Miguel Angel Torres is a polarizing figure.
Some claim his name should be mentioned when discussing the top bantamweights in the world. Other say his record is built on cans and nobodies.
There are those who think his Twitter account is pure shtick (and bad one at that) and grow tired of his humor. His proponents think his personality is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise boring, milquetoast -- or safe -- talent pool that is MMA.
All that can be debated.
What cannot be debated is that from 2008-2009, the former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) 135-pound champion engaged in two fights that ended up on ballot cards in each of those Decembers under the "Fight of the Year" category.
Torres takes on Demetrious Johnson at UFC 130: "Rampage vs. Hamill" on May 28, 2011, so we'll take a look back on those two bouts and remind ourselves that fighters don't always have to be the best to put on the best fights.
Yesterday we discussed his title defense against Yoshiro Maeda. Today, we'll dive into his five-round war with Takeya Mizugaki.
Having dispatched of Maeda, Torres turned his attention to fellow Mexican-American Manny Tapia. They headlined WEC 37: "Torres vs. Tapia" in a fight that Torres would win in the second round.
Tapia was an undefeated King of the Cage veteran and had two WEC wins under his belt when he challenged Torres. The next bantamweight title challenger, Brian Bowles, was also undefeated but had racked up four impressive wins in the WEC.
Bowles was the obvious challenger to Torres' throne but a back injury forced the challenger off the card with a little over a month warning.
As opposed to forcing a young, green fighter who wasn't ready for such a huge fight -- a tactic that seems all the rage in MMA nowadays -- the WEC did something almost unheard of: they went outside the country and signed a top five fighter to come in and immediately challenge for the title.
Takeya Mizugaki was a veteran of Shooto and a 135-pound champion in Greatest Common Multiple (GCM). He also had a strong stand-up acumen, ending four of his fights with the power in his hands.
So what we had was a main event -- a title fight, no less -- that was put together on a month's notice involving a challenger who had never fought for the promotion, or even in the United States, before.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Instead, we got a "Fight of the Year" contender.
Let's take a look.
Torres is only slightly taller but owns a nearly seven-inch reach advantage. It's one of those natural advantages that are crafted in the womb rather than the gym.
Mizugaki is countering early and landing cleanly. He presses the champ against the cage and unloads with combinations. The audience, a hometown crowd for Torres, begins to chant the champion's name.
The Japanese GCM champion is experiencing early success against Torres. The American seems hesitant to pull the trigger of his striking game, perhaps surprised by Mizugaki's stand-up game.
Torres finally wraps the challenger's head into a Thai clinch and begins delivering knees to the body before slipping and getting shoved onto the mat. Soon after, he rockets a head kick that crushes Mizugaki's jaw but the Japanese warrior continues to step forward, unfazed.
Torres once again finds himself against the chain-link fence, having to block repeated punches to the head and body from his opponent. He circles away and takes the center of cage. He begins employing his jab, a natural weapon for the lanky fighter.
The two fighters open the second round exchanging combinations. In fact, the only time the fight hits the ground is when Torres slips for the second time.
Mizugaki connects with a left to the body followed by a right to the head. The challenger continues to score on his feet including a looping hook that catches Torres on the jaw.
That punch seemingly turns something on in the champion and he begins to attack.
A counter uppercut stops a charging Mizugaki in his tracks and a combination puts his back against the cage. From there, he grinds the Japanese fighter and punishes him with knees to the body and short punches.
Momentum is finally on the champion's side as we move into the third round.
The champion begins to attack Mizugaki's legs, knowing that a man who can't walk can't fight. He seems to have timed the challenger and begins avoiding the combinations from the Japanese fighter that were finding their mark so readily in the first two rounds.
An exchange results in an accidental headbutt and the fight is halted momentarily so that the doctor can assess the damage to Torres who is busted open as a result.
About a decade ago, there was a series of pro wrestling games that allowed you to create your own wrestler. The amount of customization was so in-depth that you could determine how your leotard-clad Frankenstein would react when bleeding.
The options were "Fear," "Normal," or "Aggression."
It appears Torres, if he ever stepped into the squared circle of the male soap opera, would be the latter.
Blood pouring down his face, he begins to fight with a newfound passion, a determination that startles Mizugaki who can't answer and does almost nothing in the remaining time.
Torres enters championship rounds for the first time in his career but the tide has begun to favor him. It already seems so long ago that Mizugaki caused the the American problems in the first round and a half as the fighter who dominated his way to the top of the 135-pound division punches and kicks it into the recesses of our memory.
But the Japanese warrior isn't about to go out quietly. He opens the round with a left hook that connects to Torres' jaw, sending shockwaves of pain throughout his head.
The champion responds by tying Mizugaki up with a clinch, slamming his elbow into the Japanese fighter's face and drilling knees into his ribs. The GCM veteran answers back with his own knee that cracks the American on the chin.
The round begins to wane and Torres, having just fought off a kneebar attempt, begins to put combinations together beautiful. A 1-2 and 1-2-1 all connect forcing Mizugaki to retreat momentarily. The champion has taken this round and the previous but the first two -- especially round one -- could have gone to the challenger.
It's do or die in round five.
Torres shoves Mizugaki against the cage and the challenger tries to fight himself off but ends up eating a huge right from the American. Another right opens up the Japanese fighter's forehead and blood begins to trickle down his nose.
The champion continues to grind Mizugaki against the fence, an echo of his gameplan from the second round. Short punches to the head and body are delivered in multitude while knees to the ribs and liver serve to destroy the challenger's cardio.
The fighters finally find themselves back in the center of the cage with less than a minute to go.
And they fight like they know that the decision could go either way.
Standing toe-to-toe, landing punch-for-punch, the two warriors who have fought for nearly 25 minutes begin to trade like they just stepped into the cage.
The audience cheers wildly as Torres and Mizugaki bare their fighting spirits to them and to each other.
The final horn sounds and a unanimous decision for the champion closes the book of this epic battle that should have never happened.