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I thought I would be writing about the death of the World Series of Fighting in this space, its forthcoming “Professional Fighters League” rebirth notwithstanding. Instead, with the retirement of former World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champion Miguel Torres, I'm writing about a professional fighter who just happened to die in the World Series of Fighting.
Yes, I know Torres fought six more times after his release from the WSOF in 2013, and in fact, he went 4-2 in that span and even got to close out his career in something resembling his trademark style. Even faded and on the brink of retirement, the sub-lightweight trailblazer hit a slick guillotine on Lloyd Carter in front of a partisan crowd in Hammond, Indiana, the city that Torres put on the MMA map. Nonetheless, it has been five years since Torres has been a serious player in the sport, and while it's appropriate and spiriting he went out on his own terms with a win in his own backyard, the WSOF marks the last time Torres' name rang out in the MMA world; to put it bluntly, it was the last time people cared.
I suppose there is a “circle of life” dynamic to the end of Torres' career. It was his guillotine choke loss to Pablo Alfonso that ended his WSOF tenure, but the company's first event featured Torres losing a split decision -- a fight in which he did not deserve a scorecard -- to Marlon Moraes, who went on to make a nifty amount of money in the promotion, won its bantamweight title and has now parlayed that into a UFC contract.
However, even if part of prizefighting is young cats killing the old lions, Torres is more than a stopgap torchbearer who passed on the flame. He should be remembered for more than how fawning and obsessive Frank Mir was about him in the WEC commentary booth. He should be more than the best MMA fighter to sport a mullet other than Vitor Belfort.
There's even a cruel, forgotten irony bound up in the idea of Torres' role in MMA history being a mere torch passer. With all due respect to Moraes, a legitimate top-five bantamweight, he is not a legend, not a pound-for-pound great. You know who is? Demetrious Johnson; and Torres lost to him back at UFC 130 in May 2011 -- according to the official record, at least.
I won't act as though nobody scored Johnson-Torres for the then-bantamweight "Mighty Mouse," since all three official judges did, but check out MMADecisions.com's list of media scores for the fight: They all had it for Torres, and I gave him all three rounds. Torres was taken down repeatedly, of course, but his kicks on the feet were the best strikes of the fight, he had infinitely better offensive grappling and constantly sought submissions in every position.
If that's too anecdotal and subjective for you and you prefer hard data, look at the bout's FightMetric report. Torres landed 95 total strikes to Johnson's 63. How? He outstruck him off of his back, even when Johnson was on top. Despite the length of time DJ spent in top position, Torres is credited with five guard passes to his three, plus Torres swept him twice. Numbers don't tell the whole story of a fight, but this is one case where the data cuts to the heart of the matter.
If you consider the truly enthusing evolution and development of MMA judging the last few years and the contemporary willingness to see an active guard player as a round winner, I think this is a fight judges would have given to Torres if it happened today. Instead, it served as Johnson's breakout win and put him into a UFC title fight with Dominick Cruz. It's funny, in a mouthful of blood sort of way, that Torres, in his greatest torch passing, actually should've had his hand raised against a man who would go on to become the greatest fighter he ever fought and one of the greatest of all-time.
Some don't even give Torres that much credit, preferring to see him as a mere product of an embryonic division, a fighter who was a product of his time and usurped the minute a higher caliber of athlete and martial artist emerged at 135 pounds. However, the fighters who began racking up wins over him seven years ago were damn good fighters.
As stated, Johnson is already an MMA legend; Joseph Benavidez, even if he's haunted by his repeated title fight failures, is still at the very worst one of the five best fighters ever below 145 pounds; Moraes may soon be a UFC title challenger; Michael McDonald is still a fantastic 135-pounder who has been besieged by injuries; and who knows how good Brian Bowles might have been if not for injuries and of course his becoming a methamphetamine addict. It's not as though Torres started getting clobbered by journeymen the minute the summer of 2009 rolled around.
It is also myopic, maybe even outright hypocritical, to depict Torres as a product of a lesser time without acknowledging the full extent of what that time was like. Torres started his pro career at 18 years old in March 2000, five months before the state of New Jersey become the first state to regulate MMA. At this point, the UFC didn't have a 185-pound or a 155-pound title, never mind one for the bantamweights. He fought whoever showed up at a ramshackle Indiana bar or barn, sometimes men who, given Torres' incredibly skinny build and age at the time, were almost literally twice his size.
He won his first 20 fights. After he lost to Ryan Ackerman, he won his next 17 fights. Torres fought 53 times in his career, never mind the toll of training, which he explicitly mentioned in his retirement post on Facebook.
“Can no longer do it the way I have been. To not do it the right way or to fight small battles in the middle of training camps leads to ugly situations in the cage. It breaks my heart to write this but I officially announce my retirement from mixed martial arts,” he wrote.
Being a “product of his time” means that Torres fought in a Wild West era and with alarming frequency, and he did it for 17 years after beginning as a teenager. If you want to cast the man's career in that light, it's impossible to separate the physical toll Torres exposed himself to, repeatedly, long before he ever ruled the bantamweight division.
Today, Zuffa's purchase of the WEC is seen as a historically shrewd move, grabbing a promotion, its contracts, its television deal and using it to build up fighters who would inevitably one day jump to the UFC and flesh out their divisions. The WEC purchase is the act that, in the hypothetical MMA history textbook, brought featherweight and bantamweight to the masses, along with the flyweight division, given how many WEC notables would go on to populate it when the UFC opened its 125-pound class.
I think this is a fair assessment, but it never would have worked without fighters like Torres, whose thrilling style captured the attention and converted the opinions of the sort of MMA fans who were totally OK with the UFC's decision to temporarily close its lightweight division in 2004 -- for a year and a half -- because, after all, who wants to watch 155-pound men fight?
I say this a lot in these columns, but yes, people did actually think these things at the time.
Torres' fights with Yoshiro Maeda and Takeya Mizugaki are still classics, worth a full watch any time they pop up on cable or online. In fact, they would've likely been unanimous “Fight of the Year” selections in 2008 and 2009, if not for the insane Eddie Alvarez-Tatsuya Kawajiri brawl in '08, followed by one of the very, very best MMA bouts ever -- Benson Henderson-Donald Cerrone 1 -- the next year. Yet, for whatever reason, the MMA world seems more keen on canonizing Don Frye-Yoshihiro Takayama.
Torres' UFC career ended after his infamous and genuinely awful “rape van” tweet. Meanwhile, Forrest Griffin got off scot-free months earlier for his “Rape is the new missionary” tweet, while Rashad Evans merely had to apologize privately to UFC President Dana White when he made a joke about Jerry Sandusky's sexual assaults at Phil Davis' alma mater. Griffin and Evans were UFC champions and draws, of course. Torres only had that measly WEC trinket. In 2017, we repeatedly see the UFC's uneven enforcement of punishment for antisocial behavior and even legitimate criminal acts. I suppose Torres is a trailblazer in another sad way, as well.
Almost eight years removed from his reign atop the bantamweight division, it is undeniable that there is a huge population of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed MMA diehards who have never even seen a Torres fight. Sure, some may go back and watch on UFC Fight Pass, but that's a particular breed of fanatic. Most will form an opinion on Torres based on popular MMA mythos, their interpretation of his record while cruising the FightFinder and how he is referenced and talked about by journalists, fighters, promoters. The folklore surrounding Torres should not be that he was at the right time at the right place. This frail-looking dynamo fought his ass off for less than peanuts in absolute anonymity until his time came. He wound the clock; he burnt the trail.
Yes, Torres ultimately did pass the torch to better fighters, and yes, he was a product of a certain moment in MMA history. He is also the one that, alongside Urijah Faber, lit the fuse for an entire weight range and helped build a division from next to nothing in North America. He helped author and won two legitimate classic MMA bouts that stand the test of time. He was reckless, he was thrilling and he was a truly great fighter.
Miguel Torres was just not some beneficiary of circumstance or a bridge to a better, more skilled era of this sport. He overcame circumstance. He built the bridge.