Bellator 222 gave fans a glimpse at a new Aaron Pico. It was his first fight after changing gyms to train at the legendary Jackson-Wink MMA Academy. The 22-year-old was implementing his world-class wrestling to early success against undefeated Adam Borics. Pico looked as if he was well on his way to picking up a victory at Madison Square Garden. “The Garden” was the scene of his pro debut where Pico would lose to underdog Zach Freeman and send the MMA world into a frenzy. It was a chance at a little bit of redemption for the young Californian.
That all came to a screeching halt at 3:55 of the second round when a flying knee and follow-up punches from Borics ended Pico’s night. It was his second knockout loss in as many fights, his third loss in seven professional bouts and his second devastating loss at “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” Most fans still on the Pico bandwagon were scrambling to hit the eject button. For many, this was the end of the most hyped prospects in recent memory.
“Hype” is a double-edged sword in MMA. It’s all sunshine and rainbows until you stumble and fans and promoters alike are just as quick to label you a “bust” as they were to label you “the next big thing.” On the surface, it looks like Aaron Pico’s career is trending towards the fate of “busted” young fighter, but the once blue-chip prospect still has a legitimate chance at reaching the heights envisioned for him.
Who or what is to blame for Pico’s struggles?
There is no singular driving force behind the disappointing start of Aaron Pico’s career. Anyone who says differently is grossly oversimplifying the situation.
Scott Coker made an unprecedented move by signing Aaron Pico in 2014. At the time, Pico was 18 and three years away from his first professional MMA fight. Unlike major sports such as baseball and American football, where kids appear on the radar of collegiate and professional teams as early as their first year of high school, the MMA world had never seen anything like this signing, and it rightfully raised a few eyebrows. However, Pico’s resume was absolutely ridiculous and only improved after his Bellator signing. The California native decided to forego high school wrestling after a 42-0 freshman year to wrestle internationally, winning multiple titles and barely missing out on an Olympic roster spot. He also had several amateur Boxing and Pankration titles and trained his stand-up with the legendary Freddie Roach. It’s easy to see why Scott Coker was eager to get Pico off the market early and mold him into a pound-for-pound great under the Bellator banner.
However, it may be that combination of Pico’s pedigree and Bellator’s desire to build a new star that ultimately caused his early struggles.
First and foremost, Aaron Pico is a competitor. He has been competing in some form or fashion since before he reached double-digit birthdays. An individual who was competing at the highest levels of international wrestling as a teenager is probably not going to admit that he isn’t ready for a particular match-up or that he wants to take a slower approach to his career. The average person can’t begin to comprehend the drive and passion it took Pico to succeed and to remain focused at an age where most kids are concerned with prom and graduating high school.
Here in lies the first significant factor behind Pico’s hiccups. Due to his past accomplishments, Pico was never your typical 0-0 professional fighter facing competition with a similar experience level. After his first loss, he was able to overcome the experience disadvantage by rattling off four impressive victories, but it wasn’t enough against Henry Corrales. Corrales, a 19 fight veteran at the time, had shared the cage with the best of the division. Corrales weathered the early storm from Pico and capitalized on Pico’s aggression and over-confidence to viciously separating him from consciousness. A good wrestling background and a good boxing background still need to be honed and molded to translate into mixed martial arts success, and it was glaringly obvious Pico still required time to accomplish that.
While I am not suggesting that Bellator should have given Pico “gimme” fights, one has to seriously question the thought process behind matching him up with a 5-foot-11, undefeated finisher a little over five months after the frightening damage he took against Corrales. Pico hasn’t taken the easy route at all thus far. Before his back to back knockout losses, he was making his professional debut at Madison Square Garden on the main card of one of the biggest Bellator events up to that point. In his fifth pro fight, with only five minutes and fifty-six seconds of combined fight experience, he was matched with former title challenger Leandro Higo. Pico’s career has primarily been a “trial by fire” scenario. He hasn’t come out of the trial unscathed, but under no circumstances does that mean he will never reach the top of the sport.
Where does Pico go from here?
In a perfect world, Pico would be treated as a promising prospect, slowly getting built up similar to AJ McKee and James Gallagher, and not as Aaron Pico. Realistically, no matter how many losses Pico accrues, his name will always provide some added value and extra attention from fans. Those fans may start to become weary and critical if Pico receives a string of “lesser” (and I use that loosely because this is MMA after all) opponents for too long, but this may be what’s best for the young man’s career.
The talent is present. That’s not in question.
Even in defeat, Pico has shown flashes of brilliance. His string of four TKO finishes is a showcase of a marvelous knack for the “sweet science.” Even in defeat against Corrales, Aaron put the vet down with a lightning-fast combination. In his last fight against Borics, Pico took Borics down at will, showing some semblance of a gameplan for possibly the first time in his career, a testament to Jackson-Wink MMA. The transition to Albuquerque may also play a pivotal role in the resurgence of Pico. Jackson-Wink is a polarizing gym, with many criticizing the passive fighting style of many who train there. In the case of Pico, over-aggression and a glaring absence of his high-level wrestling are major contributing factors behind his early woes. An extended stay in New Mexico under the tutelage of Greg Jackson and Mike Winklejohn may be what the doctor ordered for Aaron.
Concern over the future of the 22-year-old is justified. However, with youth on his side, a stellar foundation and world-class training, it’s not time to give up on Aaron Pico.
A 28-year-old MMA nut. Paralegal by trade, and heavyweight champion in my mind.