The world of MMA is slowly changing. Once a sport that missed out on high-level athletes, MMA is beginning to attract the cream of the crop. While the rise of combat sports has brought lots of talent to the forefront, it has also created unreal expectations. Young athletes are attracted to the MMA lifestyle perpetuated by Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. But the truth is that for prospects, the road to the top is one paved with many obstacles.
Last weekend, Aaron Pico, a superstar wrestler and golden gloves champion entered the Bellator cage amid much fanfare. In doing so, he highlighted everything that is wrong with prospect-building in MMA. Before Pico ever strapped on a pair 4oz gloves, he was heralded as the future of the sport. Through his teens, Pico had excelled in all elements of combat. So much so, that Bellator MMA signed him to a contract at the age of 18. They were paying him a weekly wage without him having ever stepped in the cage. In the build up to his Bellator 180 clash with Zach Freeman, Pico was paraded around the media as Viacom’s prized pony. Pundits pegged him as the champion in waiting.
But in 24 seconds, his dream debut became a nightmare as Zach Freeman forced him to tap out to a tight guillotine choke.
While mixed martial arts is comprised of multiple facets, the sport is not a sum of its parts. Pico, while talented in many dimensions of martial arts, was placed on pedestal when the reality is this: MMA is much more complicated than how it seems on the surface. Elitism in one dimension is not enough. Greats of multiple combat sports have failed miserably in their attempts at MMA greatness. Marcelo Garcia, the greatest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu athlete of all-time. lost his lone fight. Alexander Karelin, arguably the scariest wrestler to ever grace the planet, was less-than-stellar in his lone foray into MMA. And James Toney, a boxing phenomenon, was embarrassed when he tried to mix it up with Randy Couture.
Expectations on young fighters are often blown out of proportion. And the fact that Aaron Pico was made to debut against an 8-2 fighter highlights the innate ignorance of MMA promoters. Pico’s star was diminished by shortsightedness. There is one way to bring through a prospect, and that is by incrementally improving his opponents instead of throwing him in at the deep end and watching him drown.
One prospect who Bellator has done right by is James Gallagher—who, unlike Pico—doesn’t have a world class specialism in one martial art. Instead of pushing Gallagher to his limits, they have helped build his 7-0 record by matching him against difficult opponents with favorable styles. Gallagher’s star is being built on the coattails of Conor McGregor. But Bellator has let him grow by allowing him match-ups that give him the opportunity to show off.
Unlike Gallagher, Pico was fed to the wolves. And while he is ultimately a far superior talent to Gallagher, his first impression in MMA was one of a laughing stock. This is something tha could have a longstanding effect on his career.
With prospects, it is pertinent to play the long game. Stars must be built organically, not thrown to the sky so we can all witness them falling. Bellator MMA has got a lot to do to recoup their investment in Pico. But, this episode should act as a map of what not to do when building a promotional star. The only silver lining to the Pico problem was the stellar performance of Zach Freeman, who Bellator must do right by and get behind.