False start to flashes of a star: Has Aaron Pico learned how to fight?

Aaron Pico, regarded once as the top prospect in MMA, has started his career 4-2. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

On June 24, 2017, 20-year-old Aaron Pico made his professional mixed martial arts debut at Madison Square Garden in New York. Going into the fight, a lightweight bout against journeyman Zach Freeman, Pico was considered perhaps the No. 1 mixed martial arts prospect in the world. Some outlets -- ESPN included -- speculated whether he could be the greatest MMA prospect of all time.

It took Freeman 24 seconds to choke him out.

This weekend, Pico will return to the Garden for the first time since his disastrous pro debut. He is scheduled to meet Adam Borics (12-0) in a featherweight bout on the undercard of Bellator 222. And as he heads into what will be his seventh pro fight, one could argue that the narrative around Pico has changed completely in the past two years -- or that it has remained exactly the same.

"Listen, everybody was saying, 'In two fights, Aaron is going to beat [then-lightweight champion] Michael Chandler,'" Bellator MMA president Scott Coker said. "There were high, high, high hopes. The hype on that kid, there was a lot of press pointed in his direction. Obviously, he's had a couple hiccups, but here's the thing: We still believe Aaron will be a big star for us."

The story of Pico is a compelling one. He signed an exclusive contract with Bellator in 2014, three years before he ever intended to take a fight. The promotion invested in Pico absurdly early because of his talent and background. The kid dropped out of high school so he could wrestle internationally year-round. He's a former junior Golden Gloves boxing champion under Hall of Fame trainer Freddie Roach.

Maybe the hype around him in 2017 was too much. But it was there for good reason.

Six fights into his MMA career, Pico has experienced the kinds of highs and lows traditionally reserved for veterans. He has sent multiple opponents skidding across the canvas with highlight-reel body shots, and he was knocked out cold in the center of the cage in his most recent fight. The level of competition he has faced has been uncommon for a young fighter, in that Bellator has basically thrown him to the wolves. His record is 4-2, while the combined record of his opponents is 91-23. The average age of the men Pico has fought thus far is 31.

According to Coker, the challenge of finding an appropriate level of competition for Pico has been unlike anything he has ever experienced. And he has been promoting fights for 34 years.

None of that makes Pico feel better about his 66% win rate. After Pico lost to 19-fight veteran Henry Corrales via knockout in January, he said he frequently woke up in the middle of the night for months, out of sheer anxiety and disbelief. How could he have lost that fight?

"If anyone would have told me I'd be six fights in, with a 4-2 record, I'd have said, 'You're crazy,'" Pico told ESPN. "I haven't lost very much in wrestling or boxing. It's weird being 4-2. It's hard for me, if I'm being honest. I don't think I've lived up to expectations. If it were up to me, I'd have been a world champion by now."

Ahead of this weekend's bout in New York, it looks as if Pico has essentially blown up his entire inner circle. A lifelong Californian, Pico moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, seven weeks ago, to train with renowned MMA coaches Greg Jackson, Mike Winkeljohn and Brandon Gibson. He also left his longtime management, Zinkin Entertainment.

Pico says he wasn't unhappy with any of his previous coaches, he has just come to realize his greatest flaw: He can't fight. And for as long as he can remember, he has believed in Jackson's ability to teach that skill.

"I have all the weapons to be a great champion, but there's one thing I don't know how to do yet, and that's fight," Pico said. "I just figured I needed to be with Greg Jackson. I've always gravitated towards his fighters, how smart they fought, Greg's cornering skills. I came out here, sat in his office, and the moment I walked out of that room, it's felt like home."

Before Jackson agreed to coach Pico, he did what he does with any potential new athlete: a process he calls "gathering intelligence." He rewatched all of Pico's fights and observed him, briefly, in the gym. He invited him into his office, produced a piece of paper and started to write out goals.

"I tell them, 'Within three months, I'd like to accomplish this,'" Jackson said. "'Within three fights, I'd like to cover this. Three months, I'd like to be here.'"

Jackson held these meetings with Jon Jones early in his career. Georges St-Pierre, too. When things go well, when goals are met, Jackson meets with the athlete again to reassess.

So, what was Pico's meeting like?

"He has a bunch of great leaders on the wall, who have led people into battle," Pico said. "That's his whole thing. Figuring out your enemy. Warlike tactics. That really got to me.

"I told him, 'Greg, I just want to be the champ of the world so bad.' He said, 'Oh, you're going to be the champ of the world, no doubt. That's going to happen. What your goal should be, is to be the best 145-pound fighter to have ever walked the face of the earth. And 300 years from now, they'll be talking about Aaron Pico. That should be your goal.'

"And I said, 'F---. I never thought about being talked about 300 years from now.'"

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Pico is aware that to this point, his career is a case of two extremes. He lost his highly anticipated debut in 24 seconds. His knockout loss to Corrales in January was the kind that makes a viewer cringe. It was bad enough, Coker said, he told Pico in the locker room afterward to take some time off -- and that it was nonnegotiable. Pico's four wins, on the other hand, have been works of art. All first-round knockouts.

The hope is that combining Pico's talent with the calculated approach of JacksonWink MMA will make him unstoppable. Those flashes of greatness will inevitably continue to come, but now they won't be interrupted by the growing pains of a kid who doesn't quite know what he's doing yet.

And in that sense, the hope is the same as it was two years ago. The hype still exists.

"This MMA game has calloused me already so much, but I'm so much more prepared now," Pico said. "They call it baptism by fire, right? It's difficult, fighting veterans when you're trying to figure it out, but I've crossed that line. There's no going back now. Every fight I have is going to be on a big card against a tough guy, because that's just how I was brought into this game.

"But I feel so much better under the guidance of Greg Jackson. You're not a man until you've gotten your heart broke and your ass kicked. I've had both of those. I'm slowly becoming a man in this sport."