The Miguel Torres who ruled the WEC bantamweight division is gone, now only existing on highlight reels and in the memories of fight fans.
A new version began taking shape after the former 135-pound kingpin lost to Joseph Benavidez at WEC 47, his second consecutive defeat after collecting 37 wins in 38 appearances. That’s when Torres started working with Firas Zahabi, the head trainer of UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and leader of the Tristar Gym in Montreal.
Since the two joined forces and Torres started making regular trips to La Belle Province, a completely different fighter has emerged, both in terms of his approach inside the Octagon and his mindset outside of the cage. The 30-year-old from East Chicago, Indiana says he’s been transformed under Zahabi, improving his skills and changing the way he views the sport as a whole.
“When I first met Firas, within the first ten minutes, he told me exactly what my problem was. He’s like, `You look like the kind of guy that is trying to take care of too many people and not taking care of yourself.’ We trained for about two hours, and I knew just from training with him and listening to the things that he had to say that he was the guy that was going to bring me back to where I have to be.
“The biggest thing with Firas is that he assesses your strengths and weaknesses, and he tries to make you level in all areas. For me, my biggest weaknesses were my wrestling and my striking. My striking was very aggressive, but very sloppy. There was no style, no technique; it was all aggression. My wrestling was non-existent.
“[The other thing is that] I’m not trying to impress anybody when I go out there, I’m not trying to be a showman anymore. I’m trying to be the best fighter I can be; be the smartest fighter I can be, and stay safe.
“It’s the business that I’m in; I’m in the business of fighting. Before, I used to look at fighting as this passionate thing, I would go out there and just try to impress everybody, make everybody happy. If you run your business that way, what happens? You’re gonna go broke, you’re gonna go bankrupt, and that’s what happened to me.”
Torres says he was in a strange place mentally after losing the bantamweight belt to Brian Bowles at WEC 42. After having surrounded himself with friends and family, and trusting everyone in his inner circle without question, he did a complete 180 and pushed everyone away, isolating himself in advance of the fight with Benavidez.
“I fought Benavidez and lost that fight, and that put me in line to make a big change in my life.” He’s been working with Zahabi ever since, and their time together has already started to pay dividends.
Torres enters his meeting with Demetrious Johnson at UFC 130 on a two-fight winning streak, having put together back-to-back nearly flawless performances against former WEC veterans Charlie Valencia and Antonio Banuelos. While Torres admits that sticking to the stringent game plans he puts together with Zahabi before each fight goes against his basic instincts and previous inclinations in the cage, he sees the results in the cage and likes walking away from his fights without any bumps and bruises.
“We put together a good game plan for Valencia. I went out there and it was one of the only fights where I went out there, without submitting a guy really fast, where I stood with a guy for a round-and-a-half and didn’t really get touched. I think I got hit one time, maybe once or twice in that fight. I had no marks on my body, my hands weren’t messed up, my face was clean. I was training that Monday when I got back.
“The next training camp to fight Banuelos, same thing. We had a real good game plan again, and during the fight, I felt it, you know, because Valencia came in and he was trying to close that distance, and I was able to hit him with some good shot and get into some good scrambles, but Banuelos wouldn’t do that.
“I wanted to chase him so bad because I knew he was hurt, but I know that when you chase a smaller guy, from previous experience and from training with Firas, that’s how you get in trouble. You open yourself up for getting taken down, and you open yourself up to getting caught with big overhand punches. I had to fight the instincts, hearing the boos and knowing that he was hurt and not running after him and making it a crazy fight; I had to stick to the game plan.”
After being a beloved fan favorite during his WEC days, Torres doesn’t feel any pangs of regret for switching his approach and drawing the ire of fans and critics in the process. It all goes back to his new business-oriented approach to fighting, and doing what is best for his family.
“I know it’s better to win than lose, and it’s better to win a fight where you’re sticking to the game plan, than lose a really exciting fight. Unless you’re a fighter and you’ve been on both sides of the fence, you won’t understand that.
“A lot of fans gave me a lot of criticism for that, but I have a family to feed. I have a daughter that I love very much; I’m trying to take care of her to the best way I can, and the best way to do that is to be champion. To be champion, you have to win fights.”
Torres is looking to add another win to his resume Saturday night against Johnson, who was moved into the space opposite Torres from a fight with Brazilian bantamweight Renan Barao when Brad Pickett was forced off the card with an injury.
While he has almost always held a height and reach advantage over his opponents throughout his career, the difference on Saturday night will be even more significant as Johnson stands 5’3″ tall, seven inches shorter than Torres.
That height difference, and the accompanying reach advantage it brings factor directly into the game plan once again, and whether or not Johnson chooses to close the distance between them could be what determines the outcome of the fight. Torres believes as much, and feels confident about what he’ll be able to do in his second trip to the UFC Octagon.
“When I have that much reach advantage on somebody, it could be a good thing or a bad thing. If I go out there and I just stand really tall and I punch down, I expose my chin. That was one of the biggest mistakes I used to make; I’d stand real tall and real square.
“Now I take more of a Mayweather stance; I stand sideways and I don’t give up much to get hit. I take a way a lot, so guys have to try and land a big shot all the time. I can maintain that reach, and I keep my chin away more, plus I lowered my stance so I don’t get hit in my chin.
“It forces him to have to come in; he has to get around that reach. He has to bob and weave and get in, and when he does that, he’s going to expose himself. There is no way around it; he’s going to have to come in. He has to, or else he’s going to have the same fate as everybody else.”
After working with Zahabi to clean up his technique, the multi-talented Torres points to an underused fundamental as the key to his offense in the cage.
“The biggest weapon that I use in my jab, but it sets up so many other strikes. It makes sense. I’m extremely tall for the weight class, I have a long reach, and I have a good jab. If I can keep them away with my left hand, make them have to commit to try to come inside, they’re going to get caught. I’m going to catch them with something. And if he doesn’t come in, and he stays on the outside, it isn’t my fault. If he doesn’t want to make the fight happen, that’s on him. It sucks, you know, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.”
A fun-loving character outside of the cage, Torres has maintained his charismatic personality and demeanor during his recent fighting transformation, but a new level of maturity and focus on doing things a specific way — the right way, the Zahabi way — is readily apparent, especially when he discussing going from headlining WEC shows to fighting early on a UFC card.
While some fighters would feel slighted or use the pseudo-demotion as motivation, Torres takes a different outlook on his place on the UFC 130 fight card.
“I love it, man. I think I’m the fourth fight. I love it. I’m going to go to the fights, I’m gonna fight, be out, it’s gonna be early. I’m not even gonna stay; I’m gonna go out and enjoy myself.
“Before, you fight the last fight, you’ve gotta stay for the press conference, I’m not outta there until one o’clock in the morning. If you have to go to the hospital, you get cut, you get hurt, that takes another four hours. By that time, my friends are already out, everyone is scattered all over the place. Who’s going to wait around for me?”
As comical as his approach to fighting on the Spike TV Prelims Live portion of UFC 130 seems, Torres is completely serious when he says his sole focus is to continue getting better, prolonging his career, and providing for his family. Even getting a chance to fight for the UFC bantamweight belt is secondary now.
“Every time I [go to Montreal], I learn something new and improve areas of my game. The more time I get to spend there, the tougher I’m going to be, and the more dangerous I’m going to be in the cage.
“For me, there is absolutely no rush. I have to keep my mind focused on what the goal is, and that’s longevity, [staying healthy], fighting very smart fights and being safe, and taking care of my family.
“I could get a title shot tomorrow or I could get it two years from now, I’m not in a rush. I’m not going to go anywhere. I’m going to be here for a long time.”
The original Torres may be an ancient memory, but it sounds like Version 2.0 is here to stay.
As good as he’s looked thus far, that sounds like bad news for the rest of the UFC bantamweight division.
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