Ex-UFC lightweight Huerta returns to cage, but not without risk
Roger Huerta was near the top of the MMA world a few years ago
But he decided to leave the UFC in September to focus on acting
He'll return with tournament-based organization Bellator in April
As Roger Huerta deliberated where his mixed martial arts future would be served best, risk weighed heavily on the 26-year-old lightweight's decision.
After fulfilling his contract with the UFC last September, Huerta (20-3-1) marched into free agency having lost consecutive fights for the first time in his career. For a guy who likes to take chances in the cage, Huerta's partnership with Bellator Fighting Championships, a deal that was officially announced Monday, could turn out to be the riskiest and most rewarding move he had in front of him.
Due in large part to the visibility that comes with a promotional push from the UFC, eight appearances inside the Octagon, GQ looks and an exciting style of fighting, Huerta, the first and only mixed martial artist to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, received serious attention from some of the sport's most important promoters when he hit the open market.
For several months, Huerta was believed to be bound for Strikeforce, the Showtime- and CBS-aligned promotion that has attempted over the last year to establish itself as a major competitor to the UFC. Strikeforce and Huerta "did the dance like everyone else," said the organization's CEO, Scott Coker. That is until the fighter's monetary demands apparently quelled its interest. Huerta, too, seemed unsure about Strikeforce's ability to deliver bouts on a regular basis, which is exactly what he didn't want from a promotional partner.
Mere rumors of Huerta's asking price -- which, according to sources outside the fighter's camp familiar with the negotiations, included a $250,000 signing bonus -- was enough to keep Dream, Japan's top promoter, from making an offer, said its U.S. representative, Mike Kogan.
"This is MMA, not the NFL," Kogan said.
However, Bellator, a tournament-based organization that debuted in 2009 to strong reviews, was not put off by Huerta's demands. Bjorn Rebney, the Chicago-based promotion's CEO, declined to disclose the terms of his deal with Huerta, though they're believed to be considerable.
"They gave him a lot of things that really made it enticing," said Huerta's manager, Jeff Clark, who also serves as a consultant to Bellator. "I felt what they offered and what they came through with was fairly strong where it wouldn't be matched."
"It was a very easy decision to make after a very long and exhaustive negotiation with his management and attorneys," Rebney said. "But it came through."
Following a winter of interesting signings for Bellator, Rebney sees Huerta as a the kind of fighter who brings an "extra something into the cage and into the organization" that should spark fan interest at the gate and help drive ratings on its three television platforms -- live prime-time fights Thursdays on Fox Sports Net, and highlight shows on NBC and Telemundo.
That's assuming Huerta does his job and defeats a cast of heretofore unknown prospects -- far and away the riskiest piece to this equation.
"Roger and I spoke about it a lot," said Clark, who reiterated he worked with Huerta's best interests at heart despite a relationship with Bellator that appears to conflict with that. "I said he needs to understand that going with Bellator was more risk and more reward, by far. There was no other way to look at it.
"We're going into a tournament format. Roger has to prove himself every time. There could be that sleeper guy that jumps up. I know the fight world. When you have guys fighting a name, they throw it all on the line because they know they have a chance to make a name for themselves. Hell, yeah, it's risky."
Leaving the UFC can certainly be treacherous in its own way. In a sport where big-budget promoters seem to come as quickly as they go, there isn't a safer bet than Zuffa. Politically, though, the Las Vegas-based company can be difficult to deal with, especially if a fighter pushes back the way Huerta did in an interview with FIGHT! Magazine in 2008 when he expressed displeasure over his compensation.
Zuffa, which operates the UFC, attempted to re-sign Huerta last year but he eschewed a five-fight extension in favor of his freedom and, at the time, an opportunity to act. UFC executives eventually determined that toughness and marketability to Hispanic audiences aren't worth championship-level money for a fighter ranked outside the top 10 in his division, and they cordially declined to match Bellator's offer.
Huerta's lightweight standing would change if he makes it through the tournament -- a feat that pays $100,000 -- and a title shot against top-five ranked Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez (19-2).
Thus the reward.
Bellator's bracket-based concept is easy to understand. Win, advance. Lose, go home. For Huerta, who competed just twice in the last two years, the desire to fight on a regular schedule again was a major factor in his decision-making.
Should things unfold the way he guaranteed, Huerta will fight and win three times in three months beginning April 8 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
"It's like March Madness," Huerta said. "The best team is going to win. It's perfect for me."
Or, he could go out against a Cinderella.