Bellator MMA's greatest potential prospect lost, and it could be good news for the company.
This past weekend in Iowa City, Iowa, the United States set its wrestling lineup ahead of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games with the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Though he failed to move closer to an Olympic berth at 143 pounds, one of the stories of the event was 19-year-old Aaron Pico, who in November 2014 signed a deal with Bellator MMA and parent company Viacom, with the intent of training at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., before debuting for the promotion after the 2016 Olympic cycle.
Pico passed on college wrestling to focus on international freestyle wrestling after winning a California state wrestling title at 132 pounds. Over the weekend, Pico thrilled his way through the bracket, overcoming 9-0 and 6-2 deficits to Jayson Ness and Jordan Oliver, including an astounding 20 straight points against Ness, plus blowing out Reece Humphrey 12-1. In the 143-pound final, the Titan Mercury Wrestling Club rep met up with former NCAA Div. I champion and four-time NCAA All-American at Penn State, Frank Molinaro.
BR> Pico took the first match 4-2 before conceding late points to Molinaro and losing the second bout 4-3. In the third and decisive match, Molinaro won on referee's advantage despite the score being 4-4, as the former Nittany Lion had the highest-scoring maneuver of the contest. As the U.S. has yet to qualify for Rio at 143 pounds, Molinaro will have to secure his Olympic berth with either a top-three finish in Mongolia (April 22-24) or, if unsuccessful, a top-two finish in Turkey (May 6-8).
In the meantime, Pico's previous comments suggest that his Olympic dream dashed is Bellator's gain if the Whittier, Calif., native is true to his word and dives headlong into MMA. With Pico's National Junior Golden Gloves title from 2009 and a deep boxing background in addition to his wrestling laurels, AKA coach Bob Cook famously called him the greatest MMA prospect he'd ever seen, almost a year before Pico even signed with Bellator.
On a similar note for the promotion, another of Bellator's long-term prospects, Ed Ruth, was also in freestyle action at the Trials. At 189 pounds, the former three-time Div. I national champ for Penn State defeated Pico's Titan Mercury teammate Deron Winn 10-0 before falling to another TMWC rep, Keith Gavin, 15-8 in the quarterfinals. Ruth, who has previously spent time in camp with Jon Jones at Jackson-Wink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., has expressed his own intentions to begin his pro MMA career after this Olympic cycle, having signed with Bellator MMA last May.
Pico and Ruth's MMA futures, bright as they may be, remain wait-and-see propositions. Nonetheless, you can stay hype in the meantime by checking out their Olympic Trials exploits courtesy of TeamUSA.org's video archive.