10/09/2007 6:10pm, #1
Roger Huerta has found solace as rising star in UFC
Roger Huerta has found solace as rising star in UFC
Posted: Monday October 8, 2007 12:11PM; Updated: Monday October 8, 2007 12:11PM
The bridge had been dangling in the river for less than a week, but it had already become a macabre civic landmark, the Twin Cities' answer to Manhattan's Ground Zero. On a scorching day last August, Roger Huerta was piloting his Jeep Commander from downtown Minneapolis to the St. Paul YMCA, where he trains in mixed martial arts. He drove slowly as he crossed the Mississippi River, pointing out the remnants of the I-35W bridge, whose collapse had caused the deaths of 13 Minnesotans six days earlier.
Roger Huerta visits with his mother, Jo Ramirez, in Texas. Ramirez legally adopted him in 2002.
When Huerta saw a slab of folded highway bobbing in the water, his eyes widened, and he rested a hand on his beard. "Unbelievable," he said, his voice dropping to a whisper. "One second you're driving home from work, wondering what you're going to eat for dinner. Then wham! In the snap of a finger you're underwater."
One would think that by now Huerta would have lost his awe for dramatic and unexpected spasms of fate. A decade ago he was a homeless teenager, living in dust-choked Texas towns and sleeping on rooftops when he couldn't find a bed for the night. Today he is a rising star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the controversial mixed martial arts league that showcases America's fastest-growing spectator sport.
As a teenager Huerta made money --"Not spending money," he says, "survival money" -- working at Blockbuster, Taco Bell and a Johnny Rockets diner. Today he fights full-time as a 155-pound lightweight and is successful enough to be buying a spacious home in St. Paul.
As a teenager Huerta considered himself an orphan, having spoken to neither of his biological parents since he was a boy. Today he considers himself the son of his adoptive mother and a brother to her seven children. "I tell people my story," says Huerta, 24, "and I barely get to the middle when they wonder when the book is coming out."
Huerta figures that he was five years old when, as he puts it, "things got interesting." His family was living in Dallas when Lydia Huerta allegedly caught her husband, Rogelio, having an affair and left him. "It drove her crazy," Roger says, and she became physically abusive. When Roger went to school with bruises mottling his body, child protective services intervened and placed him in a foster home.
Within a year Rogelio was given full custody of Roger. Shortly after the ruling, however, Lydia took Roger to her childhood home in El Salvador. "By this point my mom was mentally unstable and couldn't care for me," Roger recalls. "My grandparents didn't know what to do with me, and there was a civil war going on in the country. So I was in the house all day."
After several months Lydia and her son returned to Texas. She dropped him at Rogelio's house. That, Roger says, was the last time he saw his mother. He says that by then Rogelio had taken up with another woman.
Eventually Rogelio unloaded Roger on his parents in Mexico. They lived in poverty and sent Roger, then nine, out into the streets to make money. "You know those sad-looking kids who stand outside churches and sell picture frames and rosaries to tourists?" Huerta asks. "That was me."
After a year Rogelio retrieved his son and took him home to Texas's Rio Grande Valley, where he enrolled in school in the middle of the third grade. Rogelio, though, was in no position to raise a son, having by then become a drug addict. The woman Roger called his stepmom "was totally resentful of me being around," says Roger. "My dad was out getting high, and she would hit me with coat hangers and abuse me emotionally -- lock me in the bathroom and tell me to scrub the floor with Clorox."
Nonetheless Roger lived with them until he was 12, when his dad left and, soon after, the woman threw Roger out of the house. (SI Latino was unable to reach Huerta's mother, father or stepmother for comment.)
So roughly.....Roger was 19 when we was adopted.
10/09/2007 6:13pm, #2
Rest of article...
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."
The gang's leader may have been a one-man crime wave, but he encouraged Roger to reject "thug life," as he called it, and stay in school. That was fine by Roger. He was a capable student despite the lack of a home support system. He was a popular kid who made it his personal mission to fight back against bullies. And he was an exceptional athlete who would star on the school football and wrestling teams. But the real appeal of school? "Free breakfast and lunch," says Huerta. "I loved school because I got to eat!"
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.
But it was his actions when the fight ended that drew the most attention. Before the official decision, Huerta hoisted Garcia's arm in the air, acknowledging his opponent's valor. Then he and Garcia held hands and dropped to their knees in prayer, giving thanks that neither had been hurt. "It takes two people to have a great fight, so why steal all the glory?" Huerta says. "Leonard was my opponent that night. He was never my enemy." Garcia's mother was so touched by the gesture that the next day she expressed her gratitude to Huerta over the phone.
Meanwhile, as Huerta's career has flourished, he's finally found the family that eluded him as a kid. Ramirez, the English teacher who was so moved by Roger's life narrative, stayed in touch with him after he moved to Minnesota and legally adopted him in 2002. "She was the first person to show me unconditional love," Huerta says. "I call her Mom, and when I go to Texas her grandkids call me Uncle Roger and jump on me when I'm sleeping. It's the best feeling in the world."
He's also formed a second family of sorts with his training team in Minnesota. When Huerta received a fat fighting contract from the UFC, he spent it not on a fancy car or a bland McMansion but on a massive home near downtown St. Paul. The intention is for all of his training partners to move in and then convert the basement into a gym. "These are the guys who helped get me where I am," Huerta reasons. "It would be weird not to want to share everything with them."
The UFC is still grappling with the perception that it's barbaric-many people, perhaps understandably, can't get past the visual image of two men fighting in a metal cage -- so it's all too happy to promote Huerta. Dana White, the league's brash president, says, "Roger got into the UFC, and I was like, Holy sh--, this kid is an animal. He's got looks. He's got smarts. He's got an amazing story. And he fights like a dog. This kid is a home run, and he's a big reason we're thinking about [staging a card] in Latin America."
Huerta's most recent success came during the UFC 74 card on Aug. 25 in Las Vegas. With the academic semester yet to begin, Ramirez was able to make it to the fight, surely the lone 60ish high school English teacher in attendance. Several of her grown children came too. The supremely conditioned Huerta was at his best, mauling his opponent, Alberto Crane, with a hail of kicks, elbows and punches. When the referee (mercifully) stopped the fight late in the third round, Huerta raised his hands in triumph.
Then he went out to celebrate with his family.
Jon Wertheim is currently working on a book about UFC. To purchase his latest book, Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, The last Great American Pool Hustler, go here.
10/09/2007 6:16pm, #3
Totally read that as "Rutger Hauer has found solace as rising star in the UFC" and my first thoughts were "Good for him. Glad to see he's found work."Captain's Log: Just a little update for all my TRUE and HONEST friends out there:
1) I am STRAIGHT! I am STRAIGHT! Get it through your thick skulls, numbskulls!
2) My name is not Ian Brandon Something.
3) Kacey is coming with me now. I have stolen her from the other Christian Weston Chandler.
REMINDER: I am still the one and only true creator of sonichu and rosechu electric hedgehog pokemon
10/09/2007 6:50pm, #4
(Bruce Buffer voice) And fighting out of the blue corner.... RUTGEEEERRRRR "THE HITCHERRRR" HAUERRRRR!
10/10/2007 12:02am, #5Originally Posted by Boyd
10/10/2007 1:41am, #6
I hope he finds solace in being Dana White's Magical Chicano.
10/10/2007 1:55am, #7
- Join Date
- Jan 2007
Still gonna get maled by Guida
10/10/2007 2:33am, #8
I think it will go to a decision, if you get my meaning...
Wouldn't want to be fucking up the main event of the first show show of the border...
10/10/2007 7:05pm, #9
Roy Batty by GnP!!!Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.
10/10/2007 9:02pm, #10
Roger Huerta-**** is my opponent? Oh, there he is on the giant screen.