Sherdog’s Miscellaneous Awards for 2008

Breakthrough Fighter of the Year

Jan 10, 2009
Photo by Sherdog.com

Torres exploded in 2008.
Sherdog’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year
By Jordan Breen

Not long ago, many fans questioned whether or not the lightweight division belonged in mixed martial arts. In wake of the first fantastic fight between Jens Pulver and B.J. Penn in 2002, many opined that lightweights could never sell in the sport. While this absurd idea eroded over time, the notion of the slighter end of the scale as second class has continued to permeate this still-nascent sport.

While the sterling Pride “Bushido” series and the UFC’s well-timed reintroduction of the 155-pounders gave the sport’s lightweights their rightful place in the sun, the even smaller weights of MMA were mocked, if they were given any attention at all. Nevermind the significance of these divisions within the boxing world; the thought persisted that there was no place for fighters outweighed by middle schoolers.

Despite the advocacy of hardcore fans who lauded Shooto champions of yesteryear, these weight divisions did not take off until UFC parent company Zuffa LLC acquired World Extreme Cagefighting and used the promotion to push the featherweight and bantamweight classes. Backed by Zuffa’s visibility and veneer, the lighter weight classes were finally ready for mass MMA consumption.

The featherweight division was an easy sell, because it had a star in the making with WEC champion Urijah Faber. In order to gain legitimacy and parity, the bantamweights also needed a king, a royal role that was filled flawlessly by Miguel Torres -- Sherdog’s Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.

The 27-year-old Torres was no stranger to diehard followers of MMA’s slighter fighters. For years, he had ripped up marginal competition in the Midwest. Despite a gaudy record and readily apparent skills, Torres fought almost exclusively in Illinois and Indiana, and though he was part of the Shooto system, he never made the trek across the ocean to fight the sport’s more established bantamweights. The unfortunate reality was that with no major money promoters pushing the division, it was more lucrative for Torres to stay stateside and fight in front of crowds of 3,000 in Hammond, Ind.

When Zuffa summoned Torres in late 2007, it was an opportunity for which he and MMA fans who had eagerly awaited his arrival in a major promotion had waited. When Torres made his WEC debut that September, smoothly submitting Jeff Bedard in the first round, it earned him a bantamweight title shot that would set the stage for an historic breakthrough in the year to come.

WEC 32 was a well-crafted card featuring three championships bouts. Despite the full trio of title fights, it was promoted around hometown boy Carlos Condit -- who was making his Albuquerque, N.M., homecoming -- and promotionally preferred poster boy of the moment, “Razor” Rob McCullough. However, for the ardent hardcore fans who had eagerly awaited a day in which Torres would escape his Midwestern enclave and face the bantamweight best, the significance of his bout with then champion Chase Beebe was well-appreciated, with or without the spotlight.

It took Torres less than four minutes to dispatch Beebe, as he forced him to surrender to a nasty guillotine that would have made Marcio “Cromado” Barbosa smile. While the stellar victory earned him the WEC bantamweight crown, the true moment of emergence for the East Chicago, Ind., native came four months later, as Zuffa threw its promotional weight behind Faber’s featherweight title defense against Pulver and crafted the biggest 145-pound fight in the sport’s history. However, that evening in Sacramento, Calif., also gave MMA its biggest bantamweight bout.

Torres staked his title against former featherweight King of Pancrase Yoshiro Maeda, who stepped in for an injured Manny Tapia on short notice. The two proved perfect foils for one another, as they waged an up-and-down war that offered seesaw action all over the cage until Torres halted Maeda at the end of the third round after breaking his right orbital bone. The “Fight of the Year” candidate was an example of the brand of action inherent to the bantamweight division. Embedded in the WEC’s grandest event to date, it won over the hearts and minds of the previously skeptical and ignorant alike and signaled a long overdue change for the sport.

When Torres finally met Tapia six months later, he crystallized his case as a pound-for-pound talent, as he mastered the previously unbeaten Californian en route to a second-round stoppage that put an exclamation mark on the most sensational 12 months of his eight-year career. Now, even those who could only squint and scratch their heads at the mention of Ryota Matsune or Akitoshi Hokazono were well aware of Torres and the 135-pound division.

To be sure, Torres was not the only mixed martial artist who enjoyed a breakthrough 2008 campaign. Fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Thiago Alves and Gegard Mousasi all took their games to new levels, emerging as elite competitors in their respective divisions. However, despite their sterling accomplishments, Alvarez, Alves and Mousasi were already tabbed as young, gifted prospects that were expected to blossom into bona fide contenders. While Torres was already a top 10 bantamweight, last year saw him prove himself as the division’s king while ascending to pound-for-pound status.

However, what truly set apart Torres from the pack was that he single-handedly authenticated and popularized the bantamweight division. The unanimous acceptance of the 135-pound class and the fervor and excitement now surrounding it can be primarily attributed to the in-cage brilliance of one mulleted man. Torres not only surged from unjust anonymity to universal acclaim but also vividly illustrated the kinetic dynamism and frenetic excitement of a weight class that for years was stifled and ignored.

As 2009 begins, MMA fans can already look forward to the upcoming showdown between Torres and undefeated Brian Bowles. However, it is but one of many marquee bantamweight bouts to come now that Torres has taken the division to the big time.
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