LAS VEGAS – Roger Huerta's phone wouldn't stop ringing. Friends showed up at his home. Everyone he knew, and many people he didn't, suddenly wanted to speak to him.
Unbeknownst to him, a photo of Huerta in a UFC bout graced the cover of the May 28 issue of Sports Illustrated. He was the first mixed martial artist on the magazine's cover, an event so big in the MMA world that UFC president Dana White carried copies with him for days after it was published.
Huerta's reaction, though, was different.
"I just went to ride the bike and train more," Huerta said. "I was totally shocked and totally humbled, but I knew I would have to be even better. I needed to get to work."
Huerta is one of the sport's rising stars, though he's known as much for his incredible life story as for his 17-1-1 MMA record.
Appearing on the cover of the country's foremost sports magazine was the latest act in an improbable rise to prominence for a man who concedes he could easily have been dead years ago.
Huerta, who fights unbeaten Doug Evans on a Saturday UFC card at the Palms Hotel, was twice abandoned as a child in foreign countries and used to sell chewing gum and rosary beads on a street corner in Mexico to earn money to survive.
Everyone who hears about his life story, he says, listens with an open jaw.
"They all tell me my life sounds like a movie, but that if it were a movie it would be hard for people to believe it is true," Huerta said.
His normal childhood life was shattered at 7 when his father, Rogelio, began an extra-marital affair. Huerta's mother, Lydia, was unaware of her husband's philandering and suffered a mental breakdown when she learned of it, Huerta said.
His father gained legal custody of him and things briefly returned to normal. But in an attempt to flee the heartbreak, Lydia Huerta snatched her son from his home in Texas, without his father's permission, and fled to El Salvador, where her parents lived.
She wasn't, Huerta said in a voice little above a whisper, stable enough to raise a child. After a short while, she fled the country, leaving him with her parents in the midst of a civil war in El Salvador.
Lydia Huerta returned to claim him nearly a year later, but instead of raising him dropped him on his father's doorstep.
That turned out to be a nightmare. Huerta says his stepmother physically and mentally abused him. His father took him to Mexico and left him with his paternal grandparents, who were living in near poverty and were in no position to raise an 8-year-old.
His father eventually returned, too, but began to abuse drugs, so after suffering more abuse from his stepmother, Huerta wound up living on the streets, coaxing favors out of sympathetic friends.
He got to eat only when school was in session, and looked forward to the morning so he could eat breakfast in the school cafeteria and satisfy the burning in his belly.
For several years, survival was all Huerta knew.
"When you're desperate, you do what you have to do to survive," he says. "I'm fortunate that there are a lot of good people in this world and that God eventually put me in touch with them."
The first was Maria King, who gained legal custody of him, brought him into her home and treated him like one of her own.
And when he was a senior at Crockett High School in Austin, Texas, he said his life changed forever when he met wrestling coach Bryan Ashford and English teacher Jo Ramirez.
Ashford helped him to become a star wrestler and he began to think of going to college on a wrestling scholarship.
When he asked Ramirez for help writing letters to colleges to drum up interest in him, he told her the story of his childhood. She never had a hint of what he had been through.
She was so impressed that she adopted him during his freshman year at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
"Maybe someone will write a book or do a movie and if they do, maybe it will be an inspiration to people who believe they have no hope and nothing good will happen in their lives," he said. "I had a lot of bad times, but I never gave up and I fought my way out. And now look at the life I have."
That life only promises to get better. UFC president Dana White conceded that Huerta needs a lot of work to compete with the top 155-pounders in the world like B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver, who will fight in Saturday's main event, but he said Huerta has the spirit to become a star.
"He's got that dog inside of him that's going to fight and scratch and keep coming," White said. "He's got incredible determination. He's great at standup and he's very good on the ground. He's trained for years with a good team, with (ex-UFC welterweight champion) Matt Hughes and Jens and (ex-UFC heavyweight champion Tim) Sylvia, and so he's learning from good people.
"You can't throw him to the wolves yet, but he's a tenacious kid with a lot of ability. Give him six months, maybe a little more, and he's going to be a bitch for anyone to fight."
- Roger Huerta
- Dana White