The best 135-pound mixed martial artist in the world fights Sunday, and for hometown fans of WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres it couldn't come soon enough. Having fought a majority of his 37 pro fights -- and a great many more unsanctioned contests -- in or near Chicago, Torres returns to the Windy City for the first time in two years.
Standing between the 28-year-old champion and the third defense of his WEC belt is Takeya Mizugaki, a hard-punching Shooto veteran set to make his first appearance outside of Japan. Unlike many Japanese fighters, Mizugaki, 25, has plenty of experience fighting inside a cage, winning his last five there -- so that environment probably won't be a deciding factor in the outcome at the UIC Pavilion. More than likely Mizugaki, a replacement for Torres's original challenger, Brian Bowles, will find difficulty against a bantamweight whose reach and height are generally found in fighters three weight classes higher.
11:07 p.m. -- If there's any hope for the 11-2-2 Japanese challenger it's that wrestling is a strength while it remains the champion's weakness. Sill, Torres -- listed by many including SI.com among the top five pound-for-pound fighters in MMA -- owns such a dynamic guard it's usually a bad idea to spend any amount of time on the floor with him.
Torres (36-1) has promised to fight Mizugaki where he's at his best. Whether that means he'll indulge the challenger's power like he did Manny Tapia before knocking him out in last December, or try to wrestle him, Torres shouldn't have too much difficulty -- and not because Mizugaki is a pushover.
11:08 -- Torres is a finisher and he's vicious. He shouldn't lose this fight, not if he's as good as most pundits, including myself, have declared him to be. I don't see it going the full five rounds. A finish after three seems in order.
11:10 -- Boos from the partisan crowd brings a smile to Mizugaki's face. Say this about the kid, he's not at all distracted or influenced by the moment. Cheers, meanwhile, don't do anything to wipe the seriousness from Torres' mug, who decides to give viewers watching on Versus a long stare into the camera.
Round 1 -- Mizugaki misses a winging overhand right. A wild left hooks misses as well. The challenger is firing early.
A nice lead roundhouse is the first connect from Torres tonight. He follows with a jab, and he can do that all night if he wants with a reach that can't be matched by anyone in his division.
Mizugaki throws Torres to the canvas after taking several knees in the Thai clinch. The challenger looks strong enough to handle Torres, who is always skinny against his challengers by comparison.
Three minutes down in the opening round and Mizugaki digs to the body followed by a shot to the head. Torres moves his head well. Aided by his length, it's tough to connect on the guy. They trade in the center. Thus far, it's been a kickboxing bout and it's close to even.
Torres' best weapon thus far is the lead roundhouse to Mizugaki's midsection. He's used it to set up combinations to the head in previous fights and appears to be following a similar game plan tonight.
The power shots belonged to the challenger in the first, and Mizugaki ekes out the opening round 10-9.
Round 2 -- A nice body shot from the challenger. Those shots will slow down Torres if he can connect, and they're key if Mizugaki is going to hang in there.
He's done fine thus far in the second round. Torres isn't fighting with much passion yet. Each man lands a power shot in the center. Another body-head combo from Mizugaki. Two minutes down and Torres hasn't hurt the challenger yet.
Solid right hand from Mizugaki. But the champion comes back with a fast three-punch combo to the head. They clinch against the fence and Torres works his knees. A shoulder strike. This is Torres now, keeping the pace high, refusing to let his opponent rest.
Torres has done good work in the clinch. They're separated now in the center of the cage, and Torres scores from the outside. His length is starting to pay off, and the Japanese fighter is slowing some. The toll Torres inflicts over the course of a fight is pretty brutal stuff. Much better period for the champion, who evens the fight one round apiece. Torres wins 10-9.
Round 3 -- Beauty of a check left hook from Torres to start Round 3. His facial expression has not changed from the time he entered the cage.
Mizugaki does nice work on the inside, interchanging knees in the clinch with digging body shots. No takedown efforts from either fighter. Torres said he would stand with Mizugaki, and to this point he's lived up to his word.
Midway through the third and the action hasn't flowed as freely. With Torres bleeding from a vertical cut above his left eye and a slash underneath it, the referee calls time for the ringside physician to check on it. The ruling is the champion can continue, but the cut isn't in a great spot.
Torres reacts by pushing forward. His best bet is to work on the inside. That's where he's punished Mizugaki the most. But the challenger won't have any of it, and he's attempting to connect on the outside. Torres has shown patience butat some point he needs to really push the fight. Mizugaki takes the third 10-9.
11:31: This has not been easy for the champion. In fact, he's getting pushed more than most people would have suspected. The thing to really pay attention to is accumulated damage: Torres looks beat up; Mizukagi is fine save a little mouse under his left eye.
Round 4 -- Something Torres has not heard much throughout his career -- starts and Torres is showing a change in game plan. For the first time he wants it on the floor, and he pulls guard. But the Japanese fighter stands rather easily and they're back to standing in front of one another.
Two nice elbows in the clinch from Torres. Another. Against the fence and in the clinch, Torres is winning. It's everywhere else he's having trouble. The champ once again gets on the inside following a right straight.
Four punch combo from Torres pushes Mizugaki back-first into the cage. He's strong here. Good work from both men as they trade in the Thai clinch.
That mouse under Mizugaki's left eye is swelling some, and a trickle of blood has begun from his nose. This round is Torres' to win with 60 seconds to go.
Solid counter left hook from the champ -- speed is the difference in these exchanges.
They look at each other the round closes. The fourth goes to the champ. I have it even heading into the fifth and final round. With the bout taking place in Chicago, you wonder what chances Mizugaki has of winning on points. The challenger will need a decisive final period to pull this off. Torres wins 10-9.
Round 5 -- Mizugaki chases Torres straight back to start things off. Big flurry from Torres -- again as the Japanese fighter is near the fence.
Mizugaki has no interest in working on the ground. The champ slipped after a high kick and simply circled out and walked away. Torres happily obliges his challenger and gets back into the clinch. This is where he is at his best, and if Mizugaki wants to pull it off, he has to create distance. Otherwise, Torres will continue to out-work him here.
A good knee to the body from Mizugaki causes Torres to slip. The challenger has shown a lot in this fight. Ninety seconds remain and Torres is exactly where he wants to be, working knees, short elbows and punches on the inside.
One minute remains. They're circling in the center. Mizugaki asks for Torres to come forward. But the champ is avoiding more than attacking now ... hold that thought. Torres fires off a flurry that's answered by Mizugaki. Fittingly, the fight ends with Torres batting the Japanese fighter on the inside. A very, very good fight. How many times have we said that about a Torres bout?
On my card Round 5 goes to Torres, 10-9, and the fight is his as well: 48-47.
The judges agree, unanimously. Two see it four rounds to one (49-46) for Torres, while the third has it 3-2 (48-47). Torres defends his WEC bantamweight title.