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.