It’s barely been a month since Aaron Pico fell short in his quest for the Olympics. Not long after the trials, defeat still burning, he made a decision he said was a long time coming.
He took a vacation.
Well, at least to him it was a vacation. When you are, at age 19, a seasoned international wrestling wunderkind and the so-called brightest prospect in MMA history, perhaps your idea of a vacation differs from that of the general population. Maybe your R&R itinerary for a week in Puerto Rico doesn’t technically reach the threshold of R&R as defined by those of the wider demographics.
“I can’t sit still,” Pico admits to Champions.co, almost sheepishly. “I was running a little, doing some lifting…I got to sit by the beach a lot, too, though. Watched some movies. I had some really good fish. The lobster was really good … I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation. It’s been years.”
It may not have been the decision MMA fans were hoping for. Ever since a respected MMA coach dubbed him the bluest of all the blue chips, observers have waited for the uber-talented teen to make the leap. That probably goes double for Bellator MMA, with whom he signed a long-term deal in 2014, before even graduating high school.
For now, though, it looks like they’ll all need to keep waiting. Pico is an amateur Golden Gloves boxer and may love the striking game even more than wrestling, but for the moment he remains – for the most part – a single-sport athlete, even as he continues to provide tantalizing glimpses into his potential inside the cage.
The resort in Puerto Rico was nice, he said – “you could order breakfast the night before and they would bring it to you the next morning at whatever time you wanted it!” – but now it’s back to work. Time to reapply the work ethic, Spartan even by athlete standards, that helped him get where he is today.
For years now, Pico has followed a schedule that would blanche the average 19-year-old (or 39-year-old, for that matter) in his tracks, waking up as early as 4:30 a.m. for as many as five different daily workouts. In a controversial move, Pico forewent college and a sure scholarship to enter the grind of constant competition on the freestyle wrestling scene, the international counterpart to America’s collegiate or folkstyle wrestling.
It reached a fulcrum point in April, when Pico touched down in Iowa City for the U.S. Olympic Trials, throwing his hat in the ring to represent the country in freestyle wrestling’s 65 kilogram (about 143 pounds) division.
Pico was a low seed on the bracket but slapped aside expectations with successive come-from-behind wins over Jayson Ness and Jordan Oliver before handling Reece Humphrey in the semifinal.
The final was a best-of-three affair pitting Pico against fellow underdog Frank Molinaro, a former NCAA champ who is eight years Pico’s senior. Pico took the first match between them, dropped the second, then surrendered a four-point move in the final match that ultimately propelled Molinaro to a razor-thin tiebreaker win.
For all its succulence, that Puerto Rican lobster doesn’t seem to have soothed the sting. Pico said he is proud of his performance, but it’s not hard to hear the wistfulness in his voice as he goes back over the fateful sequence.
“He got me on that four-point move,” he recalls. “He threw me from the front headlock. I could’ve made it so it was two points instead of four when he turned me. I could have avoided that. I could’ve been more relaxed.”
But time, or timely breakfast delivery, heals all wounds, or at least makes them more tolerable. Now it’s back to the grind for Pico. As the nation’s Olympic alternate at 65 kg, he’ll need to stay fully ready. There’s also the not-so-small matter of the Wrestling World Cup, happening in Los Angeles this June.
For those reasons, MMA fans will have to wait on that larger Pico decision. Though he has been open about his intention to eventually switch from the mat to the cage, any speculation over a transition is premature, Pico says.
“Right now, wrestling is my top priority,” he explains. “I have to stay focused and stay ready. There’s a lot coming up.”
That said, Pico remains connected to the rest of the combat-sports spectrum. After Puerto Rico, he dropped in for a week and a half at American Kickboxing Academy, California’s famed MMA and kickboxing camp that houses UFC middleweight champ Luke Rockhold and UFC light heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier, among others.
“I was just absorbing it,” he says of his AKA visit. “I’m definitely always trying to learn more grappling, Muay Thai, boxing. I really love all of it. Every day I was getting better at something, just for myself.”
If this is time off, imagine what his schedule's like when he’s back on. Pico, fresh from his AKA return, is repopulating his itinerary with wrestling workouts.
“I’m going to get my calendar up to date right now, after I’m done talking to you,” he said during a recent interview, in anticipation of the Wrestling World Cup and maybe, just maybe, that Olympic berth. Although many fans may be growing anxious for a switch in sports, Pico, still a teenager, seems intent on the here and now.
“It definitely didn’t feel very good to lose, but in the big picture, I have so much more to look forward to,” Pico says. “One little bump in the road isn’t going to define me.”