Aaron Pico wants to become the best featherweight in the world, an honorific that is currently and authoritatively held by UFC champion Max Holloway. It’s not an irrational goal. As a teenaged, world-ranked freestyle wrestler and Golden Gloves boxing champion, Pico was preordained for greatness, described by coaches and talent evaluators alike as perhaps the top blue-chip prospect the sport has ever seen. Comparatively, Holloway was a nobody when he arrived on the scene, thrust into a short-notice fight as a late replacement.
It is largely forgotten that Holloway struggled in his early days in the big leagues. Like Pico, he was just 20 years old when he made his major MMA debut. He went just 3-3 in his first six fights before launching the 13-fight win streak that has placed him in the discussion as the current pound-for-pound king.
After being knocked out by Henry Corrales at Bellator 214, Pico has a long way from here to there, but any thought of writing off his end game is premature. He is still just 22 years old, the same age Holloway was when he began turning around his fortunes. Pico has flaws to address, but they are mostly correctable mistakes of youth.
Since the moment of his professional debut, Pico’s development has been a secondary concern, right behind his escalation. Right from the jump, he was propelled into challenging matchups against experienced opponents. Given his amateur accomplishments, high profile and the accompanying expectations, that approach was somewhat defensible, yet it has clearly backfired. His management team and Bellator matchmakers would be wise to slow things down.
While the suits can take part of the blame for early misfires, Pico must shoulder the rest. At 19, he was a tiebreaker away from making the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, yet his wrestling has been nonexistent in the cage. He has almost literally abandoned his best weapon while fully embracing his punching power. Admittedly, the kid has dynamite in his hands. Even Corrales would agree after Pico blasted him to the mat with an uppercut before recovering and turning the tables. Pico has some awesome offensive skills; he simply doesn’t use them all. His biggest shortcomings, however, are on defense. He throws wild hooks, gets lazy in the clinch, and forgets to protect his chin for stretches. On the fight-ending sequence, he was so intent on landing a liver shot that he went to the spot three times in a row while never returning his left hand to a protective posture. That mistake gave Corrales the opening he needed, allowing him to come over the top with a crashing right hook. It was not a particularly complex position for such a mistake; it was simple, youthful over-exuberance.
To his credit, Pico is taking accountability. You don’t get his credentials by accident, only through hard work and self-analysis. So within hours of losing, he had already reflected on some of the very things that plague him.
“Hey, I’m 22 years old, I don’t have this figured out yet,” he said in the post-fight press conference. “It’s something that needs to be slowed down for me. I need to use my wrestling a little bit more and we’ll go from there. We’ll go back to the drawing board.”
In a sport where athletes are often expected to be soulless cyborgs, it’s refreshing to hear that level of self-awareness. Pico surrounds himself with excellent coaches and trainers; among those in his corner on Saturday was legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach and top MMA coach Antonio McKee. These are pros who are undoubtedly giving him the technical direction he needs.
Now it would probably be helpful to slow down, listen, absorb. He has fought six times in 18 months, a rapid-fire pace that forces an emphasis on specific fight strategy over long-term development. After being knocked out, Pico should take time—several months if necessary—to recover, regroup and re-tool.
In his pre-fight analysis on Paramount, Josh Thomson astutely noted that Pico has yet to prove an ability to blend his skills, for example, transitioning seamlessly from striking into a takedown. That would serve him well, because until he reminds opponents that they face danger in multiple realms, they will have only one worry. And no matter how great that one worry is, it’s far more comforting than having several concerns.
Pico is still a talent with the potential for brilliance. As Holloway reminds us, it is possible to struggle, then to make adjustments and flourish. Pico should take solace in that. He has a foundation that other young fighters can only dream of. In building from prodigy to champion, everything else is up to him.