The Fight of His Life

He walked into his father’s place, looked him in the eye, and immediately knew his father was high on drugs. The fifteen-year-old told his dad he was leaving; he was going to Austin in hope of a better future. He waited for some reaction, anything. But none came. At his father’s apathy, Roger felt himself tearing up.

“I remember looking him in the eye and saying, ‘I’m going to become something great, something huge,’” Roger recounts. “I told him, ‘you just lost something amazing, I’m going to show you.’”

 

Some fighters will look you in the eye, and tell you with sincerity and conviction that stepping into an octagon is the scariest thing you can ever do in your life. But there is one who can tell you that the fight doesn’t always take place in a cage, with a referee and rules. Its the fight for survival: being abandoned by your parents, living in a war zone, being homeless – all before you are 12 years old.

You want to see the American Dream? He stands 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 155 pounds, with a happy smile and an angry right hand. He’s 24 years old, and he fights for a living. His name is Roger Huerta, and he is a rising star in the UFC. A potential future champion, nothing that can happen to him in the cage scares him. Nothing.

Huerta’s early childhood was reasonably normal. But everything changed when his parents’ marriage disintegrated, the result of an affair by his father. It devastated his mother, who struggled and failed to overcome the betrayal. The fallout from the divorce affected not only her; it altered each of their lives forever. Over the next several years, Roger would go on a torturous journey through what should have been the carefree part of youth.

Shortly after their parents split, the first abuse of Roger and his sister Andrea began, eventually resulting in Child Protective Services removing both children from the home.

As is often the case, this began a tragic odyssey that ended in the separation of a brother and sister and the disintegration of a family.

Huerta’s father, Rogelio, regained custody of the kids and brought some semblance of stability back to their lives, but it was short lived. Soon after, the children’s mother reappeared. Roger and Andrea were abducted and taken to her war-ravaged homeland of El Salvador.

By that time, the country’s civil war, which had lasted for 12 years, claimed 75,000 lives and forced over a million people to flee the country, was nearing its last days. Still, it was no safe haven for children looking for a place to call home. Their mother returned to the U.S., leaving the children behind with her parents.

“My grandparents never let me out of the house,” he remembers. “I never really knew why. I was too young. But every time we heard loud noises, we’d have to go under the bed. It turns out they were gunshots and bombs. It happened all the time.”

A few months later, with no explanation, his mother returned to El Salvador, collected Roger and Andrea, dropped them on their father’s doorstep in Pharr, Texas, and walked out of their lives forever.

By then, Rogelio had turned to drugs. He married a woman who was abusive toward Roger and Andrea. As his downward spiral continued, he lost interest in his children and ultimately skipped town. Roger’s stepmother, feeling no sense of responsibility to a boy that was not her biological son, threw him out of her home.

He was in the sixth grade and alone, forced to rely on the generosity of friends and acquaintances. Going home became as simple as an available couch, as dangerous as joining a gang for shelter, or as pitiful as climbing onto a rooftop to keep from sleeping on the streets.

“Deep down, I was hurting. I was always thinking, ‘I don’t want to feel this. I’m tired of this. I want a home, I want a family,’” he says. “It really sucked and I never knew how it was going to end. I was always praying, saying, ‘God, get me out of this.’ I realized the only option I had was school.’”

Huerta’s clear vision amid the violence, drugs, and poverty that surrounded him was stunningly mature, but his reasoning was simple survival. At school, he would have peace, structure and two warm meals each day. It wasn’t simply a place of learning; it was a sanctuary.

Roger received help from an unlikely source: a gang leader he was forced to live with in the downtrodden Las Milpas section of town. According to Roger, “his name was Joel and he was a major drug dealer. He would buy me clothes and school supplies; tell me to keep going to school and to stay away from drugs.”

In the classrooms and gymnasiums of Pharr’s Memorial Junior High School, his bright eyes, easy smile, and athleticism captured the attention of people around him from the beginning. He became friendly with a schoolmate named Ricky King and they became inseparable. He began staying over his friend’s house, and Ricky’s mother Maria essentially became a surrogate mother, finding out bits and pieces of Roger’s heartbreaking story with every visit.

Eventually, Maria petitioned the court for legal custody of Roger. His biological parents were subpoenaed, but neither bothered to appear in court. As a result, Maria became his legal guardian. According to Maria, “I knew he needed love and I was happy to be there for him. He’s a special person. From the day I met him, he always used to say, ‘I want to be somebody.’”

He began to thrive in the school environment, excelling in sports. A few years later, at Crockett High, he was playing nose tackle on the varsity football team, despite weighing only 160 pounds. Roger says,

“I had so much energy and aggression in me, so I’d take it out in football. I’d be popping kids, running them over. I was very fast, so I’d get right through the line. It got to the point they were double-teaming me. People started asking, ‘who is this kid?’ And

I guess my past started coming out.”

Jo Ramirez was one of the teachers at Crockett High whom Roger approached for advice about the college admissions process. He was a senior, and though an injury had put an end to his football career, he’d turned his focus to wrestling and had been making waves in the sport.

Ramirez took him under her wing and helped him in his collegiate search. His story, and efforts to succeed against such incredible odds, struck a chord with her. The more she learned about him, the more determined she was to help.

“The first time he’d tell me stories, he’d have tears in his eyes, and I’d have tears in mine,” she recalls. “I would’ve done anything to help him after hearing those stories.”

She eventually helped him gain acceptance into Minnesota’s Augsburg College, a private school with a wrestling program that boasts 10 NCAA Division III championships. But despite all he had been through and accomplished, Huerta’s biggest emotional struggle came that first year in Minnesota.

“If I wasn’t depressed growing up, I sure did get depressed that year,” he reflects.

He struggled with having to start all over again in a new place, in addition to be forced to adapt to a drastic climate change. He also wondered if he’d have any roots to return to in Texas.

And then, one fall day, he got a phone call from Ramirez. “I just asked him, ‘do you want to be a part of my family, legally?’ I told him, ‘I would like to adopt you.’”

With one phone call, Roger’s world came together. He belonged somewhere, with Jo Ramirez and her seven children, all of whom were lawyers, teachers, and other successful professionals. School and wrestling quickly fell into place. He then took interest in the world of mixed martial arts and became a quick study.

Now, just a few years later, he’s 18-1-1 with an eight fight winning streak and considered a rising star in the sport. His April 2007 win over Leonard Garcia was filled with his trademark nonstop action, and stole the show at UFC 69. His good looks and easy smile, coupled with his jaw-dropping talent, could make him the next great Latino superstar.

“Roger Huerta is an amazing fighter and very marketable for us. As far as us going out and looking for a Hispanic fighter, he’s a dream come true,” says UFC President Dana White. “We couldn’t be happier with him. He had a war in his last fight, and those are the kinds of fights that will take him to next level.”

But he can’t go to the next level without remembering the past.

His final words to his father have forever echoed in his mind. That encounter has continually driven him forward, whether it is on the football field, the wrestling mat, in the classroom, or the octagon. And despite his brutal training schedule, he will finish his business management degree at Augsburg this summer.

“Society makes too many excuses for too many people,” says Dave Menne, a former UFC middleweight champ, and Roger’s first MMA coach.

“It’s sad when things go wrong, but you’re your own person. You have the ability to define who you are, and he’s taken the opportunity do that, which is probably what everybody should do. Maybe it shouldn’t be so much a surprise as something to celebrate.”

Roger Huerta is the son of a drug addict father and a runaway mother. He survived abandonment, homelessness, poverty, and a war. And one day soon, he swears he will be a UFC champion. Some naysayers may doubt his technical skills, or believe there are too many good fighters in his way. But think about what he has overcome, and try to believe that he can’t do it.

Hard to do, isn’t it? Just like the friends who gave him shelter, the women who opened their homes to him, the teachers and coaches who guided him, and the gang leader with a good heart, those who hear his story can see his potential. Not believing in Roger Huerta is almost like not believing in hope itself.

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