Bellator 180 had a number of half-decent selling points going into the event but for me personally, the ones with the biggest potential upside were the debuts of two highly touted MMA prospects, although neither of them can really be described as combat sports neophytes, Heather Hardy and Aaron Pico. Bellator’s previous ventures into homegrown talent last year both paid off massively with Ed Ruth and Tyrell Fortune posting 3-0 records so far with five impressive finishes between them and this alone should’ve been cause for plenty of us to pay attention to Bellator’s second PPV event.
There can’t have been many people willing to bet against either Heather Hardy or Aaron Pico coming into their fights tonight, especially given some reasonably favorable yet still competitive matchups courtesy of Rich Chou, but at the same time, there were always going to be concerns in the backs of our minds. There are too many unknowns coming into a fighter’s debut for any real expectations to be put on them and a cliché is a cliché for a reason, anything can happen and Bellator 180 showed us that in spades tonight. There are always questions coming into any fight and as always with MMA, answers were given and they weren’t necessarily the ones we were expecting.
Was Heather Hardy going to look as unprepared as James Toney and leave as quickly as she came or rise straight to the top and take over the world à la Holly Holm? Was Aaron Pico really the prodigy that everyone seems to think he is or is he a 20 year-old fighter who needs more experience and physical development? Could pre-fight jitters play a factor in either of their performances? Spare me a few minutes now and we’ll investigate the answers Bellator NYC provided.
All-in-all, MMA has already been a very successful venture for Heather Hardy it seems. I consider myself a fairweather boxing fan at the best of times and much to my shame, I can’t say I follow women’s boxing well enough at all but I’ve still been aware of Heather Hardy for about a year or so now thanks to a co-worker with an obsession with the squared circle. However, in the last three months Bellator’s PR department must have really worked overtime these last few months because I can safely say that I’ve heard more from her and about her life in that space of time than ever before.
This really shows how important her first fight was to Bellator as she definitely has the potential to not only strengthen their women’s flyweight division but could even make a serious impact on the MMA world as a whole. It’s no secret that women’s flyweight could really be a key place, along with women’s featherweight, for Bellator to hurt the UFC and create a more successful weight class by essentially getting a head-start. The way the UFC has effectively reset the women’s featherweight championship and the hastily put-together season of The Ultimate Fighter to create a whole weight class at flyweight have certainly created a sense that the UFC’s new owners are well aware of their shortcomings in not providing enough women’s divisions as well.
When Heather Hardy came down that walkway she looked the picture of composure and certainly showed that in the cage as well. She spent fourteen minutes and forty-seven seconds taking Alice Yauger’s best shots in her stride and dealing out plenty of punishment of her own. I think the difference in ability was evident from the outset despite how game her opponent was. The first two rounds went roughly according to her gameplan as she outstruck Yaeger on the feet, other than a hiccup in the last half of the first round where she ate a few heavy knees. Hardy’s striking really did her background justice and although her kicks were somewhat telegraphed, they still found a home against her overmatched opponent and thudded with authority. She showed a decent defensive wrestling-game and although she wasn’t tested by an olympic-standard double-leg or hip-toss, the strengths that were on display in her standup could be enough to see her clear to an eventual title-fight in this fledgling division, regardless of any improvements she’ll undoubtedly make. She’s clearly a good enough long-range striker to trouble most of the division and the fact that she doesn’t mind a tough scrap shows that she’s committed to the sport.
Her right hand was a laser-guided missile and she threw it with variety all night long, she started out with the overhand and as soon as Yauger adapted accordingly, Hardy was hammering home the hook to the body and firing a stinging straight to her head. It was one of the latter that sealed the deal around the fourteen minute mark and sent Yauger crashing to the mat and while some might say she was foolish not to pounce on a downed fighter, I’d say that shows a depth of experience and a clear head in the heat of the moment. Hardy knew Yauger was hurt but not out and chose not to rush in on the ground in the final minute of a fight she was no doubt leading on most scorecards, the fact that she rushed her for the finish as soon as Yauger got up without sound legs underneath her showed how little respect she had for her opponent’s standup game. She knew that a statement could be made with a finish in her first fight and certainly made one when John McCarthy was forced to step in for Yauger’s safety.
This kid had a lot to live upto as I’ve been hearing about Aaron Pico for what seems like forever now, along with most of you I’m sure, and tonight was supposed to show us all exactly why. His freestyle wrestling and boxing pedigree is something we don’t really see that often in MMA, especially not in someone still at the tender young age of 20. The fact that Scott Coker saw enough value in him to lock him into a professional contract and pay him three years before he ever even set foot into a cage competitively spoke volumes to begin with. Then combine that with the fact that his debut was on Bellator’s first PPV event in just over three years, in Madison Square Garden with higher billing than not one, but two title-fights and that just says it all for how high expectations were before the timer started on Pico’s first round.
Never has anyone’s party been so thoroughly pooped thanPico’s tonight, all it took was one uppercut and a tight choke to bring reality crashing down on him. That’s how things go though when you’re coming into your first fight and things go badly, early. Pico came after Zach Freeman straight after the bell and credit where it’s due, Freeman saw the opening and immediately fired a hard uppercut straight through Pico’s face. Pico dropped to a knee at this point and when Freeman latched on to a front-headlock, you could tell that the lights hadn’t quite switched back on and Pico was still on auto-pilot. His wrestling background suggests that under calmer circumstances he could have worked his way out of this, pressed Freeman against the cage or slid into side control on the ground and eased his way out of the choke. This isn’t what happened though, by the time Pico’s internal thought processes had returned he was stuck in half-guard losing time to escape fast. So fast in fact, he could barely tap before he was put to sleep, evidenced by his vacant expression and slumped figure as Freeman celebrated like a madman.
Pico’s hype-train definitely took a massive hit tonight but there’s no way Bellator aren’t determined to recoup the investment they’ve placed in him and there’s no way someone with credentials as good as his could possibly end up a total flop. This wasn’t a good look for Pico at all and definitely wasn’t the outcome Scott Coker had planned but let’s not cry just yet, he’s still got years ahead of him and plenty of opportunities lie waiting for him down the road.
The solution for what to do with Aaron Pico is surprisingly easy with the outcome of his fight, match him up with someone a lot closer to his experience level and see what happens. Give him three or four fights against opponents with a handful of fights on their record and ensure that at least the next one is on the preliminary section of a much smaller card than this. Perhaps even a drop to Featherweight might suit him more, he’s wrestled at 138-145lbs in the past and if he can still make the 145lbs weight limit then there are a few suitable fighters on the Bellator roster that could help Pico develop. Anthony Taylor or a returning Victor Jones immediately spring to mind but there’s always more Featherweights or Lightweights that’ll be willing to step up for Bellator in the early stages of their career.
There’s no need to let the kid fade into obscurity, by all means still promote him and make sure the MMA world pays attention to how his career develops but if this loss shows us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t expect him to set fire to the world in his first few years. Let’s lower our expectations and just enjoy seeing how he develops under the Bellator banner and maybe in two years or so when he’s posting a winning record and has had a reasonable amount of experience, we can start seeing him tested against some recognisable names in either the Lightweight or Featherweight division, wherever he eventually finds his home.
Things are a little tougher for Hardy as the main question isn’t how well she’ll transition to the sport anymore, but how much she can improve in what is inevitably a comparably short time left in the sport; at the age of 35, it’s unlikely her record’s going to stretch far into the double-digits before father time claims another victim. I know I mentioned her before but the easiest comparison will always be Holly Holm and considering she’s at the same age, but 14 fights and 4 years deep in her MMA career, things don’t bode well for the future of Heather Hardy. That being said, Bellator doesn’t have the most stacked division at flyweight just yet and assuming that they’ve been grooming Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and Anastasia Yankova for the inaugural flyweight championship fight to take place later this year, another successful trip or two to the octagon should potentially put Heather in a position to challenge for the title next spring. Hell, even if you don’t want to think too far ahead just yet, the possibility of a fight with either Valérie Létourneau or Lena Ovchynnikova would definitely provide a sterner test for Hardy while also not taking her too far out of her comfort-zone and guaranteeing some action for the fans.
In short, Bellator should look to capitalize on both of these performances but in very different ways. Pico should be given the opportunity to develop exactly the same as any other MMA fighter would in the early stages of his career and theoretically it should allow him to flourish by the time he reaches his athletic prime. Hardy on the other hand should be fast-tracked to a title-shot after one or two more wins and at the very least it’ll make for an exciting fight and serve to legitimize whichever of Bellator’s undefeated poster-girls is the future champion and at best? Well, we all know what happened when Holly Holm got given a shot.