NEW YORK – One of the more sharply dressed fighters at Thursday’s press conference was 20-year old Aaron Pico, who looked the part of a well-versed veteran on a business trip. The thing is, he’s not a veteran at all. Pico makes his Bellator debut on Saturday at Madison Square Garden against Zach Freeman on the pay-per-view portion of the card.
Yet being on a stage with a congregation of reporters asking him about a fight is something he has been thinking about for the better part of a decade.
Right down to the suit he was going to wear.
“I’ve been replaying this in my mind since I was a kid,” he told MMA Fighting after the press conference. “What I’m going to wear in my press conference, what I’m going to wear on my walkout, what I’m going to wear in my fight. I’ve watched 24/7’s of boxing, I’ve watched all the press conferences, so I’ve always — since I was 9 or 10 years old — thought about what I’m going to wear when I was actually here.”
Pico is a freestyle junior world champion wrestler, a California State Pankration champion, and a National Junior Golden Gloves champion. There’s never been as big of a prospect making his debut on such a big stage, yet Pico comports himself as a true professional. While collegiate wrestlers like Ed Ruth are quietly gaining experience on the rushed portion of preliminary cards, Pico will debut with a lot of expectations on him.
Between him and Missouri’s Freeman (8-2), who is only at MSG because of Pico, the pressure would seem to belong to Pico alone. Yet the blue chip prospect said he sees it as a shared burden.
“I think it’s probably mutual,” he said. “He’s feeling pressure, and I’m feeling pressure. That’s what the sport is all about, everybody feels it. But hats off to him. He took the fight. He’s a tough guy. I got to go in there with all my confidence and do what I do.”
Perhaps because he’s only 20 years old, fighting at Madison Square Garden might not strike him in the awe sense like it has other fighters. But Pico acknowledges the big stage he’ll be performing on, and had a pinch-me moment on the bus ride to the presser.
“I was just thinking on the ride over, I’ve been watching all these press conferences and I’m a junkie for those 24/7’s, always watching that,” he said. “So when I was on the bus ride I was like, hey, it’s actually here. But I try not to think about it too much. It is what it is, at the end of the day. This is all good, but we have to go out there and fight.”
A native of Southern California and currently training out of Los Angeles, Pico said there’s another venue that a lot of his dreams drift towards on the left coast.
“[MSG]’s definitely big, and I can’t wait to get it done here, but I can’t wait to fight in the Staples Center,” he said. “I pass by it everyday, especially in training. I can’t wait to fight there. There’s a breakfast spot right across the street, so I always look at it. I can’t wait to fight there someday.”
Freeman, who holds down a day job back in St. Charles and has had a nomadic camp while traveling for work, is in a “why not” situation with Pico. Should he win, perhaps his career takes flight. Should he lose, hey, he just fought at Madison Square Garden — a thing he said he can tell his grandkids.
But there’s been some bold claims from Freeman, too, who said “don’t be surprised” if he’s the one that takes Pico down. So what does Pico think about that proposition? Does he welcome Freeman to try?
“Yeah, if he can get past my hands, for sure,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes. Anything can happen in this fight, it’s not wrestling. We’re prepared for anything. We’re even prepared for him to take shots on us.”
As a dogged wrestler himself who trains with the likes of Tyron Woodley among many others, Freeman has gone on record saying an ideal scenario would be him finishing Pico in the third after a grueling battle.
Pico, dressed to the nines and full of lucid thought, exercised a caution to that line of thinking.
“My conditioning is the best in the world in MMA,” he said. “I think the best scenario for him is just go out in the first round, because he don’t want to take too much damage, and I don’t want to beat him that long. If the fight lasts three rounds I got to do what I got to do, but my conditioning, nobody on this planet can keep up with me.
“And I believe in my hands, too. Everyone will see on Saturday night.”
In other words, everyone will see what he’s been seeing for years.