The past several months have been filled with retirements of some of the biggest stars and most enduring and influential figures in MMA history names like Dan Henderson, Ronda Rousey, Urijah Faber, Miesha Tate. More, recently we’ve seen the end of fighters of some name value that won't be remembered as all-time greats, like Anthony Johnson, Patrick Cote, Brad Pickett, and this past week, Miguel Torres.
Faber is being inducted this summer into the UFC Hall of Fame. It's a lock that Henderson, Rousey, and probably Tate will all be there soon enough.
Torres never will. But what's been long forgotten is there was a short time when he was considered in the argument for best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport as the first true star bantamweight fighter in the U.S.
Torres had a 32-1 record in listed pro fights when he showed up in World Extreme Cagefighting in 2007. There were always claims of a dozen or more wins in obscure shows not listed on his record, which wasn't unusual for fighters in that era. There were all kinds of unsanctioned shows in places like nightclubs where nobody kept records. Torres combined a great submission game, particularly off his back, with a long reach — 76 inches — while competing mostly in the bantamweight division.
But in those days, lighter weight classes weren't in vogue. So he often fought as a featherweight and lightweight, giving up size, Even with those limitations, he had only one loss, up a weight class, that he later avenged. He had six knockouts and 20 submissions, and his ground game was one of the slickest in the sport.
The WEC had been a small organization mostly running at a Native American casino in Lemoore, Calif., when the UFC purchased the company, largely to head off competition. UFC had established MMA as a sport that could draw strong television ratings in 2005, and by late 2006 the company was exploding in popularity. Versus, now called the NBC Sports Network, was looking to get into the MMA game and was in talks with the International Fight League, which looked to be UFC's main competition at the time.
UFC was looking to head off that group getting on a television station that was willing to pay for MMA content, but the company had an exclusive deal with Spike TV. So they purchased a company to be able to get around that clause and get the Versus deal.
Rather than be a weaker carbon-copy of UFC, matchmaker Joe Silva pushed that WEC should be a different product, built around smaller and faster fighters, including featherweights and bantamweights — divisions UFC didn't have.
The idea was for those divisions to have the legitimate world champions, although Japan also had regular competition in those weight classes, so there was always a question as to whether or not the WEC champions were the best.
Torres, with his gaudy record and the backing of his coach — the famed Carlson Gracie, who claimed nobody could beat Torres at bantamweight — came in with plenty of fanfare when he submitted Jeff Bedard in 2:30 on Sept. 5, 2007, in his WEC debut.
Torres was given a championship fight with Chase Beebe on Feb. 13, 2008, in Rio Rancho, N.M. When he won that fight in 3:59 with a guillotine, he became one of the two big stars of the company, along with Faber, who was dominating the featherweight division.
While Faber vs. Jens Pulver on June 1, 2008, at the old Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif., was the fight that really put the WEC on the map in a big way, many considered Torres' title defense over Yoshiro Maeda as the highlight of that show.
Torres was almost universally considered the best in the division, and with a record that ranged anywhere from 35-1 to somewhere around 50-1, he found himself in arguments with names like Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko as the top fighter in the sport.
It felt like a Faber vs. Torres showdown was inevitable, and had it taken place next, it would have been one of the biggest fights of the era. Faber was the bigger star, but the consensus was that Torres was the more talented fighter, even if history makes that statement feel obsolete. But at the time, the two were spoken of in the same company. Years later, though, Faber is viewed as an all-time great and pioneer of the smaller weight classes, while Torres has been largely forgotten historically.
The fight never happened. Faber dropped his title to Mike Brown in his next fight, and the interest was in Faber getting the title back, as opposed to ending up like he did years later as a bantamweight, and challenging Torres.
Torres got two more title defenses in, most notably a thrilling decision win over Takeya Mizugaki in Chicago that became the source of inside comedy. The fight took place on April 5, 2009, and at the time, was widely considered the best fight up to that point of the year. Many had the fight going down to the wire, with Torres pulling it out in the fifth round, although two of the judges had Torres up 48-46 going into the final round. The joke was that, at no point in the close fight, did the announcers even indicate it was close or that the title could be in jeopardy. Frank Mir, who was announcing the fight, for years would be the brunt of jokes about calling Torres dominating a fight that was actually quite close.
The fight showed Torres' vulnerability. Mizugaki outstruck Torres in rounds one and three. But Torres had prevailed in another classic fight and his stock was never higher.
He was outstriking Brian Bowles in his next fight, but got caught with a counter and knocked out in a major upset. At the time, it was considered the equivalent to when Matt Serra knocked out St-Pierre — one of those things that happens, but people had seen Torres look so good for so long, that it was figured he'd come back to take the title back.
But the division's hierarchy was changing. With featherweights and bantamweights featured on television regularly, more and more talent flocked to the division, rather than try to get into the UFC as undersized lightweights. Younger and faster fighters, as well as better athletes from more modern training camps started breaking into the division. Joseph Benavidez submitted Torres in his next fight. Bowles then lost his title to Dominick Cruz, who was the champion when the division moved to the UFC in 2011.
Torres moved to UFC with it, and was still one of its top contenders. But after losses to Demetrious Johnson and Michael McDonald, as well as tweeting a rape joke — which got him into hot water with the UFC brass and briefly costed him his job — the losses got him bounced from the UFC.
He was expected to be the biggest star in the new World Series of Fighting in 2012, but after losing two more fights — notably to Marlon Moraes, who went on to become longtime WSOF bantamweight champ — he faded to smaller shows where he went 4-6 over the past three years.
Was Torres not as good as the hype from his heyday?
None of the fighters that he beat prior to WEC ever made it in the big leagues. While his striking was flashy, leading to some of the more exciting fights of the era, it was also undisciplined and he was hit often, which likely wore down his chin. His submission game was spectacular against the talent that was around from 2000-10, so his weak takedown defense didn't work against him. But the game changed and that weakness was exploited against more modern fighters like Johnson and Benavidez.
Bantamweight is also a speed division, and age and injuries messed with that. He also seemed to spiral downward after the Bowles knockout and was never the same fighter. In a retirement message sent Wednesday, he talked about being overworked from running a training academy while at the same time fighting through constant pain and injuries. He noted frustration with being unable to train the way he needed to in order to be the fighter he once was. He noted frustration from rising from nowhere to the top, and then quickly falling back to where he started, using the term "bittersweet" to describe his career.