Aaron Pico was called one of the greatest MMA prospects ever while he was just finishing his freshman year of high school, years before he even committed himself to the sport.
He nearly made the Olympic team in wrestling as a teenager, and people were saying his boxing was better than his wrestling.
He debuted in Madison Square Garden on a pay-per-view on June 24, and with no amateur fights under MMA rules. And then he got rocked with a punch, and submitted to a guillotine all in 24 seconds.
For the past three months he’s had to deal with it. So did Bellator, which was criticized for putting a first-timer in with somebody with 10 pro fights, and that his debut was at 155, while he had been wrestling at 145. Yet, his second fight was once again against somebody with 10 pro fights.
“They said he’s 7-3, and he’s really good," Pico said, when first told about Justin Linn, when he was offered his second fight. "But that’s just who I am. I’ve been embracing the challenge. But sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.”
“June 24th, Madison Square Garden, was one of the most embarrassing days of my life,” added Pico, just minutes after celebrating his 21st birthday with his first pro win, a first-round knockout over Linn (7-4). “It took a while to soak it all in, but you know what, I’m coming back. I woke up every day on a mission. I will be coming back. I will be world champion. I could be 0-5, and I would still come back and be world champion. I’ll be world champion or I’ll die trying.
“Nobody in the world works as hard as me, and I can honestly say that.”
After his debut, losing to an experienced fighter but a relative unknown via submission so quickly, the idea he was going to be a future superstar in the sport sounded ridiculous. Indeed, when he came out for his second fight at the SAP Center in San Jose, there was almost no crowd reaction at first.
But this time, right away, things were different. He came out and showed the hand speed of a boxer, overwhelming Linn with punches. Still, Linn stood up to the blows and fired back. Pico took him down at will, but after landing some ground-and-pound, Linn would get back up.
“I’m comfortable on my feet,” he said. "Freddie Roach does a great job with me. I’m comfortable to be in the pocket with the best boxers in the world, like Miguel Cotto. I can go to the ground with you or stand on my feet.”
Pico said that people want you to stand on your feet, and his goal was getting the memorable knockout.
“He was powerful, Justin, especially when I was hitting him with 1-2s,” said Pico. “He came back with that punch.”
“I thought I was going to knock him out,” he said about that early sequence.
Pico said the punch, Linn’s best offensive weapon of the fight, was a wake-up call.
“It wasn’t like I was hurt, it was a reminder to me to take your time,” he said.
Eventually he landed a left hook, and got the epitome of a highlight-reel knockout. The punch was so devastating that Linn was down for a long time and a stretcher was called for. But Linn was eventually able to get up and leave under his own power.
“I wanted the knockout, absolutely. I knew if I hit someone with my left or right hand, I’ll put them out, I’ll seriously hurt them,” Pico said.
Still, it was scary after the fight.
“At the end of the day, it’s a sport,” he said. “I want him to go home to his family and relax.
“I love my family, it is a big deal, we want to be home and safe. One thing I pray before the fights, I pray for safety for me and my opponent. He has a mom and dad. I have a mom and dad. But I have a job to do.”
Now that he’s won, his view on the loss in Madison Square Garden is very different.
“Honestly, yeah, it’s a big relief to get that one,” he said about knowing the last thing people will think when they hear his name and think he’s the guy who was talked about as a future champion and lost in 24 seconds.
“I think it sounds funny, but I’m glad that (first fight) happened because I wouldn't be at the Body Shop with all those guys.”
Before his debut, Pico was going from place to place training without a specific base. And after his loss, he described the reaction he’s gotten as people wanting to kick him when he was down. He said the first person to call him was Antonio McKee, a former MMA fighter who coaches at the Body Shop in Lakewood, Calif. Pico has known McKee since he was 5 or 6 years old, as he can remember as a young kid cutting weight and his father would call McKee who would be there helping him.
“Antonio said, ‘You're going to be world champion. Trust me. I see the way you work,’” Pico said.
His training camp was all about telling him to relax and take his time.
While Pico nearly made the Olympic team at 19, he’s not thinking about going back to wrestling.
“I love full-time MMA,” he said. “We’ll see. Anything is possible. A lot can change. But I love what I do. I love fighting. I’m a puppy in this game. I have a lot of skill sets, but I have to develop, too.”
He’s talking about a long time in the sport and said he’s ready to grind it out 24/7.
“There are kids right now who are 5 years old, doing what I was doing, wrestling,” he said. “But now they're also doing boxing and jiu-jitsu. By the time they’re 18, I’ll be in my 30s and they’ll be saying, ‘I'm coming after Pico.’”
But for now, he came out of the fight with no injuries, and has a specific time and place he’d like to fight next.
“I see that they're fighting at the Forum (Los Angeles, Jan. 20),” he said. “I’d love to fight in Los Angeles. I’m healthy. [The fight] was relatively quick. I want to fight in Los Angeles, for sure.”