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Fortunes changed for five at Bellator 222

After third loss, Aaron Pico’s career in do-or-die mode.

Adam Borics (blue gloves) goes for the finish against Aaron Pico (red gloves) at Bellator 222 at Madison Square Garden on June 14
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

From the age of 15, Aaron Pico was talked about as a future world champion in wrestling, and later, MMA, and possibly even boxing.

He was the most hyped and heralded prospect ever to come into the sport.

Now, at 22, everyone is looking for answers. If you go back two years ago, just before his debut on the main card in Madison Square Garden, the idea that he’d become a 4-3 fighter with a murky future seemed unfathomable. In fact, you only have to go back to late September, when he was being talked of as a future champion and that a dream match with Bellator’s featherweight champion, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, sounded like one of the biggest fights, at least to insiders, in Bellator history.

He showed more than flashes of brilliance when it came to offensive boxing in his four wins in a row. His combination power to the body and hand speed looked to be at a different level than you see even at the highest level of MMA. And while he never used his wrestling, his credentials in that sport, nearly making the Olympic team at 19, spoke for themselves.

Bellator was planning a featherweight Grand Prix for late 2019, and while it seemed a little early for someone with only five fights and two years experience, after the win over Higo, he’d have gone in—along with Freire—as the fighter that would have generated the most interest.

But everything changed on Jan. 26. He seemed on the verge of knocking out Henry Corrales, hurting him and putting him down early, only to be flattened with a counter punch as he left himself open while trying for the finish.

Next came a move to Greg Jackson’s camp in Albuquerque, N.M. Just under six months later, this past Friday, in the same Madison Square Garden where he suffered his first loss, Pico was relegated to the prelims, long before the main card was to start. He was facing Adam Borics, a 12-0 pro who, if you include his amateur MMA fights and kickboxing, has been in 32 fights without a loss. Borics was taller, and with the kickboxing experience, had weapons like a low kicking game that could give Pico problems. On paper, that’s the last kind of fighter you would think to put against a prospect coming off a loss. Still, Pico went in as the heavy favorite.

The new Pico, under Greg Jackson, at first seemed to be transformed into Georges St-Pierre, who Jackson coached during the peak of his career. St-Pierre was a complete fighter, with one of the most well-rounded skill sets in the sport’s history. But everyone (except Jon Jones and Khabib Nurmagomedov) in this sport has a bad day. St-Pierre’s came with Matt Serra. St-Pierre was wrecked by Serra in one of the sport’s biggest upsets in history, similar to how Pico was by Corrales.

After that, St-Pierre relied heavily on his wrestling. He had the rest of the game, and could and would use it when needed. But his go-to game was wrestling. At times he was criticized for it, but his years of success after the Serra loss were among the greatest runs in the history of the sport, especially when you consider the quality of the opponents he was facing. St-Pierre would talk about how a wild striking battle is 50/50, but the odds increase greatly in your favor when you can dominate an opponent on the ground.

For most of two rounds, Pico was fighting Borics like GSP did in so many fights during his winning streak. If anything, with his high slams, Pico’s wrestling was more entertaining. He did some damage from the top, but Borics was never in real trouble. And when he did get Borics back, he did appear to have a weakness in the submission game as there was no real attempt to open things up and work for a choke that would have ended it. But it all changed late in the second round. Borics got up from a takedown, landed a flying knee, and it was over.

After his four straight wins, the loss to Zach Freeman in his debut, while not forgotten, was thought to be a future trivia question, like Cris Cyborg’s debut loss. The Corrales loss was enough to make him change camps, But this loss at this time threatens his career.

How will Bellator use him going forward? Bellator has been pretty forgiving with fighters who have some name value even with multiple losses, but it’s a tough decision. He is only 22. He did look great in his wins, and his fights are all action. He is compelling. He is more talked about than all but a few fighters in the company. But he’s very close to a do-or-die part of his career.

The featherweight Grand Prix would seem to be out of the question. Perhaps his handlers should insist on his starting from scratch, and not continually facing fighters with far more experience. But even then there is a pattern.

His two knockout losses, as well as his debut loss, a submission set up by a strike, were all the result of a single shots. Pico has giving beatings, but has never taken one. He never gets dominated for any period of time. He just takes a big clean shot, and then the fight ends. All the athletic ability, coaching and strategy can’t overcome a chin. Once can be a fluke. Twice is more than a concern. Three times seems like you can’t deny it. Worse, if that is the problem, for fighter, not only does this not get better, but it gets significantly worse over time.

Instead of Freeman being the answer to the trivia question of the unlikely guy who beat Pico, the trivia question is very close to being about the most hyped prospect, with all the boxing and wrestling skills you could ask for, and whatever became of him?

Let’s look at how fortunes changed for five from friday’s show.

RORY MACDONALD - MacDonald (21-5-1) had enough wrestling and submission defense to keep Neiman Gracie (9-1) from ever seriously threatening him in a dominant win. He looked far better here than in his bout with Jon Fitch, where the fight was ruled a draw but MacDonald advanced based on the fact he was champion.

This sets up MacDonald with Douglas Lima (31-7) in the finals of the welterweight Grand Prix, with both MacDonald’s title and a $1 million bonus, at stake. MacDonald vs. Lima was the favorite to be the final of a tournament, It’s a rematch of a Jan. 20, 2018, fight at The Forum in Los Angeles where MacDonald beat Lima via decision to win the title in the first place.

No date has been announced for the fight.

LYOTO MACHIDA - Machida (26-8) seemingly ended the career of one of the most unique personalities in the sport’s history, Chael Sonnen (31-17) with a flying knee. That’s four wins in a row for Machida, at 41.

Machida won at light heavyweight, but middleweight is where he spent most of the last five-and-a-half years of his career. He could face Ryan Bader (27-5), Bellator’s dual heavyweight and light heavyweight champion. Or he could face Phil Davis (20-5) for that title shot if Bader will next defend his heavyweight title. If Bellator had division rankings, Davis would likely be the No. 1 contender, but he does have two losses to Bader. But both were also via split decision in fights that could have been judged either way.

The other possibility is at middleweight. Machida has recently beaten Rafael Carvalho, so he would be very legitimate as the top contender to face the winner of Saturday’s Gegard Mousasi (45-6-2) title defense against Rafael Lovato Jr. (9-0). Machida has a 2014 decision win over Mousasi in UFC. All things considered, that fight seems to be the direction that makes the most sense across the board.

KYOJI HORIGUCHI - Horiguchi (28-2) became the first dual major promotion champion in the history of the sport, holding the Bellator and Rizin bantamweight title at the same time, with his second straight win over Darrion Caldwell (13-3).

Horiguchi’s next fight will be in Japan, where the matchmaking is more haphazard and where the idea of presenting an entertaining show and creating and protecting stars comes before results of fights. But he has promised to defend his title over the next year.

Featherweight Juan Archuleta (23-1) has already issued a challenge, and that record and his performance in beating former Bellator champion Eduardo Dantas in Madison Square Garden makes that viable. An even bigger match, if possible, would be if Freire, already the lightweight and featherweight champion, could drop and go for an unprecedented third championship.

But all of this has to be on hold. Archuleta should be in Bellator’s upcoming featherweight tournament. Freire has to be. And Horiguchi may not be back soon, so by the time he returns, the landscape will have changed.

PATRICK MIX - Mix (11-0), who defeated Ricky Bandejas by submission in a little over a minute, should next face Shawn Bunch (9-3) at bantamweight. The winner would be able to stake his claim for a title shot at some point.

ADAM BORICS - With a 13-0 record, Borics should be invited into the Bellator featherweight Grand Prix. With Pico seemingly out of contention, it leaves Freire, Emmanuel Sanchez, A.J. McKee, Archuleta, and Corrales as the fighters who should be locks for the eight spots. With three other spots open, and an unbeaten record and an impressive win, Borics makes the cut.

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