Aaron Pico may well fulfil the prophecies of coaches and peers and prove himself the best prospect in all of mixed martial arts. He could even one day be remembered as a great champion. But, for now, such forecasts will be greeted with cynical frowns and sideways looks after Zach Freeman rocked him with an uppercut and submitted him with a d’arce choke tonight at Madison Square Garden, New York.
Yes, you read that right: Aaron Pico, considered MMA’s most gifted and exciting debutant, lost his MMA debut. Worse, he lost it in just 24 seconds. He is now 0-1.
In light of the bold proclamations and the general hullabaloo surrounding Pico’s first MMA start, Freeman’s submission win has to be acknowledged as one of the all-time great MMA upsets.
Unheralded and presumably cherry-picked for a reason (to get Pico a win), Missouri’s Freeman, known as ‘The Altar Boy’, cared little for reputations or noise, had lost only twice in a ten-fight MMA career and in his last fight went the full five rounds with Thiago Moises. Far from your typical first opponent, then, Freeman was nevertheless supposed to succumb to Pico the way everybody else would in time. It was supposed to be one-sided. Pico, a product of American Kickboxing Academy, was meant to make a statement.
So for much that.
You could blame overeagerness and this very need to impress. You could also blame pressure and expectancy. Pico, after all, seemed a 20-year-old desperate to break free from the shackles tonight at MSG; even before the bout had started, he shimmied towards the centre of the cage and had to be told to retreat by the referee.
This hyperactivity then spilled over into the fight as he immediately stalked Freeman from the off, believing in his punch power and his aggression and his all-round star quality. Only then, as he looked to impose this aggression on Freeman, he left himself exposed to an almighty right uppercut, which buckled his legs, sent him to the floor and, unfortunately for him, led to a tight d’arce choke executed with aplomb by Freeman, who couldn’t believe his luck.
Yet, rest assured, this was no lucky punch, nor submission. Freeman, 33, intelligently used Pico’s exuberance against him, timed his right uppercut to perfection and then locked in a choke he has used to good effect in previous fights. In essence, he old-manned the young phenom. He taught him a lesson.
Whether Pico can learn from this lesson, and recover from the humiliation of seeing his own hype bubble burst, remains to be seen. If he’s as brilliant as everyone said he was before tonight, there’s every chance he will. It’s also likely he’ll have a long and illustrious MMA career. If, however, the Californian prodigy has started to believe his own hype or has felt the weight of expectancy, it could be a long, hard road back.