CHICAGO – The world's best fighters don't always roll over their opponents. Sometimes they simply find a way to win.
Andrei Arlovski outfought Fedor Emelianenko on Jan. 24 right up until he flew into Emelianenko's knockout punch. Anderson Silva lost a one-sided first round to Dan Henderson last year before rallying to win in the second.
If there was any doubt Miguel Torres belongs in that elite mix, it was erased Sunday night. The WEC bantamweight champion overcame a deep mid-fight cut and rallied to beat Takeya Mizugaki in a thrilling slugfest in the main event of WEC 40. Judges scores were 49-46, 49-46, 48-47; Y! Sports scored the bout 48-47 for Torres.
It was Torres' 18th consecutive win and just the second time he has been taken to a decision during the run.
"The fight was kind of a blur to me," Torres (36-1) said. "When you get to the championship rounds, the later you go, the harder you push, you just have to find a way to pull it out."
Heading into the fight, Mizugaki (9-3-2), who took the match on a month's notice when Brian Bowles pulled out due to a back injury, was treated as an afterthought. Few Americans had seen him fight, and even those who knew he was on a long winning streak and boasted strong standup skills couldn't fathom that he could accept the fight on short notice, fly halfway around the world and compete with Torres in his hometown.
Instead, the 5,287 fans who braved a nasty late-winter storm were treated to a fight of the year candidate at the UIC Pavillion.
"He was a warrior," Torres said. "He had samurai spirit. He took everything I dished out and came back for more."
Mizugaki flustered Torres in the first round, getting the better of their boxing exchanges and keeping Torres from finding his rhythm. Two of the three judges scored the round for Mizugaki.
"I knew he had power," Torres said. "That didn't surprise me. What threw me off was his ability to take punishment. I wanted to stick and move and fight from the clinch, but he was able to frustrate me."
Torres got the better of things in a tight second round, but things looked bad in the third, when Mizugaki opened a nasty gash over Torres' right eye. The round was halted midway through so the doctor could check the cut, and he ruled Torres could continue. Mizugaki, who avoided Torres' vaunted ground game at all costs, won the round on all three scorecards.
"I was a little nervous when they stopped it, but as soon as they cleared me I knew I was going to get through it," Torres said.
Torres finally turned the tables in the fourth round, as he peppered Mizugaki with relentless Muay Thai strikes in the clinch. A vicious mix of elbows, knees and shoulder thrusts wore down Mizugaki to the point he was sucking wind by late in the round. The fifth round featured more of the same.
"Around the fourth round was when I knew I had things under control," he said. "I was able to establish my clinch and it made the difference. I was amazed, though, I knew I was hitting him hard and I was expecting him to go down, but he took everything like a champ."
Takeya was emotional after the fight, breaking out into sobs that could be heard from press row. He explained his emotions after the fight.
"I thank Miguel for making me realize you can always be better," Mizugaki said through an interpreter. "You are never as good as you think you are. Miguel helped me know I can improve. I think the judges' decision was fair. I hope Miguel keeps his undefeated streak going so I can get a couple more wins and hopefully get another title shot."
After dispensing of his 18th straight foe, it is clear that Torres belongs in the discussion of who is the world's top pound-for-pound fighter. Torres boasts a skill-set that rivals anyone, with a jiu-jitsu game so lethal few want to test him on the ground; world-class kickboxing and Muay Thai skills; a deceptively lanky frame that gives him a reach advantage over most foes; and a willingness to go toe-to-toe with anyone who wants to bring it.
What he hasn't had was the same buzz candidates for the top spot have gotten. Silva has had the benefit of the awesome power of the UFC promotional machine, relentlessly pushing him as the best fighter in the world. Emelianenko has long been a legendary figure in the sport. In the case of Georges St. Pierre, fans have charted his progress since he made his UFC debut nearly six years ago and have watched him improve with each fight.
Torres had no such wind at his back, as he fought in obscurity for years before the WEC gave a national platform to bantamweight and featherweights. But with each successive high-profile win – and another fight of the year caliber match to complement his win over Yoshiro Maeda last summer – the WEC kingpin makes more and more believers.
One such convert is UFC interim heavyweight champ Frank Mir, who trained with Torres leading up to his title victory over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. When asked at a fan question-and-answer session Saturday how Torres compares with Emelianenko stylistically, Mir felt Torres has more tools in his kit.
"I appreciate him at levels that other people don't understand because I can see his mindset," Mir said. "A lot of things he brings into the fight game that he's way ahead of a lot of other fighters. With Miguel, from the gate closing, he's completely in control of the situation."
Torres, though, has yet to clean out the bantamweight division. Next up is a likely match with the unbeaten Bowles, who has made short work of all seven of his career opponents. Also working his way up the ranks is undefeated Joseph Benavidez, who improved to 10-0 on Sunday night with a unanimous decision victory over cagey veteran Jeff Curran.
Benavidez, who is trained by former WEC featherweight champ Urijah Faber, uses the same go-for-broke style that took Faber to the top.
"I was confident out there tonight," Benavidez said. "Curran wanted to take it to the mat [in the second half of the fight] and I figured it was a chance to show what I could do."
Even with a big name like Curran on his résumé, Benavidez is willing to wait for his opportunity.
"Miguel's the man," Benavidez said. "He's the best fighter in the division. I need a couple more fights before I'm ready. I won't be surprised if he's still there."
- Miguel Torres
- Takeya Mizugaki
- Fedor Emelianenko