Roger Huerta knows the second half of his career hasn’t gone the way a lot of people expected.
A lightweight star during the UFC’s boom period in the 2000s, Huerta was marked for greatness. He won 20 of his first 23 fights, knocking off his first six opponents in the octagon. He – and Leonard Garcia, sort of – made history as the first MMA fighter featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Huerta never got his title shot. And after back-to-back losses to Kenny Florian and Gray Maynard, he parted ways with the UFC and signed with then-upstart Bellator MMA in 2010. There, championship gold still eluded him; elite opponents Pat Curran and Eddie Alvarez won pivotal fights, and soon, he was on his way to ONE Championship, where he again failed to regain the form that made him look like a future titleholder.
In his previous 15 fights, Huerta has seen his hand raised four times.
So what changed for him after his last UFC win, a third-round submission of Clay Guida in a December 2007 Fight Night main event, and why did his results begin to sour?
“I was committed,” Huerta told MMA Fighting. “I was so committed. That was the thing. I was so committed to my goal and to achieving this thing, and then I fell off the train. I just fell off my path. I started doing other things, and I started venturing off, and then the next thing you know, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s there, I’ve still got time.’ And then now, f*ck I don’t have any more time. Holy s*it, where does the time go?
“But wait a minute, ‘Did you have a good time though, Roger?’ Yeah, a lot of ups and downs and whatever in life. ‘Did you have a good time?’ Yeah, yeah. ‘Would you change anything?’ No. ‘Did you learn a lot?’ Yes.
“You get me? The next thing you know, I’m here again, and I’m like, OK, let’s get after this again Roger. Come on, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. And this is me in my head, coaching myself and telling myself, ‘Get after it, get after it, get after it.’ What helped you back then? So this is where I’m at now.”
Huerta doesn’t divulge exactly what he means by “fell off the train,” though one can draw their own conclusions about the effect that overnight fame and success can have on an athlete who made his UFC debut before his 23rd birthday. He dabbled in movies. He hung out with celebrities. Eventually, he moved to Thailand, where he currently resides and trains in Phuket.
One personal detail that MMA fans might not know is that Huerta was married and then divorced. That experience took a toll on him, but he doesn’t expect critics of his recent performances to understand.
“It’s a person’s opinion, but also a lot of stuff happens outside of fighting,” he said. “I was married for seven years, and I went through a divorce, and it’s been three years. That affects somebody.”
The last thing Huerta needs is anyone to remind him about how he lost his most recent fights in his second stint with Bellator. He makes no excuses and can recall distinctly why and when things went wrong. In his most recent outing, a decision loss to Sidney Outlaw, Huerta was not far removed from a motorcycle accident, which he now realizes he needed more time to recover from.
But the biggest problem, according to Huerta, is between his ears.
“My performance with Ben (Henderson), just mentally I wasn’t there,” he said. “Not to take anything away from Ben, he did great, and that choke was f*cking there, and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ He’s a champion, [and] he just bulldozed through me. Basically, that told me to get back in the gym, start training, get to this level. When I fought Patricky (Freire), which was at that level, I had him rocked in the first round twice, then going back into it, second round, I just got way too sloppy, way, way too sloppy and I got caught.
“And then after that I was training quite a bit, had the accident, fought [Outlaw], and I was gun-shy again. I don’t know, it was strange, it was all strange.”
There’s no easy solution for Huerta, who turns 37 this month. He tells himself he needs to “just attack,” and more importantly he’s still taking joy in training and fighting. His plan is to give himself another five years or so to reach the top of the mountain, which once seemed guaranteed to be in reach.
Asked to describe the perfect ending to his career, Huerta says a world title win and subsequent defense would be the right way for him to call it a day.
“I’m trying to be a world champion, and I’m giving myself at least until 41, 42,” he said. “I’m gonna be 37 in a couple of weeks, but I see a guy like Yoel Romero who is — and I’ve said this in other interviews, I’m not trying to compare myself to an Olympian — but he set the bar pretty high. He’s a 42-year-old man, [and] he fought for the title.
“Just stay disciplined, stay focused. What is it that you want right now in life? Are you happy doing what you’re doing? Absolutely, I wouldn’t change anything at this moment, going what I’m going after. This is it.”