UFC 87: The fight of Roger Huerta's life
Fighters don't get 401(k) plans. They get cauliflower ears, concussions, and torn ACLs, but no retirement benefits.
They have little time to build a nest egg. While there are notable exceptions—last year Randy Couture came out of retirement and shocked the world by beating Tim Silvia to win the heavyweight belt at the age of 43—mixed martial arts is a young man's game.
Fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Champions isn't as lucrative as it looks. Many of the fighters you watch on TV or on pay-per-view actually earn less than the average office worker—and these guys are working a lot longer and harder hours than nine to five.
Roger Huerta knows what it means to have nothing. A child of drug addiction, infidelity, and physical abuse, Huerta started living on the streets at age 11. He joined a gang and saw things no child should see, had to do things no child should have to do.
His salvation was wrestling. Through wrestling he met the teacher who became his adoptive mother. She helped him find Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where he joined the wrestling team. A teammate introduced him to Mixed Martial Arts. MMA introduced him to the world.
It also introduced him to large sums of money for the first time in his life. But unlike a lot of young men who see their first $10,000 check and rush out to buy flashy necklaces and sleek cars, Huerta wanted the security he never had.
This was on Huerta's mind when he talked to Fight! magazine last month. He discussed his decision not to do grueling UFC press tours, because he only got $50 a day for his efforts. He complained that for a lot of fighters, the pay barely covers their training expenses.
But the most inflammatory part came near the end, when Huerta was quoted as saying, "The truth is, I don't really care if I fight in the UFC or somewhere else."
Dana White, the president of the UFC and a former boxer himself, did not take kindly to being publicly called a cheapskate, nor threatened in print. White has never been one to hold his tongue—he's famous for his F-bomb-laden tirades—and he let loose on Huerta during a radio interview.
"Roger Huerta's a guy who's been reading the headlines a little too much," White said, flashing his annoyance. "You get out there and promote the guy, and he's like, 'Look at all the papers I'm in, look at all the promotion I'm getting, I want a lot more money.' Well, he hasn't fought anybody to get the money yet. He beats Kenny Florian, that's a whole different ball game."
So Huerta wasn't just fighting Florian at UFC 87: Seek and Destroy at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Saturday. He was also fighting for his future.
Huerta entered the arena to the strains of mariachi music, but the crowd cheered him like a true son of Sweden. His opponent, Kenny "Ken-Flo" Florian, a Boston kid with sharp elbows and a bulbous nose, was booed unmercifully. Ken-Flo seemed to enjoy playing the heel, showing up in a yellow Kill Bill tracksuit and dancing into the Octagon to the tune of Lil Wayne's "Playing with Fire." During the introductions, Bruce Buffer, the UFC's silver-haired, deep-timbred announcer, built to a crescendo that ended with "from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Roger Huertaaaaaahhhhhh!" and his voice was drowned out by a crowd of 15,082.
Then it was time to fight. Huerta threw a Superman punch—a lunging fake-me-out that has produced several highlight reel knockouts—but didn't connect. Florian shot in and tackled Huerta, then started raining elbows to Huerta's jaw. Huerta turned away from the punishment and Florian took his back. Huerta tried to stand up but couldn't carry a second man and collapsed under the weight. Florian slipped his arm under Huerta's chin and compressed his carotid artery, looking to finish the fight with the mata leon ("the lion kill") or rear-naked choke. But Huerta squirmed out and got back to his feet as the crowd chanted, "Huerta! Huerta!" and the round ended.
Huerta sat in his corner like a recalcitrant child, spitting water into a red bucket.
At the start of round two, Huerta pushed Florian against the cage, but couldn't find a way to take him down. When the fight did finally go to the mat, Ken-Flo had the advantage. Huerta managed to once again stagger to his feet, but found himself at a loss to connect with Florian's chin, which seemed to disappear from in front of his fists.
Going into round three, Huerta knew he was losing on the judges' scorecards and would need a knockout or submission to win. The fighters bumped their gloves in a show of respect. Moments later, Ken-Flo grabbed Huerta in a Muay Thai clinch and kneed him in the face. Huerta shook it off and went in for more, but Florian spent the rest of the round backpedaling, dodging, parrying, and ducking.
The horn sounded and Florian lifted his hands, knowing he had won. The crowd booed lustily, knowing he eked out his victory through scorecard mathematics rather than valor in combat. The ringside judges dutifully awarded all three rounds to Florian.
In the cage after the fight, Florian tried to pacify the home crowd. "He's going to be a champion," Florian said of Huerta. "I gotta give him a lot of credit—I thought I was going to finish him!"
Hours later, Huerta arrived at the press conference looking like a model from a GQ photo spread on golf-course fight clubs, his black eye coordinated with a dapper, gray cabby hat, green dress shirt, and forest green and lime striped tie.
Huerta mouthed the usual language of losing athletes—"I'm going to learn from this and come back stronger"—but as the press conference wore on, and he listened to the winners graciously accepting congratulations, a glazed look came over his face. Even the reporters noticed it. "You look pretty sad," one said, bluntly prefacing a question about how Huerta would bounce back. "I don't know yet," Huerta conceded.
Then someone asked White about the elephant in the room: "Dana, there was some public back and forth between you and Roger before this fight. Has anything changed between you and Roger after the fight?"
White fixed the reporter with a stare as stiff as his left jab. "There wasn't any public back and forth between me and Roger," White said. "Roger said some stuff and then I talked about it, and I haven't seen or talked to Roger before that, so no."
"Roger?" the reporter asked.
Huerta pulled the microphone over. "What do you want to know?"
"Have your feelings changed? Do you feel the same way as you did before?"
There was a long pause.
"I never bashed the UFC," Huerta began. "I was never saying that the UFC is bad. If it wasn't for them—if it wasn't for their $4 million in the hole—you wouldn't be here," he continued as cameras flashed and popped. "We wouldn't be here. We wouldn't be looked at as professional athletes.
"I can only do this for so long. I can only fight for so many years. You guys saw the fight today. Look at Fitch—" Huerta nodded over at a fighter who had gone five rounds with welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and now sported a left eye that resembled a steak drenched in A-1 sauce. "Look at myself." Though Huerta's own injuries were less traumatic, it wasn't for lack of trying.
"All I was saying is that as a business decision—and you can't argue about this, it's in all business—if a company offers you something better for you and your family, then you would do that, right? It's the logical thing to do. And that's all I was saying."
With that, Huerta settled back into his seat, putting his hands behind his head and staring into the middle distance. His eyes looked unusually misty—maybe from getting punched repeatedly—but he seemed to be running through a separate press conference in his head, the one he'd been rehearsing for months, the one that would have taken place had he won.
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