The thing about potential is that it arrives before you, coloring your entrance with a sharp spotlight. That beam illuminates everything to follow, cutting a scrutinous path. It’s a route Aaron Pico has walked for much of his young life. Described as the “greatest MMA prospect ever” three years before he ever turned pro, Pico took a stunning stumble out of the gate, only to rebound with three consecutive dominant wins.
With firm footing beneath him again, Pico returns to the cage at Bellator 206 against former bantamweight title challenger Leandro Higo, just days after his 22nd birthday. On the heels of his last win, a liver-shot knockout of Lee Morrison, Pico is now straddling two worlds. He is both young prospect and burgeoning star. And any moment could prove his breakout.
For a young man who considers himself an introvert, it is tenuous ground. Fame is simultaneously a natural end result of what he has worked for yet something he could do without.
“It is something I think about a lot,” he told MMA Fighting. “I don’t know. I really don’t know how it’s going to be. I’ve experienced a little bit of it in my city, but to the degree of some of the big stars, it can be kind of crazy. I don’t do much, to be honest. I hang out with my girlfriend, with my friend and my brother, and just chill. So I don’t know how it’s going to be, but it’s going to happen. It’s definitely going to happen, because I’m going to get to the top.”
To find his way back, Pico didn’t have to do much other than to re-center himself. Consistently characterized as one of the most diligent workers in MMA, Pico couldn’t do much more to physically prepare himself for combat. Instead, he did what he always wanted to do: he bought a horse. A lifelong equine enthusiast, he had promised himself that when he could afford one, he would make the splurge. And while his debut loss to Zach Freeman came as a temporary devastation, it also filled his bank account with the money he needed to purchase a stallion, which he promptly named “Canelo.”
Every morning, he starts his day at 5 am by going to the stables and spending 2-3 hours with Canelo.
“It’s my routine,” he said. “It keeps me focused. He needs me and I need him, and it keeps me in check, for sure.”
Balance was likely necessary for an athlete so focused, he has traveled to places of civil and political unrest such as Dagestan in order to advance his training. Ask him if he has any vices and he laughs. A glass of red wine or a beer here or there is about all he can muster. That’s a vice?
“I’m not perfect,” he says. “But to be honest, I know what’s on the line right now in MMA, and I’m not going to screw it up.”
Pico isn’t your typical mega-prospect, in that he doesn’t come from a combat sports family. In fact, he only stumbled into wrestling by a bit of lucky coincidence. When Aaron was four, his brother Patrick, then eight years old, got involved in go-kart racing. The family soon learned that many of the racers wore wrestling shoes for flexibility and traction. That got his dad wondering if there were any kids’ wrestling programs in the area. He found one, and before long, Aaron was participating and thriving.
By the age of eight, he says, he knew he wanted to be a fighter. Training, improving, competing and winning, he loved it all. By then, he’d already begun competing at high-level national tournaments across the country. He found the fear of competing and exhilaration of victory to be intoxicating.
“There’s something about those moments before a big wrestling match or a big fight,” he said. “You’re so nervous and so scared, but when it’s all said and done and you’ve done it, there’s no better feeling in the world. When you feel that pressure or those nerves, it’s crazy, but when it’s done, you can’t imagine what it feels like. It’s indescribable. And you understand that if you didn’t have the sense of fear, that nervousness at first, you wouldn’t enjoy the victories as much. This is all I know since I started wrestling. You learn to love it.”
That includes the grind of training. In a regular day, Pico may visit multiple gyms to get his work in: Bodyshop MMA for his fight training, Wild Card Gym for boxing, and Treigning Lab for strength and conditioning.
This requires constant shuttling through notorious Los Angeles-area traffic, but Pico is unfazed.
“It’s a passion of mine and I enjoy it,” he said. “I enjoy practice. I don’t sacrifice anything. I go to practice because I want to go to practice. I go to conditioning because I want to do conditioning. I eat good food because I choose to eat good food. This is my lifestyle, this is what I love to do. I just live life, train as hard as I possibly can, listen to the right people, keep an open mind and try to get to the top.”
That seems quite likely, if not inevitable, though there are at least a couple of roadblocks in the way. One of the most perplexing is his teammate, A.J. McKee. A fellow featherweight, McKee is undefeated at 12-0 and is likely a bit ahead of Pico in the race to a title shot. The two have repeatedly said they will not fight each other, but the situation is complicated.
“I can’t really answer that question,” he said. “It’s something we’re going to discuss behind closed doors, but we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.”
That’s not a question for now, anyway, because Pico doesn’t want to look too far into the distance. He won’t call out the champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, either, but he also won’t shy away from the prospect of fighting him when the subject arises.
“I’ve got the right team behind me and we’re ready to fight for the title tomorrow if we had to,” he said. “I feel confident. I’m not being cocky, I’m confident. I’d prepare for the opponent, and I’d win.”
After his rocky start, the believers are back aboard. Pico is almost certainly a future star, potentially a champion, and if Bellator has their way, the marquee name in the promotion. Even if he longs for quiet days on a ranch with his horse and family, the young cowboy is ready for the shootouts to come.
“I still have a lot to show the world,” he said. “This is a big card, a big fight for me. I can confidently say he can’t handle my horsepower. He can’t stop my takedowns, he can’t stop my hands. If I touch you one time, you’re going to go out. I’m going to see everything coming, and I’m not going to get tired. When you have coaching like me, when you have the will to grind it out, they’re kind of in a situation of just roll over and tap. That’s just the God’s honest truth.”