Saturday: Bellator 286: Patricio Pitbull vs. Adam Borics, Aaron Pico vs. Jeremy Kennedy, Long Beach, Calif. Showtime, 8 p.m.
From the first time Aaron Pico stepped onto a wrestling mat as a 4-year-old, intent on dominating the 35-pound weight class, he’s been about one thing: the pursuit of excellence.
That pursuit continues on Saturday, 22 years and 110 pounds later, when the Albuquerque MMA fighter will climb into the cage to face Jeremy Kennedy on a Bellator card in Long Beach, California.
The stakes are high. Kennedy (17-3) is unquestionably the best, most dangerous opponent Pico (10-3) has faced since losing to Adam Borics three years and three months ago. Since the Borics fight, Pico, who trains at Jackson-Wink, has won six in a row.
Technically, Pico is the third-ranked challenger to the Bellator featherweight title held by Patricio Pitbull (real name Patricio Freire). In reality, Pico is No. 2, behind only Borics, because listed No. 1 challenger AJ McKee is moving up to lightweight.
A loss to Kennedy, ranked No. 7, would short-circuit in the near term Pico’s hopes to challenge the winner of Saturday’s main event, a title fight between Pitbull and Borics, sometime next year.
Pico knows what’s at stake and does not shrink from it.
“This is definitely a life-changing fight for me,” he said in a phone interview, “and we’re aware of that, for sure.”
The Southern California native’s entire competitive life has prepared him for just this kind of test. Wrestling, boxing, Pankration (a close cousin to MMA) and now MMA itself have brought him to this point.
“I never really wanted to be a doctor, nurse, attorney, anything like that,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a fighter my whole life, so I always had that in my head that when I grew up I was gonna be a world champion in something.”
Pico already has achieved that goal once, having won a Cadet (junior) world wrestling championship as a 17-year-old in Zrenjanin, Serbia.
But, while pursuing an Olympic freestyle wrestling berth in 2016 — edged out by eventual Rio de Janeiro bronze medalist Frank Molinaro — Pico already knew he was destined for MMA; he’d signed a contract with Bellator two years before.
Bellator didn’t hesitate to throw its young phenom into the deep water, and Pico stunningly lost three of his first seven fights. Then came the six-fight win streak.
Now comes Kennedy, a 30-year-old British Columbia native who turned pro in MMA at about the time Pico was winning that Cadet world wrestling title nine years ago.
The six fighters Pico defeated during his win streak weren’t chopped liver, hence their combined 58-18 record entering those fights. But Pico doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge Kennedy represents a far greater challenge.
“When I look at Jeremy Kennedy, he has a knowledge of everything,” Pico said. “… I just have to be smart and use my pace. I have my game plans and the things I’m gonna look for, but there’s no secret to how I fight him.
“Go forward, put the pressure on him, take him down. If he tries to get up, hold him down. Make him as tired as I possibly can.”
Ultimately, though, Pico said, it doesn’t really matter who the opponent is. His goal remains the same.
“My mission is just to the best on the world,” he said. “And that’s what I focus on every single day.”
A NICKAL’S WORTH: Bo Nickal, a former Rio Rancho High School wrestler who won three NCAA wrestling titles at Penn State, was awarded a UFC contract this week after defeating Donovan Beard by first-round submission (triangle choke) on Dana White’s Contender Series.
The only question: why did it take so long?
Seven weeks earlier, Nickal (3-0), a middleweight, had defeated Zack Borrego by first-round submission (rear naked choke) on the previous DWCS. But White at the time chose not to tender Nickal a contract, instead offering him another shot on the Contender Series.
Nickal took the snub in stride, and on Tuesday gave White virtually no choice with his destruction of Beard.
“Welcome to the UFC, brother,” White said.