The Return of El Matador
This might go without saying, but Bellator Fighting Championships got the right guy for its lightweight tournament in Roger Huerta. El Matador is made for television, whether it’s Telemundo, ESPN Deportes, or otherwise. He’s an open book and his soundbites are genuinely intense. He is good looking, his back-story is tragic, and he feeds pop culture’s appetite for vicarious drama. He is Mexican, he is American, El Salvadoran, he is poly-ethnic. You can’t put a tack in him on a map. He’s in Minnesota, he’s in Texas, he’s in Thailand, he’s in Hollywood. When he fights, El Matador is noted for being all corazón (heart). Yet, when he acts in movies, such as the forth coming Tekken or Circle of Pain, Huerta becomes just another Hollywood story with deep-rooted psychiatric injury. On top of that, there’s morbid curiosity—at least with MMA fans—that stems from a belief that he will probably fail.
This of course is due to a collective hunch that, the reality is, Huerta is a fighter—and perhaps only capable of fighting—and by knowing this, we’re one step ahead of Huerta, who is still trying to find himself. This too is fascinating. Not only does the one-time Sports Illustrated cover boy kickass for a living and get calls from Mickey Rourke out of the blue to help ease his steps into thespianism, but Huerta is openly trying to find himself, and he’s completely up front that, as far as “reality” is concerned, he doesn’t have the foggiest idea.
“There are times where things are good, and right now things are good,” he says from his home in Austin, Texas. “And there are times where, in this world, you don’t know what’s real. It’s just a demon I fight with every day. For me personally, I deal with what happened in my childhood. You guys see it actually when I fight. The world gets to see it. It comes out.”
He means it literally. When he ambushed Clay Guida in the third round of that memorable fight, that look of intensity just before it commenced was old narrative revealing itself. When Gray Maynard got him in a third round kimura and people began to wince as he refused to tap, he was telling everyone that he has been in worse spots. His actions in the cage shade in earlier chapters of his biography. “That kimura hurt, I’m not going to lie,” he says. “But there’s a point when you’re a fighter that, when you tap, you’re kind of demeaning yourself. You’re giving up. I wasn’t going to do that. I was willing to let it break.”
Anybody who grew up with a roof over their head saying they fight daily demons might come off somewhat less sincere. But when you grow up as Huerta did—homeless in foreign countries, abused, on the lam, and eventually parentless—things take on considerable weight. Huerta’s hardships in childhood are well documented, but his experiences have made him deep for a guy only 26 years old. Real deep—like, pull-the drapes-and-see-how-dark-it-gets deep.
“I feel a lot older than 26 years old,” he says. “There were times when I was little that I was exhausted. I was tired of living. I didn’t know why the things that were happening to me were happening. When I look back on it today, I see a kid who is five years old, six years old, eight years old, and I’m like—how the fuck did I make it this far? Life’s a bitch. These days sometimes you wonder what it’s all for.”
“I think the only thing I haven’t gone through in life is getting married and having kids,” he adds. He also says adopting children is on his list of things to do, as well as doing charity work and “being good to people,” all ahead of any mention of winning a championship belt. Not that he doesn’t want to be a champion, but that belt is on a different plain of consciousness. They are two entirely different pursuits.
To talk fighting you need to hit that switch with Huerta. Just mention Thailand, for instance. On two trips there in the last few months he learned of the art of eight limbs from the natives. “To be honest with you, I’ve never had any stand-up training the way those guys do over there,” he says. “These kids start doing Muay Thai at five years old, and by the time they’re 12 years old they’ve had easily over 50 fights, sometimes 100. It just goes to show to myself and other professional athletes out there that we just don’t have any excuses.”
The acting that he did, a career switch that was supposedly going to end his fighting days for good, became nothing more than a vehicle to take his mind off of MMA for a while. “When I started pursuing acting, I really didn’t think I was going to fight anymore,” he says. “It just sort of fell into my lap.” But having to fulfill his last fight on a UFC contract against Gray Maynard, he realized he missed the fight game as he trained. And then,after surviving that kimura,he never got the chance to satisfactorily retaliate—and that bothered him worse than dropping a close decision. “There wasn’t enough time left in the fight for me to get mine, you understand? When a guy hits you, it’s like, ‘okay, now it’s my turn.’” It wasn’t the swansong he wanted, and in fact, it became a beginning of sorts.
Now Huerta (21-3-1) has a chance to earn six figures with Bellator and notch three victories en-route to a showcase match against the first season’s champion, Eddie Alvarez. “Eddie’s style is forward with a lot of bombs, and he’s game—I’m the same type of guy,” he says. “Given his style and my style, we match up really well.”
When boiled down to a single word, the most common used when describing Huerta’s rise from streets to college wrestling to MMA star and silver screen actor is “perseverance.” He doesn’t use the word himself, but he does say the word “grateful” a lot. “I’ve been fighting my whole life,” he says. “Everything I’ve encountered in life, I’ve really fought for, and I worked really hard to get where I’m at. I’m just going through life. When you see me fight, you are actually seeing 26 years of life in 15 minutes, if the fight lasts that long.”
In a nutshell, that’s the reason El Matador benefits Bellator or any promotion. He never quits. It’s just his way. While many people ask the question “Why do I exist” and quickly think of something else before the onset of existential vertigo, Roger Huerta can’t help but dwell on it. Huerta wonders every single day why he exists. He’s thankful that he does, and fans of the fight game aren’t displeased with the fact, either. It could be that life is just another thing he’s good at.