Make no mistake about it – Roger Huerta was the odds-on favorite to advance through Bellator’s Lightweight tournament and into a championship bout opposite last year’s winner Eddie Alvarez. That’s not going to happen.
Last night, Pat Curran, the 22-year-old cousin of MMA veteran Jeff “Big Frog” Curran, scored a Unanimous Decision upset over “El Matador” in the semifinals of Season Two’s tournament, advancing to face Toby Imada in the finals while Huerta is left to figure out what went wrong.
While Curran deserves credit for coming out and earning easily the biggest win of his career against a well-known and more experienced opponent, Huerta’s loss is the storyline everyone is interested in.
The first mixed martial artist to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that photo shot Huerta into dangerous territory, the land of over-hyped up-and-comers. The fact that his biggest win to date was Leonard Garcia didn’t matter; he was the guy on the cover of SI, and that meant he had to be good, right?
We may never know the complete answer to that question.
Following his come-from-behind win over Clay Guida and riding the wave of popularity from the magazine cover, Huerta tried to renegotiate his contract with the UFC and came up empty.
Still, six consecutive victories earned Huerta a #1 contender contest with Kenny Florian at UFC 87, but he was thoroughly dominated by the MMA Live analyst before taking a one-year hiatus to focus on acting.
Thirteen months later, Huerta returned in an exciting split decision loss to Gray Maynard. That fight marked the end of his contractual obligations to the UFC, and gave Huerta a chance to start again in a new organization.
While Strikeforce looked like “El Matador’s” eventual home – Huerta tweeted about being in talks with the San Jose-based outfit – he eventually signed with Bellator, a move that was seen as a major coupe for the relative newcomers. They had landed a big name fighter – the first fighter to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated – and a potential marquee opponent for Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez. After last night’s event in Boston, all that has changed.
Bellator will be fine; Curran can be pushed as “the guy who beat Roger Huerta” and finals opponent Toby Imada is looking to advance to face Alvarez for the second time in as many years. There are angles and storylines the company can work with, but Huerta is out of the picture, at least for now. CEO Bjorn Rebney told MMA Fighting that a return to action for Huerta would have to wait until Season Three begins in August at the earliest.
Huerta’s career, on the other hand, is in need of a serious revival now more than ever. Entering the Bellator Lightweight tournament with the potential of a matchup with a Top 5 fighter like Alvarez could have been the bounce back that Huerta needed, to reaffirm all the early hype and show that he was still a star on the rise.
Instead, “El Matador” has been knocked out of the tournament by a relative unknown, and now must face a barrage of questions about his career, his commitment and his future.
It took three years, but the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx may have finally caught up to Roger Huerta.