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Aaron Pico talks simplified approach for Bellator return, sparring with Miguel Cotto

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Aaron Pico meets Justin Linn in a featherweight bout at Bellator 183 on Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

At just 20 years old, Aaron Pico is a work in progress — which is about the kindest thing you could say after he crashed and burned in his heavily hyped MMA debut.

Pico is hoping to get a second chance to make a first impression when he meets Justin Linn in a featherweight bout at Bellator 183 on Saturday at the SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. The highly touted prospect was introduced to the cold reality of the fight game when he was submitted in just 24 seconds by Zach Freeman this past June in front of thousands of fans at Madison Square Garden.

One of the reasons that expectations were sky high for Pico beyond just his spectacular amateur wrestling background was the fact that he’d placed himself under the wing of some of the most respected minds in combat sports, including American Kickboxing Academy trainer Bob Cook and esteemed boxing coach Freddie Roach.

Heading into the Freeman fight, Pico wanted to model his training regimen after UFC legend Georges St-Pierre, as far as traveling to different locations to hone specific skills. For his second fight, he decided to simplify the process.

“For me, I wanted to scale things back,” Pico told MMA Fighting. “Freddie Roach is my boxing coach, I spent a lot of time down there with him leading up to the fight. I was actually part of Miguel Cotto’s training camp as a sparring partner so that was really good for me.”

Cotto, one of Puerto Rico’s most decorated boxers, has been fighting professionally since 2001, and Pico was honored to be invited to work with him. Aside from getting to square off with Cotto in the ring, he was also impressed with how the six-time champion carried himself in general.

“Just his approach to the whole game,” said Pico. “He’s very professional when he comes in, he works extremely hard. Sparring with him was great. Just to see how a professional works in the boxing game, how he gets ready, I was very privileged to be in there with his training camp. He keeps a small circle, so it was a really good experience for me. It’s helped me, for sure.”

Now with Team Bodyshop MMA in Lakewood, Calif., Pico is working primarily with Antonio McKee and his son, undefeated Bellator featherweight A.J. McKee, who Pico has known since he was six years old. He credits Antonio with helping him to better blend his skills and stay consistent, although Cook still regularly makes the trip from San Jose to visit his prized pupil and assist in his development.

Having that kind of support is one of the reasons that Pico feels comfortable taking on another opponent with considerably more experience than him. Freeman stepped into the cage opposite Pico with an 8-2 record, and Linn is no slouch either. The 28-year-old is 7-3 in his pro career, though he is coming off of back-to-back losses to Cody Gibson and Matthew Lopez, two fighters who have competed in the UFC.

“We all sat down together and they brought up Justin Linn and my coaches thought I would be ready for it,” said Pico. “I thought I’d be ready too. Yeah, he’s got more experience, but I think I’ve got more training and having more months under my belt before this fight, so I feel pretty confident. I always take on challenges, that’s one thing that I love doing, that’s what life is all about.”

One challenge that Pico is putting on the back burner for now is his dream of someday becoming an Olympic champion. In 2016, he fell just short of becoming the first teenager in 40 years to qualify for the Olympic freestyle wrestling team, losing in the trials finals by the thinnest of margins.

His mission now is to beat Linn, a feat that he expects to be the first step to greater MMA glory.

“For me, right now, my whole focus is trying to be a world champion in Bellator,” said Pico. “And that’s what I’m excited for, waking up with that goal in mind every day.”