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Back to Drawing Board for Roger Huerta After Bellator Upset

BOSTON -- Roger Huerta stopped listening to the critics a long time ago. Whatever he was doing right never seemed to be enough for them. He doesn't know exactly what they'll be saying right now, only that it won't be good after being upset by little-known Pat Curran on Thursday night in the Bellator lightweight tournament semifinals at the Wang Theatre.

"To be honest I already expect the worst," Huerta said in an exclusive interview with MMA Fighting shortly after the bout. "When I was up and coming, I'd read the stuff people wrote online and I was like, 'Man, these people really hate me. I'm not going to get on here anymore.' So I expect the worst."

Know this: Huerta's rebounded from bigger setbacks than this. After all, he came from nothing. Once homeless and alone, he made himself a star through sheer will and hard work. He's done the impossible in the cage, too. Remember his primal comeback win over Clay Guida in Dec. 2007?

That said, Huerta's face couldn't hide his disappointment on Thursday: this one stung. He was as much as a 10-to-1 favorite to defeat Curran and advance to the lightweight finals, where many hoped he would emerge victorious and set up a brilliant superfight against Eddie Alvarez.

It's not going to happen. He was hardly dominated, as Curran won by receiving 29-28 scores from all three cageside judges. But the trademark Huerta aggression wasn't there from the early going, and he himself knew it.

Huerta admitted to coming out flat as Curran outstruck him over the first five minutes to take the round. Huerta seemed to establish himself in the second, scoring with a multitude of kicks that battered Curran's legs.

Even then, though, Huerta said he began to hear something that worried him. He says that because the audience was so quiet, he could hear Curran's corner cheering him on as though everything he threw was landing. Whether or not that affected ringside scorers is unknown, but Huerta also gave praise to his 22-year-old opponent, who easily could have wilted under the pressure of the close fight. Instead, he found answers for nearly everything Huerta threw in the final round, doing enough to win it on the judges' scorecards. A final, brief takedown at the end of the third might have cinched it.

Afterward, Huerta found his thoughts returning to that opening frame.

"I don't know why, but for some reason I was a little sleepy, kind of groggy," he said. "I was trying to wake myself up a bit. I remember thinking, 'I've got to wake up here. I've got to fight.' But it didn't come. Or it came too late."

Anyone who's seen Huerta fight in the recent past must have been surprised to see his flat opening. He's known for keeping a thrilling pace, and sustaining it for the duration of the bout. But on this night, the turbo jets weren't there in the first round, and Curran took advantage.

When asked why, Huerta couldn't point to one particular thing that caused his sluggish start, but said his focus was at least partly shifted in the seconds just before the opening bell when Bellator played a video of him discussing his chaotic childhood. It's a raw, emotional clip in which he tears up, and he said seeing it seconds before the bell shook him.

"It kind of threw me for a loop," he said. "I looked away and told myself, 'You've got a fight right now.' It's no excuse though. My hat's off to Pat. He did an awesome job."

That, of course, doesn't mean Huerta believes he lost the fight. In his view, he was the aggressor, moving forward, and he felt he did more overall damage with his constant kicks from the outside and knees from the clinch. Huerta made a concerted effort to attack Curran's lower body, and while he frequently connected, it seems possible the judges put more stock into Curran's more traditional attacks.

"I thought I did enough," Huerta said. "I knew I kicked the s--- out of his legs. I was pressing the action. I had him against the cage and would knee him in the thighs, I'd punch him on the thighs. I was hitting him, being effective in the point system, but I guess it wasn't good enough for the judges and that's my fault."

"Roger usually puts on a really fast pace, with a lot of pressure," said Curran, who improved to 11-3 and will face Toby Imada in the lightweight tourney finals. "I wanted to put on a standup fight and show my boxing has gotten better. I figured I'd see how that went, and it turned out pretty good."

For Huerta, it's back to the drawing board. The onetime UFC lightweight title contender and Bellator free agent pickup has now lost three of his last four, and he knows the vultures are circling. This is a sport which demands general conclusions to be drawn from specific fights, and Huerta knows the blowback from this loss won't be pretty. He'd like to set up another fight as soon as possible, but it might not be as quick as he hopes; Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said it was unlikely Huerta would return before season three, which begins in August.

When it rains, it pours.

"This sucks," Huerta said. "I hate losses and I hate losing. I don't even want to deal with it. I don't know how to deal with it. I don't know how to deal with people saying, 'You lose,' because it's not something I associate myself with. It puts me in a weird frame of mind, because now I don't know what's going to happen next."

His voice trailed off as his manager Jeff Clark tapped him on the shoulder to see if Huerta was ready to leave, to wipe the slate clean and start over again, as he's done so many times.

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