Over the past half-century or so, no shorthand symbol for The Youth of Today is better understood than one Bart Simpson.
During one episode of The Simpsons, they catch Bart committing some schoolyard prank, and he must meet his principal for disciplinary activities at 4:30 in the morning.
His response to the punishment: “There’s a 4:30 in the morning now?”
Indeed there is, even if most kids (and adults) aren’t overly familiar with it. This drives to the heart of what makes Aaron Pico so unusual. He knows 4:30 in the morning like the back of his hand, and that’s just one of several factors that make the high school sophomore the most interesting prospect—and individual business test case—in mixed martial arts today. He could be the future king of fighting.
Even if he never steps on another wrestling mat or boxing canvas, his accomplishments for a cage fighting prospect are already unprecedented. At age 17, all he's doing is training for the Olympics as a freestyle wrestler. If he makes the 2016 squad as he hopes, he’ll be 19. He’s already highly decorated in boxing and other combat sports, too. And then there's that shoe deal with Nike.
Though his handlers play down the parallels, it’s hard not to compare Pico with other wunderkinds like Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps. Could he flame out? Of course he could. But he could also be MMA’s first answer to those prodigies, given his bricklayer’s work ethic, early endorsement deals, world-wide coaching stable and massive natural talent.
“It’s no fair. It’s no fair whatsoever,” said Pico’s wrestling coach, Valentin Kalika, of Pico’s ability. “He loves the show. Most of these guys, when there’s a crowd, they don’t perform like they do in practice. Aaron performs 100 times better.”
Pico made the unusual choice to forego his remaining high school and college athletic eligibility so he could work around the clock (almost literally) at the international level. Not long ago, Pico traveled to a tournament in Bulgaria. Trips to Turkey and Wisconsin followed.
In mid-April, he was in Las Vegas for the Men’s FILA Junior National Championships—which, by the way, he won in the 145.5-pound category by defeating college-age wrestlers without surrendering a single point. Visits to Spain and Croatia are on the horizon.
It’s all part of the grander vision, the kind of longer timeline that eludes the foggy grasp of most 17-year-olds.
“I want to be a UFC champion."
It’s more than hype. Nike doesn’t sign athletes, as it recently did Pico, based on hype alone. Pico is making waves, yes, but those waves are meeting solid sand.
Guess who's my new sponsor? pic.twitter.com/OnG8f1ZVPE— Aaron Pico (@AaronPicoUSA) April 16, 2014
“He prides himself on doing the right thing the right way, every time,” said Aaron’s father, Anthony Pico. “During wrestling practice, the team runs laps around the room. I would watch him run, and he would make a point of going to touch every corner of the room. I asked him why, and he told me he felt like doing anything less would be cheating…In his mind, cutting corners creates doubt.”
"Not Many People Can Take It"
So, what exactly makes Aaron Pico so good? What distinguishes him from all the other would-be champions out there? What is it about his game that sets him up not just for current success in wrestling, but future success in the cage?
“What makes him so special is that his wrestling is at the highest level already at age 17. Plus, his boxing is at a Gold Glove level,” says his manager, DeWayne Zinkin. “He’s starting in a place we’ve never seen.”
In watching him wrestle, his athleticism is undeniable. His arms are nearly as thick as his legs. Contending with Pico’s movement and quickness, opponents look to be wading through marmalade. His boxing footwork is evidenced every time he outmaneuvers his foe, never ceding what he doesn’t want to cede. Not to mention he has the strength of a bull, even against wrestlers several years his senior.
“He puts a lot of pressure on you, and not many people can take it,” Kalika said. “You can teach elephants to dance in the street…but it’s hard to teach kids how to pressure like that. He’s controlling from the first second…We always say ‘you don’t let yourself be moved around by other people. You move them around.’ That’s what he does.”
But it’s more than just the physical talent and emotional will. It's hard to satisfy Kalika from a technical standpoint, but even he will cop to Pico's rare abilities.
“He looks for tie-ups right away,” Kalika said. “People push back, but these days he’s ready, and now he can snap on people and open them up. He puts pressure on someone while staying in good position. That’s hard to do…He can get in, cause damage and get out.”
Kalika notes that the two are now working on Pico’s takedown shot and moves from neutral position—when two opponents are standing and facing each other. Even as Kalika criticizes, you can hear the smile in his voice. He knows full well what he has, and knew it before most others did. No amount of good-natured pessimism snuffs out that knowledge.
“The Olympics is two years away,” Kalika said. “It’s possible for 2016, but the real goal is 2020. Who knows what’s going to happen with his weight?”
The world will see how the Olympics play out for Pico. But if his path to date is any indication, even a span of two years provides plenty of runway.
On One Condition
Pico grew up in middle-class Whittier, Calif., with Anthony, who sells medical products, mother Gina, then a stay-at-home mom but now a nurse, and Patrick, his older brother by four years. The Picos were Catholic but kept a “liberal type of household,” Anthony Pico says.
Patrick was small for his age. No shortage of energy, though, and with those factors in mind, Anthony encouraged Patrick to take up wrestling. Little Aaron, four years old at the time, tagged along, more by default than anything else.
“He couldn’t even do a cartwheel,” Anthony recalled. “We just let him roll around. His older brother was the one we were thinking about in terms of wrestling.”
Wrestling was fine, but unremarkable enough in terms of the brothers’ aptitude, at least initially. The more extreme end of the sporting spectrum was old hat for the Picos, and Anthony had another past-time in mind for his young sons.
“I was pushing motocross,” Anthony said. “I pulled Aaron back from wrestling. We would go trail riding in the desert. We’d go to Utah, Washington state.”
Patrick stuck with motocross and remains a competitive amateur today. But wrestling and fighting stayed lodged in Aaron’s mind, and there was no getting them out. Soon enough, he spilled the beans.
“He was about 10 years old, and he went to his mom and said ‘I don’t want to hurt Dad’s feelings, but I like wrestling more than racing,’” Anthony said. “He said he wanted to try to box, too. I said ‘more power to you.’ Once he made that commitment, he was totally focused.”
Real estate on the trophy shelves quickly hit a premium. Not only has Pico never lost a meaningful match, none has ever been especially close. He captured two national wrestling titles in the Police Athletic League, a prominent youth sports organization.
As a freshman at St. John Bosco High School, a prestigious prep school in Bellflower, Calif., Pico capped a 42-0 season with a state title. Last summer, he was the gold medalist at 139 pounds for boys ages 17 and under at the FILA Cadet World Championships in Serbia.
But here's something weird: Wrestling isn’t even Pico’s favorite sport.
“Boxing is a real passion of mine,” Pico said. “I love being able to punch. Punching is exciting. If you do something wrong in boxing, you’re going to get in the head. That’s an adrenaline rush.”
He has plenty of hardware on that front, too. He has a PAL national title in boxing, and in 2010, became a National Junior Gold Gloves champion in the 11-12-year-old division at 90 pounds.
An introduction to pankration—the ancient combat sport combining grappling and striking—soon followed, as did a European title in that discipline. It was during that competition, held in the Ukraine, when Pico first caught Kalika’s eye. A wrestling coach with 45 years of experience, the former Ukrainian wrestling champ was living and coaching in Southern California.
Pico was raw by Kalika’s standards, but the coach saw something special. Full-time training at Kalika’s academy was an expensive proposition, especially on top of all the other training and traveling Pico was already doing. But Kalika believed enough in the potential that he offered to coach Pico for free. There was just one catch.
“I said ‘this type of kid has to practice every day,’” Kalika said. “I said I will coach him every day, but on one condition: That he trains to be an Olympic champion.”
The offer was generous, but demanded a crazy commitment. It was also something of a selfish act. Kalika’s resume is plenty long, but there’s a big hole in it that he seems desperate to patch. Pico may very well be Kalika’s last best shot to do so.
“It’s my dream before I die to coach an Olympic champion,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to fill my own heart.”
Pico has said he will stay with Kalika as his primary home for Olympic training, rather than move to the official U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado.
One more addition, and Team Pico was complete. Understandably, the Picos weren’t overly well-versed in directing the development of a prospective Olympic wrestler and UFC champion. Earlier this year, Pico and his family took the step (unprecedented for someone his age) of signing a contract with Fresno-based Zinkin Entertainment and Sports Management, a firm specializing in wrestlers and MMA fighters. Clients include UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, light heavyweight contender Daniel Cormier and other current and former luminaries like Chuck Liddell, Luke Rockhold and Jon Fitch.
“They didn’t have a lot of knowledge about how to plan out his career,” Zinkin said. “They reached out to us for information on that end of things, and we wanted to get on board and help them out.”
Bob Cook, Zinkin co-founder and manager with the prestigious American Kickboxing Academy combat sports training camp, puts it more succinctly.
“He kind of fell in our lap,” Cook said. “We feel very fortunate.”
The deal rendered Pico ineligible for continued amateur competition. Sure, Aaron dreamed of state and national titles, but, well, he was better than those guys, and a larger goal was rising fast on the horizon. Training beyond that offered at the typical college was one factor in the decision, but so, too, was the promise of learning more about freestyle wrestling, the Olympic sport that differs from the folk-style taught in American high schools and colleges and which is generally considered more effective in an MMA context than Greco-Roman wrestling.
The choice to lay down his eligibility, Aaron said, was his alone.
“I thought it was the right decision,” Pico said. “It came down to freestyle wrestling and the Olympics. I had a unique opportunity.”
That decision isn’t right for everybody, but there is logic in the move from Pico’s perspective, given his single-minded commitment to the goals at hand and the short shelf life he has for achieving them.
“You only have so much juice,” Kalika said. “College wrestling is brutal. Most of those guys quit or don’t do much after. What school would prepare him like this for Olympic wrestling?”
The decision already has paid off. Pico has a deal with MMA apparel brand Dethrone, and last month signed a deal to wear Nike wrestling boots. Oak Grove Technologies, a government contractor, also is a sponsor. Zinkin said terms of the Nike deal were subject to a confidentiality agreement, but did note that it was a "long-term deal that we're very, very happy with."
“I thought somebody was playing a joke on us,” Anthony said of the Nike deal. “I didn't believe it was real.”
As he preps for the Olympic trials, Pico takes online courses and expects to earn his high school degree around summer 2015. He said he is still interested in college and will probably pursue a degree in communications, though he’ll do so online and only “a couple courses at a time,” Aaron said.
It's one of the sacrifices along the way. Aaron has a close group of friends, but, by his own admission, very little life outside of the regimen, which begins with that 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. A typical work day consists of weights, conditioning, school work and wrestling training itself, with lights extinguished at about 8:30 p.m.
It’s an unusual life, Anthony Pico acknowledges, but becomes less so if you know the person driving it.
“This is his normal,” Anthony said. “In the traditional sense, he’s not normal, but it’s so Aaron. This is the way he buys jeans. It’s the way he picks out coffee. This routine, the way he pays attention to everything. He’s never been the kind to go out on a Friday night. It’s just a question of who he needs to see, what does he need to do to get better. Everything we’re doing feels natural.”
"I Want to Be Exciting"
As he speaks with a reporter, Pico is composed and cordial but concise. Each question answered is another small task accomplished. Even so, Pico does not give the sense of someone overprogrammed, a common symptom for athletes pushed too far too soon.
That’s probably because, to hear his inner circle tell it, all of this was pretty much his idea. When he talks about the nuts and bolts of wrestling and boxing, he grows more animated. Ditto for when he discusses the parts of the world he’s seen, which are many. Right now, Cuba—“Ever been there before? You gotta go!”—tops the list.
“I love what I’m doing now,” Pico said. “I always tell myself to put in the work now, and I’m having fun doing it.”
That worldliness comes through in other ways, too, and in ways that may not exist had he remained at St. Bosco. Plenty of athletes make a point to thank God for victories, contracts and just about anything else. Aaron does not. Anthony revealed, however, that Pico remains devoted to his Catholic roots. It’s just that, unlike others in the athletic limelight, he prefers to keep that part of his life more private, for fear of alienating those who walk in other cultures.
“He goes to Mass, and he has a confidence that he’s being guided,” Anthony Pico said. “He doesn’t share it much, and he doesn’t really want to promote it. He trains with Muslims and has Muslim friends. He doesn’t want to offend them.”
If all goes according to plan, there’s UFC gold at the end of this road map. Pico will be around 23 years old when and if he makes his pro MMA debut and hopes to quickly vault to the top. It’s still a long way away, of course, but Pico, as with all things, has a plan.
MMA’s age of the specialist, when the jiu-jitsu black belt fought the karate champion in a test to see whose style reined supreme, is passing away. Nowadays, you have to be good at everything. Former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre was one of the first to embody that approach. No wonder he is one of Pico’s favorites.
But don’t think he’ll employ a wrestling-heavy style. Pico has other ideas.
“In MMA, my strongest point is going to be my boxing. I feel most comfortable on my feet,” Pico said. “I want to be exciting and knock guys out. My opponents will have a hard time taking me down.”
Between now and then, and 2020 and 2016, there is plenty to fill the days. As long as there are airline miles to rack up, techniques to hone and tournaments to win, Pico will keep getting up at 4:30 in the morning, reaching past the snooze button.
“One day, that alarm clock will go off, and I’ll be able to continue sleeping,” Pico said. “When it goes off now, I think about how short this time is. I love what I’m doing now, and I want to do as much as I can when I’m younger, so when I’m older I can do the things I want…When I’m on the podium, it’s all worth it. I don’t want sleeping in to be on my conscience.”
Scott Harris writes about mixed martial arts and other topics for Bleacher Report and other places. His article series, The Beaten Path, regularly features the top prospects in MMA. For more, follow Scott on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.