Years from now, when history judges his storied career, let nobody ever say that Roger Huerta lacked audacity or didn’t dare to be great.
Back in March of this year, when the 34-year-old “Matador” (24-10-1, 1 N/C) signed to fight Benson Henderson at Bellator 196 on April 6, it marked his return to North American MMA after a half-decade of training and competing in Asia. The conditions of that return were daunting, to say the least. On three and a half weeks’ notice, Huerta would fight one of the 10 greatest lightweights ever, who had already been training to fight on that date and would have the benefit of a full camp.
Meanwhile, Huerta’s last bout had been at welterweight and had ended in a hail of illegal elbow strikes, resulting in a disqualification win and, by his own admission, several days of headaches and not feeling like himself. Rather than take a bounce-back fight against a lightly-regarded opponent, though, Huerta decided to sign up for one of the hardest matchups of his career -- certainly the hardest since his first stint with Bellator MMA ended in 2010. It was the kind of situation where the fighter stepping in on short notice -- especially one like Huerta, whose name value was being used to salvage a main-event fight -- is perceived to be doing the promotion a favor, and usually signs a multi-fight contract as an explicit assurance that the favor will be rewarded with future paydays.
However, Huerta made news in the weeks leading up to the event with the revelation that he had chosen to sign a one-fight contract for Bellator 196. In effect, he was pushing all of his chips into the pot: if he won, he would be negotiating with Bellator from a position of strength -- or free to test the market as the man who had just beaten “Bendo.” If he lost, he had nothing. While Bellator CEO Scott Coker is well-known as a fighter’s exec and a stand-up guy, he also has a business to run. Grateful or not, there would be no guarantees.
At Bellator 196, things did not go Huerta’s way. After a back-and-forth first round, he was tripped to the canvas, ensnared in Henderson’s trademark guillotine and forced to tap out just 49 seconds into the second frame.
Speaking to Sherdog.com from Phuket, Thailand, where he has trained at Tiger Muay Thai for several years, Huerta regrets his performance in April, places blame nowhere but upon himself and, above all, sounds eager to put it behind him.
“When I fought Benson, not to take anything away from him because he’s totally legit,” Huerta said. “He’s awesome. A great fighter. But I just felt lethargic and flat.
“It’s almost like I forgot how to fight in the Benson fight,” he added with a laugh. “So I really just want to get back in there and get back at it again.”
That might have been the end of Huerta’s return engagement with Bellator, but in May came the news that he had just signed a new four-fight contract with the promotion. While many fighters might take that as nothing more than their just due, Huerta admits to having been pleasantly taken off guard.
“Yeah, I was definitely surprised,” Huerta said. “And grateful. I keep getting these chances, these opportunities, and I’m grateful for that.”
Huerta’s next opportunity comes at Bellator 205 on Friday, when he squares off against Brazilian knockout artist Patricky Freire (19-7). For the second time in as many fights, Huerta will have a shortened camp, having stepped in for the injured Goiti Yamauchi, though at least the five weeks’ notice is more than he received for the Henderson fight. Huerta claims he readily accepted the short-notice booking, in part because he had already been training.
“Right after the Henderson fight, I went straight from Budapest back here to Thailand and got back into the gym,” Huerta said. “So there was no hesitation. [My management] messaged me, asking if I wanted the fight with Patricky, and I was all for it.”
The larger Freire brother presents a very different profile to Henderson, Huerta’s last opponent. Where “Bendo” is a singularly well-rounded fighter who is extremely difficult to hit cleanly or submit, Patricky “Pitbull” walks forward, swings hard and counts 12 knockouts among his 19 career victories. Asked if that stylistic difference presents any special risks or opportunities, Huerta downplays both. He sounds neither too concerned over Freire’s power nor too convinced of any glaring weaknesses.
“I feel like at this level of MMA, most of the fighters are at least ‘good’ everywhere,” Huerta said. “I think he’s pretty well-rounded. He’s shown he has knockout power, he definitely has big hands. So obviously I’ll be looking to not get hit, but we’ll see. I’m prepared for everything. I’ve had a great camp, I’m feeling really dialed in.”
Huerta is not looking beyond Bellator 205 -- a man who made headlines for signing a one-fight deal is clearly not the type to look past the task in front of him -- but is well aware of the wide-open condition of Bellator’s lightweight division. Freire, who is on a three-fight winning streak and is 5-1 in the division with the only loss coming to longtime champ Michael Chandler, may well land a title shot with a win over Huerta. Huerta believes that a win over “Pitbull” may do similar things for his own stock, even if he has a bit more to prove.
“That’s the goal, man,” Huerta said. “The goal is the belt. If I can beat [Freire] in decisive fashion, I’m right there in that [discussion]. I might need another fight after that, but I’d be right there in the mix, you know? Right now all my focus is on this very dangerous opponent.”