Right at home (cont.)
Posted: Monday October 8, 2007 12:11PM; Updated: Monday October 8, 2007 12:11PM
Homeless, Roger says he joined a street gang. For about a year he stayed with fellow members and sometimes slept on rooftops. "When you're desperate, you just grind it," he says flatly. "The cliché is really true: You do what you have to do."
When he was 13 and 14 Roger lived with the families of school friends, and before his freshman year in high school the mother of his best friend gained legal custody of him. The three of them moved to Austin, Texas, but before they left Roger met with his father, whom he hadn't seen in two years, one last time. He would never see him again.
In Austin, Roger, his friend and his new guardian lived in a one-bedroom apartment. It was hardly the lap of luxury, but Roger's life took on some semblance of normality. In 2002, during his senior year at Crockett High, his English teacher, Jo Ramirez, asked him about his post graduation plans. She helped him fill out applications for college wrestling scholarships. Ramirez says she had to stifle tears when Roger talked to her about his childhood.
He ended up at Augsburg College, a Division III school in Minneapolis with a storied wrestling program. After adjusting to the Minnesota cold and overcoming some mild culture shock, he fit in fine and excelled in his classes. But he quit the wrestling team after his freshman year. The coaches had heard plenty of explanations from other kids who quit: They couldn't make the grades to maintain academic eligibility. They couldn't abide the time commitment required by the team. They lacked the fortitude for those daily 6 a.m. runs in the snow. But Huerta had a novel reason for quitting: He'd been seduced by the siren song of mixed martial arts.
Huerta had entered some amateur matches and then, on a lark, fought in a professional no-holds-barred bout at a ballroom in Medina, Minn. This was precisely the kind of illogical thrill-seeking that appeals to college freshmen. But in addition to winning the fight, he had experienced a surge of adrenaline he'd never felt before. Mixed martial arts-a marriage of the "striking" of boxing and kickboxing with the "ground game" of jujitsu and wrestling-fed something in him. "During the fight," he recalls, "I was thinking to myself that this was totally for me."
He stayed in college, but when he wasn't in class he was leaking sweat and blood in various gyms, learning to box here, learning the intricacies of jujitsu there, training with weights somewhere else. A pop psychologist might suggest that fighting was Huerta's way of exorcising his residual childhood anger and feelings of abandonment. Huerta is not convinced it's that simple. Mixed martial arts is "not about hurting the guy or anything like it," he says. "It's about the competition, testing your skills and technique and fortitude against someone else. I think it's just that I've found something I'm good at doing."
Fighting under the nickname El Matador, Huerta quickly worked his way up from regional mixed martial arts cards. "Roger's an awesome athlete," says his coach, Dave Menne, who listens to Bach and likes to quote the 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau. "But he also gets the strategy, the move-countermove, and that's what separates him from the other guys who can punch or kick hard or grapple."
Last year Huerta was promoted to the big leagues of the UFC. Fighting before 15,000 fans in Houston's Toyota Center this past April, he defeated Leonard Garcia in what may turn out to have been the UFC's best fight of the year. Huerta meted out unholy amounts of punishment for three rounds, at one point letting Garcia out of a submission hold just to continue showcasing his skills.