In Paradise: Roger Huerta finds peace halfway across the world

Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

It's 11:03 a.m. in Phuket, Thailand, and Roger Huerta is thinking about the water. Green palm trees sway lazily in the breeze, scattered in tight bunches across the nearly three-acre landscape at Tiger Muay Thai. Huerta shields the sun's rays with his hands, waves goodbye to one of his students then checks the time. Four hours before the next class, give or take. Kata Beach is only a 16-minute motorbike ride away. Plenty of time. This is paradise, after all.

Huerta deposits his sweat stained gi, then leans back and recalls his latest day trip off the northwestern Strait of Malacca, where limestone cliffs raise high above coral vistas. "Phi Phi Island is one of the most beautiful and exotic coasts I've ever seen," he says.

"It's just amazing. You take a ferry from town, one of those big boats; to get over there is just two hours. The water is so clear, so beautiful and so welcoming. It's amazing. It's beautiful there."

Huerta smiles as the crystal waves dance throughout his thoughts. Last May, Huerta turned 30. It's a weird number for him to consider. Years ago, when he was UFC's next big thing, a Sports Illustrated coverboy equal parts handsome and ferocious, the supposed key to unlocking the Latin American market, praise and expectations were partners in his day-to-day, and 30 seemed like a far off venue.

Everything would be figured out by the time he reached that mark, Huerta promised himself. He'd be able to live life how he wanted. The kid who worked from childhood to adulthood, would no longer have to work to live. To Huerta, that was the most important.

And in a way, everything went according to plan. Even if it didn't really.

These days Huerta is somewhat of a forgotten man; a ‘where are they now,' half due to circumstance, and half due to his desire to simply escape it all. Though it's true, the two were, at times, one in the same.

Huerta first ventured to Thailand's shores in 2009. He can't exactly remember why, but after passing on a lucrative UFC contract to pursue an acting career, Huerta just knew he craved something different.

He ended up training kickboxing in the thick Thai jungle and thrived. All those old neuroses, little things like checking a cell phone every five minutes, they dissolved into the warm tropical air. The serenity relived a weight he didn't know he shouldered.

Huerta returned the following February. He stayed in the region for six months, traveling everywhere he could between fights. Thailand, Singapore, Bali, even Australia; no matter where he went, Huerta toured by day, then soaked in the local culture by night. For an abandoned child raised on western spite, the lifestyle felt dreamlike, wrested straight from the pages of Thoreau, and Huerta fell in love with it.

Eventually, after a 2:00 a.m. nightclub incident in Austin went viral overnight, and the TMZ crowd crowned "El Matador" a reluctant anti-bullying folk hero, Huerta decided it was time. He packed everything up and moved halfway across to the world, adopting Phuket's coastal stillness as his new home.

"I don't know why," he says. "I guess I just felt more free out here. In the States I just felt I had," Huerta pauses, "Pressure.

"Everyone knew me as this fighter that could be really great. I could become a great UFC champion. And that pressure, to me, was too much. It was everywhere. My friends, my family, everybody in the UFC. Everyone said, ‘You can be really great at this.' I just felt like being a fighter wasn't my whole life. It didn't complete me. Obviously there's going to be a cost to that."

Huerta felt that realization creep on slowly. Over time, it consumed him.

Still, he admits, there was a chapter in his life when he wanted to be the world's best. Fighting came natural. It was an outlet to channel the leftover rage of his younger days.

Huerta's parents split when he was young, and soon after, his mother Lydia became abusive. The bruises on his body eventually landed Roger in a foster home. Lydia lost the resulting custody battle, but abducted Roger and bolted to El Salvador, abandoning Roger on his grandparents' door step in the midst of a countrywide civil war. Dangers along the war-torn streets were a daily worry, until Lydia returned less than a year later. This time she abandoned her child on the doorstep of his drug addict father, Rogelio, in Texas. Roger never again saw his mother.

Rogelio, like Lydia, dumped Roger on his impoverished grandparents. As a small child, Roger sold trinkets on the side of Mexican roads, hoping to coax meal money out of sympathetic tourists. Rogelio reclaimed Roger the following year, but eventually he too skipped town, and his wife, Roger's abusive stepmother, threw the discarded teenager out on the Texas streets. There a local gang leader and drug dealer, Joel, took him under his wing. An unlikely savior, Joel supplied Roger with clothes and school supplies and convinced him to pursue an education, which led Roger to meet Jo Ramirez, the high school teacher who ultimately adopted the troubled boy.

After surviving a such tragic upbringing, fighting became something Huerta could make his own.

Once Huerta grasped his ability, he worked tirelessly to hone it. The UFC targeted Huerta as a potential crossover star, offering him a rare slow-build treatment instead of throwing him to the wolves. UFC President Dana White called Huerta a "dream come true." And by his own acknowledgement, Huerta refused to think of anything else. He didn't go out, he didn't drink, he didn't have a girlfriend. The pressure swelled into rolling boil, and Huerta simply worked. Everyday, nonstop. Even atop the MMA world, he was, in his own words, a machine. Slowly, it took its toll.

Star-divide

It's June 23, 2012 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Roger Huerta is crawling on all fours. The world is fuzzy, and with a flash, the shinbone of Zorobabel Moriera collapses it into black. One ultraviolent image. Huerta crumples, outstretched; a bloody, unconscious heap adorning the canvas.

It's Huerta's sixth loss in seven fights. This time he didn't even try. He trained for two weeks, if you could call it that. A two-mile jog in the morning, then some light pad work in the afternoon. That was it. The culmination of a slow decay of his own well-being.

Huerta hasn't fought since.

"It woke me up. I'll be honest," he says in a low voice. "I blame myself."

'Everyone knew me as this fighter that could become a great UFC champion. And that pressure, to me, was too much.'

The demons that began years before in the U.S. had followed Huerta to Thailand. At first, he was still a name. Bellator lauded its signing of the American. Huerta was to be a star. Again things didn't pan out, then UWF did the same. ONE FC followed. With each passing defeat, Huerta's desire shook. He began to barely resemble his old self.

"At first, all I had in my mind was to be the best," Huerta says. "If that's all you're thinking about, you're not thinking about anything else. You're not thinking about anybody else in the world. But I just didn't want to be that anymore. I needed to get away from it.

"I don't want to say I was self-destructive, but I just didn't care for my well-being, I suppose. I was just doing things to do them."

Huerta's relevance gradually faded. He walked Thailand's streets, torn between the natural beauty and pervasive poverty that surrounded him. Homeless children peddled trinkets on the side of road, just like that parentless little boy used to do in Mexico, and fighting felt small. A chore, rather than a lifestyle. Huerta lost focus, his mind drifted to dangerous recesses.

"He fought four or five times in a row injured," recalls Tiger Muay Thai head MMA coach Brian Ebersole. "It's like, what are you doing? He'd say, ‘Well, I don't want to let them down.'"

When asked, Huerta just sighs. "I started thinking about my opponent's family. I started thinking about the guy who has to win to feed his family and pay his rent. You can't think that way as a fighter. If he wins, he'll really help out his future. I'm okay with that. And I shouldn't be, because I'm supposed to be competing and being the best. Right?"

The question plagued Huerta up until the moment Moriera soccer kicked him into darkness.

Within days, the .gif made the internet rounds. Huerta's unconscious body splattered across the ONE FC cage, posted and reposted on every forum or blog even vaguely related to MMA. Onlookers squealed, some in horror and some in morbid delight. Huerta watched the replay, then watched it again. It must've been a bizarre sight. Hollywood-like violence inflicted on a man vaguely familiar, but the memory long faded.

At some point, Huerta says, something clicked.

"I snapped out of it."

Star-divide

It's 8:31 p.m. in Phuket, Thailand, and Coach Huerta is wrapping up the last class of the day. A dark blue rash guard clutches tightly to his skin, as a room full of fighters say their goodbyes and wearily trudge towards the door. Last winter Huerta became an assistant MMA instructor at Tiger Muay Thai. Mornings are jiu-jitsu. Nighttime is no-gi. Monday and Friday afternoons are sparring, Tuesday and Thursdays are American wrestling, and Wednesday is technique.

It's rewarding work, Huerta says; a chance for him to give back to the sport that gave him so much. He trains and teaches. He stares at the rumbling ocean waves and allows his mind to wander. Tiger Muay Thai provides housing and meal plans. The beach and the mats provide his escapes. Plus, Ebersole adds, "The girls are pretty much taken with him."

It's a simple life; the one Huerta always wanted, even if he never knew it.

"I think, before, I wasn't proud of my accomplishments," Huerta says. "But man, looking back, I worked really, really hard to put myself in that situation. I had to fight so much. I'm proud of those moments.

"Seeing where I came from at a young age, being in that situation where I'm a little kid working in Mexico, I never pictured that kid being a professional athlete, being on the cover of SI one day.

"I'm grateful, man," Huerta continues. "I was grateful being in the UFC. I was grateful for what I had done there. That helped me so much. It gave me a sense of freedom. The sport of MMA itself helped me have that freedom. I love that, and I just feel grateful and thankful."

Once, in a past life, Huerta strove to finish a bachelors degree in business management. Several of his friends did the same. All besides Huerta landed in monotone office jobs; new devotees to America's 60-hour work week, since 40 is never enough to give oneself the lifestyle one deserves. Whatever that means.

Perhaps Huerta would've been happy there. He doubts it, though. After all, he'd just be working to live. And he promised himself he wouldn't do that.

Huerta can't name a favorite moment from his glory days. He isn't the keeper of a vast memorabilia stash and he doesn't own a copy of his infamous SI cover, though he's sure Ramirez has one somewhere. Moms always do. But the fact that Huerta has embraced those flashes is progress enough. They're as much a part of his story as anything else.

"I think he's moved on from the reasons for fighting that he had when he was younger," Ebersole says of his friend.

"When you're young, you just kind of fight because it's the next thing to do. It's always when are you fighting next, next, next. The ‘what have you done for me lately.' He's had a mental shift in his life."

Call it a product of turning 30. Call it a product of uncovering a new passion. Hell, call it a product of watching your lowest moment replayed into jeering infinity. But these days Huerta barely resembles the man who buried himself so low.

"You can't live life for tomorrow," he says. It's an old cliché, but it's one Huerta is fond of. And despite it's hackneyed significance, it's true. Anything can happen. "I could drive my minibike into an accident today and I won't be around anymore. If you're done, you're done."

Huerta isn't ready to say he's retired. He has a standing contract with ONE FC, and he casually suggests he could be back as soon as December if he stays healthy. The date, though, seems anything but firm.

The truth is, even Huerta isn't sure what comes next.

"I don't know. Honestly," Huerta says. He pauses to take a long breath. "I don't know and I'm alright with that.

"Honestly man, I'm not indebted to anything or anyone. When I was in the UFC, I had to pay off student loans, I mortgaged my home, I had phones, credit cards, everything. I'm not playing catch up now. I'm not trying to catch up to anything. That, in itself, I get to appreciate.

"The benefits are living in paradise," he finishes with a chuckle. "I'm happy with that."

It's funny, the way life plays out. There was a time when Huerta worried deeply about his future. It consumed him. The troubled kid from the broken home trapped himself under the self-enforced weight of the world. He questioned whether he pushed hard enough, then pushed harder, even though it never did him any good.

Now despite it all, he carries no regrets. His path has been organic. However wobbly the turns may have been, they all lead him here. To the beaches of Phunket, to the mats of Tiger Muay Thai, to a life of freedom. To happiness.

"There's some things in this world that you cannot control. You just can't," Huerta smiles.

"The world is beautiful. At the same time, it's cruel. It keeps you down. You just can't let that happen."

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