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Evolution of a champion: WEC star Miguel Torres says never forget

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Miguel Torres won't allow himself to forget what made him a world champion - the hard work, the pain, the sacrifice. The World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champion makes sure he experiences it daily.

During the week, Torres lives in his gym - Torres Martial Arts Academy in Hammond, Ind. - while his wife and 19-month-old daughter stay at the family home.

"I wake up in the morning, I brush my teeth and I work out," the 28-year-old from East Chicago, Ind., explained. "My living room is mats and a cage and heavy bags."

"I'm in my element," he added. "It's like being a shark, staying in water. You don't put a shark at the beach on the sand. The shark has to be in the water."

Torres (35-1) is a mixed martial arts predator who looks to extend his winning streak to 17 when he takes on Japan's Takeya Mizugaki at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago on Sunday (2, 9:30 p.m. ET).

Inside the cage, Torres is a bad man with a bad mullet.

Upset him at your peril. Yoshiro Maeda did last June, drawing blood from an early exchange. Torres' eyes burned and he proceeded to batter the game Japanese fighter until the bout was finally stopped, with Maeda's face a lumpy mess and his cheekbone cracked.

The five-foot-nine Torres is a flinty 135-pounder who is considered by many to be a contender for best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, alongside the likes of middleweight Anderson Silva, Canadian welterweight Georges St. Pierre and Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.

Outside the cage, Torres is an eloquent man who has an interesting story to tell. His life lessons bear listening. A graduate of Purdue University with a degree in marketing, you get the feeling he would have been a success whatever career path he chose

Torres fights for a living and he is exceptionally good at it. As a mixed martial artist, he is constantly evolving. The shark has to keep moving.

"If your game stays the same every fight, somebody's going to get your game, they're going to get onto what you're doing," he explains. "You have to evolve every fight you have."

So Torres lives at his gym Monday through Friday. He has two assistants - one runs the gym and the other makes sure Torres eats right and pays his bills. Torres teaches and trains, squeezing time in with his family when they visit.

"I'm sacrificing a lot," he acknowledged. "But for me to be where I'm at now took a lot of sacrifice. I can't forget what it took to be here. I've seen a lot of guys come up, by sacrificing to get there, and then they want to party, they want to have a good time, they forget what it took to get there.

"And there's 50 other guys that see the bull's-eye on my back . . . and they're sacrificing themselves to get where they're at now. So I have to be ready for that. I keep that in mind all the time. I know where I came from and I knew what it took to get here."

He gets ready for bouts with sessions that rotate five or six fresh fighters coming at him.

"My energy can't drop off or else I get beat up. I have to be on all the time, I have to be pushed the whole time and then when I go into a fight with one person, I know I can break that person. It's just a matter of time."

He watches other fighters, dissecting and borrowing from their game.

"I'm good at taking the best of different people and then trying to implement that into my game. I think martial arts is a like a suit of armour. My armour's not going to fit you the same way."

And he never forgets.

Torres' one loss came against Ryan Ackerman in November 2003. It was in Hammond, his backyard and some 4,000 fans had come to see him in the main event in his comeback from knee surgery eight months earlier.

When the bell rang, he soon realized he wasn't ready.

"After the first round my legs were like Bambi on ice. I couldn't stand."

His cornermen had to lift him off the stool after the first round. Torres tried to finish his opponent in the second round but was taken down. "And that was it. The guy just lay on me and hit me for two rounds."

"I lost that fight, I got beat up that fight," he added. "And Sunday morning, I got up, I went to church and then I went running because I was so angry at myself for getting tired. I was in the gym the next day, training, working out."

The lesson was simple. Never fight unless you're ready. And revenge is a dish best served cold.

"I fought him again (two years later) and almost broke his arm."

The way he lost is a one-off, he pledges.

"I feel like I left everyone down in my hometown. So I never want to let that happen again. So if I get beat, it's going to be a knockout or broken arm, it's not going to be where I got tired or I gave up, that will never happen."

Still Torres does not regret the loss. Adversity can become opportunity. He changed the way he trains, how he treats his body and how he views fights.

Torres' philosophy is pithy and hard-nosed.

- On losing. "It's either going to make you a stronger fighter or it's going to make you a weaker fighter. And how you come back is going to show what kind of man you are."

-On tackling black belts. "In my mind every time I punch a black belt in the face, he's a black belt (reduced) to a brown belt with four stripes, to a brown belt with three stripes. Every time you hit him, his game is going to go down and down and down."

-On game plans. "You've got to train for situations and you've got to train to make situations happen."

Sometimes that means putting yourself in a bad situation on purpose, to draw your opponent in.

Against Manny Tapia in December, he reached deep into his toolbox with a front roll axe-kick, where essentially he did a forward somersault at his opponent. The idea is to land at the other fighter's feet where you can kick up at his head or clavicle, sweep out his feet or try for an ankle lock.

It didn't work but got Tapia's attention.

"He whispered to me, 'That was a good kick.," Torres recalled.

A black belt in jiu-jitsu under Carlson Gracie, Torres is so confident of his grappling game - he has 22 submissions wins - that he can kick from all angles, confident that he can survive and excel on the ground if he falls trying to execute them.

His standup is solid, with a crisp jab.

He took up karate at a young age when the local community centre offered a month of free lessons. When his family could not afford more lessons, he took jobs to pay for them himself as a young teen. And he was hooked on jiu jitsu when he saw how it evened the playing field.

"I thought 'Man that's what I've got to learn' because I was always the smallest guy in the gym."

He fought all-comers and all sizes on his way up. He recalls an eight-man tournament in Indianapolis in September 2000 when he fought three men in one night. Every fight went to a decision, every opponent was a wrestler who had cut down to 160 pounds from 180.

And "I was the only Mexican dude there," said Torres. "It was bad."

He won $200 and a championship belt - "and it was the cheapest, plastic . . . with a piece of metal." He spent the two-hour car ride home wondering why he had put himself through such a hellish night.

"I've still got it in my gym, I look at it every day and I hate myself for it," he said of the belt, drawing laughs from listeners. "I will never forget that."

He prefers teaching kids to adults - "because children don't have any bad habits. Adults I've got to beat up to make them change their habits."

And he says when he retires, he will have an army of fighters who have come through his gym.

But he is not ready to quit yet. He sees spending another two years as a bantamweight, with Kid Yamamoto of Japan his dream opponent if the matchup could ever be made.

Torres expects to move up to 155 pounds - he walks around at around 150 - and switch to the UFC eventually.

"I want to fight the best fighters in the world and I want to fight on the biggest stage in the world. . . . I love the WEC to death but I've been watching the UFC since I was 12 years old. I can't die and never fight in the UFC. I have to make that jump."

Mizugaki (11-2-2) was an injury replacement for Brian Bowles. Torres expects him to come out swinging.

"I know the guy's going to come out and try to knock me out. He'll have to get by my left hand first."

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