Don Caballero

Inside the Palms Resort and Casino, the crowd roared when Clay Guida fl oored Roger Huerta with a fl urry of strikes, but Huerta’s world was silent. “I was out for the fi rst three to fi ve seconds. Everything was red,” he says. El Matador’s body reacted instinctively, fending off the attack as Guida swarmed. His vision slowly returned, and a loud buzzing fi lled his ears. Like so many times before in his life, Huerta did just enough to survive.

Dazed and down on all judge’s cards, Huerta returned to his corner. When he looked into the eyes of former UFC middleweight champion Dave Menne, his corner man, trainer, friend, surrogate brother, and roommate, he says, “Everything hit me from my past.”

“Everything” is shorthand for abuse and abandonment; the years spent fi ghting for food, shelter, and safety in El Salvador, Mexico, and Texas. It’s shorthand for the humbling, unconditional love of his adopted mother, Jo Ramirez. It’s shorthand for the extended family Huerta has created for himself in Albuquerque, Denver, Minneapolis, and Montreal.

He thought about how far he’d traveled to be where he was standing, and he realized how far he had yet to go. Huerta’s eyes well up when he talks about that moment. He’s done a hundred interviews with a hundred people about his life. He doesn’t avoid talking about his struggles, but maintains a clinical distance from it. People survive trauma by repressing, detaching, compartmentalizing.

But Guida’s fi sts took Huerta to a place he had long since left behind, locked up in the middle of his chest. There was darkness in Huerta’s face as the fi ghter readied himself for the third and fi nal round, eyes drawn tight as if to contain the fi re. “I’ll be damned if I was gonna lose,” he says.

Now, his eyes redden as Huerta turns to look out the window of this Denver deli. He puts on his sunglasses and wipes away tears as they roll underneath the frames. We sit quietly for several minutes before he looks at me again. He begins to speak in a steady, measured tone, his words telling the story of his life without conferring a single detail. “I fi ght for so much more,” he says.

Huerta answered the bell that December night by walking into a hail of punches. But he gave better than he got and felled his opponent. Fifty three seconds into the third round, Guida submitted to a rear naked choke.

A number of stories, including one published in this magazine last year, have detailed Huerta’s horrifi c childhood and success in the face of overwhelming odds. His life story reads like a screenplay, featuring many elements of classic hero myth.

Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces that all heroic myths feature a combination of common ingredients and follow a trajectory of Departure, Initiation, and Return. In stories passed down since pre-history by cultures around the world, the hero is called to adventure, enlists the aid of a mentor, is tested greatly, rewarded for his or her deeds, and fi nally returns to bestow a gift upon the people. The details differ slightly, but the arc is the same for all great heroes from Osiris to Odysseus, and Jesus to Jedi.

Our orphan hero was called to adventure, albeit unwillingly. His childhood was defi ned by abuse and abandonment, warfare and want. He traveled from Texas to El Salvador and back by way of Mexico. He adapted, doing what was necessary to survive. As a teenager, he received aid from a trio of families – King, McCarthy, and Rangel – and found the protective mentor Campbell wrote of in the form of high school counselor Jo Ramirez.

It was Ramirez who helped our hero secure a wrestling scholarship to Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Having survived every test placed before him, the hero crosses what Campbell calls, “The fi rst threshold,” between “The world he is familiar with and that which he is not.”

With his move to Minnesota, our hero completed the fi rst stage of his journey. Compared to the suffering endured during his Departure, the trials of his Initiation seem inconsequential. But the lessons of his past inform his struggle to attain a college degree and inspire his rapid ascent in the world of mixed martial arts. He put his education on hold in favor of a fi ghting career that delivered him to the doorstep of stardom. The Ultimate Fight Night bout with Clay Guida on December 8, 2007 represents our hero’s apotheosis, when, as described by Campbell, “The ego is disintegrated in a breakthrough expansion of consciousness.”

“I was a different person in the third round,” Huerta says. His eyes draw down again and his lips tighten when his thoughts return to that night. He says he reached a new level as a fi ghter in those few short minutes between the knockdown and his victory, the place where technical prowess, power, and total fearlessness meet. “I knew I’d reach [that place] but I didn’t think I’d reach it anytime soon,” he says.

But the cost of victory was great. He made it through the post-fi ght press conference and retreated to his room, where he broke down. Then Ramirez arrived and he cried longer, harder. Huerta was so overcome with emotion that unexpected crying jags, a violent catharsis of emotional rot knocked loose by Guida’s gloved knuckles, marked the next month and a half.

It would be easy to frame 2007 as a feel-good ending to a hard luck story, the year Roger Huerta set the UFC record for most fi ghts in a year with fi ve and won them all, the year he and Leonard Garcia became the fi rst mixed martial artists to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But it was also the year he spent his precious downtime promoting the UFC to Spanish and English language media outlets, the year he saw his family only at fi ghts and on secret weekend trips to Austin, Texas, and the year he severed ties with Monte Cox because he believes that a manager can’t run a fi ght promotion and do what’s best for his fi ghters at the same time.

Roger Huerta struggled through blessings and curses last year, beating the odds yet again to head into a new year with a clear sense of himself, what he wants to accomplish, and on what terms he wants to accomplish it. Last year wasn’t the fi nal chapter; it was the middle act in this hero’s journey. Now we fi nd him in a gym at the foot of the Rocky Mountains preparing to make his ascent.

Duane “Bang” Ludwig came to Trevor Whitten in 2002 to prepare for his TKO fi ght with Jens Pulver. Nine months later, Ludwig stopped Pulver with the exact combination that Whitten had trained him to unleash. Eventually the King of Pancrase, Nate Marquardt, arrived at Whitten’s gym, T’s KO Fight Club in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and brought with him a steady stream of MMA fi ghters, including Jackson Submission Fighting teammates Rashad Evans, Keith Jardine, Georges St. Pierre, and Roger Huerta.

El Matador circles Ludwig in the ring inside Whitten’s gym as the noted boxing trainer calls out instructions, offering encouragement when Huerta responds appropriately. After the Guida fi ght, Huerta decided to take a break from competition to rest and improve his game. While he remains loyal to Menne, Huerta began training with Team Jackson members in Albuquerque, Montreal, and Denver.

The two began game planning for Huerta’s next test – a number one lightweight contender match against Kenny Florian in Minneapolis on August 9 – the day El Matador arrived in Colorado. He instantly took to Whitten’s encouraging style, and after a few days of working with him the trainer declared Huerta to be the future of the sport.

“Boxing skills in 98% of MMA [fi ghters] are at a low level,” Whitten says. The trainer, who corners IBF light middleweight title holder Verno Phillips, believes that the next stage of MMA’s evolution will center on the footwork, timing, and leverage of top-level boxing. “You can make a non-puncher punch harder, but that one punch knockout power? You’re born with it,” Whitten says. “When I felt [Huerta] on the mitts I knew he’s got it.”

Huerta feels confi dent and comfortable here. Confi dent and comfortable enough to declare Whitten his new striking coach and contemplate a move to the mountains. At Hickory Baked Hams, the home-style deli around the corner from Whitten’s gym, Huerta watches Marquardt, his wife Tessa, and Marquardt’s daughter Emily talk and draw with crayons on a sheet of butcher paper. “Hanging out with these two, it eases your mind,” he says. He owns a home in St. Paul that he shares with Menne and a few friends, but he feels that the time might be right for a change of scenery. In Denver, the orphan hero has found a family that can push him to new heights both inside and outside of the Octagon.

Huerta is one of a growing number of Zuffa-contracted fi ghters who feel that there is a disconnection between the company’s success and the way fi ghters are compensated. Huerta’s disillusionment with the UFC began when he did press tours for his employer in Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, and London and received a $50 per diem for his troubles. It sounds like a good deal, until you factor in time away from training, friends, and family, days that often stretch twelve hours or more, and an exchange rate of one UK pound for two American dollars. “Why do you think I don’t do PR for the UFC any more?” he asks.

He’s also unhappy with the terms of his current contract, but to Huerta, the press tours underscore a larger point: by and large, Zuffa does not treat its contracted fi ghters with suffi cient loyalty or respect. He argues that many UFC fi ghters barely make enough to cover their training expenses. He brings up teammate Keith Jardine repeatedly, incensed that a main event fi ghter is working for ten and ten – $10,000 to show up, $10,000 to win – while his opponents regularly make ten times as much.

Huerta’s expression hardens and he becomes more animated as talk turns to endorsements. The common counterargument for complaints about fi ghter pay is that fi ghters often make more from endorsements and sponsorships than they do for competing. But Huerta has soured on the system after receiving lowball offers from companies who expect fi ghters to jump at the chance to endorse products. He rails against a Fortune 500 company for offering a deal to build him as a spokesman that included unpaid work. “Are you serious?” Huerta asks. “I know Dale Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t doing appearances for free.”

Contracts like Jardine’s are common for the UFC’s reality show veterans, and for that reason Huerta is glad that personal problems made it impossible for him to participate in the 155-pound season of The Ultimate Fighter when the company offered him the opportunity. He also had to pass up a spot on MTV’s The Real World around the same time. “God works in mysterious ways,” he says, grinning.

That may have cost him valuable exposure in the short run, but it affords him greater freedom and leverage on the eve of his bout with Florian. The winner is guaranteed a fi ght with reigning champ BJ Penn – if Penn doesn’t vacate the title to challenge welterweight champ Georges St. Pierre. El Matador has two fi ghts left on his contract, and if he defeats Florian he would be in line for a title shot sometime in early 2009.

If Huerta wins his fi ght with Florian, he holds all the cards. His profi le fi gures to be at an all time high. He won’t be in a hurry to compete because he is re-enrolling at Augsburg College this fall, to complete the last three credit hours in his business management degree. He also has a small role as Miguel “Caballero” Rojas in the live action fi lm version of Tekken, to be released in 2009 along with the sixth edition of the popular video game.

Past experience teaches that the UFC will not risk handing the belt over to a fi ghter just as he becomes a free agent. Especially not one who fi gures to be as big a star as any mixed martial arts has ever produced. “The truth is, I don’t really care if I fi ght in the UFC or somewhere else,” Huerta says. The fi ghter says he understands that Zuffa has to keep an eye on the bottom line, but he wants to work, “For a company that is as loyal to me as I am to them.”

The fi nal stage of the hero’s journey is the Return, when he or she bestows the boon upon the people. In our hero’s case, the boon is the desire and ability to help others. Our hero wants to devote resources to his charity, My Fight 4 Kids, so that he can offer the helping hand that was so rarely extended to him, and provide means for children to overcome obstacles similar to the ones that were placed in his path. Our hero wants to pave the way for better treatment of fi ghters who are at the mercy of managers, promoters, and sponsors who don’t always have the fi ghters’ best interests at heart. He wants to help his adoptive mother retire and make sure that his close friends are taken care of.

At 25, Huerta hasn’t yet reached his prime, but training and fi ghting at a high level takes a great toll on the body. After enduring the physical pounding of the Guida fi ght, and the emotional tumult he experienced afterwards, Huerta asked himself, “How long can you really do this for?” Like all professional athletes, he knows the name of the game is to get what you can while you can and he’s willing to make hard decisions in order to negotiate what he considers a fair deal. “I would walk away from a title shot for a better deal [with another organization],” he says.

Fans could easily read remarks like this and attribute them to Roger Huerta reading his clippings and believing the hype. But it’s not about him. It’s about having the resources to do good works, help his family and friends, and increase the baseline compensation for fi ghters currently getting a raw deal. The boon is within reach, and a win over Florian would take Huerta one giant step closer to it.

Our hero nods, thinking about the abuse and abandonment, the years spent fi ghting for food, shelter, and safety in El Salvador, Mexico, and Texas, the humbling, unconditional love of his adopted mother, Jo Ramirez, and the extended family he has created for himself in Albuquerque, Denver, Minneapolis, and Montreal. He thinks about how very far he’s come, and how far he has yet to travel.

“I’ll tell you this,” he says, smiling. “I’ll never lose.”

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