Aaron Pico hadn’t even stepped into a ring or cage as a professional athlete yet and he was already being hailed as one of the greatest prospects in mixed martial arts history.
The hype was justified based on all the factors surrounding Pico ahead of his first fight.
He started training in both wrestling and boxing when he was barely out of grade school. By the time he was 18, Pico was already being touted as a future Olympian and he came one win short of competing in the 2016 games.
Add to that, Bellator MMA offered Pico a lucrative contract based purely on the prospect that he would one day become a viable product for the promotion. There was no metric to measure by but Pico just had the ‘it’ factor.
That was a lot of praise to heap on a fighter who made his debut at just 20 years of age. He then saw how quickly that label of prospect could transform into a bust when he suffered a submission loss in his first fight.
The thing about Pico that perhaps no one understood after that first defeat was that it didn’t deter him or somehow make him rethink his plans. It didn’t have Pico questioning if he was truly ready much less if fighting on the main card of a pay-per-view in his debut was too much, too soon.
Instead, Pico devoured that loss like a seasoned veteran and if anything, it only made him that much hungrier to come back for a second bite of the apple.
“Coming into the game, I had a really good foundation but a lot of it is just mental, too. The mental toughness now compared to [the first fight] has gone through the roof,” Pico told MMAWeekly ahead of his next fight at Bellator 206. “I’m nowhere near to where I want to be.
“In this game you’re never really going to perfect. You can always be improving and trying to be the best you can possibly be. As long as you stay hungry, stay focused and surround yourself with a good team, then you can do as much as you want.”
Bouncing back the way he did had everybody who jumped off the bandwagon hop right back on board but Pico hasn’t skipped a beat regardless of that first loss or the three subsequent wins.
The way Pico sees it, he didn’t sign with Bellator, forgo college or potentially skip out on the 2020 Olympic games because he wanted to be the best prospect in the history of the sport.
“They say I’m the greatest prospect and I’m the next guy in line. My whole focus is to become a world champion,” Pico stated. “If they asked me to fight the champion tomorrow, I feel I’m ready. The way I train, the way I do things in my life, it’s to be the best. I’m willing to take those risks to be a world champion. I’m not trying to hide behind anything. I want to show the world what I’m capable of doing. I’m there with those guys.
“They’ll say ‘too much, too soon’ — I don’t give a shit about that. I’m young, I’m healthy and I’m going to go out there and fight. You’re not going to become a legend by knocking out tomato cans. No, I want to fight the best men in the world. Yeah, I’m young but (expletive) it, in order to be the best, you’ve got to fight the best.”
This weekend, Pico takes a massive step up in competition as he takes on former Bellator title contender and 22-fight veteran Leandro Higo.
On paper, Higo should be the toughest test of Pico’s young career but once again, he’s handling it all with the attitude of a seasoned veteran.
The brighter the spotlight, the more Pico plans to shine and he’s ready to back up the hype surrounding him once again on Saturday night.
“Anybody can call me prospect, there’s a lot of pressure on me — I love it,” Pico said. “I train every, single day to be the best in the world and it’s just a matter of time when I get to the top and I’m going to stay there for a very long time.”