Latins flavoring MMA's melting pot
As a young boy in East Chicago, Ind., Miguel Torres watched his father and uncle, with tears in their eyes, cheer for arguably the greatest boxer of their generation. Pride stained their faces. Torres never forgot how much Julio Cesar Chavez meant to the two men he admired most.
It was a scene that played out countless times in countless Mexican-American households, and it resonates to this day with one of the world's most accomplished and respected mixed martial artists.
"I remember watching the emotions it brought out in my dad and uncle when Chavez fought," said Torres, whose father dropped anchor in the United States as a teenager.
In homage to Chavez and his Mexican heritage, Torres, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with a gaudy 37-2 record, enters the cage to the sounds of a live mariachi band. Such charisma and showmanship made the former bantamweight champion one of World Extreme Cagefighting's most dependable draws.
A disciple of the late Carlson Gracie, Torres has enjoyed two winning streaks of 17 fights or longer during his decorated career -- a feat almost unheard of in a sport in which defeat lurks around every corner. Like many Hispanic fighters, Torres draws strength from his roots: pugilistic pioneers such as Chavez, Salvador Sanchez and Ruben Olivares.
"It defines the type of fighter I am, the type of fighter I've become," Torres said. "The Mexican style is a real aggressive, in-your-face style. It's what I grew up watching and learning from the men in my family."
UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian -- whose parents relocated to Boston's suburbs from Peru in the late 1960s -- embraces a rich Hispanic background as well. His father, who now serves as a thoracic surgeon in Massachusetts, taught Florian the value in a good struggle.
"They never handed anything to us," said Florian, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Peru. "My father was a very, very hard worker, so we didn't really get to see him too much. He worked hard to provide us with the best life possible. He's a very determined human being. He wanted to be a doctor since he was 8 years old. Being a foreigner, he knew he had to outwork everyone else."
A runner-up in the inaugural season of "The Ultimate Fighter," Florian has made two unsuccessful passes at the UFC lightweight championship, losing by decision to Sean Sherk in 2006 and submitting to B.J. Penn's rear-naked choke in August. He admires his parents for the sacrifices they made, sacrifices from which he benefits.
"They wanted a better life," Florian said. "Latin American governments weren't -- and still aren't -- as stable as they are here. You can't have a good life. Things were tough there."
Hispanic athletes now hold a more prominent piece of the MMA pie. Ranked among the world's elite featherweights, Leonard Garcia carries his nationalistic pride with him into the cage. His grandparents came to America in the 1930s and built a foundation for their family despite the many obstacles they encountered.
"That's the reason I wear the Mexico shorts and a Mexico mouthpiece," Garcia said. "My grandpa and grandma were born down there. It's a big part of my life. I spent so much time with them, in fact, I didn't speak English. When I got into kindergarten, Spanish was my first language."
Stories of Garcia's ancestry were passed down to him from his father. The 30-year-old UFC veteran recognizes the hurdles his grandparents had to clear.
"Growing up, my dad used to tell us stuff -- not too many details, but stuff about the war down there, stories his dad told him," Garcia said. "Moving here and having their kids go to English-speaking schools and only speaking Spanish, I'm sure it was hard. My grandfather never learned English."
Now a mainstay in the WEC's featherweight division, Garcia holds victories against former UFC lightweight king Jens Pulver and Dream featherweight grand prix finalist Hiroyuki Takaya. He thinks often of how his career might have turned out differently had his grandparents not made the decision to uproot and pursue a better life across the border.
"I think about it all the time," said Garcia, who will lock horns with "TUF" Season 5 runner-up Manny Gamburyan at WEC 44 next month. "If they hadn't come here, would boxing have been my trade instead of MMA? I might have gotten a late start. I still think I would have been a fighter. Fighting's not something you choose; it's something that chooses you. This is my life's path."
Perhaps no competitor in MMA has a stronger tie to the Mexican community than Efrain Escudero, the "TUF" Season 8 lightweight winner who was born in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico. The 23-year-old returns home regularly to the city of roughly 160,000, often humbled by the experience.
"It's an eye-opener to go back and have to see your brothers and sisters struggling to make ends meet," Escudero said. "My brother goes to work at 5 a.m., gets home around 5 p.m. and gets paid six or seven dollars a day. Only my little sister, my mom and me are here [in the U.S.]. I have three brothers and a sister there."
Escudero's father was first to cross the border; Efrain followed at age "6 or 7." The adjustments they were forced to make were significant, as life in a new country was filled with potholes.
"There were times when I thought, 'Why couldn't I have been born in the U.S.?'" Escudero said. "There were a lot of problems trying to get into schools. Now that I think about all the struggles, everything played its part."
Escudero's father died a week before taping began for his son's season of "The Ultimate Fighter" and never saw Efrain's rise to prominence. However, vows made were kept by the younger Escudero, 23, who now resides in Tempe, Ariz.
"He made me promise that, no matter what, I would go on the show and do my best, and that's what I did," Escudero said. "I'm still keeping the dream going."
Unbeaten in 12 professional bouts, Escudero stopped American Top Team's Cole Miller on first-round strikes at UFC 103 last month. A state wrestling champion in high school and an All-American at Pima Community College, he clings to the values that were instilled in him by parents and grandparents who dared to dream of a more fruitful existence.
"They taught me to be happy with what you got," Escudero said. "If you work hard for something and you want it, you have to earn it. Nothing comes easy in life."
Brian Knapp is a contributor to Sherdog.com.