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Torres Pushed to the Limit by Mizugaki but Retains 135-Pound Belt

Frank Curreri, WEC – Who is Takeya Mizugaki?

Answer: One super-tough bantamweight.

The Japanese mystery man made a believer out of Miguel Torres and countless others on Sunday night at the UIC Pavilion, battering Torres with big shots and pushing the world’s premier bantamweight to the brink of defeat in a classic that will be a definite candidate for Fight of The Year. But the bloodied champion came on strong down the stretch, relying on dirty boxing and sheer grit and determination to win a unanimous decision and escape with his WEC title.
By Frank Curreri

CHICAGO – Who is Takeya Mizugaki?

Answer: One super-tough bantamweight.

The Japanese mystery man made a believer out of Miguel Torres and countless others on Sunday night at the UIC Pavilion, battering Torres with big shots and pushing the world’s premier bantamweight to the brink of defeat in a classic that will be a definite candidate for Fight of The Year. But the bloodied champion came on strong down the stretch, relying on dirty boxing and sheer grit and determination to win a unanimous decision and escape with his WEC title.

“You’re a great challenger,” Torres said after the fight to Mizugaki, who took the fight on short notice as a replacement for No. 1 contender Brian Bowles. “I didn’t expect that great of a fight out you. I have a lot of respect for you. No one has ever taken me that far.”

The cageside judges scored it 49-46, 49-46 and 48-47 in favor of the champ, though you could easily have given at least two rounds to Mizugaki and perhaps even raised his hand afterward.

Torres, who won his 17th straight bout, had boldly vowed before the fight to engage Mizugaki in a standup war. It did not necessarily seem to be the wisest strategy given that Mizugaki is a big puncher and Torres, a master on the canvas, would have enjoyed a sizable advantage there. Mizugaki wasted no time serving notice to Torres of his fearlessness and power, cracking Torres with big bombs early in round one. Back and forth they went, cracking each other with hard punches, and Mizugaki even pushing Torres hard to the canvas with an impact equivalent to that of a slam. You could make a strong case that it was Mizugaki who landed the more telling punches in round one and was the aggressor, even though Torres had his moments with his crisp left jab, a nice left hook and knees to the midsection.

In round two, the pace and fury intensified. Mizugaki landed a left to the body and again threw Torres to the canvas hard. Mizugaki matched Torres’ legendary conviction, hitting Torres with big right hands and opening a gash over the champion’s right eye. A bloodied Torres answered with a crisp left hook – his best punch of the night – and Mizugaki later answered with his own left hook. Torres began to fire off knees in the clinch and Mizugaki responded with two more hard right hands.

You kept waiting for Mizugaki to fold and fade away, but he kept coming strong in the third. The topsy-turvy battle continued, with Mizugaki landing a hard knee to the face. In round four, the furious pace seemed to be taking a toll on the challenger, who began gasping for air and slowing down just a bit.

There, in the so-called “deep waters” of rounds four and five, Torres seemed to be the aggressor, gaining the clinch and scoring often with knees and dirty boxing. Torres even tried on several occasions to take the fight to the canvas, but Mizugaki stuffed him throughout the fight. With a minute to go, the fight appeared to be up for grabs. In the final 30 seconds, fittingly, an incredible fight ended with both fighters digging in and swinging away until the final horn.

Torres (36-1) now expects to face unbeaten Brian Bowles for his fourth title defense. Bowles was watching cageside.

“He’s in line. He’s next,” Torres said. “Brian, get healthy. Whenever you’re ready, man.”

“I’ll be ready come August,” Bowles said, adding he was impressed by what he witnessed in Chicago’s main event. “It was a war man, I loved it, it was awesome.”

JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ VS. JEFF CURRAN
Time to bury the hype: Joseph Benavidez is for real. The diminutive 5’3 fighter made that crystal clear when he produced the biggest win of his career Sunday night, outhustling veteran Jeff Curran en route to a unanimous decision win. With the fight on Curran’s home soil, disappointed local fans showered Benavidez with boos, though the verdict was well-deserved and beyond reproach.

“I feel like I’m prepared for anyone,” Benavidez said afterward. “I’m not totally satisfied with my performance but I’m really happy to get the win over a great opponent like Jeff. I owe it all to Urijah Faber and the rest of my team.”

Benavidez was busier and more aggressive than Curran for much of the contest, even dropping “The Big Frog” with a right hand in the first round that landed on the bridge of Curran’s nose (Curran seemed to have all of his mental faculties after the blow, and may have fell partially due to being off-balance). Curran was competitive throughout, tagging Benavidez with a beautiful straight right hand that stopped him dead in his tracks. But the speedy Benavidez scored several takedowns and controlled the action on top, occasionally landing some decent punches and elbows.

The judges scored it 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28 for Benavidez. Curran, meanwhile, dropped his third straight fight.

BEN HENDERSON VS. SHANE ROLLER
For one minute and 41 seconds, this was an awesome lightweight fight that kept fans in suspense. Seconds into the bout, Roller hit Henderson and dropped him, then sunk in a tight guillotine choke. Roller squeezed and squeezed and squeezed. Henderson wouldn’t tap. The former NAIA All-American wrestler escaped the submission and returned to his feet. Then he returned the favor – clipping Roller with a left hand and then following it up with a laser left hand that landed flush on Roller’s chin, made his neck snap back and put him on his rump against the cage. Henderson pounced and swung away wildly, trying to seize that small window of wooziness to put Roller away. Roller fought to regain guard and tried to hug Henderson, who continued swinging. The referee decided Roller was not intelligently defending himself and halted the bout.

Henderson, who is also a tae kwon do black belt, is now 2-0 in the WEC.

“I hit him hard,” Henderson said. “I think I caught him with a 1-2 and then I just stayed on top and just pounded him.”

JAMEEL MASSOUH VS. RAPHAEL ASSUNCAO
An already crowded featherweight division will have to make some room for Raphael Assuncao, who repeatedly clocked Jameel Massouh with big overhand rights en route to a unanimous decision victory. The fiery Brazilian dropped Massouh early in the first round with a booming right, then fought off a heel hook submission attempt. Later in the round Assuncao stunned Massouh yet again with a big shot.

Rounds two and three played out in similar fashion, though Massouh gamely absorbed the shots and stayed on his feet. Massouh seemed hesitant on his feet and intent to take the fight to the mat. But even when the fight hit the mat, he was hard-pressed to endanger the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. In the end, Assuncao’s takedowns, power punching and Octagon control carried him to victory.

ANTHONY NJOKUANI VS. BART PALASZEWSKI
“Leave your girlfriend at home.”

That was what Nick “One Kick” Blomgren told his prized protégé before his WEC debut last year. Anthony Njokuani defied his mentor’s advice on that occasion – letting his girlfriend stay with him at his hotel room the night before his bout -- and wound up losing to Ben Henderson. The Las Vegas-based prospect did not make the same mistake this time around. He ditched the girlfriend, left her at home back in Dallas, and bore the look of a much meaner and determined fighter on Sunday, punishing highly-regarded Bart Palaszewski with punches before stopping him just 27 seconds into round two.

“See, that was the difference,” a jubilant Njokuani said afterward, referring to his girlfriend’s absence, crediting it for giving him more focus this time around.

Njokuani had dropped the Chicago-based fighter in the first with a short right hand that landed flush on the chin. Palaszewski recovered but, early in round two, he hit the deck much harder and slumped against the cage after being caught with a missile of a right hand to the chin. Njokuani pounced and unleashed a hail of punches from the top, forcing the referee stoppage.

IVAN LOPEZ VS. DOMINICK CRUZ
This undercard matchup, pitting two standup specialists, started with a bang and ended with a fizzle. Lopez, making his WEC debut, caught Cruz’ attention early with a hard left to the chin that stunned the San Diegan. As Cruz regained his wits, Lopez immediately followed up with a wicked straight kick to the face that briefly put Cruz on his knees. Apparently miffed, Cruz promptly shot in and secured a takedown – and that would be his strategy for the rest of the fight. When Lopez did get back to his feet, he popped Cruz with a crisp straight right hand. Soon enough, Cruz shot in and took the action back to the mat, though he did little damage from the top.

By the start of round two, Cruz’ right eye area had swollen up and was bigger than a golf ball. Lopez kicked Cruz in the head twice. Cruz had seen enough. He shot in and secured the takedown and again smothered Lopez on top, landing a few nice elbows at the end of the round.

In round three, Cruz – who appeared to be 15 pounds or so heavier than Lopez in the cage -- landed a nice straight right, then hoisted Lopez in the air with a double leg and slammed him to the mat. Midway through the round, during a scramble, Cruz threw a knee but pulled it at the last minute since Lopez was still on his knees. Nevertheless, the knee seemed to lightly hit Lopez in the head. It didn’t seem to be a particularly powerful blow, but Lopez laid on the mat, writing and wincing in pain. He stayed down for minutes as the ref and others tended to him. Eventually, as fans showered Lopez with boos (assuming he was exaggerating his injuries), the bout was halted and sent to the judges’ scorecards, since the illegal knee was deemed to be accidental. Two judges scored it 30-27 for Cruz, with the third giving the nod to Cruz by a 29-28 margin. Cruz is now 3-0 at bantamweight.

FREDSON PAIXAO VS. WAGNNEY FABIANO
In a battle of two highly-decorated jiu-jitsu players, the difference proved to be Fabiano’s supremacy in the standup game. In the opening seconds the former International Fight League champion fired a hard high kick to the head, which, even though the blow was partially blocked, still made a loud “whack” sound that was evident to any fan in the first 25 rows or so. Fabiano followed that up with a crisp punching combination to his flat-footed adversary, forcing Paixao to retreat and fish for a clinch to try and take the action to the ground. Yet time and again the former four-time world BJJ champion’s takedown attempts were stuffed by Fabiano, who opened a cut on Paixao’s head and kept him off-balance with leg kicks and jabs as well.

In the second round, Fabiano tagged Paixao with a front kick and an overhand right, but the fighters fielded boos from the crowd for their relative inactivity. Paixao seemed hesitant to punch and Fabiano surprised him with a takedown. After Fabiano fought off a guillotine attempt, both men returned to their feet, where conservatism ruled once more until Fabiano broke the lull with a booming left hand that landed flush on Paixao’s chin, dropping him momentarily. Fabiano followed with a high kick, but the horn spared Paixao from further damage.

In round three, Fabiano tagged Paixao with a hard straight right, forcing Paixao to retreat. Fabiano then scored another double leg takedown. The action returned to standing, where Paixao showed no sense of urgency to finish the fight. Fabiano unleashed another crisp combination and scored another takedown to finish out the round and cement his eighth straight win.

RANI YAHYA VS. EDDIE WINELAND
If there is one guy you don’t want hanging on your back in MMA, hunting for a rear naked choke, it’s Rani Yahya. A lot of fighters take the back and waste the opportunity; Yahya, a former Abu Dhabi world champion, is one of the few masters who never lets his foe off the hook once he smells the submission. And so, when Yahya scored a single-leg takedown on Eddie Wineland early in round one, then took the former WEC champion’s back, educated fans knew what was coming soon: The tap. The conceding gesture came at just 1:07, giving the 24-year-old Brazilian his third WEC in four tries.

AKITOSHI TAMURA VS. MANNY TAPIA
Tamura used a deft mix of punches, kicks and knees to bloody and frustrate Tapia, then held off a furious third-round assault to escape with his first WEC win. The Japanese fighter danced around his hard-charging foe for most of the first two rounds, repeatedly whacking Tapia with potent kicks to the rib area and then tagging him upstairs with punches. Tamura also locked Tapia in a clinch, delivering effective knees to his midsection and face, while Tapia answered by digging in with body shots.

Tamura clearly owned the second stanza, cracking Tapia early with a “superman” style punch that drew “oooohs” from the crowd. With Tapia simply stalking and looking to land big shots, Tamura took a more methodical approach and repeatedly beat his opponent to the punch with more body kicks, jabs and a mean knee to the face followed shortly thereafter by a kick to the face.

In the third, Tamura continued to stay at bay with his Muay Thai approach, seemingly believing he had the fight won. He fought conservatively while Tapia seemed overcome by a sense of urgency. Tapia pushed forward with reckless abandon and, with Tamura slowing down and showing signs of fatigue, the Mexican-American’s punching combinations began to finally find their mark in the final minute. Tamura seemed stunned and desperate, a mouse forming under one of his eyes and swelling under the other. Suspense came over the crowd until the final horn sounded, saving Tamura from more damage.
In the end, the judges awarded Tamura a unanimous decision by identical scores of 29-28, giving the Japanese fighter his first WEC win.

MIKE BUDNIK VS. RAFAEL DIAS
Dias, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and member of American Top Team, repeatedly took the fight to the ground and controlled the action on top for the first two rounds before weathering a relentless flurry of submission attempts in the third round to hold on and earn his first WEC win. Budnik, who took the fight on short notice and failed to make weight on Saturday, was crafty and active from the bottom, even threatening Dias with a deep heel hook for about 30 seconds in the opening round. Dias escaped and later attempted a guillotine choke and a deep D’Arce choke that Budnik fought off.

Round two was more of the same, with Dias scoring a takedown and controlling from the top but not landing any blows of serious consequence. In round three Dias again scored a takedown, but it was Budnik who pressed the action from the bottom with submission after submission attempt. He tried a triangle, then switched to an armbar, then an oma plata and later attempted a kneebar. Dias defended and survived, correctly trusting that the body of work he had produced in the first two rounds would carry him to victory. The judges scored it 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28 for the Brazilian, who is now 1-1 in the WEC.

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