Roger Huerta had to teach himself how to survive. He had no choice.
Sounds simple, but that's probably the biggest factor leading to Huerta's swift rise to prominence in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Since a mixed martial artist endures an attack on his life each and every time he steps into the octagon, the basic requirement of the sport is simply the ability to survive. And Huerta's childhood taught him nothing if not that.
Roger Huerta faces his biggest fight yet on Saturday night at The Palms.
Huerta's troubles started when his parents' marriage disintegrated dramatically when he was 5 years old. He said his father was involved in an affair, a discovery that sent his mother spiraling into an agitated and abusive state. Huerta spent time in foster care while a bitter custody battle ensued. His father was awarded full custody, but his mother wouldn't stand for the ruling. So she seized Roger from her ex-husband's home in Dallas and fled to her parents' home in El Salvador. Then, still severely emotionally unhinged, Lydia Huerta took flight herself, leaving her son with his grandparents -- who could do nothing but keep him in the house all day, away from the ferocity of the civil war that raged outside.
Huerta's mother eventually would return for him -- but only to take him to San Juan, Mexico and drop him on the doorstep of his father. By this time, Huerta's father had developed into a violent drug addict. Meaning Huerta was forced to fend for himself, selling trinkets and gum on the streets.
All of this occurred before his 13th birthday. "I should be dead," Huerta says, bluntly.
Eventually Huerta's father split, as well, leaving Huerta homeless, with no family but the street gang he fell into. Yet somehow, through all of this, he persevered. He kept going to school because it was the only place that offered him safety, not to mention a meal. "No matter what I was feeling or what was going on, I felt safe at school and I worked hard at it," he says. "I didn't know where I might be sleeping that night, but I knew where I would eat lunch the next day."
Huerta's endearing personality and poise surely played a part in several families' willingness to take him in and care for him during his middle-school years. Eventually the mother of a friend was given legal guardianship, and she provided his ticket out of San Juan. "That's how I first moved to Austin [Texas]," Huerta explains. "We had a little apartment there."
Huerta settled into his new surroundings -- still modest, but stable and supportive, which was all he needed in order to excel in school and wrestling. And, while attending Crockett High School, Huerta first met Jo Ramirez -- an English teacher who set out to advise Huerta about his college applications, but ended up building a much stronger bond with him. "She was the first one to really hear my whole story," Huerta says.
Ramirez helped Huerta get into Augsburg College in Minnesota -- a school with a well-regarded wrestling program -- and eventually legally adopted Huerta in 2002. "She's my guardian angel," Huerta says of Ramirez. "That's my mom. She's my rock, she's my angel, she's my back. She is amazing. She is everything to me.
"I don't remember what my real mom looks like. If I saw her today I wouldn't know her. Not even if she were sitting right next to me at a table in a restaurant. The last time I saw her was first grade. And my dad? I don't know anything of him. I mean, I don't know what ever happened to him."
What happened to Roger "El Matador" Huerta, however, is nothing short of a Cinderella story.
Huerta made the move from wrestling mats to octagons right after he was exposed to his first MMA bout in Minneapolis. "It was that kind of thing where you see something and that's all you want to do," Huerta says. "You just feel it."
"The sport came so naturally [to him]," says UFC play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg. "It didn't take long for everybody to notice that he was a very good fighter."
Huerta's meticulous grappling style led his trainers to coin his now-household nickname. "They started calling me Matador, like the bullfighter, because they said I look methodical when I fight, like each move is planned out," says Huerta. "They said it looks like I don't struggle much.
"That's what they think, anyway. I think I struggle quite a bit," he adds, with a chuckle.
Struggles? Perhaps. But Huerta has never looked like a crazed kid carrying out a vendetta on his past. "Somehow he has found the strength within himself to put that past away," Goldberg says. "He is able to compartmentalize and contain all that. ... We're all amazed because he is upbeat and smiling all the time; he's gentle and so sincere. The kid was practically raised by street gangs, yet he's the most soft-spoken and polite guy you'll ever meet. And on top of that, he's got real talent."
Mary Buckheit for ESPN.com
Huerta is more than happy to autograph issues of Sports Illustrated with him on the cover.
"I got off the phone [after hearing the Sports Illustrated news] and I hopped right on the bike and I just rode for as long as I could," Huerta says. "I don't drink anymore. I don't party. Everybody is always like, 'Oh, the cover boy, you're the cover boy.' But I want people to know that I train hard and I work hard and I want to be a champion.
Huerta, whose record is 20-1-1 since his UFC debut in September 2006, can take the next step on Saturday night. "This is Roger's shot at validation," Goldberg says. "He has the potential to someday fill the shoes as the next Chuck Liddell-type. He has the potential of being the first name people mention when they talk about the Ultimate Fighting Championship."
Huerta says he never stops thinking about the circumstances he overcame, and the purpose he believes his journey was meant to serve. "I don't know why I made it out alive," Huerta says. "But I want to show people what is possible."
Some would say he already has.
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.