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Bellator 186’s Zach Freeman marches to his own beat in more ways than one

Zach Freeman faces Saad Awad on Friday at Bellator 186.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

We see it and hear it all the time on fight night. Two competitors make their way to the cage, bodies hopping and bobbing along to some bass-heavy hip-hop track or a raging nu metal riff, the sheer loudness of their chosen walkout track preparing them for the conflict to come.

There are exceptions, of course, though it’s usually the more established stars who indulge in quieter songs that are more representative of their backgrounds and idiosyncrasies. Not relatively unknown fighters looking to make a splash on their first main card appearance.

But that’s exactly what Zach Freeman did this past June at Bellator NYC when he came out for his Bellator debut against highly touted prospect Aaron Pico. After a slick hype video for Pico was broadcast on the Madison Square Garden arena screens, “The Altar Boy” almost discreetly made the walk to the cage backed up by a soft guitar track composed by a little known musician named... Zach Freeman.

Yes, the 33-year-old actually wrote his own walkout music, and then proceeded to upset Pico with a guillotine choke submission 24 seconds into the first round of their fight. You might have heard about that.

Freeman had a chip on his shoulder at the evening’s post-fight presser, pointing out that the media gave him little coverage in the leadup to his debut in contrast to the gushing pieces that were dedicated to his opponent. He recalled how some journalists at the show could hardly be bothered to stop and say “hello” to him while they were tripping over themselves to get five minutes with Pico or Chael Sonnen or Fedor Emelianenko.

Still, Freeman won over plenty of fans with both his spectacular performance and his no-nonsense answers, but he knows the onus is on him to prove that he’s worthy of being viewed as a legitimate name on the Bellator roster.

“I don’t feel like I have got the attention that I would like, but then I have to ask myself do I deserve it?” Freeman said in a recent interview with MMA Fighting. “I’m a person of accountability and responsibility. At this point, I don’t think I necessarily deserve it, but it’s the things like walking out to an Aaron Pico video that rub me the wrong way. What’s it take? Does it really cost that much money to fly me out so that I can have a small promo and something to walk out to? Again, I think my goal is to show Bellator that not only am I a marketable person, I’m someone that they will want to market, that they want to stand behind because I think I have a lot of assets that other fighters don’t.

“I also maintain a full time job like I said and I think that so many young fighters are misled that it’s not possible to do that and I disagree. I wake up early, I put in hard training, I go to work for eight hours, and I get off and I go train. So I think the balance can be there. I just know that the position I’m in I can’t walk away from and I’ve worked too hard to get here, so balancing all that is my hardest part. I work in a stressful industry, so balancing that stress and still being able to show up and train, it’s tough, but all it does is make me a more resilient person and it adds to my character.”

Zach Freeman roars in victory after submitting Aaron Pico in just 24 seconds at Bellator NYC this past June

Though Freeman’s profile in the MMA world got a boost after his stunning Bellator debut, the sport remains a side gig for him while he maintains a full-time job with Working Spaces Inc., an office furniture company based out of Kirkland, Wash. He is so focused on his role as a business development manager that when asked if he plans to meet with officials about how they can better market him in the future, his reply initially veered towards how he could get Working Spaces contracted to supply furniture to Viacom, Bellator’s parent company.

And that’s part of the struggle for Freeman, who seeks MMA glory like any other fighter, but who isn’t a natural at sharing every aspect of his life on social media. He only recently started up his own website, which is dedicated to letting fans learn more about him both as an athlete, a musician, and a white-collar employee.

It’s a work in progress.

“I’m kind of a private person, so now the platform I’m on, I can’t really maintain that private life,” said Freeman. “I need to expose more people to what I do and why I’m doing it. So I’m taking the steps to do that and to welcome people into my life.”

Though Freeman is working on putting himself out there, he has no problem with sharing the inspirational stories of others. He recently helped a disabled boy named Nick Turnbo prepare for a grappling competition, where Turnbo ended up winning both of his matches. Turnbo trains at the same gym as Freeman in St. Charles, Mo. and his perseverance mirrors Freeman’s own sensibilities about how one should be rewarded for making the most of their opportunities.

“Nick Turnbo, he suffers from cerebral palsy, and everything going on in our country right now, I think what we lack is accountability,” said Freeman. “We lack the ability to say, ‘You know what? I don’t care what my position is. I don’t care if I was born black or white. I don’t care if I didn’t go to a great school.’ We let too many things hold us back and I think Nick Turnbo is a perfect example to our country… This guy gets out in jiu-jitsu class, goes out in tournaments and even with his limitations he doesn’t allow them to hold him back.

“So many people are full of excuses, ‘Oh I don’t have this privilege’ or ‘I didn’t grow up with this and that,’ it’s all an excuse. It’s all an excuse and I think what we need is more accountability in this country. Because this country is full of so much opportunity and that’s where people aren’t taking advantage of it. We’re so easy to find an excuse instead of finding a way. And someone like Nick Turnbo is a perfect example of how someone with a condition like his still doesn’t hold him back from doing such a demanding sport like jiu-jitsu. ... So my hope is to one day, maybe Bellator comes to St. Louis and I can have him in my corner. I think that would be a dream come true for him and I would love to be an advocate to help make that come true.”

Freeman can help convince Bellator to bring an event to the “Show Me State” as he becomes more of a known commodity, and his notoriety will jump to another level if he can defeat Saad Awad on Friday. He meets the 29-fight veteran in a lightweight bout on the main card of Bellator 186 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Penn.

Experience-wise, it’s a huge step up from Pico, who was 0-0 when he lost to Freeman. After that performance, Freeman joked that Bellator might be mad at him for derailing the prospect’s hype train, so he was prepared for a dangerous opponent in his next fight and excited when he was offered Awad.

“It was a good thing,” said Freeman. “That is something I mentioned. I knew I threw a kink in their plans and I expected a heavy hitter. Well, I got exactly what I thought. Saad is extremely durable, he’s tested, he’s proven, and he’s tough.

“So you know what, I do see it as a sign of respect. They put me on the main card and I couldn’t ask for more. Bellator staff has been wonderful and I hope to keep taking the steps to eventually get a meeting with execs at Bellator. And then they’ll fly me in and do a little video so I have something to walk out to. I’ve just got to show up, perform, and keep grinding away.”

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