Baseball, like MMA, is a sport that loves its prospects. Analysts spend hours projecting how a player’s skills will transfer to the MLB level, much like MMA analysts spend countless hours breaking down the slightest of nuances in predicting how a fighter will perform once the cage door closes. And just like in the sport of baseball, sometimes being an elite MMA prospect comes with some unpleasant results.
Aaron Pico entered the MMA world with perhaps the greatest hype of any prospect. With his record still at 0-0, there were already some analysts and fans that pegged Pico as the next unstoppable force. In 2014, Bleacher Report’s Scott Harris wrote an in-depth piece on Pico, heralding him “The Future King of Fighting.” Harris wasn’t alone in predicting great things for Pico once he transitioned from all-world wrestler to MMA fighter. It’s easy to see why Harris and other MMA fans and media members were enamored with the prospects of Pico in MMA, too.
As a high school student, Pico was wrestling against NCAA Division I champions and beating competition from all over the globe on his way to two Junior World Championship medals and the gold at the 2013 Cadet World Championships. At just 19 years of age, he qualified for the Olympic trials and nearly became the first teenager in 40 years to make the U.S. Olympic Freestyle Wrestling team.
Pico wasn’t just another elite wrestler who looked to MMA as an avenue to continue a career in combat sports. Pico also competed in boxing tournaments, becoming the 2009 national Junior Golden Gloves champion and winning the golden cup European Pankration championship after traveling to Ukraine in 2010.
MMA fans have seen countless elite wrestlers transition to the fight game. They’ve also seen a few boxers try their hand at MMA. We’ve also seen countless other elite grappling stars, whether it be from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, judo or sambo, cross over to MMA with varying levels of success.
Pico was different, though. He possessed everything an MMA coach could want. He had the elite skills of a wrestler, a base many believe to be the best fit for transitioning to MMA. He had experience in the world of boxing to where it wouldn’t look like a newborn baby deer trying to walk if Pico were forced to throw hands with an opponent. Perhaps most of all, he had the mindset of someone who, as the common phrase goes, “embraces the grind.” Pico entered the world of MMA with a level of hype that few had seen. With that hype, however, came the pressure to succeed early and often.
Tim Beckham is a baseball player who can empathize with Pico on feeling the pressure to succeed. Beckham was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft. Beckham, a high school shortstop at the time, was billed as a five-tool player. He entered the draft as the top non-college baseball player after hitting a robust .482 with six homers, 13 doubles, 41 RBIs and 23 stolen bases in his senior season.
As if the pressure of being picked No. 1 overall wasn’t enough, Beckham also faced pressure on being selected first as a high school player compared to some of the more baseball-ready stars in college baseball, most notably Buster Posey. The two players are forever tied to each other. The Rays went back and forth on whether to draft Beckham or Posey with the top pick. In the end, the Rays decided on Beckham.
Beckham struggled to climb through the minor leagues, learning to manage the expectations of being a top prospect and crafting his game to be ready should the Rays call him up. Oh, and of course he had to learn to be an adult and take on the responsibilities of growing up with the weight of the world on his shoulders at the same time.
It wouldn’t be until 2015 that Beckham became a regular contributor to the Rays’ roster, nearly five years after Posey became a mainstay for the San Francisco Giants. Although Beckham had finally made it to the big leagues, he still struggled mightily. It seemed to be turning around for Beckham in 2017, but the Rays chose to move on and traded the shortstop to the Baltimore Orioles.
In the meantime, Posey became one of the best catchers in MLB history. He’s won NL Rookie of the Year honors, an MVP award, a Golden Glove, a batting title, four Silver Sluggers, NL Rookie of the Year honors and three World Series championships. He’s also had six All-Star appearances.
Another, smaller addition to the baseball-vs.-MMA comparison is current Chicago White Sox pitcher Lucas Giolito. He was, at one point, the top pitching prospect and one of the top overall prospects in the sport. While he struggled through his first complete season in the MLB, Giolito looks the part of a future ace this year.
In the same way that Beckham, Posey and Giolito are the perfect example of how projections aren’t foolproof in baseball, Pico is our example in the MMA world. We’ve seen MMA prospects with far fewer accomplishments achieve much greater success in a shorter amount of time than what we’ve seen from Pico.
A disastrous debut in 2017 — Pico was submitted in just 24 seconds by Zach Freeman — put the hype train on hold. However, Pico again had people talking of his potential after winning four consecutive bouts. During that span, Pico faced a level of competition few prospects had competed against at the same point in their career. His opponents featured a combined record of 53-18 and included the likes of Shane Kruchten and Leandro Higo.
Pico’s success brought him the opportunity of a lifetime at Bellator 214, where he faced off against Henry Corrales. Corrales, a veteran of 19 fights at the time, had stepped into the Bellator cage against some of the best featherweights on the roster and has proven to be one of the most durable fighters in the division. If Pico could beat Corrales, then it would’ve almost certainly placed the blue-chipper into title contention. Instead, Pico was brutally knocked out by a right hand from Corrales just 67 seconds into the first round of their contest.
Five short months later and a new coach behind him, Pico looked to conquer the demons of Madison Square Garden, the site of his debut loss, against another tough opponent in Ádám Borics. For the better part of two rounds, Pico looked to be on his way to adding another win to his record. He utilized his wrestling to control the action and avoided trading wild strikes with Borics. However, his perfect game plan unraveled when Borics launched a perfectly timed flying knee in the second frame that planted Pico on the canvas.
The loss was not only Pico’s second in a row, but also the second time he had been knocked out in devastating fashion. It was just five months removed from his crushing loss to Corrales in January. Despite the back-to-back defeats and a 4-3 record overall, Bellator President Scott Coker isn’t giving up on Pico.
“Don’t count this kid out,” Coker said at the post-fight news conference at Madison Square Garden. “He is learning how to do this, and he’s fought some tough guys, and like he said, he said, ‘Look, I can wrestle, and I can box, but I’m still learning how to fight.’”
It’s wise for Coker to not throw in the towel on his prospect. As so many have shared on Twitter, current UFC champion Max Holloway himself started his UFC career by going 4-3, also with back-to-back losses, before turning things around.
Pico is still just 22 years old. He is maturing not only as a fighter, but as a person. Imagine being that young and having to compete against some of the best in your organization with people expecting greatness from every performance. While it’s true that Pico is no stranger to competing at a high level, it’s an entirely different world with four-ounce gloves and the unforgiving nature of MMA.
Unfortunately for Pico, Bellator isn’t in a position to send him to the regional MMA scene in a way that an MLB team might send its prospect to a minor-league affiliate. Due to the hype surrounding him, Pico is simply too valuable for Bellator to lend him out to a regional promotion. The top prospect will have to continue to evolve his MMA skills while competing against fighters who enjoyed the luxury of sharpening their craft while climbing through the regional ranks.
Failure in MMA carries with it far more devastating consequences than failure in a sport like baseball. Failure in MMA involves serious brain trauma and broken bones. Failure in baseball involves strikeouts and opposing teams scoring more runs, things that hardly leave a player in worse physical condition than when they entered. There’s always the threat of injury as young MLB prospects climb through the minor-league ranks, but in most cases those injuries aren’t career- or life-threatening in the same way as some of the damage young fighters absorb in their careers.
As tough as it is in the fast-paced world of today, MMA fans and Pico himself should practice some patience with his progression. It should be some time before we see Pico in a Bellator cage again. This isn’t just because of the back-to-back devastating knockouts, but simply to allow the young fighter to grow as a martial artist.
The active schedule Pico has maintained means he’s continually training for his next opponent. While he’s certainly growing his skills during these training camps, these sessions can perhaps become too fight-specific rather than improving the overall aspect of a fighter. That might not be the case — we don’t have continuous access to his training camps — but letting Pico develop without the pressure of a looming date in the Bellator cage should do wonders for him.
Similarly, MMA fans should temper their expectations for Pico moving forward. He might still turn out to be “The King of Fighting,” but it’s evident that it’s going to take some time to get there. Without the luxury of facing competition that would allow him the chance to experiment in a live-action setting, Pico is piecing together his career and MMA game against fighters who don’t allow for a few seconds of hesitation or error. A record of 4-3 is hardly the death knell for Pico’s career, but just a speed bump on the way to plenty of gold.