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Roger Huerta: Famous Sports Illustrated cover 'wasn't monumental' for me

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Roger Huerta was the first MMA fighter to ever grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. But if you enter Huerta's home in Thailand today, that 2007 issue will be nowhere to be found.

It has been eight years since it came out and only one other mixed martial artist has been on the cover since: Ronda Rousey earlier this year. Even so, Huerta doesn't think it's a big deal at all.

"It wasn't monumental for me, I suppose," he told Ariel Helwani on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "If I would have won a UFC world title, f*ck that would have been definitely monumental. Because you actually work really hard for that."

The UFC belt no longer crosses Huerta's mind. He lives in Phuket now, trains and coaches at Tiger Muay Thai and hasn't even entered the United States in two years. Huerta has not fought in the UFC since 2009.

Huerta's dreams of winning a UFC title have now been passed along to his students, Mairbek Taismuov and Zuhaira Tukhugov. As for him, "El Matador" is now gunning for the ONE Championship lightweight strap. In his next bout, Huerta will meet Koji Ando at ONE: Dynasty of Champions in Shanghai, China. He's hoping a win will earn him a shot against ONE lightweight titleholder Shinya Aoki.

"You set goals for yourself," Huerta said. "I want to finish him in the first round and then go after Shinya."

Huerta (22-7-1, 1 NC), now 32 years old, was once one of the brightest prospects in all of MMA. His third-round submission win over Clay Guida in 2007 not only won Fight of the Year and earned his place on the Sports Illustrated cover. It also vaulted him into the UFC lightweight title discussion.

But he lost his next two bouts, against Kenny Florian and Gray Maynard, and just like that he was out of the UFC. Huerta won his first fight in Bellator in 2010, but then lost four straight, including his ONE debut against Zorobabel Moreira via soccer kick knockout in 2012.

It took Huerta two years to return to the cage after that devastating KO. And he almost didn't at all.

"I was already willing to call it quits," Huerta said. "After that soccer kick, I was like 'Alright, that's it for me.'"

Huerta focused at that point at developing the team at Tiger Muay Thai and it has thrived with guys like Taisumov, Tukhugov, Nick Hein and others. After resting his body and having his teammates tell him he should give it another go, Huerta returned in August 2014 and knocked out Christian Holley in the third round at ONE: Reign of Champions. It was his first win in four years.

Recently, Huerta signed a four-fight contract extension with ONE. He didn't even consider another promotion. The Austin, Texas native is happy in Asia with his team and enjoys traveling the world. Huerta is out of touch with anything going on back home.

"To be quite honest with you, I don't pay attention to the U.S.," Huerta said.

No, Huerta never got to achieve his dream of winning a UFC title, but he doesn't seem to mind at all. He is happy in Thailand and content to live the rest of his life overseas. If Huerta could advise the 25-year-old version of himself, he would reassure him.

"I would tell that guy, yeah it's all gonna be good," Huerta said. "It all works out."

The Huerta who was on the Sports Illustrated cover seems far removed. Then again, maybe that person didn't really exist in the first place. Huerta never really thought of it as a major accomplishment anyway.

"It wasn't a goal, I guess," he said. "It wasn't a goal I was setting for myself, like I want to be on the cover of this. It wasn't that."

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