The pressure Aaron Pico felt on his shoulders in June, when making his professional mixed martial arts debut at Madison Square Garden, was considered unusual for a 20-year-old with zero pro experience. Yet this pressure will be felt tenfold on Saturday (September 23) when Pico, having lost his pro debut, looks to make amends and hush those who cruelly consider him a busted flush.
Superstar in the making.
The future of MMA.
The greatest prospect in MMA history.
These labels were all applied to Pico ahead of his fight with Zach Freeman at MSG and were applied not only by coaches, teammates and his promoter but by other people, too. People in the know. People who have seen a prospect or two in their time. People who might be inclined to call themselves experts.
This created anticipation and a hype bubble so large it threatened to outshine many of the more established stars on Bellator’s MSG card. For some it was all about the 20-year-old prodigy from California. They were about to witness history. A where-were-you-when… moment.
But then, of course, the bubble burst. Freeman cracked an overzealous Pico with a peach of an uppercut inside the opening seconds of their lightweight fight and then swiftly secured the upset victory via choke. Done in 24 seconds, the look of bewilderment on Pico’s face was mimicked by those in his corner and those who had spent months prematurely hailing his greatness. It wasn’t meant to happen this way, their dead eyes seemed to say. This wasn’t in the script.
Freeman, an ambitious choice of first opponent, wheeled away in jubilation and celebrated winning a fight he wasn’t supposed to win as if it solved all of life’s problems, as if this was his ticket to the big time. It was a reaction testament to the hype surrounding Pico. Unbeatable, they said. A can’t-miss prospect, they said. Fast-track him to a title shot, they said. Only now Freeman, an unheralded underdog, had put an L on Pico’s record before the neophyte had even managed a W, and done so with embarrassing ease.
Three months later and Pico is ready to go again. Now at featherweight, he knows it’s important to beat Justin Linn on Saturday, just as he knew it was important to beat Zach Freeman in June. But he also knows it’s different this time. It’s quieter this time. There’s no MSG as backdrop. No Chael Sonnen and Scott Coker declaring his brilliance at pre-fight press conferences. No unwarranted hyperbole. Instead, this time Aaron Pico gets to register his first pro win the old-fashioned way, which is to say quietly, on the sly, to little or no fanfare. There will still be interest, of course, his wrestling and amateur MMA credentials ensure that, but there’s a feeling this time common sense will prevail; fooled once, we’re now content to let a kid be a kid, let him find his feet, get them wet, wait and see.
After all, MMA’s desperate need for The Next Big Thing is MMA’s problem, not Aaron Pico’s. To him, a 20-year-old with a dream, this is just sport, his job, his life. He’s a fighter, not a saviour. He’s human, not a superhero. There will be ups and downs, just as there is with any pro mixed martial artist, and sometimes he’ll be everything everybody says he is and sometimes he won’t. But at least now, thanks to Zach Freeman’s reality check, Pico should be able to find out all this stuff along the way and, for now, be a kid just like the rest of them. Nothing special.
You become special. You don’t arrive that way.
Other fighters who lost their professional MMA debut and didn’t do too badly in the end:
Former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barão lost a three-round decision to João Paulo Rodrigues back in April 2005, and then refused to lose again for some nine years. During that time he won 32 fights in a row and defeated Urijah Faber to lift the UFC’s 135lb crown.
Rafael dos Anjos
A tight one, but a loss nonetheless, Rafael dos Anjos dropped a split-decision to Adriano Abu in his pro debut in September 2004. It got worse before it got better, too, as the future UFC lightweight champion then happened to lose his fourth pro fight as well (again by split-decision).
Cub Swanson has always done it the hard way and a pro debut defeat to Shannon Gugerty in July 2004 – done and dusted in 15 seconds thanks to a submission – was the sort of result that would break lesser men and force them to give up. Not Swanson, however. Thirteen years later he’s on the cusp of a UFC title shot.
Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza
‘Jacare’ Souza’s outstanding jiu-jitsu credentials didn’t help him the night he made his pro MMA debut in September 2003, as he found himself knocked out inside a round by Jorge Patino. It was all the incentive he needed to work on his striking and pretty soon the Brazilian was regarded as one of the best middleweights in the world and a Strikeforce champion.
UFC welterweight contender Thiago Alves is a special case because not only did he lose his pro MMA debut in June 2001, he also then managed to lose his second fight three months later. Gleison Tibau handed him his first defeat, while Lucas Lopes compounded the misery. Still, it wasn’t long before ‘Pitbull’ was leg-kicking the crap out of people and making his way towards a UFC title shot.
Although a precise striker, Dan Hardy had problems with the ground game and submissions in the early days and it was a submission that cost him a win on his pro debut in June 2004. Tapped in round two by Lee Doski, the defeat acted as a baptism of fire for Hardy and highlighted the importance of takedown and submission defence. Six years later he challenged Georges St-Pierre for the UFC welterweight title.
Mark Hunt is no stranger to the odd defeat, but a first-round submission loss to Hidehoki Yoshida in June 2004 was hardly the way a K-1 standout intended on starting his pro MMA career.
Jon Fitch and Mike Pyle would later become quality UFC contenders in their own right, but in July 2002 they were a couple of prospects making their way in the game whose paths crossed. This twist of fate handed Fitch a loss, by first-round submission, on his pro debut, and he’d also lose his fourth pro fight to another future UFC standout, Wilson Gouveia, before embarking on a run at the UFC welterweight title.
Imagine fighting Dan Severn in your pro MMA debut. Well, Forrest Griffin did just that. He went three rounds with ‘The Beast’ in October 2001, losing a decision to the bigger man (who boasted 57 fights to his name at the time) in the process. Fearless? Forrest was seemingly built that way from the very start.
Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino
‘Cyborg’ hasn’t always been the most feared female fighter on the planet. In fact, back in May 2005 she opened her pro MMA account with a first-round submission defeat to Erica Paes, a result that remains her only loss to date.
A great believer in the kill-or-be-killed approach to MMA, Andrei Arlovski suffered a first-round knockout defeat to Viacheslav Datsik on his pro debut in April 1999. He’d later rebound from a couple more knockout defeats to lift the UFC heavyweight title.