With eight professional MMA fights already under his belt, Aaron Pico’s main focus is constant evolution.
Pico, 23, joined the Bellator roster two months after his 18th birthday without any prior MMA experience. The blue-chipper had compiled an impressive resume that included an outstanding amateur wrestling career and a Golden Gloves title in boxing.
Widely considered one of the greatest prospects in the sport’s short history, Pico made his highly anticipated MMA debut a little less than three years after signing a developmental deal with the promotion. Standing across the cage from him in his debut was 10-fight veteran Zach Freeman, who picked up a victory in just 24 seconds via guillotine choke.
Immediately, the haters came out in full force. And yet, Pico took it all in stride. Since that Madison Square Garden debut, he’s experienced a winning streak with highlight reel finishes. He’s also experienced a losing streak where he was on the wrong end of a pair of highlight-reel finishes.
Despite his youth and still-developing skillset, Pico has already been a part of the professional fight scene far longer than the average fighter.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t crazy,” Pico told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “It’s been really crazy, because I had come from wrestling, where you lose a match, take second at the world championships, take third, but there’s always a tournament to go and get your confidence back and redeem yourself. In MMA it’s a little bit different, because you’re not fighting every weekend – it’s every couple of months.
“I think the biggest thing is waiting. Your mind is constantly going, and now with social media, the commentators (putting in) their two cents on what’s going on, or what you need to do. So it was a roller coaster ride but luckily for me, I’m a wrestler. We bounce back from losses and all kinds of things so I’m pretty strong in that aspect.”
Pico picked up his first pro win three months after his debut, a ferocious first-round KO of another 10-fight veteran, Justin Linn. Over his next three appearances, the featherweight added to his first-round finish streak over Shane Krutchen, Lee Morrison and Leandro Higo. The combined record of those opponents, at the time, was 48-15.
As the competition got stiffer, Pico was ready to take on the world. That lead him to Henry Corrales at Bellator 214, and in one of the year’s most exciting fights, both men traded powerful shots until Corrales was left standing a little over one minute into the fight.
Five months later, Pico returned to the Bellator cage, this time with a new team. With the famed Jackson-Wink MMA team behind him, he prepared to face undefeated Hungarian fighter Adam Borics at Bellator 222.
For the first time in his MMA career, Pico used his wrestling pedigree to control the dangerous Borics for the majority of the fight. But in the second round, Borics was able to get back to his feet, gain separation, and unleash a vicious flying knee that instantly ended the bout.
Back-to-back knockouts bring doubts to fighters about their abilities and future in the sport. Pico, while frustrated, kept moving forward, trying to get better.
“There was nothing really to it,” Pico said. “I just picked myself up and got back to the gym. People tell me, ‘That’s so crazy, that’s so hard,’ but sh*t happens, man. In business, in life, if you’re going to let one, two, three things set you back and not pursue your dreams, then they probably weren’t your dreams in the first place.”
There have been other examples like Pico in our sport where, whether it’s the rabid fan base, or members of the media weighing in, fighters are put in a can’t-win situation. Lose to a veteran, and they were rushed too quickly to market. Win fights with explosive finishes, and critics dismiss the level of competition.
After the Corrales and Borics defeats, Pico heard the message: “Bellator made a mistake. They rushed him. He wasn’t ready.” They weren’t just on social media. People told him to his face.
“I think the biggest thing is that there’s so many people that you meet, and I have no problem taking criticism by coaches and even fans sometimes,” Pico explained. “It gets really old when you constantly meet somebody and they tell you, ‘Maybe you should’ve done this,’ or, ‘You need to do this.’ You have no clue what’s going on in MMA. You don’t know what it’s like to be in the cage. There’s so many things (they don’t know).
“Then you get reporters who say the same thing and it’s like, slow your roll. Let me do my thing. I can figure this out. I won a lot of things growing up and MMA is a completely different beast. It’s not wrestling, it’s not boxing. I’m still figuring it out and that’s what makes the sport so crazy. There’s so many things you need to train, so many variables that go into a fight. So I take people’s criticisms sometimes and I’m very appreciative, and sometimes it goes through one ear and out the other.
“Everyone’s got their opinions, but I’ve got a strong team and great coaches around me. Those are the people that I really need to listen to. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what any of the outsiders or reporters think. It doesn’t mean sh*t.”
Coming off of back-to-back losses, Pico was one of the main talking points heading into January’s Bellator 238 event. He delivered in a big way, adding to his viral video collection with a one-punch knockout of Carey 15 seconds into the second round.
With everything in play, how does a young fighter with all the potential in the world deal with the pressure of a pivotal, must-win fight?
“That’s a good question, because looking back, I didn’t really think like, ‘Oh man, I have to win this fight,’” Pico said. “It was seven months since the last fight so I was just training to get better. That’s all I was focused on. Greg (Jackson) told me before the fight, ‘Don’t put any extra pressure on yourself. Just let the fight happen. You’re well prepared,’ and I just felt confident going in there.
“The thing is that we studied him to a T. We knew everything that he was gonna throw, especially with the leg kicks, we knew they were coming. A lot of people were like, ‘You’ve got to use your wrestling,’ and absolutely, I do. The last fight, I did use my wrestling. I think a ground and pounded him the whole first round and then in the second round I hit him with the left hook and he was out.
“That fight was a progression for me, to getting my confidence and cage time. That was a good fight for me and my team.”
Most of us will not experience the feeling of landing a perfectly timed left hook that knocks a foe out. As important of a moment as that was for Pico and his career, it was an off-the-radar moment with his coaches at Jackson-Wink that stuck out even more.
“It felt really good just to finally get a win,” Pico said. “I went almost a year without getting a win, just battling stuff and trying to figure the game out. I always know I can do it, but you just want to get back in the cage to get a win. It was a good stepping stone for us for sure.
“The knockout was great. I really like the knockout, of course. I really liked going back to the corner and hearing with the coaches had to say. It’s (adding) experience. Even the Madison Square Garden fight (with Borics), I went back to the corner and I don’t even remember what Greg was saying, or ‘Six Gun’ (Brandon Gibson). But in L.A., I remember going back to the corner and I was calm. I listened and I could tell you everything that they said right now. That was a big stepping stone for me.”
Back in the win column and with momentum on his side, Pico has no idea when he will be able to return to the Bellator cage due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even if the promotion were to return over the summer like they hope, Pico isn’t interested in jumping into a fight on short notice. If he has to wait until the fall to get an eight to 10 week camp under his belt, that’s exactly what he will do.
But in terms of his overall path in the world of MMA, Pico likely will have a lot of options. He is still under contract with Bellator for the foreseeable future and is thrilled for that.
Could we see him in the UFC down the line?
“I still have some time with Bellator,” Pico said. “I’ll be fighting with them for a little while.
“I’m young and my job is to just put on performances, highlight reels like I’ve done before. When that time comes, that’s why we hire managers. And when that time comes, I’ll sit down with Ali and my team to figure out what’s best for us. Bellator’s been very good to me. I’ve had some ups and downs in the cage and they’ve treated me very, very well.
“At the end of the day, it’s a business. I’ll have to sit down with my team and figure out what’s best for us and when that time comes, we’ll see. But my job is to put on great fights and that’s what I’m gearing up to do.”