Torres truly the people's champion

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LAS VEGAS – There are fighters who all-but-literally hibernate before an important bout. They go to a training camp in a remote location and lock themselves out from the world.

Then there are men like WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Angel Torres, who has not only maintained his full-time job while preparing to defend his belt against Manny Tapia at WEC 37 at the Hard Rock Hotel on Wednesday night, but who prepares with anyone who walks in off the street.

There are guys with pot bellies and kids whose baby teeth haven't yet fallen out training next to a man who has one of the most complete games in mixed martial arts.

Part of the sport's popularity stems from the fact you or I can saunter into a gym like Torres Martial Arts in Hammond, Ind., plunk down a couple of bucks and a few minutes later be rolling with the champ.

Fans can barely catch glimpses of Kobe Bryant as he's coming and going to a practice session, let alone go into the gym and pal around with him. But in MMA, the Kobes of the sport are shoulder to shoulder with the people who patronize it.

And no one is better at that than Torres, who is as humble as he is gifted and as sharp as he is athletic.

"Maybe this will change some day – which I hope it doesn't – but right now, the fighters are 99 percent so humble and so thankful for this opportunity that we want to share what is great about this sport with our fans," Torres said. "(A friend) was asking me how much I charge to give someone private lessons. When I told him it was 100 bucks, he couldn't believe it. He said, 'I guarantee you if you could get a hold of Peyton Manning, if that was even possible, and you asked him to help teach you to be a quarterback, it would be a lot more than $100.' He wanted me to raise it way up so I could make more money on it.

"But I think most fighters really enjoy the chance to be around the fans. And if someone really wants to learn this sport, then we enjoy the chance to pass along what we have learned."

Torres realizes that his fighting career is also a great marketing scheme for his gym. But he feels he owes as much to those who walk through his gym's doors as they do to him. He's the place's bookkeeper, dutifully going through receipts by hand for two months as he prepares for tax season. He's its manager, its marketing director, its chief instructor and its most understanding listener.

A lot of those who walk through the door have had, or are in the midst of, serious problems in their lives. Torres is only 27, but has a perspective and a maturity of someone twice his age.

He listens and offers advice and counseling to anyone who needs it.

Torres says he has an "old soul," which he suspects he acquired by tagging along with his father when he was growing up. His father would hang out at a coffee shop or a pool hall swapping stories with his buddies.

Young Miguel was often at his father's side, more content to sit and listen to the adults than to be out goofing off with his peers. Listening to those conversations taught him a lot about life, lessons he remembers daily at the gym whenever he encounters someone in a crisis.

"I picked up a lot of wisdom at a very young age," he says of his success in turning around the lives of the troubled ones he meets. "I get the kids who are 10 years old who are already 145 pounds and out of shape and who have no order in their lives, who are getting bad grades and who don't have either a Mom or a Dad or both. Two years later, they're champion grapplers in their age class.

"I get the (adults) who are way overweight, borderline diabetic and with heart issues. And then they get into this gym and they work with us and they literally can change their lives."

One of those who did that is now one of Torres' assistants, 23-year-old Alex Eisen. When Eisen first walked into the gym, he weighed well over 300 pounds. He's now dropped over 130 pounds and has, in Torres' words, dedicated his life to the gym.

"When you see something like that, when someone makes that kind of a change for the better in your life, it can't help but motivate you," Torres said.

And so Torres is plenty motivated for his fight with Tapia, a heavy-handed guy whom Torres expects to stand and trade with him.

Tapia is skilled, if not well known. A month ago, Urijah Faber lost his WEC featherweight title in a similar circumstance. Faber was knocked out in the first round of his bout with Mike Brown, a tough but largely anonymous challenger.

Torres isn't about to suffer the same fate and said he's expecting Tapia to fight at a level he's never fought at previously.

"I'm expecting by far the best Manny Tapia ever, because I know he knows what a win over me would do for his life," Torres said. "On that one night, he's going to be as good as he ever has been before, and so I have to be, too."

The diversity in Torres' game rivals that of UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva or of World Association of Mixed Martial Arts champion Fedor Emelianenko.

He's content to go wherever Tapia leads him, but he expects it to be a slugfest.

"That's good for me, because I guess one of the things people don't know about me," says Torres, who has an astounding 76-inch reach for his class, "is that I love to get hit. I don't know what it is, but I love it when someone hits me on the chin and I can stand there and come back and land two, three or four shots of my own."

Torres is hardly cocky and isn't going to stand with his hands at his side just to be a showoff. But he's well aware that once the cage doors are locked and the cameras roll, he's part of a big show.

"The people come because they expect to see us show all of our skills and to put them together as best we can," Torres said. "They expect a lot out of us each time and the one thing I always try to do is to remember the kinds of fights I like to watch. I want to put on the kinds of fights for the fans that I like to see, so I train to do that each time."