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It’s easy to make excuses and to play down the significance of what happened to Aaron Pico at Bellator 180 on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York. Pico is after all only 20 years old. It feels mean-spirited to pile on a kid with so much potential who was throwing himself into the fire so early into his career. Pico was in there with a crafty opponent in Zach Freeman, who had much more experience. There’s a reason that inexperienced fighters like Pico tend to get moved along slowly even when big things are expected of them. He has plenty of time to improve his game and to learn from what happened.
All of those things may be true. Writing off Pico at this point would be ridiculous. Yet there ought to be no mincing of words: That was a crushing setback the likes of which we rarely see in mixed martial arts. Bellator MMA bet big on Pico by putting him on pay-per-view against an opponent good enough to create curiosity and doubt. It paid off in spades leading up to the fight, as Pico received as much press -- if not more -- than anyone on the card. Pico was put on the track to become Bellator’s first genuine self-created superstar if he delivered in the cage. Unfortunately, the in-cage performance was pretty much the worst-case scenario.
The stakes are high for the biggest MMA title fights because the winners establish themselves as the best and are set up for additional high-profile main events. However, both champion and challenger have usually already proven just how good they are. Thus, the loser can only fall so far. The dynamic is different with a debuting prodigy. The slate is clean and fans can draw a wide range of conclusions about the new fighter. The cliché that you never get a second chance to make a first impression is so often repeated because of its strong underlying truth.
The image of B.J. Penn knocking out Din Thomas and Caol Uno in just his second and third fights and then running out of the cage created a mystique that lasted long after the Hawaiian’s fighting prime. Vitor Belfort’s hand speed and first-round knockouts as he burst onto the scene in the Ultimate Fighting Championship similarly created a long-lasting impression. Pico was in position to make the same sort of mark if he steamrolled Freeman on a big stage after all the hype. There would have remained strong curiosity even if he won less impressively. However, getting rocked and submitted leaves him in a radically different position than he would have been with a memorable first win.
There’s also a crucial distinction that applies to Pico relative to other fighters. Pico was being marketed on excellence, not personality. Charismatic novelties like Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson and Bob Sapp remained stars even after repeated setbacks, although Sapp certainly reached the breaking point eventually. That was not the hook with Pico, who isn’t an outlandish personality. The selling point for Pico is just how much potential he has to be a dominant force in the sport. If fans don’t believe that, the whole stock collapses. Even if the loss to Freeman was an anomaly, it’s going to take a lot to convince some fans they weren’t sold a bill of goods the first time around.
The history of heavily hyped amateur wrestling standouts is instructive. Jake Rosholt was considered one of the top prospects in MMA coming off his career as a three-time NCAA wrestling champion. He was submitted in a little over a minute in his UFC debut and submitted again in the first round in his third UFC fight. He found himself out of the UFC that quickly and never made it back.
Another NCAA champion, Bubba Jenkins was thought to be a potential MMA star and was fighting for a major promotion very early in his career. He was upset via TKO in his second Bellator fight and never made it to the championship level. Now 29, it seems unlikely he’ll ever reach the level hoped for him.
Perhaps the most striking example of all is Karam Gaber. The Egyptian gold medalist was thought to be a potential MMA phenom. He was a powerhouse with explosive athleticism, and training partners raved about Gaber’s potential for MMA as he prepared for a New Year’s Eve fight at K-1 Dynamite in 2004. Unfortunately for Gaber, he got caught with a punch by Kazuyuki Fujita. He was out in a little over a minute and never fought again.
These competitors of course weren’t destined to fall after suffering early MMA defeats. However, there is a history of excellent wrestlers not fully adapting to MMA, and usually, those vulnerabilities show early. Pico’s boxing background gives him an added dimension that many others did not have, but the reasons he lost to Freeman may surface as issues again even as he gains additional experience.
Bellator’s gamble on Pico may have been the right idea even if it ended in calamity. It’s unlikely he would have generated the same level of press and attention if he was fighting for the fourth time or if it was on a lower-profile show or if he had a softer opponent. The combination of those factors was what made his debut capture the public imagination and what gave him the opportunity to break through in a big way. Unfortunately for Pico and Bellator, greater upside usually comes with greater risk and the gamble went bust. It’s going to take a long time to undo that damage, if the damage is ever fully undone.