by Tom Hoisington for MMAWeekly.com
The Ultimate Fighter Season 5, designed to highlight the lightweight division, has its finale tomorrow night. Ironically, the two lightweights that could most affect the sport in the future were neither coaches nor contestants on the show.
Roger Huerta and Leonard Garcia are now linked in the minds of MMA fans, owing to their epic confrontation on the Shootout card in Houston, Texas in April. Huerta was eventually awarded the unanimous decision, but not before he and Garcia engaged in a three-round battle that caused UFC commentator Joe Rogan to call it “one of the best fights [he'd] ever seen.” UFC president Dana White also made a point of entering the cage to congratulate both fighters on a highly entertaining performance.
What has happened outside the cage since the fight, however, has been nearly as remarkable. While ESPN The Magazine opted for longtime – and recently dethroned – UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddell, posing smiling with his son, to be its first MMA cover subject, Sports Illustrated chose Huerta in mid-action, delivering a kick to Garcia. That Huerta has coverboy looks can hardly be questioned, but his Horatio Alger-esque struggle from poverty and instability as a child to one of the rising stars for the UFC’s newly reconstituted 155-pound division is at least as compelling as his appearance.
Additionally, both Huerta and Garcia proudly claim and represent their Hispanic heritage, and White has made little pretense of his coveting of Mexican and Hispanic-American fight fans.
In September, White remarked to MMAWeekly, “We’re going to aggressively go after the Hispanic market over the next couple of years. Right now down in Mexico, they get The Ultimate Fighter on DirecTV. Every time I go down to Mexico, people know about the sport and the show and we’re looking for a television deal.”
With the contention between boxing enthusiasts and MMA fans reaching a fever pitch, and Mexican mainstays in the sweet science like Oscar De La Hoya reaching the ends of their careers, White could well figure that now is the time to push a good-looking, bilingual, extremely-talented, Hispanic fighter with a three-fight UFC win streak under his belt, such as Huerta.
Garcia, while possibly not as polished a marketing product as Huerta, is no less compelling inside the Octagon, having taken the Huerta fight on short notice and still managing to deliver one of the most scintillating performances of this year. Garcia both took and dispensed an enormous amount of punishment in the fight, a performance that could remind potential Hispanic converts of Mexican pugilists Marco Antonio Barrera or Erik Morrales.
Undoubtedly, the marketing and hype of the evening will center on the Pulver vs. Penn rematch and The Ultimate Fighter 5 Final between Gamburyan and Diaz. But fans interested in the shape the sport will take in the coming years would do well to tune in early to catch Huerta taking on Doug Evans, and getting online to download Garcia’s scrap with Allen Berube.
With UFCs 70, 72, and 75 taking place in the U.K., Zuffa is clearly serious about expanding overseas. We could be but a few steps away from a Huerta vs. Garcia rematch in Mexico City, the first of which could be their respective bouts on Saturday night.