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Awoken by cold realities of the game, Aaron Pico calls 2017 ‘the best year of my life’

Aaron Pico faces Shane Kruchten on Saturday at Bellator 192.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Aaron Pico’s first year competing in MMA was a roller-coaster, to say the least.

Shouldering the expectations of being one of the most highly-touted prospects of the past decade, Pico met disaster head-on in his professional debut, faltering to Zach Freeman in just 24 seconds at the renowned Madison Square Garden Arena on Bellator’s only pay-per-view of the Scott Coker era. As far as first impressions go, it was a worst-case scenario for the sport’s preeminent blue-chipper.

But it also could end up being the moment that forever reshaped his young career.

“I’ve been telling a lot of people this: 2017 was the best year of my life,” Pico told MMA Fighting ahead of Bellator 192. “That was the best year of my life.”

Pico, 21, says everything changed after his nightmare in New York. Before that, he was a teenager just happy to be competing, just as he had been throughout his time in boxing, pankration, and amateur wrestling. But a switch flipped the night he lost to Freeman. Once the hype had been stripped bare and the realities of a cold-hearted game were made all too clear, Pico realized that nothing would come easy in MMA. And he used the experience as fuel to light an internal flame hotter than ever before.

“After that first loss, it changed my mindset and my mentality,” Pico explained. “Just, it really did. I’m very nice, but now I’m on a mission to just really, really destroy people. My first fight, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, we’ll go in there and fight.’ But after that loss, it woke me up very, very quickly, and it’s just changed me into a whole different person. I’m still the same person I am, but now I’m just becoming — I can only put it in one word, being with (coach) Antonio McKee, just a savage. Now, like I said, it’s for real now.

“I wake up every day with that mindset going to practice, and it’s working. I mean, I might sound crazy. I really might. But hey, after that first loss, it really, really woke me up really, really fast.

“It’s very hard to explain,” Pico continued. “It really is hard to explain. But when something catastrophic like that hits you — I know people are going to say, ‘Well, duh, it’s fighting,’ but there’s such a difference if you’ve never really been in there. My first fight was at Madison Square Garden on pay-per-view. That’s a huge show, which was cool. That’s what I really wanted. But when something like that happens, for your first fight at 20 years old, it’s pretty crazy — so that wakes you up really, really fast. It lights a fire under you that, just, it burns inside of me and it’s just like a dark side that’s coming out of me. After that, I’m not here to win. I’m there to kill, plain and simple. Step in a cage with me, I’m there to just take your head off.”

Pico’s revamped, meaner approach was validated when he scored one of 2017’s nastiest knockouts, a highlight-reel first-round stoppage over Justin Linn in Pico’s sophomore effort at Bellator 183. It was thunderous rebound from the misery Pico felt just three months prior, and it let the youngster know that he was on the right path.

His move to California’s Team Bodyshop gym, where Pico now trains under the tutelage of former UFC fighter Antonio McKee, and his drop from lightweight to the featherweight division paid immediate dividends for the prospect who nearly qualified for the 2016 Olympics and has served as a sparring partner for Miguel Cotto.

“That was a big rush for me. I couldn’t sleep for, like, two days, if I’m being honest,” Pico said of his first win. “That was like a high that I couldn’t come down from. I’m serious, I didn’t sleep for like a day-and-a-half, almost two days, thinking about it like, ‘Oh my God.’ But I knew I had the power in my hands. I always knew that. I’ve done it in amateur fights and stuff, but to do it on the big stage like that, and obviously after my first fight, it was like, ‘Damn, see. I told you I could do it.’ Now I’m going to do it time after time. Time and time again, that’s my whole goal. But that was a beautiful feeling. It was a great feeling, like I said. It was like the best drug you could possibly take.”

The move to featherweight, in particular, played a vital role for Pico, who says he was barely 157 pounds on the night he fought Freeman.

“I was so small for the weight. My nutritionist did a great job with keeping weight on me as best as he could, but at the end of the day, my body isn’t ready for 155 yet,” Pico said. “145 is perfect for me. Of course with every weight you have to drop a few pounds, but the last weigh-in that I did at 145, I was actually two pounds under. I just walked on the treadmill for 30 minutes and I was two pounds under. I was like, damn, that surprised me, it just came off so easy.”

Pico now hopes to replicate his September success on Saturday night at Bellator 192 when he faces Shane Kruchten at The Forum in Inglewood, California.

Once again, just like his first two fights, Pico finds himself matched up against a man whose experience in MMA far outpaces his own. Freeman was 8-2 when he fought the debuting Pico, while Linn was 7-3 — Kruchten is even farther along than that. He is an 11-year veteran with 15 professional fights who is no stranger to the major promotions in the sport, having competed twice for World Series of Fighting.

Rarely, if ever, would a prospect of Pico’s level be facing an opponent so seasoned. But while Pico admitted that it’d be interesting for him to face a newcomer like himself, he is up for the challenge that Kruchten presents.

“My job is to be a fighter. Bring me somebody and I’ll fight,” Pico said. “That’s what I do. I mean, I train so hard and so focused; I’m addicted to this game, it’s ridiculous. I’m here to fight. I’m going to go out there and fight, I don’t care what your record is, I don’t care who you are or what belt you have. I’m going to go out there and try to kill you. That’s my whole mission. I’ve done everything I possibly can in the training room and I’ve got the best coaches behind me, so I’ll fight whoever.

“From a wrestling standpoint, when you’re at the world championships, you wrestle whoever,” Pico added. “The guy could be from Russia, from Azerbaijan, from anywhere. You have to have that mindset: Just, I’m a fighter. [There’s no,] ‘I don’t want to fight this guy.’ No, you want to fight? Let’s fight. It’s very simple. That’s what I do for a living. If you think you’re better than me, I think I’m better than you, so let’s just go in the cage and fight. That’s just my way of handling it, I guess. I’m kind of crazy, but I love what I do. I’m addicted, like I said. I’m addicted to this game.”

With a more realized sense of purpose than ever before and a weight class that fits his still-growing frame, Pico is confident he has what it takes to overcome his veteran opponent on Saturday and take the first step in a 2018 campaign that could go a long way toward erasing the mistakes of his big-show debut.

”I think he’s tough,” Pico said of Kruchten. “He’s got way more experience than me, but like I said, if I just take my time, relax and take my time, pick my shots, use my kicks, I’ll be fine. Even on the ground, he’s a purple belt. I’m aware. I know what he’s capable of doing. But I’m going to take my time and let my hands go, let my elbows go and my kicks, and I’ll be fine. I’ll walk out victorious.”

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