When Tecia Torres steps inside the cage at UFC 273 against Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu whizz Mackenzie Dern, she'll do so riding arguably her finest win streak to date. Adding Dern to that list will catapult her into the title picture, but how does a fighter who has suffered defeat to every single Strawweight champion in history stake her claim at the throne?
When Torres dropped a fourth consecutive loss against Marina Rodriguez in 2019, fans and analysts alike believed she may have been on the cusp of being let go by the promotion. She'd just fought two undefeated prospects back-to-back in Weili Zhang and the aforementioned Rodriguez; the UFC had clearly switched their intentions for Torres from title contender to perennial gatekeeper.
Torres' small frame - once a tool she used to tornado her way in and out of striking distance - was starting to be a detriment. In that four-fight losing streak, Jessica Andrade & Weili Zhang overpowered her while Joanna Jędrzejczyk & Rodriguez picked her apart with ease. The reach and lack of strength relative to the top contenders were evident for all to see.
So how is it that, since the loss to Rodriguez in 2019, we are now discussing Torres' title aspirations once more? The Tiny Tornado is still relatively undersized for the weight class and hasn't managed to avenge losses to any of the four women mentioned above.
She has, however, begun to amass a winning streak that's impossible to ignore. And it all started in 2020 against Brianna Fortino.
In hindsight, the Fortino fight was perfect matchmaking by the UFC. It was yet another attempt to build a young, promising fighter off of Torres' name. This time, however, there would be no serious physical mismatch. Fortino - probably the smallest fighter in the weight class - entered the bout as a slight favourite on a 4-fight win streak and undefeated in the promotion.
As the two fighters stood across one another in the cage, it was clear that we were about to see a new and refined version of Torres. In the 10 months we had not seen her fight, she put in some serious work at the gym to up her strength. This was the most ripped and imposing physique of her career to date.
Torres opened the fight with her patented kicking game, landing to the body of Fortino twice and marginally whiffing on a head kick attempt. Fortino immediately catches another attempt to the body and tries to impose her physicality on Torres.
While Fortino does eventually get the takedown, it's after a lot of hard work up against the fence. Even then, Torres pops right back up seconds later. From this point on, a new Torres was born. She wasn't going to be pressed against the fence or repeatedly taken down; her obvious increased strength - paired with solid defensive technique - nullified Fortino's gameplan perfectly.
In the second round, Torres started to take over and began to feel herself. The right kick to all areas of Fortino's body landed at ease, including an axe kick that Torres chained into a flurry of strikes. The relentless onslaught continued for the remainder of the fight with Torres claiming a unanimous decision win (30-27 across the board). Her first victory in three years.
Torres has always been renowned for her speed and output at 115lbs but this renewed version of her skillset is bolstered by increased strength in the clinch and wrestling exchanges.
Six months after the Fortino fight, Torres entered the cage again. Initially scheduled to fight Angela Hill, the fight was cancelled and in stepped Sam Hughes on short notice. Hughes was making her UFC debut with a record of 4-1 and a reputation as a finisher with most of her fights ending by submission in the first round. While she was a heavy betting underdog on the night, it still posed an interesting question for Torres: how would she fare now that she was, once again, facing a fighter with a significant reach and height advantage over her?
Torres answered that question with just 5 minutes of work. She beat Hughes from pillar to post.
The output of strikes was relentless:
And the wrestling powerful:
Hughes ran into a version of Torres that most fighters at Strawweight would've crumbled against on the night, irrespective of rankings. Torres secured the first TKO of her then 17-fight career when the doctor stopped the fight before the second round. Hughes couldn't see out of her left eye following a beautifully placed superman punch by Torres in the opening frame of the fight.
Just like that, the Tiny Tornado was riding a 2-fight win streak for the first time since 2017. 2020 had been a year of reinvention and a renewed intensity.
The Angela Hill Rematch
In 2021, the fight with Angela Hill finally materialised. The two had fought six years prior, back when they had a combined seven professional MMA bouts and neither fighter had ever tasted defeat. Torres got her hand raised then but, in 2021, the Angela Hill standing across from her in the octagon was an entirely different fighter. One of the most credentialed Muay Thai specialists at Strawweight, Hill entered the fight with Torres off the back of a win and hungry for revenge six years in the making.
At that point, Hill had reached her highest point in the sport to date. Despite her record not telling the full picture, many believe that Hill should have gotten the nod in her fights against Michelle Waterson and Claudia Gadelha. She was a fan favourite and gearing toward title contention. The controversial losses to the aforementioned brought her title hopes to a halt but her talent and quality continued to be recognised by all.
Tecia Torres 2.0 was about to face the toughest opponent of her latest win streak. Her first fight in front of fans since the loss to Rodriguez and her first fight on the main card of a Pay-Per-View event since the loss to Zhang. The UFC was finally back in the Tiny Tornado business.
The teep kicks and side kicks immediately caused a problem for Hill whose entire game is predicated on crowding her opponent into the clinch. Torres was keeping her at bay whenever she would get close and punishing an off-balance Hill with pitter-patter shots to the face.
When Hill did eventually manage to engage in the clinch, Torres resisted giving her back up against the cage and disengaged comfortably. Hill's frustration became more visible the longer the fight went on. For a fighter with a proclivity for throwing strikes down the middle (elbows, knees, front kicks), she struggled to find her balance and rhythm. Torres had perfectly executed the game plan.
There's a moment where Torres baits the overhand right, gets a reaction out of Hill and ducks into a well-timed takedown. It's a split-second adjustment that speaks levels of the offensive grappling improvements she has made.
Torres would go on to defend 5/7 takedowns and land 144 significant strikes for good measure. While she isn't the most efficient striker - nor does she deal concussive damage - her striking game works to disrupt the rhythm of her opponents and back them up.
The patented body kick was on full display too:
Torres claimed a unanimous decision victory (30-27x2, 29-28) and yet another win over Hill - this one more decisive than the last. It was a victory that woke many up to the resurgence Torres is having and even this writer is starting to whisper her name as part of the title picture at Strawweight.
UFC 273 - Can she beat Mackenzie Dern?
When the cage door locks behind Torres on Saturday at UFC 273, she has a chance to silence all of her doubters. Even with her 3-fight win streak, there are still many who doubt her ability due to the losses suffered between 2018 & 2019.
Dern is one of the most dangerous fighters at 115lbs. She has parlayed her world-class Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with an improved boxing game under Jason Parillo. She has finished 7 of her 11 wins all by submission, including one of the best the UFC has ever seen when she kneebarred Hannah Cifers.
Dern's two losses have come at the hands of Amanda Ribas - her return to fighting after giving birth - and a semi-competitive fight against Rodriguez. The latter a familiar name for Torres - the last person to beat her and the catalyst for this resurgence.
Torres hasn't reinvented her game. She's always been a heavy kicker, fast striker and gutsy grappler when necessary. A switch in mentality and a stronger frame have been the key to her recent success. Due to her stronger frame, she's been able to defend from wrestling exchanges with more consistency as well as impose her own offensive grappling. She's picking fighters up and dumping them on their backsides now.
In theory, Dern should be able to close the distance against the less rangy Torres with her boxing. She's far from technically adept but she doesn't really have to be. She can just bite down on her mouthpiece and swing hooks with the intention of backing her opponent up against the fence and getting them to the ground. After all, it's on the ground where she does her best work.
Against a fighter like Torres whose entire striking game is predicated on whether or not she can establish her kicking game, Dern could very well grab a lazy leg kick and take Torres down to the mat.
The only problem with Dern's path to victory - and we saw it against Rodriguez - is that she doesn't have a wrestling game. Like many great BJJ practitioners in the world of MMA, chaining a takedown and getting a fighter to the mat is not Dern's strong suit. She carries a woeful 10% takedown accuracy with only three successful takedowns across her eight UFC bouts.
Torres' improved wrestling defence should hold up against Dern, provided she keeps her kicks tight and doesn't throw them around lazily. It wouldn't come as a surprise if Torres herself took Dern to the ground and worked from top position. Dern hasn't shown much of a bottom-game when she's had her back down on the canvas. Virna Jandiroba managed to do some good work against her from top position and Ribas too spent almost two minutes on top of Dern with no real threat.
If you combine the sub-par wrestling of Dern with the fact that Torres has never been finished in her entire professional career (18 fights and counting), it does provide a lot of confidence for those hedging their bets on the Tiny Tornado this weekend. She enters the fight as a slight underdog.
Should the fight stay standing, Torres has enough of a disruptive pace and output to swarm Dern in the striking department. A win for Torres would likely push her up to #5 in the division.
It's hard to vouch for a fighter that has lost to every single Strawweight champion in UFC history (Andrade, Jędrzejczyk, Rose Namajunas, Zhang and Carla Esparza), especially when they're nearing 33 years of age.
She has a win over the current champion and a controversial decision loss to Namajunas too. While the judges saw the fight in favour of Namajunas, many fans and media members alike scored the fight for Torres.
Here's Torres dropping the champ in their second fight:
There's an interesting enough storyline there to make a potential fight appealing to the UFC. Torres is quite outspoken and not a slouch on the microphone so one would suspect she stakes a claim with a win on Saturday.
The truth of the matter is that she would still have Zhang, Esparza and Rodriguez ahead of her in the rankings. She's lost handily to all three in the past and all three have experienced significant improvements in the years since.
Namajunas is tapped to defend her belt against Esparza later this year. It would be of benefit for Torres that Namajunas continues retaining the belt while she moves up the ladder.
With a win against Dern on Saturday, Torres would probably be another win off an actual title shot. And that win would need to come off the back of someone she's struggled against in the past.
Irrespective of gold, stardom and all the things that come with sitting on the throne of a UFC weight class, Torres has a lot to be proud of. It takes a strong amount of mental fortitude to carve out a winning streak after losing four in a row against fighters you are supposed to be competitive against. She's hit her prime physical peak and this is probably the best version of Torres that we will ever see in the octagon. It may not culminate in a shot at the belt, but it's a career to be proud of for the Tiny Tornado.