Aaron Pico has spent the last 16 years of his life with one focus: combat.
The 20-year-old Whittier, California, native has been touted as one of the top prospects to enter mixed martial arts in recent memory, and one look at his resume shows why. Pico started his combat sports career in wrestling at age 4 after a casual outing with his family.
“My older brother and I were go-karting, and the shoes that they were wearing were wrestling shoes,” Pico told Sherdog.com. “My dad looked up the local wrestling club, and that next week, he took me to practice and that is how I started.”
Pico found early success in wrestling and burst onto the national scene when he was 8 years old. It was during his time in wrestling that he discovered a passion for other sports. One of them was boxing.
“The gym I wrestled at had a ring in it, and if we practiced hard enough, we would be able to put on the gloves and fight,” Pico said. “That is when I learned that my boxing was horrible, so I asked my dad if I could learn how to box.”
Pico’s father asked a neighbor, who happened to be a muay Thai fighter, if he could train his son. By age 9, Pico stopped wrestling and started boxing on a full-time basis. He trained out of his neighbor’s garage, and for the next four years, he found himself immersed in the boxing world. Pico went on to win the 2008 California Police Athletic/Activities League championship and the 2008 National PAL championship, after which he was named the tournament’s most outstanding boxer. A year later, he won the 2009 National Junior Golden Gloves championship, again earning recognition as the tournament’s most outstanding boxer. His father soon found another sport for his son to try.
“My dad stumbled upon pankration on the Internet after I told him I wanted to start doing MMA,” Pico said. “They were doing it in Russia and overseas, and after seeing some of the videos, I knew I could beat these kids.”
Pico won back-to-back titles (2008-09) at the California State Pankration Championships and also struck gold at the 2008 National Pankration Championships. He punctuated his pankration career by becoming a gold medalist at the 2010 Golden Cup European Pankration Championships in Kharkov, Ukraine. There, Pico defeated four opponents by knockout and another by decision. The success he enjoyed solidified his future plans. A mixed martial arts career was in his sights.
“I always had a great passion for boxing, fighting and wrestling,” Pico said. “I knew this is what I wanted to do. Everything I wanted out of life I could get from fighting, and I was lucky to know from an early age.”
Pico returned to wrestling after his run in boxing and pankration, and he instantly made his presence known. By the time he was a teenager, he excelled in folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, winning national titles in all three styles at the cadet and junior level. After winning a state championship and finishing 42-0 as a freshman in high school, he stopped wrestling folkstyle to focus on an international career in freestyle. Pico eventually achieved a top-20 ranking in the world.
Bellator MMA made an investment in Pico and signed him to a long-term contract in 2014. Bellator President Scott Coker understood Pico had no interest in taking a fight until after the 2016 Olympic Trials were complete, but his promising talent was too good to pass up. Pico finished second at the trials, failing to qualify for the Olympics by one match. Although disappointed in the result, Pico always saw himself as a better fighter than wrestler.
Following the trials, Pico turned his attention to MMA training. He touched down at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, where longtime trainer Bob Cook -- the man who had helped develop Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez, among others -- called him the greatest prospect he had ever seen. Pico planned to debut at the end of 2016 but suffered a torn ACL. He now views the injury as a blessing in disguise.
“I’ve been at it since I was 4 years old and I never had a significant injury,” he said, “and for about a year, I just focused on my health.”
Pico’s body gained strength after the extended rest. He currently trains out of various gyms in Southern California, sharpening his Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Eddie Bravo, his boxing with Freddie Roach and his muay Thai with longtime coach Dominic Doloria. Pico has fit in well with Bravo at 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu.
“My wrestling has translated with the 10th Planet system,” he said. “I am rolling with all of the guys there, [and] with my wrestling base, I have learned a lot quickly. Being around Eddie every day has been perfect for my skill set.”
Pico will make his long-awaited MMA debut at Bellator 180 on Saturday, when he takes on Zach Freeman at Madison Square Garden in New York. The 33-year-old Freeman fought for a Resurrection Fighting Alliance title in 2016 and enters the bout with an 8-2 record.
“Freeman is not a joke; he is a tough guy,” Pico said. “He has lank on him and has been in big shows before. I see the fight going like this: Whenever you have two guys that will let their hands go, it is going to be a good fight.”
Pico welcomes the expectations that have greeted his arrival. In fact, he fans the flames.
“I have been dealing doubters since I was a kid, asking me if I can I win a national championship in boxing? Can I win a world championship in wrestling? Can I win a world championship in pankration?” he said. “So all my life it has been that way with expectations. If you look at everything I have done and at every level, I have succeeded. I don’t think it is an accident, [with] my work ethic and my support system.
“I want to keep honing my skills, develop my jiu-jitsu, get better at boxing and try being the best athlete I can be,” Pico added. “Within the next three years, I don’t think there will be a man on this earth who is a better fighter than me.”