Aaron Pico could have been a lot of things. He says he could have been – and could still be – a boxing world champion. He nearly was a U.S. Olympic wrestler, and would have been a medal contender as a teenager.
What he is, though, is an MMA rookie who makes his pro debut on Saturday at Bellator NYC in New York’s Madison Square Garden against veteran Zach Freeman.
Pico’s entrance into MMA as a 20-year-old isn’t getting the kind of national attention that LeBron James’ debut as an 18-year-old NBA wunderkind did in 2003, but there are similarities. There are many who believe that before it is all said and done, Pico will be as successful in MMA as James has been in the NBA.
That’s asking a lot of a guy still not legal to drink in most places, but it’s Pico’s reality, though he hardly seems bothered. He’s an outgoing, affable guy with the confidence that comes from being so physically gifted, but with the instincts to avoid arrogance at all costs.
Daniel Cormier, the UFC light heavyweight champion, called Pico “the real deal,” on Twitter. Bellator president Scott Coker said he considered signing Pico as a 17-year-old, but waited until Pico turned 18 because “our lawyers told me it wasn’t worth it.”
But Coker got Pico’s name on a contract when he was 18, paid him for nearly three full years while Pico pursued a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic wrestling team and still feels like he got the better end of the bargain as Pico is about to make his debut.
“I haven’t seen this kind of heat on a kid in, well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite like this,” Coker said. “This kid has all the attributes to become the next superstar in MMA.”
Pico is so respected by his peers that Coker said several fighters turned down the opportunity to face him in his debut.
“I had two or three guys say no when I asked if they wanted to fight Pico on this card, and they said, ‘There is no upside for me in taking this fight, because if this kid takes it to me, I might be done,’ ” Coker said. “The other side of it was, if they beat him, they beat a guy who has no fights.”
Pico’s team pushed for a big name, and Freeman is the one who finally said yes.
Freeman is 8-2 and coming off a loss to Thiago Moises last year for what he calls “kind of the Triple-A world title” in an RFA lightweight title match.
“I fought a 25-minute world title fight essentially one-handed,” says Freeman, who still works a full-time job as a sales rep selling glass and dividable partitions. “So I know what I can do.”
It’s the most significant card in Bellator history, and Pico and his 0-0 record is on the pay-per-view card, alongside MMA legends such as Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva, among others.
Pico, who lost by a point to Frank Molinaro for a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic wrestling team, doesn’t come across as a 20-year-old making his pro debut on a major card in a famous arena.
He’s got the poise and self-assurance that comes from a lifetime – in this case a short lifetime – of competing and winning. He doesn’t give the least bit of an impression that he’s overwhelmed or feeling the least bit antsy.
Pico said Freeman, who is 33, “is no joke and has done a lot already.” Pico, though, has as well. In addition to losing by a point at the 2016 Olympic trials to Molinaro – a 2012 national champion at Penn State who lost in the bronze medal match of the Rio Games – Pico has success in boxing, as well. In 2009, he won the National Junior Golden Gloves championship, and was named the Outstanding Boxer.
Pico said that boxing, not wrestling, is his best sport.
“For sure, I believe my boxing is better than my wrestling,” Pico said. “To be honest, I think it’s fair to say my boxing is way better than my wrestling. I feel comfortable boxing and I’ve been sparring a lot of really good guys at Wild Card.”
Wild Card, if you don’t know, is the boxing gym owned by the legendary Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach, where many of the finest boxers in the world have prepared.
If a boxer can hang with the best at Wild Card, he’s a legitimate top-end boxer.
“If he has a weakness, I guess it would be if someone takes him to the ground,” Coker said. “He’s working on that part of his game [with Eddie Bravo] but if there is a weakness, that’s it. But someone has to get him down first.”
Freeman knows all this, but insists he’s hardly awed by his much younger opponent. He’s got confidence himself, borne out of surviving an incredible daily grind. He has to travel the country in his full-time job, because he’s still not close to making enough from MMA to support himself.
So when he goes on the road to sell his product, he finds gyms where he stops and works out. He’s been exposed to many different styles and thoughts and that, he says, has made him comfortable no matter what he sees on fight night.
He’s persevered when it would have been easy to walk away, and that discipline is what he believes will help him when he faces the latest MMA prodigy.
It’s why he didn’t look for a way out when he broke his hand against Moises early in a five-round fight.
“I broke my hand in the first, but I completely fractured it early in the second round,” Freeman said. “When I did it, I could feel my hand and all the strength in it gave out. I had no grip strength. I could actually feel some pain, and a lot of times in a fight, you don’t feel it because of the adrenaline. It was just so bad, I could feel it, and it kind of took the steam out of me. It caused some stress, and any time you have stress in a fight, it makes you tired.
“Even with those factors going on, I still managed to fight five rounds against who I consider one of the top prospects in the world, and I never stopped looking for a way to win.”
This, though, is Pico’s show. Greatness is expected of him and he’s drawing comparisons to former UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Jones won the UFC title when he was 23, becoming the youngest man to do that.
Pico is 20, and says he thinks he needs five to eight fights to be ready to fight for a Bellator world title. That would put him in position to break Jones’ mark.
“Bob Cook in my mind has one of the best eyes for talent of anyone I’ve met in this business, so when he calls you all excited and says, ‘I have this kid that you have to sign,’ you pay attention,” Coker said. “This is the guy who found Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold, Tyron Woodley and so many other ones. Bob is an amazing scout and to hear him so excited about Aaron, it was significant.
“Aaron’s got a ton of heat on him as the next prodigy or super prospect in this sport, and he has all the attributes to become the next really big superstar in MMA. We’re going to give him a chance to prove it, but he’s not fighting a punk. He’s got a real guy across from him who has a lot of talent, too. I’m excited to see what he can do when the big spotlight comes on.”