Stakes High for Torres in UFC Debut

By Todd Martin Feb 5, 2011
Miguel Torres (right) faces high stakes at UFC 126. | Dave Mandel/

For years, Miguel Torres led a life strangely defined by dominance and anonymity. Inside the cage, he ran up dozens upon dozens of wins against only one -- later avenged -- loss. But those wins came at a time when lighter weight fighters struggled to capture the public’s imagination. Many of Torres’ victories remain unchronicled to this day, and his known triumphs took place almost exclusively in low-profile shows in the Midwest. Torres had a feared reputation but lacked the proper stage to showcase his skills.

That changed with Zuffa’s purchase of World Extreme Cagefighting. The WEC became the promotion for lighter weight North American fighters, and Torres had the venue to become a star. Torres won the WEC bantamweight title in his second bout for the promotion and defended it successfully on three occasions. Torres’ name was a mainstay in pound-for-pound lists, and his classic bout with Takeya Mizugaki drew more than 5,000 fans in Chicago.

With fame arrived a new set of challenges. Opponents once knew little about Torres’ tendencies. Now, they were studying his game for weaknesses and devoting training camps to tackle his particular style. Torres’ anonymity vanished, but so, too, did his dominance. Torres dropped consecutive bouts via knockout to Brian Bowles and submission to Joseph Benavidez.

Following the first back-to-back losses of his over decade long career, Torres decided to make major changes. He turned to Firas Zahabi, the renowned trainer of UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. Torres traveled to Montreal’s Tristar Gym to prepare for his next fight. He defeated Charlie Valencia in the second round of WEC 51 and picked up the “Submission of the Night” bonus.

To prepare for his UFC debut against Antonio Banuelos at UFC 126 on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas , Torres returned to Zahabi for a full three-month training camp. The longer-than-usual camp was intended to quickly build on the adjustments and additions made to Torres’ game in preparation for the September bout with Valencia. It also allowed Torres to keep a tight focus on MMA rather than the trappings that come with fame and success.

“I think he was focused on too many things,” Zahabi says of Torres’ recent past. “The lifestyle of a champion can be distracting. In Montreal, it’s secluded. Distractions are kept to a minimum. When you have distractions, it kills performance.”

Torres’ performance will be under greater scrutiny than ever before as he moves to MMA’s biggest stage. As WEC champion, he fought in front of large crowds and in high-profile fights. That will help him as he makes the adjustment to a new organization. Still, there was never the scrutiny that comes from competing at a major UFC event. A victory over Banuelos and Torres could find himself challenging for the UFC bantamweight title or even coaching on “The Ultimate Fighter.”

With the stakes so high for Torres, Zahabi raves about the fighter’s preparation and ability.

“He has been training relentlessly,” Zahabi says. “It was a long, hard training camp and I feel like he’s very prepared. I believe that the old Miguel would have beaten Banuelos. The new Miguel should have a good time on Saturday night. It should be a good fight. I’m very confident Miguel will assume the dominant position on the ground and have the upper hand in the striking.”

Banuelos, a longtime friend and training partner of UFC hall of famer Chuck Liddell, has a lot in common with Torres. They have both been fighting professionally since a young age, and Banuelos was one of the WEC’s top bantamweight fighters back when the promotion still ran in Lemoore, Calif., well before Torres joined up. There will be no intimidation on the part of either MMA veteran. Banuelos is less submission oriented than Torres but utilizes a similar mixture of striking and wrestling.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between Banuelos and Torres lies not in their common MMA past or their similar abilities but in their penchant for exciting fights. Either Torres or Banuelos could serve as a poster child for the all-action reputation of WEC lighter weight fights. That reputation netted Torres and Banuelos the first bantamweight or featherweight pay-per-view main card bout in UFC history. At the biggest UFC event of the early 2011 calendar, they will have the opportunity to steal the show from the likes of Anderson Silva, Forrest Griffin and Jon Jones.

Banuelos has fought in enough high-profile fights over the years for the Torres camp to formulate a carefully tailored gameplan. Banuelos has won four of his last five fights, but Zahabi sees vulnerabilities in his game.

“You’ve got to attack his weakness,” Zahabi says. “He’s a very circular-style puncher, and he likes to throw bombs. He’s not very good with double-leg shooting but can close the distance and is good in the clinch. He’s resilient in the submission game and adept at avoiding attacks on the ground. He’s not a slick jiu-jitsu guy but knows what’s going on.”

With the challenge outlined, it falls on Torres to back up the hype and pull out the win. Just like a few years ago when he debuted for WEC, he has the opportunity to win over a new base of fans. This time, his opponents are going to be more than ready for him. But the hope is he, too, will enter with a heretofore unmatched level of skill and preparation. The stakes have never been higher.
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