Top MMA Prospect Aaron Pico Targets Pro Debut in July, Wants James Gallagher

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterFebruary 8, 2017

Aaron Pico at the U.S. Olympic Trials
Aaron Pico at the U.S. Olympic TrialsJamie Squire/Getty Images

Aaron Pico, probably the most hyped prospect in MMA's young history, is almost fully rehabbed from a serious knee injury and plans to make his pro debut in July for the Bellator promotion.

"I need to get with my management team, but I'm going to be cleared in April, and I'll be ready to go by July, definitely," Pico said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "A lot of people have been waiting for me. I can't wait to step in that cage and make my debut. ...There's a storm coming."

Last spring, a training partner fell awkwardly on Pico's leg during wrestling practice, tearing his ACL. Staring down the barrel of extended shelf time, the 20-year-old Pico was initially crestfallen. But that was before he used the layoff to overhaul his lifestyle.

No more toughing it out for toughness' sake or grinding through drills when the gears are dry. Seven months (and counting) of rehab gave Pico a chance to polish—dare one say professionalize—his routine.

Pico competes at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Pico competes at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

"Sometimes when you're feeling a little run down, you have to take a step back," Pico said. "I really learned that. That's why I say this [injury] was a blessing in disguise. I've gotten with some great people who know a lot about recovery, and they're helping me know my body. The fatigue levels, the heart rate, all the toxins...This is the best shape I've ever been in in my life."

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That's a bold statement. For Pico, it's basically been nothing but nonstop toil since he was old enough to buy a ticket for Avatar. His amateur career includes serving—at age 19as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic wrestling team. Hang that accolade alongside several others, national and international alike, in wrestling, boxing and pankration. Pico started earning them as a child and continued to do so as a teen, eschewing college wrestling, where he was a blue-chip prospect, to compete on the international scene.

Not too long ago, Pico talked enthusiastically about footwork, four-point moves and hard sparring at American Kickboxing Academy, his MMA training home. He still likes those things, but these days his conversations tend to gravitate toward lactic thresholds and chem-free deodorant. 

Come again?

"I know it sounds crazy, but from the food I'm eating to the deodorant I'm wearing, I'm getting testing done," he said. "Anything that goes on your body that's not good for you, I'm thinking about it. Regular deodorant has a lot of chemicals in it...I don't know, when they tell me it makes sense, but I can't explain it to you."

He may not be ready to replace his singlet for a lab coat just yet, but the thing Pico can explain clearly is his burning urge to fight. Assuming things unfold as planned, Pico even has an opponent in mind. 

That would be James Gallagher, the brash, Irish 20-year-old storming through Bellator's featherweight division. After a December win over Anthony Taylor, Gallagher (5-0), who trains alongside Conor McGregor and others at SBG Ireland, took to Instagram with a simple message for American wrestlers: "I'll strangle every one of them."

Pico didn't like that too much.

"He wrote a check with his mouth, and now he's gotta deliver," Pico said. "He says he can strangle all the American wrestlers, but I looked at his record, and he's never fought one, so he doesn't even know. ... He made comments about American wrestlers, well now, guess what? You're talking to a real American wrestler."

Following Gallagher's comment, Pico used his own social media to answer Gallagher's taunt. There hasn't been a response yet from the Irishman.

"He just doesn't want to respond and I understand why," Pico said. "But he should take [the fight]."

Gallagher's a hot commodity, but he hasn't reached Pico's level of notoriety. Few have, at least if their pro record is 0-0. Bellator signed the barely-adult Pico to a long-term deal in 2014, not long after Pico signed a sponsorship deal with Nike, making him one of only a handful of fighters to don the Swoosh.

With this in mind, it stands to reason matchmakers might give Pico an easier test in his debut. Pico understands that, too, even if he disagrees. At this point, after so much build-up, the key priority is discharging all the potential energy, making it kinetic.

"We'll see [who I fight]," he said. "We'll see. For me, [Gallagher's] the only thing on my mind. I'll fight him in Ireland, I'll fight him in L.A. The main thing for me is that we're gonna get it, and we're gonna make it big."


Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.