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Bob Barton | Bob Barton Photography

Road to Bellator: Zach Freeman

By Brett Auten | Knuckle Junkies

Unless you've been hiding under a rock in the Ozarks, you may have heard that our own Zach Freeman has a pretty big fight coming up.

Freeman will be called to the stage in one of the most hallowed halls in sport, Madison Square Garden.

On Saturday he faces the combat sports wunderkind that is 20-year-old Californian Aaron Pico. We're not going to dive into Pico's wrestling dossier. We've all been over that and it is worth a look-see.

This is about Freeman.

A born and bred fighter from St. Charles who came up through the sometimes-shady and undocumented amateur scene in the mid-to-late-2000s and then built his name and record and hardly ever leaving far from here to do it.

“The Altar Boy” is now 33. With a career away from the cage, a wife, the whole bit.

He's been on the verge of big-time success before, knocking on the door, chasing those three beacon-like letters of MMA that a select few of his training partners reached. Freeman is the last of a generation of fighters from St. Charles MMA. It began when now-UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley got his start there. Then welterweight Lance Benoist dashed onto the scene, earned a UFC contract, and made a four-fight run, next came the flyweight duo of Josh Sampo and Alp Ozkilic and then Andrew Sanchez winning The Ultimate Fighter in 2016.

On Saturday night, Zach Freeman is going to try to lasso a lightning bolt, plant his own big-time MMA flag.

Twice in the last two years, the clouds have parted and calls for big-time fights have been made to his cellphone. Promotions like tough guys who can bang, have little head movement and know how to take a punch.

To learn the where, when, and how to watch Freeman take on Pico in the second fight of Bellator: NY at Madison Square Garden, visit Bellator.com

But for now take a brief trip through the fight career that is Zach Freeman's with perspective given from many who were either front-and-center or tucked somewhere behind the scenes – for Zach Freeman: Road to Bellator: NY.

Suit and an office by day, a gym filled with sweat by night, Jeff Henry is a longtime coach/trainer, first at the defunct Domain MMA and now at St. Charles MMA. Henry has been a coach, cheerleader, and confidant of Freeman's for many years and he will be in his corner again for Bellator: NYC.

“I remember Zach coming in for his very first training session and Dustin (Severs) saying, hey I've got a guy for you and he had been telling me about some phenom-guy,” Henry said. “And finally he came in for his first day and we clicked like we knew each other forever.”

Henry and Freeman have built a strong relationship and whenever whatever Freeman has tackled in the realm of combat sports and life, Henry has been an ear, a slightly-cauliflowered one at that.

“I look at him like a second son,” Henry said. “This is why this fight is so special to me is because you don't get very many opportunities to see a fighter from the beginning through fruition.”

By the time the 2000s turned into the 2010s, Domain MMA had merged with Mike Rogers' well-established St. Charles MMA. Freeman, Jake Roberts (who eventually made it to Bellator), and Matt Helm were among the additions to the team. Freeman was a fight or two away from turning pro.

“Zach was already good,” Rogers said. “He was strong, mean in the ring but the nicest guy outside of it. Like a Jekyll and Hyde. He really, really wanted to win fights.”

Jim Jenkins is a longtime St. Louis-area promoter and matchmaker and a key early figure in St. Louis combat sports. Jenkins – more or less – matched five of Freeman's 10 fights as a pro. Freeman made his pro debut with a first-round TKO over Coty Cook for one of Jenkins' shows in the summer of 2011.

“I remember Zach getting a beautiful full mount and just raining down punches and he had his hair in cornrows and you just couldn't take a better promotional picture,” Jenkins said. “He was in absolute control and he always had a big following.”

Freeman won three fights from July until the end of 2011. By the summer of 2012 Freeman was 5-0 but had never been out of the first round and in four of those bouts, he never got past 94 seconds of work. Jenkins then matched Freeman up with Aaron Derrow for a Rumble Time event. Freeman improved to 6-0 but had to dig deep in a nail-biter of a third round. While the previous two rounds had been mostly a ground battle, Derrow started the final five minutes peppering the visibly-tired Freeman with jabs. Freeman would eventually connect with a powerful overhand right that broke open Derrow (who then dropped to 12-4).

“That was an incredible fight to watch,” Jenkins said. “They were beating the breaks off each other because Derrow can take a punch and that kept him in it which made me a nervous racket. But (Zach) needed the rounds. It was great. It showed where he was. It showed where he was good and it showed what he needed to work on to get to the next level.”

From late 2011 thru early 2013, Freeman was the face of the franchise for Fight Hard MMA. Freeman main evented three of its shows was featured on the cover of the promotions magazine and earned guest spots on Fight Hard's short-run television show. Freeman is still considered the Fight Hard lightweight champion.

“Inside and outside the cage, Zach is a promoter's dream, really,” Fight Hard President Kenny Nowling said. “He is an example of everything that is good about MMA. I hope this fight coming up propels him to bigger and grander things and - as funny as it sounds - he never fights for Fight Hard again.”

Freeman etched his name into St. Louis MMA lore on the night of January 19, 2013, in a Fight Hard MMA event. Freeman and Rob Washington rattled the rafters and sent a packed Family Arena home fulfilled. The two lightweights made a near-perfect blend of tenaciousness and talent, resiliency, and knack. Freeman remained undefeated and won a three-round 30-27 unanimous decision, earning the first-ever Fight Hard MMA lightweight championship. His thunderous slam of Washington near the end of the third-round bell put an emphatic stamp on his achievement. While all three rounds went to Freeman (7-0), all were close and loaded with action.

“I thought that was an important fight for several reasons,” Nowling said. “I thought it broke down barriers in that here were two guys who were friends and sometime sparring partners and they were willing to fight. Unfortunately, not a lot have followed suit. That was one that not only lived up to the hype but exceeded expectations.”

Later in 2013, Jenkins helped introduce Freeman to then-Titan FC president Joe Kelly, who paired the then 7-0 Freeman against Jake Lindsey (also unbeaten at the time) in a co-main event that aired live on AXS-TV.

Freeman lost. He looked good early. Grimy, forehead planted firmly under Lindsey's chin in the clench. But Freeman would swing wildly, get a little discouraged, and then he got clipped. And much like he had done to fighters on the way up it was now Freeman on the canvas, absorbing a rainfall of punches before the referee waved it off not even half-way through the first round.

“I was watching it on television and it was heartbreaking,” Jenkins said. “No one wants to get caught early. Lindsey went on to the UFC from there.”

Freeman laid low after that loss in the summer of 2013. Her nursed longtime-nagging injuries, had labrum surgery and he only raised his head to take a short-notice fight in March 2015 to help bail out a Rumble Time card, not missing a beat by getting his fifth first-round submission win. That win came at a cost. Freeman got the takedown early, and that's when Kelley would get to work. When switching from heel hook to kneebar, and then back to heel hook, Kelley reaped the knee of Freeman. Freeman would fight out of bad positioning to eventually take the back of Kelley where he would eventually end the fight with the rear naked choke in his first MMA match since June of 2013

Freeman dove into grappling, competing on the first-ever Respect Professional BJJ event held in St. Louis as a purple belt and winning. He would eventually earn his BJJ brown belt.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016 and when word broke that Freeman would be getting a crack at an RFA title, many were surprised. Other than putting on his gi, Freeman was rarely seen. He found a great job that he was good at. And he fell in love. But an opportunity came knocking again in the form of an old friend.

Patrick Smith is the President of Cage Championships and he and JW. Wright are the tandem behind Respect BJJ. Smith's alliance with LFA President Ed Soares led to Freeman nailing down a fight with Thiago Moises for the RFA lightweight title in September 2016. Smith - who is also known as the coach and trainer for UFC vet and former RFA middleweight champion, Jake Collier – is often credited along with Bellator cutman Matt Marsden (a longtime teammate of Freeman's at SCMMA) with helping to get the Bellator-Pico-Freeman marriage made.

“I always liked Zach but I never had him for a pro fight at Cage Champs,” Smith said. “I don't know if we could never get the right opponent or what. And I don't how I didn't have him as an amateur because I've known him for so long.”

For some Freeman fans, the Moises fight was too much to bare. After a nice first round, his offense was relegated to near nothing thanks to a busted hand. As the minutes and the rounds passed by Freeman was in zombie mode and the threat of something violent happening to him hung like certainty in the air.

But it never did. In fact, a one-handed and battered and bruised Freeman still made a go of things in the fifth round but there was no escaping the verdict that was a unanimous decision loss.

All parties involved were over the moon when news broke of the Pico fight. Freeman was getting another trip up to the plate, another hack at MMA fame beyond the Show-Me State.

Many, like Jenkins, were dumbfounded on the match-up.

“Who is this kid? What do they know that I don't?” Jenkins said, laughing. “Who has a kid, in their first fight, fight, Zach Freeman? Zach Freeman is no walk in the park for anybody anywhere. This kid must be unbelievable.”

“This is the fight they need to be talking about,” Patrick Smith said. “It's tough. It's a challenge but Zach has more than a legit chance to win this fight. But I think Zack will wear him out. Pico is talented but he's not fought a gritty fighter. Pico hasn't faced anyone like that. In fact, he's not faced anyone and Zach knew that and that's part of the reason why he said let's make it happen. Zach's going to be hard to deal with. Does Pico have the power to put him away?”

Henry has been part of the team helping design a one-of-a-kind fight plan, a strategy for a fighter who has never competed in this sport before.

“You look for tendencies and you look for the style and little things that you might be able to expose and with (Pico) there is not much out there,” Henry said. “There is wrestling out there and we can see how he wants to do the takedowns. And you can look at how he starts and finishes. We know that Pico is going to be there for all three rounds. His conditioning is second to none. But he's not a dominant guy in his wrestling matches. He's not putting guys away in the first period. He gets scored on. It sometimes takes him awhile to get going.”

At this point in both of their careers, Freeman and Rogers are sages in the way of MMA. They know who the Bellator brass wants to win. They know why Freeman was brought to New York. In their perfect world, Aaron Pico will be splashed across SportsCenter on Sunday morning.

“Zach has been handpicked because he matches up well with Aaron,” Rogers said. “They're trying to build Aaron up and have him fight a tough guy with a good record but our team has been picked to lose before and they chose wrong.”

The armchair quarterbacks feel Freeman's only chance to win is via submission and that is pretty good bet. But at the end of the day, you can throw all of the analysis out the window. MMA is many things, part street fight, part rules-based competition among them.

“It's like they say, everyone has a game plan until they get hit, right?” Henry said. “You can never pick a fight. You can't play MMA math. None of that works. You take every fight as it is. Both guys have great skills. Whoever is the tougher fighter that day is going to win the fight. I don't look at it as if Zach can't knock this guy out, he can only submit him. That's all bullshit. He hits as hard as a mule. He can knock him out. He can submit him. He can do whatever he wants to do with this guy. At the same time, Pico's got his skills too. It's going to be two great guys. It's going to be a great fight and may the best guy win.”

Photo courtesy of Bob Barton Photography

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