For Aaron Pico, victory — like the television network on which he’s fighting — is paramount.
When Pico signed with Bellator MMA two years ago at age 21, he was both a bonus baby and a babe in the woods. A superb amateur wrestler with Olympic potential, he abandoned the mat for the cage and entered the second-most influential U.S.-based MMA circuit with zero experience.
The transition has had its challenges, made more so by Bellator’s matchmaking. There’d be no babying the kid, as reflected by his 5-3 record.
Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, Pico — who trains in Albuquerque at Jackson-Wink — is matched against Solo Hatley Jr. (8-2) on a card to be televised on the Paramount Network.
Pico sees Hatley as an unheralded fighter with little to lose.
“That’s what makes him so scary,” Pico said in a phone interview. “… He’s an opponent that’s in a position where if he loses, it’s not a big deal, but if he wins, it’s like winning the lottery.”
For Pico, in contrast, there’s a lot — if not a lottery — to lose. Touted from the day he signed as a future star, he has yet to establish himself as such.
Greg Jackson, his primary coach at Jackson-Wink, says there’s no doubt the talent is there. Obviously an outstanding wrestler, Pico has taken all five of his victories with strikes.
But losses to Zach Freeman, Henry Corrales and Adam Borics, three fighters with a combined record of 36-5 at the time of those fights, reflect his lack of experience.
Jackson said it’s primarily a question of identity.
“I think most of it is learning how to be a fighter,” Jackson said. “… Just the nuances that go into combat. They’re not natural, really.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that he’s absorbed.”
Pico came to Jackson-Wink from his home in Southern California after the loss to Corrales. There was no immediate payoff; a flying knee from Borics resulted in a loss by second-round TKO.
Often enough, fighters who lose in their first fight with a new gym and new coaches — especially if they’re not from that locale — decide it was a mistake and go elsewhere.
“I just bought a home (in Albuquerque),” he said. “I live there. I’m gonna live there, and I love everything about it.”
There’s plenty of love for Jackson-Wink, as well.
“I feel I have the best coaches in the world,” he said. “… After the Borics fight, I had like six days with just full attention from coach Greg and coach (Brandon) Gibson and all the coaches at the gym, so I was able to really improve as a martial artist.
“… I saw the work ethic and the time the coaches put into me, and I knew I was gonna come back.”
Come back he did, with a victory by second-round KO (left hook) over Daniel Carey in January.
Pico said he likes to keep life simple. When not training or fighting, he spends time with his girlfriend, Kylie, his dogs and the horses he brought with him from California.
“Pretty much all I want to do is do my work and train and fight,” he said. “When I want to have fun, I have my girlfriend and I have my horses.
“I’m on a quest to become a great, great fighter, and if that takes a little bit of sacrifice I’m OK with that. But I don’t see it as a sacrifice, because I’m doing what I love.”
REMATCH: Albuquerque MMA lightweight Lando Vannata (11-4-2) confirmed on social media that he has taken a short-notice spot on the Aug. 1 UFC card in Las Vegas, Nevada — numerically, at least, replacing former Jackson-Wink teammate Holly Holm.
Vannata, who now trains at Jackson’s Acoma, will face Bobby Green (25-10-1) in a rematch of a bloody 2017 draw that was a fight-of-the-year candidate.
Bellator 242: Ricky Bandejas vs. Antonio Pettis, Aaron Pico vs. Solo Hatley Jr., other fights, Paramount Network TV, 8 p.m.