Friday, September 30, 2011

Mike Chiappetta: Halfway Around the World, Roger Huerta Finds Himself

When the MMA world last saw Roger Huerta, it was at his worst hour as a fighter. By the time the cageside doctor stopped the fight after 10 minutes of action, Huerta had been battered by Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, a beating that resulted in two broken orbital bones and a concussion.

As bad as that was, things weren't much better for the charismatic fighter in his personal life. Even prior to the bout with Alvarez, Huerta was going through some personal turmoil, questioning himself and his place in the world. Despite it, he showed up to fight before getting thumped.

For Huerta, it was a first. Sure, he had lost before, but he'd never been beaten up. Nothing was making sense anymore. In the wee morning hours after the fight, Huerta was sitting in a bed at a Philadelphia hospital, with his adoptive mother and sister at his side. It was right then when Huerta had a moment of clarity. He was suffocating and needed to be free.

But where would he go? A year earlier, just after finishing his UFC run, Huerta had visited Thailand. And in his dark moments, his mind had re-visited it. Sitting in his bed, in the hospital room after the worst night of his professional life, he knew he was going back.

"It was one of those things where I bought a one-way ticket and I didn't know where I'd end up," he told MMA Fighting from his home in Phuket. "I didn't have a plan or anything. I really had nothing."

When he says "nothing," he means it.

Just prior to arriving in Thailand, he had stopped off in Australia with only one suitcase full of possessions. On the trip over, the suitcase was lost by the airlines. He literally arrived with just the clothes on his back.

If you immediately appreciated the symbolism of a troubled man losing his baggage, at the time, Huerta did not. At least not at first. But in time, it came to be a lesson for him. One month later, he was on the phone, dialing a number to complain and once again inquire about his lost suitcase when he was hit by nature's straight right hand.

"I was going to scream at them, and I walked outside to make the call and it was just really pretty outside, really beautiful," he said. "I hung up and I was like, 'What am I doing? That bag is gone.' And I realized I've been wasting all this time and energy in this amazing place worried about this materialistic thing.

"That was like the beginning for me," he continued. "I realized it was OK. You're in paradise. Enjoy it. Live in the moment. Live in the now. Just live."

For Huerta, the trip was not about fighting. In fact, he says now that he contemplated retirement after the loss to Alvarez. It was more about untangling himself from everyone and everything around him to see who and what he truly needed.

As he explored Thailand and a different way of life, he began to think about the route his life had taken. He had a famously difficult childhood, abandoned by his parents, homeless by the sixth grade. He made it through high school, moved on to college, and was quickly thrust into the MMA spotlight in the UFC. He became a Sports Illustrated cover boy at the age of 24. It was all quite dizzying, and by the time he left the UFC for Bellator, he was struggling with burnout and self-doubt.

"You could say that i was going crazy, but I was trying to understand things," he said. "I came from nothing, then all of the sudden everything happened at once. People were asking me for advice and I was like, 'I don't have answers. I'm just a kid. I'm still training, I'm still learning, I'm still a student.' And they'd say, 'You've gone through so much, and you've had success. How are you doing it?' I said, 'To be honest, I don't know. I work hard, train hard and try to live life in a good way. But I'm just a kid.' Around those times, I started questioning everything. My surroundings, people, life itself. What's my vocation? What's my calling? That's where things were for me."

Still, for someone trying to find himself -- someone with no conscious thoughts of continuing his career -- Thailand is a curious spot. It is a country where a combat sport -- Muay Thai -- is the national sport. It's not a place to escape fighting. Not surprisingly, Huerta didn't stay away for long. He was quickly finding balance in his life and realized that training was still a worthwhile creative outlet. Then he started teaching, hosting seminars, and he could no longer deny that his itch to compete would never go away.

"I realized, this is always going to be in me," he said. "It's my heart and my passion. It's in my blood. I need to let it out, this animal I have inside me, and the only way I can do that is competing. For me, now I think, let's get back in there. Let's start it the way I want to start it."

Huerta has found such peace in Thailand that he now considers it home. Along with close friend, UFC star Mike Swick -- who is still based in California -- he is opening a gym in Phuket called "Nitor," the Latin word meaning to persevere or strive. Huerta will be the local presence, and the two have an 11-year lease on the property.

Meanwhile, his first step back into fighting will come on November 26 when faces "War Machine" Jon Koppenhaver in Pharr, Texas for a first-time promotion called Ultimate Warrior Fighting. Huerta, who naturally walks around at about 180 pounds, will be competing as a welterweight for the first time in years, a move he calls a "trial run."

Pharr is a town that Huerta spent several years in, up until the ninth grade. The place does not hold many good memories for him. It's where as a homeless youth, he would sometimes sleep on rooftops. But he recently returned there to impart some knowledge about training, strength and conditioning, and saw some longtime supportive faces. It gives him the feeling he'll be fighting at home. While in the past, Huerta didn't like to invite friends and family to his fights, this one will be different. In the past, the return to Pharr would have been an emotional rollercoaster, but now, it will be a celebration.

"We're having a party, a good time," he said. "I'm going to throw down, and we're going to have a party. All the negative stuff is gone, man. It is. Thailand had a lot to do with it, my family had a lot to do with it, my close friends had a lot to do with it. It's been very good. Life is good."

There is a line in the movie "Gattaca" that Huerta loves. In the sci-fi film, Ethan Hawke's character is able to beat his genetically superior brother in a race where they swim out to sea and the first to give up and return to shore loses. When Hawke's brother asks him how he did it, Hawke replies, "I never saved anything for the swim back." Huerta says it's that kind of go-for-broke mentality that he used to have in his fights but lost along the way. His mind is clear now, and there are no doubts restraining him.

Ask him to look ahead in his career and he stays consistent with his philosophy. There's nothing past the next round in front of him. There are no thoughts about what organization might come calling, or what his fighting future holds. He's happy where he is, halfway across the world, and whatever else is supposed to happen will happen.

The personal storm clouds are gone. These days, he smiles a lot, in a place that makes him happy. It is another unlikely story in a colorful life. Roger Huerta, the man who arrived with nothing and found everything.

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