Miguel Angel Torres lives in a small house on a wooded street in Griffith, Indiana. It isn't much, but it's his. He has a kitchen, a bedroom and a living room with a television hooked up to a dusty PlayStation but maintains little in the way of worldly possessions. A former mixed martial arts champion, he's had plenty of stuff in the past, all the stuff money could buy.
Now he lives a stuff-free life, with a Dodge Charger that's paid off and a paid-off home where his ex-wife can raise their daughter. He's been too generous over the years. If a student couldn't pay the dues at his gym for a few months, he ate the costs. But now he's living week to week. The gym pays for itself and earns him enough to make a living. But the old days of big sponsorship checks and big fight purses are gone. He no longer drinks the way he used to; he still has a nightcap with regularity but doesn't have to dull the emotional and physical pain as he did when he was still fighting.
He retired in April 2017. But if you've followed mixed martial arts (or any sport, really), you know how those retirements go.
That is the way it is with Torres. He is back in the gym, not just teaching classes but training himself, getting his body back in shape and used to the rigors of fighting. No one who has known him for any length of time is surprised by this. He plans on fighting locally, in the East Chicago area, in April and then, after that? He won't ever return to the UFC, he says, not even if they were to call him tomorrow and beg him to come back. There's just too much bad blood, too much history.
But there are other options. Maybe it's Bellator. Maybe it's Combate Americas, the Hispanic-targeted promotion created by the first UFC impresario, Campbell McLaren. Maybe it's somewhere in Europe or in Asia. The one certainty is that it's whomever pays him the most money. It doesn't matter who it is; it just matters how much money they're willing to put on the table.
Torres, you see, doesn't have a choice. He has to fight. Fighting is how he makes a living, how he dotes on his daughter. It's how he builds something he can leave behind. The outside world sees him being knocked out cold and they think, Man, that's so sad, that's Miguel Torres, he was great back in the day. But those concerned friends and fans are the same ones who vanished when he was knocked from his perch, the ones who were totally on his bandwagon until the losing started. He has no time for them.
He is a prizefighter. It's the only thing he's ever been, and he can't attain the prize without fighting, which means he'll keep stepping in the cage again and again, no matter the cost.
Torres won the World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight championship in just his second fight for the promotion in 2008. He'd won several other championships in other organizations before signing with WEC, which was owned by the UFC ownership group Zuffa. The win made him an instant success story among those who watched mixed martial arts. Many considered him a contender for best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Torres began living the high life. His fight purses were larger than ever. Sponsors, including Marc Ecko, were paying him exorbitant amounts of money to appear as a tough-yet-smiling face of their brand. His promoters and sponsors flew him around the world, seemingly every weekend. He attended fights. He made promotional appearances. He did magazine cover shoots. He spent money freely, never paying attention to his bank account. He was young, he was rich and his star was rising.
He first began drinking as a byproduct of the social functions he attended. By the time Brian Bowles knocked him out and wrested away his championship in August 2009, he admits his social life was outpacing the time he spent in the gym. When he stepped in the cage to face Bowles, he knew—for the first time in his career—that he hadn't out-trained the guy standing across from him. His usual self-audit threw up red flags. But he was stubborn, has always been stubborn.
"It was like, f--k it, you know?'' Torres says. "Because I was going to beat him anyway."
He did not beat him. Torres' night ended with the first knockout loss of his career. He was embarrassed for all sorts of reasons: because he is a prideful man, because he had students back home that he'd have to face, because he knew he hadn't given himself a proper chance to win. He'd partied and lived the high life, and he paid the price.
When he returned to face Joseph Benavidez a little more than six months later, he was set back once again. He was dealing with an injured arm and knew he shouldn't be fighting. He couldn't even lift the arm during training camp. But he thought about the paycheck he'd be missing, so he fought anyway.
Benavidez didn't just beat him; he opened up a gash that left the first permanent scar on Torres' face. But it would not be the last.
Torres' earliest memory is of accompanying his father, Arnulfo, to his weekend soccer matches at the local community center. These matches almost always devolved into wild brawls, usually for the silliest of reasons, and Miguel would watch, transfixed, as his father ran headfirst into the fray.
Arnulfo, a crane operator at the Mittal Steel mill on the shores of Lake Michigan, has held the same job for 40 years. When Miguel was a kid, he and his father would sit in front of the television on Saturday night and watch the great Mexican boxers, especially Julio Cesar Chavez and Vinny Pazienza. They were his father's favorite fighters, and so they became Miguel's as well.
Later, when Miguel told his father he wanted to pursue a career in mixed martial arts, Arnulfo was supportive. He had just one piece of advice: Make sure you can earn a living. And Miguel did make a living. A good living. He ate at the finest restaurants, running up monstrous tabs by ordering entire bottles of top-shelf tequila. He had prime tables at Las Vegas clubs. He bought whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with little regard for his future. Because the future was now; who had the time to worry about the road ahead?
Money came and money went.
In 2011, Torres made a misogynistic post on Twitter.
"If a rape van was called a surprise van, more women wouldn't mind going for rides in them," Torres tweeted. The UFC swiftly excommunicated him. He apologized for the tweet. But after three weeks, he was allowed to return to the UFC. Eight months later, after Michael McDonald handed him another loss, Torres was released by the promotion for the final time. At this point, the whispers about him became more public. Maybe it's time for Miguel Torres to retire, the doubters said, before he seriously injured himself.
But he didn't quit. He kept fighting. He won some and lost some, and eventually, his career returned him to the place where it all started: fighting on regional cards in nearby Hammond, Indiana. Friends begged him to stop fighting, but he steadfastly refused—he had to make a living.
They didn't understand, and he was tired of the drama, so he began culling his inner circle until there was no inner circle left. He distanced himself from everyone. The folks who used to come around and ask for money or favors disappeared once they learned of his dire financial situation. He stopped answering text messages from longtime friends.
He was alone and living on the margins, but Torres had big plans: He wanted to build a commercial center up the road from his current gym location. He'd move his gym there, so he could own the thing instead of just renting. He'd rent space to a barber friend and maybe set up a place that served craft beer and good food. These were assets he could acquire, assets he could leave behind. Places where his name would live on after he was gone. Something of substance he could leave for his newborn son.
He finally retired last April, putting the finishing touches on his career the same way he'd started, with a submission win in the first round. The thing about going out a winner, though, is that it gives you the sense that maybe that's the way things will continue to be. Torres can look back and see where he lost his focus. That's because he was too busy jet-setting around the globe or drinking every night or any number of other reasons.
And if it's easy to recognize those seemingly correctable flaws, the absence of money makes the temptation to give it all another go, this time the right way, even more enticing.
So Torres plans to fight in April at a regional show in Indiana, to get his sea legs back under him. He's thinking how he can be successful in the cage again as long as he's dedicated to training, the way he was before the money and the fame, back when he did it just because he had this burning desire to prove himself superior to others in physical combat.
He's in that place again, the place where nobody can follow and nobody can change his mind. And the look in his eyes is one that tells you it's best not to even try.