 months, they’re going to repossess my shit.

“It’s just a lot of pressure. I don’t want to delve too much into my personal stuff, but there were just a lot of issues. I did seminars and training and whatever I needed to do to pay my bills, but I always ended up at zero again. And I would be at zero with the idea of ‘what’s going to happen next,’ you know? Was there something that I owed that I didn’t know about? But now I’ve gotten that straightened out.”

There comes a time in human life when the things that burden you become so heavy that the only real outlet is to vent your frustration. Torres did that last week, taking to Facebook to describe his financial situation and to send a message to people back home that he believed weren’t being honest with themselves or others. It offered a rare look into the mind of a fighter struggling to cope with things he could no longer carry by himself, and it hit home. Letting go was a release for Torres, who found himself free, for the first time in his career, to focus exclusively on the fight at hand, the one that takes place inside of a cage.

“It’s a lot, but people don’t understand what it takes to go through this. I didn’t just start two years ago, you know? I’ve been doing this for a long time. There are a lot of responsibilities, and I’ve worn a lot of hats. Every time I’ve tried to get someone to help me, to wear one of my hats, they’ve screwed me over,” he says. “So it’s hard to trust people with my heart. But as you get older, you get wiser. You stay on the bike and you keep riding.”

Maldonado has seen the change in Torres. “It’s one of those things that he held in for a long time. He wants to help people. But it comes to a point where you just try to help someone so much, you have to eventually stop,” Maldonado says. “And now he’s settled. The line is drawn, and you’re either on this side or that side. And the guys that are on the other side? They’re not going to come back. The ones who are his true friends, the ones who are supportive, are going to at least approach him and tell him they’re sorry, that they want to figure it out. It definitely settles who is with you and who is against you.”

****

I take Torres back to the moment in the hallway with Pace, where the guy who grew up watching him destroy opponents said hello and received nothing in return. It was a strange moment. Go back to the old high school days in Indiana and all of the moments where Torres tried to work his way to respectability, to overcome his size and the odds and the anger to become something more than he was. Surely Torres had heroes, much like the way Pace looks up to him now, and surely those heroes drove Torres to the kind of success he may not have achieved on his own.

Does that count for anything?

“I don’t care if he thought I was his hero. It doesn’t mean anything to me. When I go out there and fight somebody, I want to destroy them. It just doesn’t matter to me. The way I look at it, he’s meat and I need food. In the crudest sense, that’s how I feel.

“I lost the last fight and everyone thought I was done, or that I was weak. That’s so far from the truth. I swear that my wrestling has improved one-hundred percent. By next year, it’s going to be even stronger,” he says. “Everything happens for a reason. If I would have beaten Demetrious, I would have gone to Montreal right away. I would have kept my same management situation. I would still have all of these problems. I wouldn’t see my daughter and I’d still have all of this stress. Even if I beat Dominick Cruz, I’d still have this host of 5’2” miniature wrestlers waiting for me.

“It all happens for a reason. I wouldn’t have met Tyrone, I wouldn’t have signed with Glenn. There’s a whole lot of good that came out of me losing to Demetrious. You don’t see the bigger picture until it’s painted, and I’m just painting in the corner of the picture right now.”