Touching four corners.
When Aaron Pico says that, it's not a reference to the geographic dot where four different states come together, not far from his new training headquarters in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
When Pico uses that phrase, it's a reference to the days when as a youth he'd run laps around the wrestling room. Each day, each lap, he insisted on touching each corner as he passed. His makeup—maybe even conscience—simply wouldn't allow him to cut them.
That instinct is what powered him to an Olympic wrestling bid and a skill set better built for MMA ascendance than any before it. After the 22-year-old unexpectedly dropped to 4-3 as a pro following his second-round TKO loss to virtual unknown Adam Borics in June at Bellator 222, he has fallen back on that instinct to get back on track. After two consecutive losses and with Bellator surprisingly keeping Pico on the bench for its upcoming Featherweight World Grand Prix, for Pico, change may be needed, although not necessarily to his mindset.
"I won't say, ‘Hey, I'm 4-3, f--k it, I'm gonna go out and get wasted,'" Pico said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. "It sucks to lose and it hurts, but I still put my head on the pillow every night knowing that I do everything I can. I know I touched all the corners. That'll be my approach until the day I die."
But this is not a feel-good story about returning to one's roots. Pico joined a new camp this spring—Albuquerque's vaunted Jackson Wink MMA Academy, home of UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones, among others. The move came after a lengthy and by-all-accounts harmonious stay with the upstart Team Bodyshop in Pico's native California, and it speaks to Pico's recognition that something has to change outside the natural course of time.
What motivated the move?
"Biggest thing is the one-on-one training," he said. "Every day they're tailored toward me. I'm working with Greg Jackson, [striking coach Brandon] "Six Gun" [Gibson] and Mike Winkeljohn. ... I switched camps because I love Greg Jackson. I love [Team Bodyshop coach] Antonio McKee very much. There's no bad blood there."
Speaking of bad blood, Pico said he holds none toward Bellator for the grand prix snub. In fact, he almost went so far as to endorse the move.
"To be honest, even if I had won the last fight, I would have said no to the tournament," Pico said. "Bellator is looking out for me. If I win the grand prix, I'd have to fight [current champ] Patricio Freire."
Upon announcing the grand prix field—about a month after Pico's loss to Borics—Bellator President Scott Coker didn't mince words on the omission.
"We think he's going to still come back and be great, but I think it's time to take a beat," Coker said. "Let him train and let him get through this process."
Pico said he was fine with the decision, but not without the pride of an elite athlete.
"They know what they have [in me]," he said. "Let those guys beat each other up."
But back to Pico's recent deeds, where an interesting dynamic is emerging. On one hand, Pico insists his shortcomings are based on nothing more than experience, or a lack thereof. The flash nature of his losses supports that argument.
"It comes down to cage time," Pico said. "I think it's better to take a flash knockdown. [Against Henry Corrales] I got greedy and I got hit. It goes hand in hand with cage time. ... It was just a lack of experience."
On the other hand, Pico's actions away from the cage arguably contradict that narrative. Changing camps can't directly remedy a lack of live cage time. If that was the only issue on Pico's radar, that sort of change would be unnecessary, especially given his strong relationship with Bodyshop. Predictably, Pico declined to give specifics on what he hoped to improve or what he was working on at Jackson Wink, but he did acknowledge that he was doing more than simply biding time until time caught up to him.
That's a noteworthy observation for reasons that go beyond Pico. Arguably the gold standard for MMA training over the years, Jackson Wink has had some high-profile defections lately. Last year, star welterweight and former Jackson Wink fighter Donald Cerrone likened the gym's atmosphere to a "puppy mill."
Sanchez, whose 2009 fight with Clay Guida is part of the 2019 class of the UFC Hall of Fame's "Fight Wing," left Jackson Wink after spending much of his 17-year career there. In other words, the same personalized attention Pico relishes seemed to be in absence for Sanchez.
"Come fight time, you'd get a couple mitt sessions with Winkeljohn, never really learning anything, just kind of tuning up what I already had," Sanchez said, per MMA Junkie. "With Greg Jackson, it was maybe one or two privates a camp, but never really any true love—the type of love that a trainer should have for his fighter. They were just basically going through the motions with Diego Sanchez."
It's not pure speculation to suspect that Jackson Wink is benefitting from Pico's presence as much as vice versa. And it may not shock you to learn that Pico's view of the gym differs from that of Sanchez. To hear Pico tell it, the issue was more on the student than the teacher.
"Diego Sanchez said he didn't get attention," Pico said. "If you show up and put the work in and you're passionate, the coaches are going to be there for you. I show up on time. If you come with a great mindset, they'll be there."
Time will tell whether Jackson Wink can concoct the magic elixir for Pico, as it has for so many over the years. In the meantime, it seems Pico is on the shelf for seasoning. New recipe, same ingredients.
"I'm in a good place mentally," Pico said. "Sometimes you just need a step back to take a step forward. If I got outclassed for three rounds, that would be a different thing. … Now it gets really, really detailed."
Scott Harris covers MMA and other topics for Bleacher Report.