Aaron Pico has fought from the beginning with the heavy burden of expectations on his shoulders. The accomplished freestyle wrestler was among the most talked about prospects the sport had ever seen, but no amount of potential can replicate the value of experience.
Pico was expected to steamroll regional fighter Zach Freeman in his professional MMA debut at Bellator 180 in 2017. The outcome was the polar opposite as Freeman snatched a fight-ending guillotine choke in just 24 seconds that cratered the mountain of expectations. After going back to the drawing board and finding success at featherweight with four straight knockout victories, Pico was given another push against a higher level of competition.
Pico was matched with Henry Corrales, 16-3 at the time, and suffered a brutal first-round knockout. After beginning his career under the tutelage of Freddie Roach to round out his striking to pair with his incredible wrestling ability, Pico moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to team with JacksonWink MMA and fix some of the flaws that had caused him issues in his early losses.
He again suffered a knockout loss to Adam Borics in his return later that year.
"I think I had all the raw materials to become a champion. I just wasn't ready. I think they were just better than me. In those fights, it wasn't like I was getting my ass kicked for three rounds and got outclassed. I simply got caught. If you look at the Borics fight, I was dominating the fight. Against Corrales, I knocked him down and got too greedy," Pico told CBS Sports. "I just think that's a lack of experience. I didn't have the knowledge that I have now. I'm totally fine with it. It's made me the fighter that I am today. It surrounded me with good people I now have in my corner. I'm thankful for the losses, I really am."
Pico cut his teeth against less seasoned opposition after the Corrales and Borics losses. The 26-year-old has ripped off six straight victories with five of them coming by stoppage.
"I think I'm well on my way. I still have a lot of work to do in growing but look how far I've come. That's ultimately what you want. You always hear, 'You don't lose, you learn.' I really take that to heart because I did learn. I think I bounced back and I showed that I can do it."
Pico faces Jeremy Kennedy at Bellator 286 on Saturday while the champion in the division -- Patricio Pitbull -- faces Pico's old foe Borics. A win over Kennedy, whose only loss during a four-fight UFC run was to now featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, validates the efforts of Pico and his camp to build a fighter ready for a title run -- even if Pico doesn't feel that way.
"I don't feel that way because every fight that I take is the most important fight of my life," Pico said. "If I'm fighting Adli Edwards, that is the most important fight of my life because I need to get to the next stage. Every fight, for me, is a world championship fight. That's just how I view it. I don't train any differently. For example, if I was fighting you, I'd train the same damn way that I'd train fighting [Patricio] Pitbull."
Pico will find himself on the shortlist of featherweight contenders with a win in Long Beach, California on Saturday night. It may just be the penultimate stop on a world title run that Pico is confident will materialize next year.