It's hard to believe that after last night's split-decision loss to Gray Maynard, fighting could be in the rearview mirror of Roger Huerta's life. Back around the time that the UFC re-emerged into the spotlight of mainstream media, roughly around UFC 66, Huerta became one of the UFC's go-to guys as a front man and fighter. Now, he's likely on the way out.
Because of his decision, Huerta has faced derision and scorn from some fans and insiders, who would like to revise history and say he was never a "real fighter" and was handed opportunities instead of earning them. They say his decision to leave MMA for acting shows that he was never really dedicated to the sport. But the reality is so much deeper.
I had the chance to interview Huerta many times over the years. I had the chance to talk to him about his horrific childhood, his burning desire to be successful and carve out some happiness for himself.
He told me of a story early in his life of being abducted by his mom (his parents had split up and his father had custody) and taken to war-ravaged El Salvador, where he'd routinely scramble under the bed during nearby gunfire blasts; about being physically abused by his stepmother and ultimately thrown out of his house when he was in the sixth grade; about being a homeless kid so scared at night that he'd climb on rooftops to sleep.
He told me about walking into his father's house when he was 15 years old -- after he'd already been abandoned by both his mom and dad -- and seeing his father high on drugs. Roger was moving to Austin, Texas, leaving the past behind, and he wanted to tell his father, maybe say a real good-bye after not seeing him in months. His father seemed unmoved.
"I'm going to become something, great, something huge," Huerta told his dad with his voice breaking before walking out of that house forever.
To Huerta, sports and education was his way out. He became a top wrestler and moved on to Augsburg College. While there, he took up MMA and proved a natural. The UFC signed him after he started his pro career with a 13-1-1 record. He was just 23 years old.
Huerta immersed himself in the sport. Every UFC event I attended, Huerta always seemed to be there, whether he was fighting or not. He was always accessible and giving of his time. He loved talking about the sport, its fighters and mingling with fans. I remember once seeing him in the arena as it was being set up for a show. The arena was empty except for the workers and a few UFC employees working on pre-fight preparation. But there Huerta was, sitting in the stands with Lorenzo Fertitta, just picking his brain. He immersed himself in MMA. I asked him what he did for fun, and he smiled. This was it.
"This is my girlfriend," he said then. "I don't have time for anything else."
So complete was Huerta's devotion to MMA that he once told me he wouldn't touch his next drop of alcohol until he was 28. His body was his tool for success and he refused to compromise it.
So what went wrong? As we often find, sports don't always love the athlete back. Huerta was always a guy who received negative backlash. Don't get me wrong; he had many fans, but because of his good looks and a perceived undeserved push from the UFC brass, many resented him. People ripped him for the smallest perceived slights, like the fact that the American-born Huerta chose to honor his Mexican heritage by wearing the country's colors on his trunks.
I remember being at cageside at UFC 74 when Huerta fought Alberto Crane, a highly decorated jiu-jitsu black belt. At one point, Crane looked as though he was going to roll into an arm bar. A pair of fairly high-profile UFC fighters were sitting directly behind me on press row. One of them screamed out, "Rip his f***ing arm off!" The other wanted to see the "pretty boy" cry. Huerta escaped the hold and went on to win by TKO, but the duo made their dislike of Huerta very obvious, and they were hardly alone.
He finally seemed to win over some respect when he choked out Clay Guida in December 2007, but less than two years later, it appears it's time to move on. Huerta is signed to a movie development deal, and his decision to leave MMA probably did not come easy.
The sport will move on without him, but how can its fans deny him a chance to do something different? After last night, how can anyone deny that he had as much heart as any fighter we've seen? Maynard locked that kimura so deep behind Huerta's back that clearly awed commentator Kenny Florian described it by saying that Huerta could comb the hair on the back of his head. Huerta had nothing to gain by continuing on; he easily could have tapped and called it a night and no one would have blamed him. Everyone knew it was the last fight on his UFC deal, so there was no promise of bigger bouts in the future, no bigger contract waiting for him, no reward for risking his shoulder being torn apart.
Huerta simply refused to tap because he's never tapped in his life. And at 26, he has been fighting his entire life. Maybe that's why he's tired of it. Maybe that's why he needs a break. Maybe that's why acting is attractive to him, a chance to play make-pretend.
Most MMA observers think Huerta will be back at some point. Other organizations would love to welcome him, and I would bet the UFC would jump at the chance to bring him back. But other people want a piece of Huerta, too. He gave up his childhood to terrible struggle and the early part of his adulthood to the most difficult sport in the world. He earned the opportunities that have come his way and now, it's time for him to do whatever he wants. He deserves it. And when and if he finds his way back, we should all be waiting with open arms for the return of a man who is more of a fighter than many would ever care to admit.