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Roger Huerta hasn't tasted defeat in his last 16 fights, and will always have the claim to fame of being the first mixed martial arts fighter on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But there are two types of stars in MMA. There are those who become stars by winning high-profile matches. And there are those who become stars because of marketability. Like Kimbo Slice, Brock Lesnar, Bob Sapp and Gina Carano, a lot of critics will say Huerta fits into the latter category.
On Saturday night, Huerta has a chance to quiet his skeptics with a win over Clay Guida in the main event of the Ultimate Fighting Championships three-hour television special on Spike TV. A win will make him a serious championship contender.
Huerta, a lightweight contender with a 21-1-1 record, had compiled a healthy winning streak when brought to UFC. He debuted on September 23, 2006 for UFC 93 at the then-Pond in Anaheim, where he beat Jason Dent.
The streak got him in the door but it was other intangibles that made UFC see him as a potential big commodity before his first match with the organization.
Huerta overcame a tragic childhood which included a stint living on the streets of Tijuana. His backstory, and his ability to speak Spanish filled a niche UFC was seeking.
The Hispanic audience has traditionally loved and supported both boxing and pro wrestling, and it doesn't take much marketing savvy for UFC to try and tap into that audience. Without his well-rounded striking and wrestling abilities to keep winning, his background, ethnicity and good looks weren't going to get him far.
Huerta followed his debut with four wins, but he was carefully groomed. His most recent win came against a strong submission specialist in Alberto Crane at UFC 74 in August because his wrestling was strong enough to control positioning most of the way before a third-round referee stoppage.
An interesting part of the fight was Huerta's resourcefulness under pressure. At one point, with Crane behind him, Huerta looked at the giant screens in the arena, and used them to judge where to throw elbows backwards to connect.
But even with the buildup and wins, UFC audiences hasn't reacted to Huerta much differently than any undercard fighter who has become a regular.
Both Huerta and Guida fought at UFC 74 and the Las Vegas crowd reacted to Guida as a star for his win over Marcus Aurelio. Perhaps it was because of his all-action style and probably out of respect for his performance at UFC 72 in a losing effort to Tyson Griffin.
While Huerta didn't get the buzz coming out as a superstar, he's opened doors for publicity in Mexico, where UFC has its eyes on for expansion. Currently, the Hispanic audience has not been drawn to live UFC events in large numbers.
But the company has never had a bilingual Hispanic championship-caliber fighter, either.
The jury is out on whether Huerta can fit that bill, but the verdict on that case is about to be handed down.
Guida was a self-described 90-pound weakling growing up, who followed his brother into fighting and lost three of his first six matches. He fought 26 times, mostly in the Midwest, before debuting in the UFC. He was the lightweight champion in Strikeforce, but was still turned down for a slot in the Ultimate Fighter reality show.
The Chicagoan is 2-2 in UFC competition, but that's misleading. His losses to Din Thomas and Griffin were close decisions. Many felt he beat Thomas. The majority of the rabid crowd in Belfast, Northern Ireland, felt he beat Griffin.
Guida is 22-8 overall, but with no real promotion muscle behind him. It was his loss to Griffin, which has been replayed numerous times on television over the past few months, that made him something of a cult star. With his wild long hair, he has a distinctive look and flair inside the cage. He got a high-profile main event on the night of the Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton boxing match because of his well-earned reputation as a guy who can deliver a match of the year.
Huerta also has potential, as his three-round war with Leonard Garcia at UFC 67 in Houston, was also among this year's top matches. He was also involved in its promotion.
Although it didn't win any awards because the match never aired on television, his June 9, 2006, Strikeforce match in San Jose where Guida lost the lightweight title to Gilbert Melendez was among the most exciting bouts of last year. Although it didn't get the best match bonus, many felt his January 25 UFC loss to Thomas was the match of that night.
His June 16, 2007, loss to Griffin at UFC 72, is likely to place high in most best match polls at the end of this year. While he lost a split decision to Griffin, he was the one closest to finishing with several submission attempts. And he heavily cheered when it was over. He noted this week he's hoping Griffin keeps winning because he'd like another shot at him.
Guida's wrestling is strong. He was a junior college national champion at 149 pounds for Harper College of Palatine, Ill. His has exceptional cardio, which is key in great fights.
He's always moving and looking for the takedown, and stays busy no matter what position he's in. Guida improved his submission game, nearly catching Griffin on three occasions. His striking is wild and he's susceptible to counter punchers.
But Guida’s underrated durability, in particular his ability to take a hard punch, is among his best traits. He's always moving forward and looking for the big blow. That has caused him to lose matches by decision, but he's never been knocked out. Against Melendez, he took five rounds of solid punches from one of the top fighters in the world and never stopped moving forward.
Therein lies the intrigue of this match. Both are strong at wrestling, which could cancel out. On paper, Huerta is the better striker, but he has never faced an opponent of this caliber. There have been questions regarding Huerta since he was dominated in the first round of a June fight with unheralded Doug Evans, which he came back to win in the second round.
Guida has had significantly better competition, and has only been stopped once, a submission loss, in the past 3 ½ years.
He's been impossible to stop, or for that matter, even slow down, with strikes. Guida's strategy is likely to keep the pressure on and tire out Huerta, and he readily admits that a five-round fight would be better for him.
Huerta is looking at this as a stepping stone to a match for the championship, whether it be Sean Sherk, B.J. Penn or Joe Stevenson.
"I've worked my butt off this year," he said. "I'll be 6-0 (since his UFC debut) after Saturday and I want the title."
Huerta, 24, felt he had the wrestling advantage, noting he competed at Division III national powerhouse Augusburg College in Minneapolis, and trains with mat expert Dave Menne, a former UFC middleweight champion.
"I'm better than he is in everything," said Huerta, who vows to beat Guida at every facet of the game.
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