Slowly, he evolved into Roger Huerta, the fighter. Roger Huerta the person almost no longer existed. Everything was about fighting. Everything. He would tell his trainer Dave Menne, "Here's my life, take it," and then do whatever his coach told him to get better.
It didn't matter. The people who loved him still love him, and the ones who hated him...
Huerta could seemingly always brush aside those bringing negativity. He'd faced enough adversity in his past that a few words weren't going to hurt him, and they certainly wouldn't stop him from reaching his goals. In fact, they would push him forward. They would fuel him, just the way the swirl of emotion surrounding his youth would sometimes boil up and energize him.
But every man has his breaking point, and Huerta's came not in defeat, but in victory.
In December 2007, Huerta was trailing Clay Guida after two rounds of action. He'd been taken down repeatedly, had been nearly knocked out in the second round and knew he was behind on the judges' scorecards. He somehow needed to finish a fighter who is rarely finished. When he came out to start the third, the UFC cameras caught a look of concentration on his face that can only be described as "primal." And in some ways, it was.
"All this energy I had in the third round, it was weird. It was me but it was almost like it wasn't me," he said. "It was 24 years of pain, and it all bundled up into that third round. I literally went out there willing to die. I was almost willing to take his life at that point, and when the fight was over and done, I felt so exposed afterward. It made me really emotional. It messed with my head."
What happened in the months that followed essentially amounts to a spiritual quest. People never think about the psychological toll of a sport that demands you to physically dominate or be dominated. But coupled with a non-existent childhood that left him abandoned by his birth parents and a young adulthood that had him struggling to fit in somewhere and later to excel at a sport that is unapologetically a survival of the fittest, and Huerta was emotionally fried.
"I started thinking about things," he said. "I started thinking about the past, where I am headed and where is it all going to go? I started wondering, What does this all mean? Is this what I am supposed to do: to fight? And am I supposed to enjoy the ride? Maybe I look too deep into it. I don't know."
Huerta says that during that time, he kept hearing a phrase that pushed his introspections.
"Everyone that would describe me, or would come up to me would say, 'Roger Huerta, the fighter. The fighter. UFC fighter. MMA fighter," he says. "To me, yes, being a fighter is part of my life, but I wanted to tell people, 'I'm not a fighting machine.' I was burning out. I felt like I'd worked so hard and devoted so much and I had to grow up so early... I wanted things to start slowing down a bit. Not every day had to be a fight."
That's not to say that Huerta ever questioned his own fighting ability. Though he did hear doubts from others. He heard it from fans, media, even other fighters.
The critics got louder after he lost to Kenny Florian when he returned in August 2008. After fighting five times in '07, Huerta had taken his first extended break, but says he was never able to fully get his head back in the game before the fight. He also faced another distraction leading up to the bout when comments he made to FIGHT! Magazine regarding his UFC contract situation became news fodder. During the leadup to the fight, the trademark Huerta smile was gone.
"I wasn't mentally healed or ready from the Guida fight," he said. "I went into that fight like a deer in headlights. I wasn't focused."
After his first UFC loss, Huerta basically disappeared from the MMA scene, soon after announcing that he would finish the one remaining fight on his UFC deal before concentrating on his new interest in acting.
On the night Huerta walked into the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City to face Gray Maynard, he was sure this would be his last time in the cage. It had been 13 months since his last bout, no new contract negotiations had begun and after filming his first movie, he'd been receiving scripts for other possible projects.
On the personal front, things were looking up. He'd moved back from Minnesota to Austin, Texas, to be closer to his adoptive mother Jo Ramirez, and her family.
"I came home," he says. "I needed my mom. I needed my family. I needed people that really cared about me. And it's interesting because I got rejuvenated. My battery got charged up again because I knew they're behind me. And when I was fighting, I knew I wasn't in there alone."
The fight was a close one. Huerta lost a split-decision to the surging Maynard, but during the course of the fight, Huerta authored a moment that will be seared into the minds of MMA watchers for a long time. In the third round, Maynard locked in a kimura. The hold was deep, and Maynard cranked it in hopes of a submission win.
As Maynard applied more torque to the hold and rotated Huerta's shoulder behind him at a disturbing angle, referee Dan Miragliotta stood watch, ready for a tapout that seemed immiment. After bending Huerta's arm about as far as the human appendage can go, Maynard told Miragliotta, "I'm breaking it!" Huerta, who could say nothing because Maynard had his leg covering his mouth, shook his head, telling Miragliotta not to stop the fight. Eventually, Huerta worked his way out.
"Maybe it was just the adrenaline, or maybe it was God protecting my arm," said Huerta, who suffered only a strained shoulder and elbow and was back working out within days. "I'll tell you this much: When he did start cranking it, I said, 'If it goes, it goes.' Even if it did break, I wouldn't tap. I thought, 'I'm not tapping. I'm finishing this fight.'
"I'm not going to lie: it hurt," he continued. "But I was willing for it to pop or break. If it happened I wasn't going to stop. I have my left hand and we're going to finish the fight. That's what was in my mind."
That type of never-say-die attitude has taken Huerta this far in life, and somewhere during the course of his scrap with Maynard, it re-lit the competitive fire within him. Somewhere between ending the first round having stuffed Maynard's takedown tries and leaving the third with his shoulder in its socket and his pride intact, Huerta knew he still had more to give to the sport.
This time around, however, he's going to go about things differently. MMA will not be his only vocation, passion and pastime. He still wants to act. His first film, Tekken, will be released in November (Huerta's character has a major fight scene in the movie). He also has a contract with Lionsgate for three movies ("I'm open for any roles. Whatever is challenging. I think I can rise to the occasion," he said).
Huerta says his next MMA destination is up in the air, and that he will follow the advice of his manager, Jeff Clark. He hasn't talked to UFC President Dana White or matchmaker Joe Silva since his fight. For the longest time, people identified him as a UFC fighter, but it's possible that might no longer be the case. It's a prospect that sounds strange even to Huerta himself.
"I've never talked to anyone else, I've never been to any other show, I've never seen any other promotions, nothing," he said. "All I know is the UFC. I've been with them since 2006 until this point. They're all I know. I don't know what anything else would feel like or be like."
If this is the end for him in the UFC, the irony is that some of the fans and fighters who looked at him as undeserving of the spotlight whether for his looks or a perceived favoritism found out in his fights with Guida and Maynard that nothing could be further from the truth.
Huerta's voice breaks when he thinks about all the denigration that's come his way.
"I think I've delivered every time I've been out there," he said. "I think I have. We're paid to be fighters and don't hold back. I've never held back. Every time I walked to that cage, I gave it everything I had. I don't know man, I've given everything to this sport. It sucks. It's sad. Even now I get criticized. At the end it's almost like it's not good enough, never good enough."
The people who loved him still love him, and the ones who hated him? They are less in numbers and in importance. There are other things in life than fighting for him now. He has acting, he has family and friends surrounding him, and for the first time in a long time, he is living a life more in line with his age, a life with balance. Every day doesn't have to be a fight, and every day, he doesn't have to be Roger Huerta, the fighter.
"I think I'm very happy with what I've done," he said. "I gave them everything that I am. What you saw in me, what you've seen in me in fighting and outside the ring, that's who I am. It's as real as I can be."