Making sense of Aaron Pico's disastrous MMA debut

Aaron Pico, one of the most talented prospects in MMA history, lost in his professional debut to Zach Freeman at Bellator NYC. Melissa Lyttle for ESPN

There is no sugarcoating Aaron Pico's first professional fight. It was an unmitigated disaster.

The 20-year-old prospect has been championed as the next big thing for years. He signed with Bellator MMA in 2014, but he didn't make his debut until last weekend because of an attempt to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic wrestling team.

That long-awaited debut lasted all of 24 seconds Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Pico lost to Zach Freeman via guillotine choke, shortly after he'd been dropped by a right uppercut.

This one result doesn't prove Pico is a bust or even that Bellator erred in investing in him when it did (the promotion has paid him a monthly stipend since he signed).

But how about the short term? "Disaster" is the only way to describe it. This was preparing to jump the Grand Canyon, and crashing your bike halfway down the ramp.

If all parties are honest, it was also probably a massive miscalculation by Bellator, Pico's management and Pico himself. Pico's potential is intoxicating, but he's also still a 20-year-old kid who'd never entered a professional cage before Saturday.

To have him do it for the first time on a pay-per-view platform -- which he shared with the likes of two Bellator title fights, the great Fedor Emelianenko, Chael Sonnen and Wanderlei Silva -- was asking a lot.

The thought, obviously, was that he was ready for it, that his experience competing under the high stakes of the Olympic trials would have him prepared for MSG in New York. But that experiment had never been done before, and it's reasonable to suggest the weight of the moment had some effect on him.

The man who actually won the fight, Freeman, would probably take exception to that. But suggesting Pico might have felt some of the high expectations shouldn't diminish what Freeman accomplished.

Frankly, when it comes to Freeman, he was a downright terrible selection to be Pico's first opponent. One thing that wasn't discussed much in the buildup to the fight was how capable, not to mention experienced, an MMA fighter Freeman (9-2) is.

In addition to Pico, Bellator has four other wrestling prospects who, at the time they signed, had no fight record. Each of them made their debuts against opponents with records of 0-0 or 1-0. Conversely, Pico went up against Freeman, who is a six-year pro coming off a five-round regional title fight.

Had things worked out the way everyone in the world (including Freeman) knows Bellator wanted -- in other words, had Pico won -- it would have taken the hype around him to a new level. But maybe in their excitement, Bellator and Pico's management forgot there was still a fight involved.

To put a young rookie under that amount of pressure, against an experienced opponent with the skillset and composure to take advantage of it, you'd be crazy if you didn't think there has been some second-guessing going on in the past 36 hours.

No one knows much Saturday actually matters in the big picture of Pico's career. Even though it was a disaster, there are silver linings.

Namely, Pico gained experience. At 20, with just one fight under his belt, he already has an understanding of the pressure and media attention that goes into a big fight.

He caught pocket aces on his first hand, went all in and lost. That doesn't mean he can't buy back in and still win a lot of money. Don't be surprised though, if he plays it a little more cautious in the next few hands.