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Bellator's Aaron Pico comes as close to Olympics as possible without qualifying

Aaron Pico, who was announced as having signed with Bellator in late 2014 with the idea he would debut after making an attempt for the Olympic team in wrestling, came as close as could be without making it.

Pico went down to the wire in the 65 kilogram tournament final, losing the third match in a best-of-three series via criteria decision to former NCAA champion Frank Molinaro on Saturday.

Pico, who is 19, was attempting to become the first teenager to make the U.S. freestyle Olympic team since Jimmie Jackson in 1976. He had split the first two matches in the best-of-three finals with Molinaro. A four-point takedown with momentary back exposure in the first round was the difference in Molinaro getting his hand raised when the two tied 4-4 in the third match. Under international freestyle rules, in the case of a tie, the wrestler who had the highest scoring move during the match is the first tie breaking criterion.

Pico was the aggressor in all three matches, but Molinaro countered effectively, particularly scoring on a Pico takedown attempt in the second match that was the difference. Neither Pico nor Molinaro were favored to reach the finals in what was considered the most loaded weight class in the tournament.

Molinaro had an amazing tournament, beating two of the best U.S. college wrestlers of the past decade, former Hodge Trophy winners Brent Metcalf and Logan Steiber, before facing Pico in the finals in a loaded division.

Molinaro first beat tournament favorite and multi-time national team member Brent Metcalf via criteria decision after the two went to a 3-3 score. He followed beating four-time NCAA champion Steiber, considered the best wrestler in Ohio State University history, due to having the highest scoring move after the two finished at 5-5 in their semifinal match.

Pico had one of the most amazing matches of the tournament, falling behind Dylan Ness 9-0, coming one point from losing his shot at making the Olympic team since a ten-point differential in amateur freestyle is a tech fall. Pico came back to score 20 unanswered points and tech fall Ness. Pico followed beating two-time NCAA champion Jordan Oliver.

In the first match between Pico and Molinaro, Pico scored a takedown with 23 seconds left to win 4-2.

The second bout saw two key moves lead to Molinaro winning. He had the switch in a scramble off a Pico takedown attempt, as well as, after a restart, Molinaro took a shot right at the whistle, which seemed quick and Pico appeared not to be set. That made the difference in an eventual 4-3 win.

Molinaro, the No. 9 seed, who wrestled for Cael Sanderson at Penn State, winning the 2012 NCAA title, didn't automatically qualify for the Olympics. The U.S. hasn't qualified the weight class yet. Molinaro would have to qualify by placing in tournaments either on  April 22-24 in Mongolia or May 6-8 in Turkey.

Pico was called by longtime MMA trainer "Crazy" Bob Cook as the single greatest prospect he'd seen in the sport. While growing up, Pico had won tournaments in both boxing and Pankration, and was the cadet world champion (17-and-under) in wrestling. He decided against competing in scholastic wrestling after being considered arguably the best high school wrestler in the country while only a freshman in winning the state title in California. From that point, instead of competing in high school or college, his goal was the 2016 and 2020 Olympic team.

But when signing with Bellator, the indication was he would start in MMA starting in 2016, either after the Olympics or failing to make the team.

Also winning the tournaments on Saturday, before 11,066 fans in Iowa City, were Tervel Diagnev at 125 kilos in freestyle; Kelsy Campbell (58 kilograms), Elena Pirozkhova (63 kilograms) and Tamyra Mensah (69 kilograms) in women's freestyle; and Jesse Thielke (59 kilograms), RaVaughn Perkins (66 kilograms), Ben Proviser (85 kilograms) and Josef Rau (98 kilograms) in Greco-Roman wrestling.

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