Aaron Pico has done a lot to dispel the doubts that flooded in around him after his shocking loss in his pro debut last year. Three consecutive first-round knockouts have a way of doing that.
But as you might expect, that defeat—a 24-second chokeout loss at Bellator 180 to a very self-impressed Zach Freeman, who has lost his only other bout since—still nibbles at Pico. He hasn't forgotten, and plenty of observers haven't either.
Most of those observers still regard the 22-year-old Pico (3-1) as the most hyped prospect in MMA history. Once (and maybe still) a legitimate Olympic wrestling hopeful, he was circling the globe gaining medals and combat skills well before his peers were filling out college applications.
Never short on confidence, Pico embraced, or at least didn't play down, those massive expectations. As he made his way toward the center of Madison Square Garden for that marquee debut, everyone, maybe even Pico himself, assumed his world-class wrestling base, obsessive work ethic and all-star cadre of coaches—Freddie Roach for boxing, Eddie Bravo for jiu-jitsu, Bob Cook and the American Kickboxing Academy overseeing it all—would serve as an early-career autopilot.
It didn't. With adrenaline redlining and the crowd in his ears, Pico lunged forward—right into an uppercut. Pico slumped to the mat, and a guillotine choke followed. He tapped immediately, almost as if the action could let him out of not only the submission hold but the whole nightmare scenario.
"If I could go back, I would tell myself to just relax," Pico told Bleacher Report. "I was too anxious, and I wanted to get it over with. I could've gotten it if I'd stayed patient, relax, see what he's going to throw. ... I get so fired up just thinking about it."
The intervening three wins have Pico back on track, even if he estimates he's still very much in prospect mode at this point in his career. When he faces Leandro Higo (18-4) on Saturday at Bellator 206, he'll have his biggest chance yet to take a leaf blower to the fog that settled over his career after the Freeman loss.
Taking place in the MMA hotbed of San Jose, California, and headlined by a huge fight between Rory MacDonald and Gegard Mousasi, Pico's main-card slot with Higo carries serious voltage. Higo is a battle-tested veteran, beating plenty of known fighters during his time in Bellator and smaller shows before that. His jiu-jitsu prowess (10 pro wins by tapout) will pose challenges.
Pico will be calm in the cage Saturday. It's a strategy he'll need against a tough customer in Higo, and it's one he now seems to want to pass along to fans who may be overanxious or wary about the hype.
"I think people still have a lot of doubts about me," Pico said. "I don't care what anyone says. I don't give one s--t. Even when I win a championship, people will still be upset. ... I'm still a prospect and still trying to prove myself. I'm still improving. I don't really look too deeply into it anymore."
That desire for calm also shows in a simplified training schedule. He still works with multiple coaches, but when fight time rolls around there's one clear voice—UFC veteran Antonio McKee, whose son AJ and several other notables work alongside Pico at Team Bodyshop in Lakewood, California.
"I spend hours and hours with him every day," Pico said. "It's good to be surrounded by a coach every single day like that. For my first fight I was going everywhere [for training]. Now I'm with somebody every day. You need to have one [coach]."
He finally got those highlights he wanted, including a vicious body-shot KO in January on Shane Kruchten. He says he'd be open to a rematch with Freeman someday but isn't chomping at the bit. But even as he suggests he's tuning out some external perceptions, he acknowledges the importance of a good Q score.
"If we keep it on the feet, it'll be a bad day for you, and if I take you down, you'll get hurt," he said. "My dad always told me to be exciting. You have to sell tickets. And that's what I want to do."