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There was plenty of hype behind Aaron Pico when he made his professional mixed martial arts debut under the Bellator MMA banner at Bellator 180 on June 24, and many observers felt it stalled in his upset loss to Zach Freeman. However, the 21-year-old prospect won over fans with how well he handled the setback and held his head high, acknowledging the adjustments he would make by learning from his mistakes.
Everyone was aware of Pico’s wrestling pedigree when he signed with Bellator, and it was the focus in the run-up to his debut. His accomplishments in boxing and pankration were mentioned as mere subtitles.
Pico indeed has thunder in his fists, as first demonstrated at Bellator 183 in September. There, he downshifted to 145 pounds, faced Justin Linn and delivered a brutal first-round knockout, as he abandoned takedowns in favor of standup exchanges. A left uppercut from Pico cut down Linn, made for a great comeback story and put a division on notice. Bellator had made no mistake in signing and pushing an athlete of this caliber.
Still, everyone has a puncher’s chance, right? Pico squared off Shane Krutchen at Bellator 192 on Saturday in Inglewood, California, where he showed poise and patience against a veteran with more fights than he has rounds. Whatever adjustments Pico made after his encounter with Freeman seem to have made all the difference. He scored another first-round knockout against Krutchen, flooring him with a left hook to the liver in just 37 seconds.
In both of Pico’s wins, his striking -- not his wrestling -- paved the way. Opponents are either expecting the takedown or working to submit a wrestler once they are grounded. However, it appears as though the explosive power that comes from years spent on the mats is being transmitted to Pico’s hands; and at such a young age, he figures only to improve and get stronger. That is a scary thought for future adversaries.
It is clear that Pico is hungry, and by escaping another fight injury-free, he has put himself in position to compete again soon. Bellator President Scott Coker was smart enough to recruit Pico while he was still attempting to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and anyone preparing to face him now has to be concerned with both his wrestling and his standup.
Will Pico’s fourth fight go past the first round? Bellator figures to answer that question before the first half of 2018 is over. Considering the speed with which Pico is adjusting to the sport, he could be ready for a five-round battle with a champion much sooner than anyone thought possible.
Edward Carbajal serves as the lead MMA analyst for Frontproof Media and holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a brown belt in Ishin Ryu Karate. He has covered combat sports since 2014 and has been a fan of MMA since UFC 1. You can follow him on Twitter @Carbazel or at his website TheBlogBoardJungle.com.