Popular former UFC lightweight contender Roger Huerta became the highest-profile fighter to join the upstart promotion, inking a deal to take part in the upcoming season two lightweight tournament. Huerta will make his debut on an April 8 show in Hollywood, Fla. against an opponent that could be named by the end of the week.
"I'm coming back with a chip on my shoulder. I have desire and a lot of hunger. You have no idea what's really going on inside of me right now," said Huerta, who repeatedly voiced his eagerness to get back in the cage.
Huerta entertained offers from several organizations including Strikeforce and Bellator before finally deciding on the Chicago-based organization. He added that he has no hard feelings towards the UFC and thanked them for the opportunity to launch his career, saying, "I wouldn't be where I was today without them."
The 26-year-old said the key factor in his decision was the ability to fight consistently after a pair of long layoffs. Bellator's eight-man, single elimination tournaments take place over a 12-week span, and each fighter who makes it to the finals will fight three times during that stretch.
"The main thing for me was I wanted to fight constantly," he said. "Since I was out so long, this is the best way for me to fight constantly and it's up to me to continue to fight. It's going to be grueling. I'll fight in April, then on to May and June. But I want to continue to fight. I went from fighting five times in one year in '07, then once in '08 and '09. Now I can fight four times in 2010."
Huerta (21-3) made his name in the UFC, and at one time was riding as high as anyone in the sport. In the midst of a 17-fight unbeaten streak, he became the first MMA fighter ever featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The relationship between Huerta and the UFC began to unravel shortly after comments he made to FIGHT! Magazine regarding his contract became fodder for controversy, and he soon found himself burning out.
After Kenny Florian snapped Huerta's long unbeaten streak, Huerta voiced an interest in a new profession: acting. As he befriended noted thespians including Mickey Rourke, a 13-month layoff between fights ensued, until he stepped back into the cage, losing a close split-decision to Gray Maynard.
During that fight, however, his competitive fuse was re-lit. Huerta fought off a Maynard kimura attempt, but was angered that he didn't have time to retaliate before the fight ended. He knew then he still had the fighter's instinct. In recent weeks, he's made two trips to Phuket, Thailand in preparation for his return.
"I'm devoted and dedicated and you're going to see the guy you've been waiting for," he said.
If Huerta can make it through the first three rounds, he'll eventually face off with Bellator season one lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. The combination of the highly ranked Alvarez and the popular Huerta would be a dream scenario for Bellator, and Huerta promised it would happen.
"My goal was to be the world champion, to be one of the best in the world, and I have that opportunity now with Bellator," he said. "In going through this mountain of this tournament, you're going to see me fight three times; I guarantee you that. You will see that fight against Eddie. That's going to be awesome, too."
Other announced lightweight tournament fighters include Toby Imada, Ferrid Kheder and unbeatens Mike Ricci and Chad Hinton, yet none is likely to receive the attention that Huerta garners.
"As a fan, when I take the CEO hat off and put on the fan hat, he brings it every single time," said CEO Bjorn Rebney. "He does not have a reverse gear. He's the consummate fighter's fight, but he's got to be three fighters. If he can do that, he can fight Eddie Alvarez in a world title fight, which would be magical, but there's a road to be traveled before he gets there."