Best-Laid Plans: Inside the Disastrous Debut of MMA Super-Prospect Aaron Pico

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJuly 7, 2017

Aaron Pico
Aaron PicoGregory Payan/Associated Press

There’s an old joke. How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.

Fifty hours before his humbling in front of the entire sports world, the greatest prospect in MMA history leapt out of bed. Time for the next leg of the Aaron Pico plan.

Before anyone was demanding explanations from the 20-year-old phenom for his disastrous pro debut, which he lost to a virtual unknown in 24 wispy seconds, there was nothing but open runway. And that Thursday afternoon, Pico was champing at the bit to meet it.

That Saturday, he would face Zach Freeman at Bellator 180. On Thursday, he was in a room at the Hotel New Yorker, the venerable dame that has hosted God only knows how many athletes and performers. Across the street is the place Pico will fight: Madison Square Garden, whose bona fides need no review.

“It’s a feeling of excitement,” Pico told Bleacher Report that Thursday during exclusive fight-week access. “I can’t wait to just get in there and just get it done. I can feel the energy. I know what combinations I’m going to throw. I know the way he’s gonna react to my positions, and I know I’m gonna get the job done. I know it’s gonna be a great night for me.”

Aaron (center) and his father, Anthony, relax in the hotel room Thursday.
Aaron (center) and his father, Anthony, relax in the hotel room Thursday.Scott Harris

Killing time is a skill in itself during fight week, but Pico and his team have it all planned out. He’s been competing since he was five years old, after all. Pico hops around the suitcases and clothing and people and training gear that lie about the room, firing an air punch here and there as he does it. He’s in his element. When he’s not in his beloved hometown of Whittier, California, which is often, hotel rooms are akin to the gym. They’re his second habitat. 

He heads into the bathroom and comes back out with his special deodorant—no aluminum in it! Then his toothpaste. Here, check this out. All organic! Would anyone like a piece of gum? He offers the pack around. How about a bottle of water? Anyone? It is not easy to dislike Aaron Pico. No creature walking or crawling would seem immune to his attempts to make a good impression.

At 5'8" and 160 pounds, give or take, Pico could be just about any 20-year-old. His baby face is often serious but occasionally lights up in a massive grin. He’s always thumbing his phone screen or running a palm over his close-cropped hair. He still speaks in a voice breaking free of puberty, and he’s usually using that voice for one of two purposes: asking a question or making a proclamation.

Nearby on one of the beds is Aaron’s father, Anthony, a friend, mentor, fan, business partner, chauffer, and life coach. Anthony, who just last month retired from a career selling medical supplies to be with Aaron full time, has the same bearing as his son: proud and opinionated but affable, in no way difficult to talk to.

But there is one difference between Aaron and Anthony: The elder Pico is getting nervous.

“I get nervous, yeah. I pace a lot,” he said with a chuckle. “I like to believe that I’m not nervous, but my body language says something otherwise.”

Oh, there’s another difference, too. That comes when Aaron takes off his shirt or simply moves about a room. That’s when you remember you’re dealing with one of the world’s top athletes, one who came within a hair’s breadth of the U.S. Olympic freestyle wrestling team last year, when he was 19. He would have been the first teenager to do that in 40 years.

Frustrated by the result, Pico and Co. decided a debriefing was in order. Schedules and obligations during his training for the trials had splintered his peace of mind and made life hectic, preventing him from getting the most out of his training, or any other activity.

Something had to change. The answer? Make a plan.

“Reflecting on the Olympic trials, I sat down with my team, with my dad, and thought about what I could have done better,” Pico said as he rooted around in a suitcase. “We decided we wanted to get a schedule together, following a plan, and just living by that plan. Just having a sense of direction. With the trials it was kind of all over the place. You get all this time thinking, should I do this, should I do that, and before you know it, you’re two weeks away [from competition].”

That’s why Pico just leapt out of bed a few minutes earlier. The plan was calling. Time for a session with an electronic muscle stimulator, which contracts muscle fibers to promote strengthening. As Juan Archuleta, Pico’s friend and informal trainer—and himself a three-division champ in California’s King of the Cage promotion—straps Pico to the device, Pico talks about the other life changes he’s recently made as part of his new plan.

Pico after one of his successful Olympic trials matches.
Pico after one of his successful Olympic trials matches.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press/Associated Press

“Four or five months ago, I just went all in on, like, my juicing and everything,” Pico said. “It changed my whole performance. My conditioning coach says he’s never seen anyone, like, so conditioned before. I’ve got my juicer right here. Everything, my body, my recovery, it’s all just firing on all cylinders.”

Despite his youth, Pico has plenty of experience looking for and finding an edge at the elite levels of a sport, where the difference between success and failure is filamentous. After a somewhat controversial decision to forgo college in favor of international wrestling, Pico became a decorated competitor on the global stage, capturing a world championship in the process. 

The scary part for MMA fans? Wrestling isn’t even Pico’s favorite sport.

That would be boxing, and he’s got some hardware there, too. Toss in the ancient wrestling-striking hybrid sport of pankration for good measure. He has a couple of national titles in that.

For the past several years, the topmost part of Pico’s life plan has been MMA glory. It took on a new dimension in 2014, when none other than Bob Cook, who trains UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, former UFC middleweight champ Luke Rockhold and others at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, dubbed Pico the best MMA prospect he had ever seen. Thereafter, Pico signed with Nike and Bellator MMA—despite the fact he didn’t even plan to fight in a cage until years later, after his Olympic wrestling pursuits. 

Bellator brass didn’t seem to mind.

“We have Aaron Pico, who is the most highly recruited prospect in the history of the sport,” said Scott Coker, Bellator’s president, a few days before Bellator 180, in a phone interview with Bleacher Report's Jeremy Botter. “His manager said to us, Look, we don't just want to fight in the Garden. We want to fight somebody that's had six to 10 fights. …We have high hopes for Aaron, but he's got a tough fight. When I talk about our roster, I said, Look, we're going to sign free agents, but we're also going to add the Aaron Picos, the Ed Ruths, the Tyrell Fortunes of the world. Those are the guys who will be the future. I'm excited.”

Once he was fully focused on MMA, Pico became the ultimate MMA lab experiment. The plan was not so much to be an MMA “native” as a kind of combat-sports Voltron, a true expert in each discrete discipline.

Boxing happens at Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles with super-trainer Freddie Roach. Cook flies down from San Jose for MMA training. Duane Ludwig, who works with former UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and others, comes in for striking training. The newest addition is famed coach Eddie Bravo and 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu in Los Angeles.

“He’s paid his dues in a very intelligent way,” Anthony Pico said of his son. “It’s not just hey, my kid’s tough, and he goes in there and bangs it out. We’ve been with the best in the business, with the Bob Cooks, being at Wild Card, being at 10th Planet and everything. So I have that confidence in him.”

The electric stimulation session continues for a time. Steve Harvey talks in the background, but no one’s really paying attention. Do you know how you know when an electronic stimulation session is over? Pico leaps back up out of bed.

“I’m gonna knock this guy out!” He begins to shadow box around the room. Archuleta and another training partner egg him on.

“I’m gonna move in, circle away, then hit him with a body shot,” Pico proclaims. “Bam!”

He dances through it. Someone behind him begins to rhythmically slap the mattress in support. 

“Everything in my life, I believe, has happened for a reason,” Pico said earlier that afternoon. “And in the big moments I’ve always come out on top, and I feel this will be no different. I prepared well. This is the best I’ve ever felt. I’ve had the best training. …I can’t wait for Saturday.”

     

Friday

It’s a little after 6 a.m. when the phone buzzes.

It’s a text message from Pico. They have a few final pounds of water weight to shed before the weigh-ins at 9 a.m.

There’s some grogginess, some scrambling, and then here’s the gang at the subterranean level of Tapout Fitness on 32nd Street, a few blocks from Madison Square Garden. The long, dark, low-ceilinged room is slick and foggy with moisture. A thin blue ribbon of a lap pool runs down the center of the room and already contains a hardy swimmer or two. The sauna nearby already contains Pico, Archuleta sitting dutifully beside him. 

Pico in the sauna Friday morning.
Pico in the sauna Friday morning.Scott Harris

But there’s a new face here. It’s a lean, gray-goateed man who appears to be made of marine-grade rope. He ducks his head in the sauna door. 

“I'd give it about 12 minutes,” he said. “And you’ll be good.”

This is Sam Calavitta, Pico’s performance coach and the architect of, among other things, Pico’s weight cut, which, given that Pico has been drinking and eating regular—if regimented—meals this entire time, is going fairly well.

Pico calls him Coach Cal. Archuleta calls him Gandalf. And not the gray version, either. The white one, the more powerful one. That’s not a bad metaphorical segue. In Pico’s new life of hyper-planning, Calavitta may be the one coach to rule them all.

To say Calavitta is brimming with life is to potentially overestimate the notion of brimming. The happy-eyed former mathematician is the kind of guy who chats up strangers in elevators. He has nine children. When he’s not working with fighters like Pico, Cub Swanson, Dillashaw and Chael Sonnen, Calavitta is an avid triathlete.

A while back, he became a performance analyst and coach in order to spread the word on his own performance formula of math and biology. 

“In the early days of fighting, I saw firsthand that the amount of work they were putting in did not equate to what they were getting out,” Calavitta said. “It came down to a guessing game. If someone had a bad practice today you destroyed them tomorrow.”

If you think you know planning but haven’t seen it happen at this level, you don’t know planning. The display on his phone app, which looks like something you’d see in a hospital room, gives heart rates and a bunch of other rates and factors and blends them together to give a nuanced biological picture—and a plan for how to minutely adjust training and nutrition based on the body’s feedback.

“We build from a cellular level,” Calavitta said. “We densify mitochondria, using your body the way God intended it to be used. We’re reducing cortisol levels. It’s very structured. It’s based on metabolic efficiency.”

After the sauna, Pico heads to the bike room, which is dark and still locked, the stationary cycles inside like a phalanx of drone soldiers waiting for marching orders. A man ambles over to unlock the room. Pico has his sweats on and climbs aboard a bike.

“Are you pouring now?” Calavitta asks Pico, meaning sweat.

“Yeah.”

At one point, Calavitta tells Pico he’ll weigh in at 156.0 pounds—the highest allowable and thus optimal weigh-in number for a lightweight.

Fast-forward a few hours. Pico steps on the scale. He weighs 156.0 pounds.

Everything is going according to plan.

After weigh-ins, Pico can, at least in theory, eat whatever he wants. Pico is a fan of coffee shops, so here they are. The group is getting bigger now, and they’re all together at a long table next to a window looking out on the street, now bustling midmorning. Cook, Pico’s coach from AKA, is here now. So is Steve, Aaron’s barber from Whittier, who flew in for touch-up duty.

Everyone picks at sandwiches and breakfast plates and sips cups of water and coffee. Except Pico. He’s “glycogen loading” now, eating a potato, some cheese, some spinach, some slices of jalapeno out of a pre-portioned plastic container.

“He looked a little tired,” said Archuleta of Freeman. “He looked like he’d been cutting some weight.”

Bob Cook (left) and Eddie Bravo (right) watch a pre-fight Pico sparring session.
Bob Cook (left) and Eddie Bravo (right) watch a pre-fight Pico sparring session.Scott Harris

“I haven’t eaten a thing since I’ve been here,” interjected Anthony, who despite his best efforts appears to be getting more nervous by the minute.

“He didn’t say anything,” Aaron said of his opponent. “He looked thin. I don’t know how he’s a fighter.”

Pico talks about the places he’s been, about his deep-seated feeling that Russia, which he has visited many times, is a misunderstood country in the States. He talks about his desire to go back to Dagestan for wrestling training, to the Netherlands for kickboxing. One day, he says, he’s going to marry his girlfriend and have a bunch of kids and buy a ranch and have horses. The mood is tenser than it was, but there’s still some lightness. Pico seems to welcome a reporter’s questions; a chance to think about something besides the fight.

Cook is a man of few words, but they carry weight. How are things going?

“Fine,” he said. “Everything’s going according to plan.”

     

The Fight

It wasn’t the pressure.

Some people are deadline-oriented, using a due date as motivation to hit a given milestone. Pico is pressure-oriented, using the expectations of the moment as an invisible hand to guide progress and results.

That’s what the planning is: the apparatus for converting the pressure into something useful. Pressure is the raw material that makes it go.

The first bout on the pay-per-view main card of Bellator 180 was assumed to be a mismatch by casual bystanders. Not so. The Wikipedia-pageless Freeman (8-2) had a solid performance record that included a title fight on a well-respected regional show. It’s probably why oddsmakers didn’t even set a line for his contest with Pico.

“I feel great,” said Freeman in an interview with Bleacher Report a week before the fight. “I’ll go in with my head held high and I’ll go out with my head held high. Don’t be surprised if I take him down. If you think you’re untouchable, what happens when you get touched? It’s stress. … I see my hand getting raised and possibly by submission.”

The opening bell sounded and Pico rushed forward to engage. Just like he planned. Seeking an exchange of hands, Pico plowed inside, only to plow right into a perfectly placed uppercut from Freeman. Pico fell vertically, a stringless puppet, to the ground.

Freeman capitalized, he locked on a guillotine choke and the plan disappeared.

The final number, that final tapout at 24 seconds, is likely to haunt Pico for some time, just as “13 seconds” haunts Jose Aldo following his fateful knockout loss to Conor McGregor, or a host of others.

As the cobwebs cleared, Pico stared straight ahead in disbelief from the canvas. He stared straight ahead in disbelief as the ring announcer read the verdict and Freeman’s hand was raised. Then, without wasting much time, Pico jogged out of the cage.

Zach Freeman after his victory.
Zach Freeman after his victory.Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

“Don’t judge Aaron Pico or Zach Freeman based on what you saw today,” said Coker at the post-fight news conference. “We talked to [Pico’s] coaches, and they weren’t looking for someone with no fights or one fight. They wanted to challenge Aaron. What happened happened.”

Of the eight fighters who appeared at the post-fight news conference, Pico was the first to arrive. He was one of two to wear a suit.

“I was enjoying it,” said Pico to about 50 assembled media members. “I had a good time. One little mistake and it was a bad night. …I have a lot to learn. We were even discussing what I could do in the back. The most important thing for me is cage time. I’m still going to do everything I said I was going to do.”

He answered gamely, but his eyes were downcast, jaw clenched. Pico knew plenty of MMA fans who felt he’d gone too far too soon, plenty of wrestling fans who resented his decision to skip college, were enjoying this.

After the presser, Pico’s jaw remained clenched. At first, there had been the idea of a big post-fight banquet somewhere. Now, the talk was a slice of pizza in a hotel room. And not the New Yorker room, either.

“Everything just happened so fast, and he got me with the uppercut,” Pico said. “Right now it’s emotional. I did everything I possibly could. Sometimes you bite off more than you can chew. I came in a little too aggressive.”

Cook acknowledged that they may have reached too high with the opponent choice.

“We gambled and we lost,” Cook said. “We took this fight to get on a big card. …He’s still very new in this and there’s a lot he needs to learn. It’s still so early and there are whole elements he still needs to learn.”

What about that original, hype-starting article, labeling Pico the best MMA prospect ever?

“I stand by that,” Cook said. “I believe it 100 percent. He’s going to prove my words right.”

It’s a trendy saying these days: Trust the process. But don’t go trusting it too much. Eventually, the dice have to leave your hand. Chaos has to enter into the equation. Planning is essential for managing time in a chaotic world. But when the goal is to manage chaos itself, to compensate or stand in for the experience of living in a world where chaos is a factor, well, life and MMA have a way of correcting that perception.

As weary fighters and reporters filed out of the Garden’s underbelly, Pico looked up a visitor one last time.

“Hey, I want you to write this down,” Pico said. “I will be champ.”

He looked around at his group, smaller than it had been in three days. He sighed a big sigh.

“You guys ready to go?” he asked.

No one said much in response.

“Here we go.”

                 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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