Aaron Pico’s Crash Course in Jiu-Jitsu: ‘I got killed’, then addicted

At first I got killed. But after I got a few taps, I was addicted.

Aaron Pico
Photo By: Michael Plaster

Add Aaron Pico to the long list of beginning jiu-jitsu practitioners to have uttered such humble words. Except most of us are not a 20-year-old white belt heading into our professional MMA debut at Madison Square Garden.

Most BJJ practitioners, including myself, are early-to-middle-aged men who love MMA and dream of our future sons becoming world champions. We imagine driving our prodigal 5 year old to his first jiu-jitsu lesson. Or should it be wrestling? Boxing? Kickboxing? Muay Thai? Or all at the same time?

How does one mold the perfect MMA Fighter?

To answer this I went straight to the source — Aaron Pico. Riding along on a training day, we covered boxing, strength & conditioning, jiu-jitsu, and about 150 miles of Southern California highway.

So for the benefit of both parents of future contenders and oddsmakers, what follows is a Friday Night quarterbacking of Pico’s lifelong preparation for his Bellator 180 lightweight debut against MMA veteran, Zach Freeman. Has Aaron Pico set the MMA blueprint or is he just another overhyped prospect?

Tracing Back to His Pankration Roots

TBT

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Aaron Pico is perhaps the most experienced 0-0 fighter of all time. He started training in both wrestling and boxing before George St-Pierre ever stepped foot in the octagon.

“My Dad wanted me to ride motorcycles…but I said I like wrestling and boxing more.

“My Dad wanted me to ride motorcycles…but I said I like wrestling and boxing more.” So while the rest of the kids took to the motocross trails and soccer fields, Pico doubled down on musty wrestling rooms and heavy bags hanging from garage ceilings.

Even more surprising is that Pico fought Pankration at the age of 8. “I remember going on Indian Reservations and fighting at 8 and 9 years old.” He and his father admit that it sounds brutal, but he promises his ambitions were strictly of a professional nature. “I haven’t been in a street fight since 4th grade. It’s scary.” He and his father, Anthony, would travel as far as Ukraine to compete in the European Championships for Pankration.

Junior Golden Gloves boxing and cadet wrestling tournaments soon made their way into the mix. Pico’s specialization in wrestling first paid off with a California state title in his freshman year at St. John Bosco.

Exiting after just one year to go pro on the international circuit, Pico elevated his game to more of a freestyle form. “Stylistically he was better suited [for the Olympics] than the other American competitors because he spent so much time overseas,” says Bob Cook, Pico’s manager and head cornerman.

Hurry Up and Wait…3 Years

Upon putting his hat in the MMA arena, Aaron and Anthony’s first decision was to enlist the services of the above mentioned Bob Cook under Zinkin Entertainment.

As soon as Scott Coker replaced Bjorn Rebney as president of Bellator, it was just a matter of time that Cook’s top young client would become Bellator’s top young prospect. “I’ve had a long history of developing fighters with Scott,” says Cook of the former Strikeforce president and stalwart of the San Jose MMA ecosystem.

Pico signed with Bellator in November 2014, immediately after reaching the legal age of 18. Numbers and contract terms were undisclosed, but rumors suggest that the highly lucrative deal included a regular salary.

With 14 years of amateur wrestling and boxing experience, Pico chose to coil the spring back a little bit further — by 2 years and 9 months to be precise. The Viacom-backed company would have to wait for a return on its investment.

Checking Off the Bucket List

As if multiple Pankration championships, Junior Golden Gloves boxing titles, and international wrestling championships were not enough, Pico had one bucket list item to check off before stepping into the cage — the Olympics.  Bob Cook says Bellator was fully on board for this. “To medal in the Olympics is something I wanted to see him do…Bellator was just as supportive.”

Ultimately Pico fell short on a technicality in the final match while attempting to become the first teenager since 1976 to make the US Olympic team.

In summation, Pico’s 3 years leading up to his MMA debut has seen a runner-up bid for the US Olympic wrestling team, an additional 15 pounds of muscle, knee surgery, and now jiu-jitsu training to round out his wrestling and boxing pedigrees.

4 Months Equals 2,880 Hours

What can you say about a guy who’s trained jiu-jitsu for just four months and never donned the gi? Most would assume that submissions will take a backseat to wrestling and ground and pound on June 24th.

Being one of his training partners and a jiu-jitsu confidante, not much can be revealed here other than that Pico spent a large portion of his 2,880 hours training under the watchful eye of Eddie Bravo.

Their relationship began with a direct message from Pico to Joe Rogan on Twitter. “I’ve always known about Eddie Bravo. My dad and I were watching videos of him doing the Twister and talking to Rickson Gracie. I said, ‘Man, I want to go learn from that guy.”

“I’ve always known about Eddie Bravo. My dad and I were watching videos of him doing the Twister and talking to Rickson Gracie. I said, ‘Man, I want to go learn from that guy.”

Rogan immediately responded and hooked them up.

Aaron was already well aware of the controversies within the jiu jitsu community about gi versus no-gi. “I respect other philosophies, but I don’t think I need to be in a gi because I’m not going to be wearing it in MMA.”

Eddie Bravo’s MMA grappling philosophy goes even deeper. “The first things a kid should train are wrestling and striking. Maybe do jiu-jitsu on weekends. It’s easier to pick up later,” says the Tenth Planet founder.

“You don’t need explosion for all the killing techniques in jiu jitsu,” says Eddie Bravo, who believes that developing fast twitch muscles is most important during a child’s growing years. “For positional dominance and transitions [in jiu-jitsu] you need that athleticism, balance, posture, base, clinching wrapped up in a giant burrito of explosion.”

Having lacked such a ‘burrito of explosion’ against so many wrestlers in his competition years, Bravo adapted his patented bottom clinching system, saying, “The tenth planet system is built for that. When you can’t wrestle as good as those guys, you better be able to finish from bottom or at least have Demian Maia’s style of pulling guard, then passing or taking the back.”

“I fell in love with jiu-jitsu. As a wrestler, I never thought I’d say that.”

 

Pico’s willingness to work from bottom positions and even taking beginner level classes has given him a newfound respect for jiu-jitsu. “I know I’m nowhere near the brown or black belt levels.” Even so, he’s expressed a desire to compete in pure no-gi jiu-jitsu tournaments in the future. “I fell in love with jiu-jitsu. As a wrestler, I never thought I’d say that.”

The Alchemist and The Way of the Fight

Ever since Pico read The Alchemist, by Paul Coelho, he’s kept himself on one narrow track. He blocked out all distractions and kept himself under the thumb of family authority figures. “My mom talks about how ‘yes men’ will let you skip practice,” he says about his mom, Gina’s, blunt wisdom.

My lovely parents 😘

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Meanwhile, his father can always be found at cageside ready to deliver the next squirt of water. According to Anthony Pico, “There wasn’t a single morning that he [Aaron] wasn’t up first for the 4:30 AM alarm.”

One external influence is Georges St-Pierre and his book, The Way of the Fight. Having to rehab from surgery for a fully torn ACL, Pico considers this book sacred for martial artists dealing with adversity.

Aaron Pico seems content to maintain a hermetical MMA lifestyle for a long time. “Maybe when I start winning a few world titles I’ll move out.” Perhaps it won’t be very long.

From International Flights to Winnebago Rides

Pico is a Californio, not Californian. It’s more than just a fun fact that he descends directly from Pio de Jesus Pico, the last Mexican governor of provincial California.

This lineage has inspired a steadfast dedication to seemingly ‘live, labor, and die’ in the city of Whittier, California, with his family. Rather than this limiting his training, he’s taken extreme measures to ensure he has access to the best coaches.

Anthony, Aaron’s father, is the sole driver of this Mercedes.

Upgrading from a Lexus sedan to a boat-sized Mercedes Winnebago, Aaron’s training camp headquarters is on wheels. Anthony, who works full-time in medical sales, drives Aaron all throughout Southern California, San Jose, and Las Vegas, while using the vehicle as an office, cafeteria, and bedroom.

Putting a Lighter Emphasis on Sparring

It seems that Aaron understands the cautionary tale of fighters leaving their best performances in the gym. Despite having access to high caliber fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov and the rest of the AKA wrecking machine, he has chosen to stay in Southern California and drill rigorously with a disparate league of experts, including Eddie Bravo and Freddie Roach.

Having competed so much in Pankration, boxing, and wrestling as a child, he enjoys the luxury of avoiding unnecessary brain trauma or leg injuries through hard sparring as an adult. Instead, his highest intensity work takes place in the strength & conditioning department with Sam Calavitta.

“Coach Cal”, a mathematics professor and owner of Treigning [sic] Lab in Yorba Linda, California, takes Pico through what could be dubbed as ‘lactic hell’. “The real work starts only once I’ve taken him to the point of full lactic acid build up.” Backed up by computers constantly running diagnostics on Pico’s performance, Coach Cal is confident that his training methods are what will clean up the sport from doping. “We’re closing in on the guys [performance levels] taking PEDs.”  

‘Coach Cal’ pushing Pico and UFC veteran Jake Ellenberger through a balancing battle exercise

But the MMA Gods Are Consistently Unkind

With article after article hailing Aaron Pico as the most hyped MMA prospect of all time, Bellator and the Pico team surely made a strategic pick out of Zach Freeman.  But the 8-2 veteran has 5 submission wins and will likely make Pico prove himself on the ground.

That said, this examination of Aaron Pico’s fight preparation is all but a pre-victory lap. Tomorrow, Saturday June 24th at Madison Square, this nascent sport’s first purebred cage fighter (not martial artist) will step boldly toward the mantle of Michael Chandler. And soon enough, Conor McGregor.


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