The Bull and the Matador

By Jason Burgos Sep 27, 2018

A star-studded affair with major implications across the board, Bellator 206 on Saturday in San Jose, California, will host a middleweight title bout, the first round of Bellator MMA’s welterweight grand prix and the latest chapter in a rivalry that started all the way back in 2003. Furthermore, the event also features the fifth fight in the career of perhaps the sport’s top prospect: Aaron Pico.

Much attention has been focused on Pico, as he did not enjoy a run-of-the-mill introduction to mixed martial arts. Even so, his achievements in boxing, pankration and three different styles of amateur wrestling had many in the MMA community drooling at his unbridled potential. After a surprise upset loss to start his pro career, Pico has shown off his potential with three straight first-round finishes. While the hype surrounding him was strong before his debut and continues to grow with each victory, the 22-year-old has put safety nets in place to avoid possible pitfalls. Pico credits his coaches -- they include Antonio McKee and Freddie Roach -- and those closest to him for keeping him focused. His parents, grandparents, brother and girlfriend of eight years all help with his day-to-day activities.

“I just have a really good team behind me [and] a really good family,” Pico told “Everybody’s behind me, and we all are having a fun time on this journey. They keep me grounded. If my mom tells me to do something, I’m going to do it. I’m lucky I have that. I found it very early, and I hope it stays like that. I don’t want to get big-headed.”

Ego always seems to be a concern with fame, especially with young stars. Jon Jones’ career stands as a testament to what can go wrong when immaturity mixes with success and fortune. Pico finds lessons in the former Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight titleholder’s missteps. He has no interest in humiliating those he loves most with his actions. “I would just be embarrassed if I was on the front of the newspaper and my grandma [saw it],” Pico said. The Californian understands everyone makes mistakes, himself included. Pico has a plan for when those situations arise. “If my mom were standing right here, am I going to make that decision?” he said. “You’ve got to ask yourself that question.”

Pico’s decisions inside the cage have bordered on flawless. He has already developed a reputation for wielding one of the sports deadliest punches.

“Left hook to the body is something I have always thrown since I was a very young kid,” Pico said. “Sometimes you would rather get hit to the head [than take that punch].”

Despite winning national championships in freestyle, folkstyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, Pico has not made much use of his grappling skills in MMA thus far. He points to the development of his standup game as the reason.

“I’ve always been very confident in my hands, so it’s really been no surprise to me,” Pico said. “I just keep doing what I do, but if one of my hands lands on somebody, it’s going to hurt for sure. God gifted me with some heavy fists. If I don’t have to [wrestle] and I knock them out on my feet, I’ll take that any day.”

When Pico enters the cage to face Leandro Higo at Bellator 206, his degree of difficulty will increase significantly. Higo owns an 18-4 record that includes 10 wins by submission; and the Brazilian has experience on his side, as he has been competing in MMA since 2006. Pico did not shy away from the challenge.

“That’s the game that we’re in,” he said. “You’re going to fight guys that are tough. If you don’t like it, then it’s the wrong sport for you.”

While he respects Higo’s skills, Pico believes he can win the battles wherever they occur. Plus, he can determine where the exchanges take place, either on the feet or on the ground.

“I can stand with him,” Pico said. “If I need to take him down, I will. There’s no stopping my takedown. Ultimately, I’m going to dictate where the fight goes, and that’s a very good feeling going into the fight. Just take it one step at a time, relax, and eventually, we’re going to find him.”

Along with his devastating left hook, Pico’s post-fight celebration has become an event all its own. In it, he pays homage to another favorite pastime: bullfighting. An avid fan of Rejoneo bullfighting -- a form of the sport where a horse joins the fray -- Pico claims it was a spontaneous reaction after he knocked out Justin Linn at Bellator 183. When Pico saw the video afterward, he was not sure if it was something he wanted to do again.

“I laugh about it because when I look at it I say, ‘Damn, what am I doing?’” he said before admitting he discussed his reservations with his girlfriend. She made the decision for him: “If you stop doing it because you’re embarrassed [about] what people are going to think, I’m going to be so pissed.”

Pico may be a bull in the cage, but he learned to play matador at home long ago.
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