No fight fan is in any danger of confusing Miguel Torres
for Muhammad Ali. One's a skinny bantamweight MMA fighter with a mullet, and the other is Muhammad Ali. But even though they might be separated by a few decades and many, many pounds, both owe the genesis of their fight careers to a specific type of childhood anguish: the stolen bike.
Torres' bike had been a gift from his uncle. It wasn't exactly top of the line, but it had the word 'Ambush' written across the side, which was undeniably cool for reasons Torres couldn't quite explain. He'd made it even cooler by covering much of the bike in duct tape.
"You know, so it was camouflaged," he says.
One Friday afternoon he rode his bike down to a local shrimp joint to get a basket of french fries to split with his friends, but the proprietor wouldn't let him bring his bike inside. Torres didn't have a lock, so he left it just outside, where he could see the front tire through the window.
"But this was when [arcade game] Mortal Kombat
first came out," he says with a sigh. "I came in for the food, but all I heard was 'Finish him!'"
You know where this is going. Torres had some change in his pocket, and what kid in the early 90s could resist the magnetic pull of a good video game -- especially Mortal Kombat
? Torres tried to keep an eye on that bike tire through the window, but he got absorbed in the game, taking on one challenger after another. When he glanced over his shoulder at the end of it all, no more bike.
"It was the first time I'd ever had anything stolen from me," he says. "I was crushed. I ran around the whole block screaming, 'Where's my bike!?'"
When that didn't yield the result he was hoping for, Torres went home to "lift weights." And by weights, he means bricks. It was the closest thing he could find to a weight set in his neighborhood, and all he knew was that he needed to get stronger if he was going to be ready when he finally came face to face with the bike thief. He also convinced his parents to let him take some Taekwondo lessons, "until I found out it was all bulls--t."
He'd go to school and his friends on the wrestling team would taunt him, calling him 'karate boy' and challenging him to show them his stuff.
"Then they'd take me down and get me in just the worst holds you can imagine. It sucked."
But little by little, Torres was learning different art forms from whatever sources he could find. A little taekwondo here, some wrestling there, even a trip to a local boxing gym where they sparred on bare feet on a concrete floor. During one such session Torres so angered an older sparring partner with his frantic Jeff Speakman routine that the man threw off his gloves and double-legged him onto the concrete floor before choking the teenage Torres with his own t-shirt.
Afterward, "the guy told me, 'That's jiu-jitsu.' I was like, I have to learn that."
Somewhere along the way Torres became a martial arts junkie. He read all the books, held himself to a rigid diet he didn't fully understand, took challenge matches wherever he could find them. All that was left was to find a real fight, a pro fight, something that would test him. This is where Finke's came in.
If you look at Torres' record, it'll tell you that his first fight was against Larry Pulliam at Finke's Full Contact Challenge in March of 2000. That sounds pretty official, at least until you realize that Finke's was the name of a local bar in Highland, Indiana, and the "Full Contact Challenge" was more or less a gimmick to try and drum up a crowd for those slow Monday nights.
"I had this idea about how it would be, but I walked in that bar and it was almost empty. It was just these shady characters -- bikers, gang-bangers. They gave me this form to fill out, and it was basically a cheap contract saying I wouldn't sue if I got hurt or killed. After that, it was: real name, stage name, height, weight, and age. That was it. There was no scale to check your weight. No athletic commission. You could wrap your hands if you wanted or you could not wrap your hands. All they checked was mouthpiece and cup."
Even that requirement proved difficult for some of the fighters. Some of them had brought boil-and-bite mouthpieces -- the cheap ones that you can form to your teeth after a quick dunk in hot water -- but they hadn't even bothered to take them out of the package before fight night. Maybe it was just as well, because they ended up passing the mouthpieces back and forth, among other things.
"There were guys literally saying, 'Hey, if you let me use your mouthpiece, I'll let you use my cup,'" Torres says. "And they'd be there after the fights swapping mouthpieces and cups. Guys who weren't even wearing jockstraps were just shoving someone else's cup in their shorts."
As Torres was warming up backstage, one of his coaches stretched him out while attempting to impart various Eastern philosophies. Ebb and flow. Yin and yang. That sort of stuff. His boxing coach had different advice, and it involved "[expletive]ing this guy up" and then befriending the strippers who'd been hired to serve as ring girls. Only maybe it wasn't quite so delicately put.
"That was the last thing I heard before I went in there. And in my mind I had this idea of what a fight should be, just this war. I had images of me hitting him and him hurting me and me getting cut and bleeding, but coming back and winning the fight. Like a Rocky movie or a kung fu movie. I thought the whole 15-minute fight would be like that. I was thinking of all the Bruce Lee books I'd read, The Art of War
. All that."
Instead what happened was that Pulliam came forward, was backed off by a Torres head kick attempt -- "the worst kick you can imagine," he says -- and then came forward again, straight into a Torres left hook. That was all it took. Pulliam went down, attempted to get back to his feet, then collapsed again. The ref had no choice but to stop it.
"I looked at my corner like, that's it?" Torres says. "I didn't want to get out of the ring. I was so upset. I wanted to fight again."
The crowd loved it. So did his coaches. But Torres left the ring with a disappointed feeling in the pit of his stomach. That disappointment continued when Finke's employees explained that, while he was old enough to fight in their establishment, he wasn't old enough to drink there.
"I thought at least I'd get to hang out in the bar. But no, they kicked me out because I was underage. They were all hanging out, drinking with the strippers, but I was outside in the car eating McDonald's."
Torres stayed there waiting for his coaches to return for, by his estimation, "about four hours." Not exactly the victory party you imagine for yourself after your first professional win, but Torres was already hooked. Even though 'MMA fighter' wasn't much of an actual job description in the spring of 2000, Torres "knew right away that this was what I wanted to do."
He'd go on to fight many more bouts at Finke's while trying to keep it a secret from his family, but word spread about the skinny Mexican kid who never lost a bout. Not long after, Torres' father was injured by a crane at a construction site where he was working. When Torres went to see him in the hospital one day he found that his father had had a visit from a work friend who told him all about seeing his son fight down at the sports bar. The secret was out.
"So I told him all about it," Torres says. "He said, 'How much are they paying you?' I was like, I don't fight for money. I fight for the art, for respect. I was an idealist. And my dad, from his hospital bed, he reached out and smacked me on the back of the neck."
Torres' father's friend had told him all about how the guys from the construction crew loved these fight nights, how they paid $25 a head to get in, how the young Torres was quickly becoming a major draw.
"My dad said, 'You've got to get paid. This guy's making money off you, and you're the one getting hurt.' So I went back and talked to the promoter and told him I wanted to start getting paid."
And he did. For his next fight, Torres made the princely sum of $100. It was enough to fill his Camaro up with gas and still have enough to take a girl out on a date. Plus, it was money he'd earned with his art, his skills. It was perfect. It was everything he thought he needed at the time, and it was just the beginning.Check out past installments of My First Fight, featuring "Mayhem" Miller, Rashad Evans, and more.