Last year, around autumn, Roger Huerta began playing around with the idea of a comeback. This was a very different Roger Huerta from the man who mixed martial arts devotees remember being soccer kicked into oblivion at a 10,000-seat stadium in Kuala Lumpur; the same man who'd once graced the cover or Sports Illustrated and had been Dana White's own "dream come true," before the pressures of celebrity collapsed upon the fighter and led him down a path of diligent self-sabotage.
That man, Huerta reflected, was a lost soul. A wanderer in a state of perpetual unrest. He was searching for something unattainable, and ultimately it took one of the sport's most visceral knockouts to help him understand it.
But that Huerta is gone, a half-forgotten nightmare, a nomad who no longer exists. In truth, the man who now wears Huerta's skin is one reborn, a beacon of positivity who chased away his demons and found true happiness on the shores of Phuket, Thailand. Absent are the sleepless nights and restless mornings. Huerta's days now are split between the ocean waves and the mats at Tiger Muay Thai, where the 31-year-old serves as an assistant MMA instructor. It's on those very mats, with those very students, that Huerta last year rediscovered his passion for the game that raised him, and it's on those very ocean waves that the thought of a comeback slowly blossomed from a curious idea into a full-fledged reality.
"If it's meant to be a one-off, it's meant to be a one-off. If it's not meant to be a one-off, it's not meant to be a one-off," Huerta says. "Before, I was always planning for the future. When I was in the UFC, I was always like, ‘I want to set records.' I fought five times in 2007 and won all those fights. I was obviously so close to getting a title shot, and I just kept thinking about the future, future, future. When in that time, man, I was on the cover of f--king Sports Illustrated. Come on, I should've given myself a f--king pat on the back for that one back then. But I never did. I never did.
"What I try to do now is really pay attention to my surroundings. How I live, the people the around me. The thing is, better sooner than later. I'm 31 years old, I've got plenty of life, right? Who knows, anything could happen tomorrow."
Just as he did last year, Huerta speaks often of living in the moment. Call it a byproduct of opportunity wasted, or call it the existential learnings of one who's feasted on far too much inner grief, but at least know that these are matters with which Huerta has submitted careful study into not only understanding, but following; a sort of self-trained self-awareness that turned a troubled life around for the better.
"I am blessed to be in the position I'm at," he says. "I live in a beautiful island and I love doing what I do. Mixed martial arts, it's a passion for me. I never did it for fame, I never did it for anything else but because I was in love with the sport.
"This thing has taken me all over the place. I could never have imagined. I've been to Chechnya, I've been to Russia. I'm fighting in Dubai. Like, holy s--t. This f--king kid who grew up with nothing is traveling the world, seeing things, meeting people, and going to places that, when I just owned a pair of shorts and some torn up shoes, I could never have dreamed of."
Huerta nearly came back to the sport of MMA in December. But, he says, it just wasn't the right time. Sometimes you just don't go against the forces of nature, he explains, and if he was going to do it, he wanted to do it right.
So instead Huerta waited, and now he's scheduled to challenge undefeated Englishman Christian Holley this Friday at ONE FC 19. Not only will the bout serve as his long-awaited return, it will also be Huerta's first foray back at 155 pounds in almost half a decade. It was the weight of his glory days, the weight at which the legend of Roger Huerta first flourished. And if his unceasingly broad smile leaves any doubt, this year, this month, this day, is indeed the perfect time.
"Man, I'm just enjoying being alive," Huerta says. "There's certain things we don't have control over, so why worry about those things, why think about those things?
"Eventually, that candle will burn out. I'll have to hang it up, no matter what. It can be tomorrow, it can be down the road, it can be whenever. But that day will come for sure. The only sure thing for anybody in any sport is that there will be that last moment, that last time you will compete. And I know that.
"So for me, August 29th, that's not too far. That's a goal that I set for myself is to compete that day, compete against this guy who's undefeated. He's tough. So all my energy, all my concentration, all my focus is on this date, on this individual, on my body, on how I need to get prepared for this day. It's something that I neglected for the last couple years, which I shouldn't have, but that's my own fault. And I learned from all those things. I think it took a soccer kick to really understand it."