When looking back at historical figures when it comes to those who may have been champions in mixed martial arts, if such a sport existed in another generation, one name many people will always bring up is Danny Hodge. Hodge, now 81, who the Hodge Trophy for both the best high school (Junior Hodge Trophy) and college wrestler are named after, is currently the chairman of the Oklahoma State Athletic Commission. That means he's frequently regulating MMA events in the state.
Hodge was among the greatest wrestlers the U.S. ever produced. He was on the Olympic team coming out of high school, went undefeated in three years of college where no opponent even scored an offensive point on him. He won a silver medal in his second Olympics, in 1956, that most onlookers believed should have been colored gold.
Then he became a national Golden Gloves champion in boxing barely a year after taking up the sport. He toyed with the idea of trying to win a gold medal in both wrestling and boxing in the 1960 Olympics, but there were bills to pay, so he started boxing professionally. But he was robbed by promoters and developed a distaste for the sport. Then, as a star on the pro wrestling circuit in the 60s and 70s, he learned submissions. He's said often that if MMA was around, he would have loved to have gone into it.
Until recently, nobody else has ever been a national champion in both wrestling and boxing.
Enter Aaron Pico.
Pico captured the FILA Cadet world championship in freestyle wrestling this past year in Zrenjanin, Serbia, in the 17-and-under age group in the 63 kilogram (139-pound) weight class. That's after not just winning his weight, but capturing the Outstanding Wrestler award in both the junior and cadet nationals. Last year, he won the FILA national championship in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, as well as the Junior nationals for USA Wrestling in folkstyle (high school and collegiate style). The year before that, at 132 pounds, he was USA Wrestling's Cadet (17-and-under) champion in Greco-Roman, freestyle and folkstyle.
Here's the scary part. He doesn't consider wrestling his best sport.
"I'm better as a fighter than a wrestler," said Pico.
"This is someone in a different world," said Crazy Bob Cook, the noted MMA trainer and manager, who has worked with the likes of Cain Velasquez, Frank Shamrock, B.J. Penn, Jon Fitch and Josh Thomson over the years, and said Pico is the greatest MMA prospect he's ever run into.
"He's the most accomplished kid Bob has ever seen," said DeWayne Zinkin, of Zinkin Entertainment, who signed a management contract with Pico for MMA, a sport Pico doesn't even expect to start in until 2020.
"We've never had anybody like him," said Zinkin.
A generation ago, when Frank Shamrock was UFC's dominant star, as the first person to really combine grappling, striking and conditioning into being one of the forerunners of the modern fighter. He noted that the future was going to be dominated by guys who were not great kickboxers or great wrestlers, but those who trained from a young age at MMA.
Pico started wrestling at four, following his older brother in to the sport. He was boxing at ten. He was training mixed styles since 13, competing in Pankration tournaments.
As a boxer, when he was 12, he captured not only the PAL national championship in his age group in that sport, as well as the Upstanding Boxer award, but followed it up the next year at the Junior Golden Gloves championships. He also won the European Pankration championship in the Ukraine.
And in his most impressive accomplishment, in November, the high school sophomore, in tournament competition, defeated Alibeggediz Emeev, the No. 3 Olympic caliber wrestler on the Russian national team in his weight class, an unheard of accomplishment in that sport.
He was 42-0 at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, Calif., winning both the California state and national championships. The closest anyone came to him in a match was losing by ten points, and this was as a freshman. He was considered by many as the best pound-for-pound high school wrestler in the country, but he's not going after any of Hodge's collegiate records.
"I'm not going to wrestle in high school or college," said Pico, who has decided to focus entirely on freestyle wrestling, finishing high school with courses online, and traveling abroad to get the best training possible.
He hadn't announced the decision until this week, just before the Doc Buchanan tournament in Clovis, Calif. that would have been the start of his sophomore wrestling season.
"I did the whole high school season and enjoyed that," he said. "But freestyle and folkstyle are completely different. In order to compete with the highest level guys, you have to do freestyle. The competition is tougher at the international level. I wish the U.S. would convert (school programs) to freestyle, and I think if they did, we'd do better as a country on the international level than what we've done before. I've wrestled at all kinds of levels. It comes down to one thing. I love to do freestyle."
On Jan. 10, he's headed to Russia for three weeks to train with its national team, and after that, he's headed to Cuba. While he's abroad, the concentration is on freestyle wrestling. When he's home, he'll continue to train daily with boxers.
"They're really technical at different things," he said about his decision to spend so much time overseas at a young age to train. "I have an American European style with a good gas tank. I can wear a lot of guys out with my conditioning. What I need to improve on is my freestyle technique. That's why I'm going overseas, to learn what they have to offer."
He's got a dual goal. The first is to win an Olympic gold medal. He's focused on 2016, when he'll only be 19, but is going to stay with the sport through the 2020 Olympics.
At that point, he's headed to MMA, with a goal of becoming a UFC champion.
"Everybody better watch out when he makes the transition," said Cook.
"As far as MMA goes, I definitely want to be an MMA fighter and a UFC champion one day," said Pico. "I'm wrestling through 2020. I'll be 23 years old. That's still young for MMA.
"To me, a complete fighter is a world champion wrestler and a world champion boxer, that's a complete fighter," he said, noting the guys he'd most like to emulate are Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Georges St-Pierre. "I was sparring with top level boxers and seeing their speed. We definitely have guys in UFC that were complete wrestlers, but I haven't seen a complete boxer in MMA and it takes time to develop. I was fortunate because from 10 to 13, all I did was box. I don't think I'll lose those skills because I'm going to be constantly boxing. When the time is right to compete, I'll be ready to go. UFC, boxing and wrestling, but I've go to keep training and staying focused."