Aaron Pico is puppy-ish when you speak to him, panther-like when you have to fight him. Still a tyro, but already with a sickening highlight reel from his merciless hands after eighteen months and five fights as a professional mixed martial artist. Aside from perhaps flyweight Henry Cejudo, an Olympic gold medalist coming into the MMA fight world, Pico has been the most touted prospect in the history of mixed martial arts.
Fight promotion Bellator sign his fights, and then let the 21-year-old off the leash. Leash is apt, too, because the kidfrom Los Angeles fights like a starving pitbull released into a cage at opponents. Saturday night at The Forum, here in Lalaland, the 22-year-old will make his sixth walk to the cage accompanied by Dr Dre’s ‘Nuthin But A G Thang’, against experienced Henry Corrales, ten years his senior. But age is nothing but a number in the fight-o-sphere.
Saturday night just happens to be the final of the Bellator heavyweight Grand Prix tournament, with heavyweight great Fedor Emilianenko facing Ryan Bader. Big fight, hefty tournament.
It is a flagship night for Bellator, owned by media giants VIACOM, who recently completed a 140 million dollar, three-year deal with burgeoning streaming service DAZN, for another of the grands prix series involving welterweights.
It is a time to shine. New markets, new executives, another dawn.
Pico, training like a Trojan from the age of seven, visiting far-flung Dagestan and Asia for the toughest training he could find in this sport of decathlon fighting skills, had a baptism of fire, losing in his professional debut at Madison Square Garden. But he is in decent company there: the same happened to the formidable Brazilian Renan Barao, who thereafter went on a 32-fight win streak.
But for spotting Pico, we might thank a few legendary ‘inside’ names in the sport. ‘Crazy’ Bob Cook, and Bellator chief Scott Coker. Like they did, by the way, with Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Daniel Cormier, Luke Rockhold, Tyron Woodley et al.
Pico, with his father forever in tow – and sometimes his hipster brother – bustles with enthusiasm. “Yessir, how are you ? Camp’s gone well. I really enjoyed being in camp, it’s all about focus and everything flowed well. Everyone has a sense of direction, I enjoy it. The main thing is my weight is good and now I’m just fine tuning.” That puppy mood. But that can change with the flick of a switch. His weight, by the way, is featherweight, and his corner is standout. Three wise men, Cook, Freddie Roach, and Antonio McKee. Or in another guise, the good, the bad and the ugly…
“It’s going to be a great night for me. It’s going to be a great group of people on the night. Things will be little different. One of my training partners, Antonio, will be in my corner, so it’ll be a little bit different. We’ve had a great camp and the mission is the same. Get that win, and going for that title.” World title spills from Pico every time he wakes up. Like a mantra.
Has Pico been training with Roach this camp, in the Wild Card Boxing Gym in Hollywood, where Filipino senator and eight-weight division world champion boxer Manny Pacquiao was training for victory over Adrien Broner in Las Vegas last weekend ?
“Yes, I have been. I’ve been actually there twice a week, I’ve been at the Body Shop, but I’ve also been at the Treigning Lab. I work with Antonio every single day, but some of the days I got in sparring at the Treigning Lab with the guys like TJ Dillashaw. I still work with Antonio at night and stuff, but I get a lot of sparring at the Treigning Lab.”
“With Freddie, I’ve been getting my boxing sparring in and everything is going well. It’s something I do like to keep up so when I do make that transition it’s good. I like to get in as many rounds as possible.”
Look out for my interview with this fascinating fighter @AaronPicoUSA a little later… ahead of @BellatorMMA #Bellator214 “I will sleep in my own bed Friday night. Kinda strange. I get to lose my weight in my garage. I have a sauna, a treadmill, a bike. Everything from home." pic.twitter.com/VXehRWG7r3
— Gareth A Davies (@GarethADaviesDT) January 22, 2019
“Sparring guys at Wild Card, there’s this Russian guy I’ve forgotten his name. He’s like 14-0 with 13 knockouts. He’s a tough guy, a little bit bigger than me. He’s a tough guy, and he’ll be a force to be reckoned in the future.” Just imagine the sessions. ‘Pico don’t hold back, man’… as McKee might say.
Pico’s opponent at The Forum this weekend is Corrales, a veteran fighter in his early thirties, who is on a good winning run, and has been toughened over a 19-fight (16-3) career. Corrales is a genuine step up for Pico.
“Absolutely, he’s a tough guy. He’s a big step up in competition, but that’s what we train for.,” explained Poco. “I’m two years as a pro now and I’m ready to keep on progressing. That’s what I’m looking to do.” As it was at Madison Square Garden, this is another high profile card. “Yeah, it’s crazy, I’m actually the co-main event now. It’s a big step up, especially being with Fedor against Ryan in the heavyweight grand prix final. A lot of people will be watching. But like I said, I feel it’s a privilege to have the pressure on me.”
The ambition in him burns ardently. “Training speaks for itself, I do a lot of work. Pretty much all I do is try and be the best fighter in the world. These are the positions that I want to be in, everybody watching me, where I will ultimately be where I want to be: the best fighter on the planet, but also recognised around the world.”
“We’re well on our way to doing that and this is a step up. All the superstars have to make that jump. What better fight to perform in than one in my backyard. It can’t get any more perfect than that.”
For this week, with the iconic music and sports venue now almost in view, there is nothing like home comforts for some fighters, and Pico is revelling in it. “I will sleep in my own bed on Friday night. It will be kind of strange because I’m so used to being in a hotel room. It’s actually very, very nice. I get to lose my weight in my garage. I have a sauna, a treadmill, a bike – I have everything in there. Everything is from home. It’s a lot easier.”
Kylie – his girlfriend – looks after him. They have been together since the were 14. “All my meals are cooked that day. When I have to travel I have to bring everything. My girlfriend has to make sure everything’s in order. It’s not stressful for me, but for her it’s a lot easier having everything here. I enjoy being at home for sure.”
“She does all my meal prep. I’ve been with her since I was 14. We’ve been together a long time, almost eight years now. When I turned professional she had to start learning how to do all the calculations, working with my nutritionist and making sure all my meals were right so I could make weight. I owe a lot to her for making weight. She works hand in hand with my strength and conditioning coach. It’s a group effort and a family thing. I’m surrounded by people everyday who want to help me become the best in the world. I’m thankful for that and that’s why I’m able to go out there and perform. I have a very complex training routine that’s not normal at all, but I’m able to think outside the box and that’s why I have my family. A lot of people probably wouldn’t agree with how we run our thing because it’s so crazy, but it’s very detailed. When I’m one of the best fighters on the planet it will all come together.” Pico is a planner. Meticulously so. Like engagement, marriage, and kids. But there are bridges to cross first, ambitions to be completed, and signed off.
“I definitely am going to put the ring on Kylie’s finger, but we’ve got to win a world championship first and get established. Absolutely there’s no doubt in my mind I’m going to marry her. Once we get everything in order, get our houses in order, start having kids – I want a big family. I’ve been with her a long time, we’re young and we’ve had our ups and downs. But we’ve been fighting each other’s corners for a long time and I feel we’re going to do some great things together.”
“That’s honestly the most important thing – winning a world championship. Winning a world championship can be life changing. We’re nowhere near where we need to be right now. But we’re well on our way to where we want to be. Capturing that title is the first step to getting to what we want out of life. That’s what will make life a little bit easier.”
Is he a romantic guy? “We understand each other and what the goal is. We have our times together, but to be honest with you to make weight for this fight – it started 72 days ago so we obviously can’t do much like going out to dinner. I’ve been very lucky that she knows that. She’s been on the grind with me pretty much all the time with my weight cut. She runs errands and stuff like that. After a fight we usually go on vacation, go for a drive. But it’s always okay when we get the phone call I’m going to fight in a few months. We get right back to work. A lot of the stuff comes to a halt. But we make time.”
The day we speak – Pico and me – it is a rest day. “We’re going to go see a movie today. It can’t be all work all the time. We have a really good balance. We’ve got our dogs. We’ve got it down pretty well. We’ve been at it for a long time with this training camp, so we are looking forward to going on vacation before preparing for the next one.”
So what is he going to see, to escape the grind and the grease and the sweat and the strikes. “I’m going to see…umm… that one with Kevin Hart him being that assistant to that rich guy. I love going to the movies. Whenever there’s new movies out I can go two, three times a week.”
Like The Queen movie. “I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody three times. That’s my new favourite movie. I can’t wait till it comes out on DVD. That’s our thing, going to the movies.”
The walk out music, he reckons, will never change though. “I’m going to come out to Dr Dre’s Nuthin But A G Thang. That’s my thing. I’m a west coast guy and I really like that song. I’m going to stick to that, what’s been working. I won’t be changing it up.”
Like the rhythm of his life. “After my Madison Square Garden fight, I said I don’t care what anybody says, I’m going to buy a horse. It had been a dream of mine, from when I was a kid. It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been a professional. People didn’t think I could do it, but it’s been a blessing for me to buy a horse. I’m always at horse stables. I start my day, every single day, with riding my horse in the morning. Get my dogs out with Kylie and ride the horses. Then my day starts. That’s pretty much me every single morning. And at night, when I have time I go back at night.” And in between, he thinks of the denouement with Corrales.
“That’s what I’m looking for. I know have the skillsets to do it, so why not get another statement win?”
A little while later, I catch up with Henry Corrales, who is at the MMA Lab with John Crouch, one of the most undersold coaches, in my view, in the MMA firmament. We shoot the crap over a mutual friend, Bradley Scott, a UK MMA fighter who is a friend and once worked with me on television in the UK. “It’s going great. It’s a big fight, big match-up,” explains Corrales. “This is my hometown of Los Angeles so it’s definitely put a little flavour in all the training.”
Corrales, as ever in these situations is billed as “the test” for Pico. “It’s all fucking good. The guy has some good credentials. He’s smashing dudes and this and that. But at the end of the day, my main focus is me. I’ve got to make sure I bring everything to the party. I’m out here grinding and making sure I bring my best self. That’s really my main focus. I never really get sidetracked with all that other stuff.”
I mention body shots – meaning Pico’s attacks – but Corrales sees the question as about himself. “Yeah, as a Mexican fighter I love going to the body, it’s been an instinct for me in training.” His response is a great sign. A sign that he sees himself creating damage. Great reply. The sense is that we are going to get one hell of a fight. Don’t miss it.