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When speaking to Aaron Pico, two things quickly become apparent. One, he embodies some seemingly contradictory qualities; and two, coming from Pico’s mouth, they somehow do not feel like contradictions. An unfeigned humility nestles up comfortably next to what NFL coaching legend Bill Parcells referred to, in discussing Lawrence Taylor, as “a confidence born of demonstrated ability.”
The 22-year old Californian responds to questions with a media-ready smoothness that is the likely product of having been a child sports prodigy, performing in the limelight and subjected to media scrutiny from an early age. Remember that Bellator MMA once held a press conference just to announce it had signed the then 17-year-old to a long-term deal. At the same time, however, Pico will frequently drop that Teflon coating and let out some surprisingly blunt and guileless admissions.
For example, as Pico (4-1) prepares to take on Henry Corrales at Bellator 214 on Saturday, he is well aware that this matchup, on paper at least, represents the sternest challenge of his young career. Pico acknowledges that the 16-3 Corrales and his four-fight winning streak will be a step up in competition, but in explaining himself, he let slip an interesting fact: He finds knocking people out to be kind of a bummer. He mentioned this in passing, then steamed right along -- or would have, at any rate. Since Pico is a former Golden Gloves boxer, as well as a freestyle wrestling world champion, it seemed worthwhile to interrupt with a request for clarification.
“No, really,” Pico said. “I feel bad knocking these people out.”
When it was pointed out that he has a funny way of showing it -- after stumbling in his mixed martial arts debut in June of 2017, Pico has gone 4-0 with four first-round knockouts -- he paused.
“Yeah,” he said and then chuckled, “but I do feel bad.”
It turns out that inner conflict is part of why Pico is excited about rising through the ranks of Bellator’s featherweight division. The better the opponent, the less remorse he feels about separating him from his senses or, as has been the case with his last three victims, folding him with body shots.
“I knew coming into the fight game that there were going to be a lot of eyes on me and that [Bellator] would have to match me with fairly tough guys from a very early stage,” Pico said. “My skill set was very, very high [for a debuting fighter]. I have dynamite for hands, [and] I have great wrestling, so I wouldn’t have felt good taking on guys [who were] 0-1 or 1-3. I would have felt really bad knocking them out the way that I do. I’m getting to take on seasoned guys, guys who have fought for titles, so when I knock them out, I don’t feel as bad. I mean, I still feel bad, but not as bad.”
In assessing the threat posed by his latest opponent, Pico seems focused less on Corrales’ individual skills and more on the fact that, as a veteran of some in-cage wars, Corrales may not be overwhelmed in the way some of Pico’s other recent opponents have been.
“He’s a tough guy, an older guy that has been around the block,” Pico said. “Things aren’t going to rattle him. He’s a savvy veteran who will do things to get in your head, little things during the fight, so my whole goal is just to relax and use my skills. Just relax and let the fight come. He’s not going to be intimidated by [my] power. He’s going to come at me, and try to do things to throw me off. As long as I stick to what I know best, I feel it’s going to be a great night for us.”
Pico’s preparation for this fight has been conducted, as have all of his camps since his debut, primarily at Team Bodyshop, where he works under the guidance of head coach Antonio McKee and counts fellow Bellator up-and-comer A.J. McKee as a primary training partner. However, for this camp, Pico also spent significant time at The Treigning Lab, where he worked with Ultimate Fighting Championship bantamweight titleholder T.J. Dillashaw, who was preparing for his first-ever cut to 125 pounds and a shot at the UFC flyweight crown held by Henry Cejudo.
As Pico’s conversation with Sherdog.com took place just three days before UFC Fight Night 143 and fans were sharply divided at the time over whether or not Dillashaw would make weight successfully based on his emaciated condition in recent photos, it was impossible to resist asking for a little insider tip. Pico’s response was as confident as it was instantaneous.
“If T.J. misses weight,” Pico said, “I’ll give you a million bucks.”
That same confidence carries over to his own weight cut, which he claims to have down to a science with the help of The Treigning Lab and maintains that he makes the featherweight limit more easily than he made similar weight limits as a teenage wrestler. On the topic of training, training partners and Pico’s overall career arc, the younger McKee -- also a featherweight -- was recently quoted as saying he would never fight Pico, except perhaps for “a trillion [expletive] dollars.” Each. When asked about it, Pico laughed. He agrees with the sentiment of his childhood friend and longtime training partner, even if he might not put it in those exact words, and has a clear affection for the man beneath the flamboyant showman exterior.
“The thing about A.J., all the way back to when we were kids, is A.J. was always having fun,” Pico said. “We were always doing crazy stuff: running around, getting in some fights, skateboarding; and what I can say is that of all of us in the group, A.J. had the biggest heart. Just a very compassionate person and the first to help. You fell and hurt your elbow? He’s the first one there to help. Car broke down? He’s the first one there to help. Need backup in a fight? He’s the first one there. So that’s the coolest thing about A.J. He’s always having fun, but if something serious happens? You can count on him to be there to help.”
Perhaps it is being surrounded by familiar training partners and childhood buddies that allows Pico to stay grounded about his present and future in the sport, in spite of his youth and brief career. Whatever the reason, Pico professes to be perfectly at peace with the speed at which Bellator is bringing him along.
“If I need three more wins to get a title shot, great,” he said. “If they tell me someone got hurt and they want me to fight [featherweight champion] Patricio "Pitbull" tomorrow, that’s great, too.”
As for his fight with Corrales, Pico claimed to be uninterested in offering any predictions but then, in one last seeming contradiction, did so anyway.
“How have my last couple of fights gone?” he asked. It is a rhetorical question, of course: four first-round knockouts in a row. “More of that.”