Roger Huerta Brings Star Power to Bellator

(Huerta in his split decision loss to Gray Maynard.)

Bellator Fighting Championships elevated its status among mixed martial arts promotions Monday when it announced the signing of former Sports Illustrated cover boy and UFC contender Roger Huerta. Huerta (21-3-1) has lost two fights in a row and has fought just once in the last 20 months, but the charismatic lightweight was easily one of MMA’s top free agents.

“Numbers don’t lie,” Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said. “Ratings points, attendance at events… Roger brings that extra something.”

Looking sharp in coat and tie, Huerta shared a streaming video press conference with Rebney on Monday. Huerta has not fought since Sept. 16, 2009, but could fight four times for Bellator in 2010. He will likely be the top seed in Bellator’s lightweight tournament April 8 at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida. Rebney said Huerta’s opponent will be named within five days.

‘I’m not overlooking anybody,” Huerta said. “They will be hungry and now that they know that I am in this tournament, they will be even hungrier. These guys are like caged pit bulls.”

Huerta and Rebney dodged — or ignored — questions regarding contract details. Huerta, who had also been in contact with Strikeforce, touted the tournament format as his reason for signing with Bellator.

“It’s like March Madness,” Huerta said. “The best team will win. It doesn’t matter how you started the season. It’s how you finish.”

If Huerta wins in April, he will fight in the tournament quarterfinals in May with a chance to fight in the semifinals in June. The lightweight tournament winner will meet champion Eddie Alvarez later this year.

“The main thing for me was I wanted to fight constantly,” Huerta said.

That was not always the case. Once a top UFC contender, Huerta refused to renegotiate with Zuffa following a convincing loss to Kenny Florian at UFC 87.

“I wanted to pursue something else,” Huerta said. “There was a point I didn’t know whether I was going to continue to fight or not. I got involved in acting.”

But Huerta credits a split decision loss to Gray Maynard at Ultimate Fight Night 19 for rekindling his competitive fires. Since then, he travelled to Thailand to hone his Muay Thai skills and says he has never stopped training.

“You will see a new Roger Huerta,” he said.

The signing is coup for Bellator. Huerta gives the fledgling promotion a name fighter to add juice to deals with NBC, Fox Sports, Telemundo and ESPN Deportes. A potential match with Alvarez could become the most anticipated lightweight match of the year.

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