Saturday: Bellator 286: Patricio Pitbull vs. Adam Borics, Aaron Pico vs. Jeremy Kennedy, Long Beach, Calif. Showtime, 8 p.m.
Ever since Aaron Pico first stepped onto the wrestling mat at the age of 4, intent on dominating the 35-pound weight class, there has been only one thing: the pursuit of excellence.
That chase continues Saturday, 22 years and 110 pounds later, when the Albuquerque MMA fighter steps into the cage to take on Jeremy Kennedy on a Bellator card in Long Beach, Calif.
The stakes are high. Kennedy (17-3) is arguably the best and 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 challenger to the Bellator featherweight title held by Patricio Pitbull (real name Patricio Freire). In reality, Pico is No. 2, behind only Borics, as No. 1 listed challenger AJ McKee moves up to lightweight.
A loss to No. 7-ranked Kennedy would short-circuit Pico’s hopes of challenging the winner of Saturday’s main event, a title fight between Pitbull and Borics, next year.
Pico knows what’s at stake and won’t back down.
“It’s definitely a life-changing fight,” 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 this kind of test. Wrestling, boxing, Pankration (a close cousin of MMA) and now MMA itself have brought him to this point.
“I never really wanted to be a doctor, a nurse, a lawyer, anything like that,” he said. “I always wanted to be a fighter all my life, so I always had in mind that when I grew up I was going to be a world champion at something.”
Pico has already achieved this goal once, after winning a Cadet (Junior) World Wrestling Championship as a 17-year-old in Zrenjanin, Serbia.
But, while chasing a freestyle Olympic spot in 2016 – edged out by eventual Rio de Janeiro bronze medalist Frank Molinaro – Pico already knew he was destined for MMA; he had signed a contract with Bellator two years prior.
Bellator didn’t hesitate to throw their young phenom into deep waters, and Pico surprisingly lost three of his first seven fights. Then came the six-game winning streak.
Now comes Kennedy, a 30-year-old British Columbia native who turned pro in MMA around the time Pico won that junior wrestling world title nine years ago.
The six fighters Pico defeated during his winning streak were no minced liver, hence their combined record of 58-18 in those fights. But Pico is quick to acknowledge that Kennedy poses a far greater challenge.
“When I look at Jeremy Kennedy, he has knowledge of everything,” Pico said. “…I just have to be smart and use my pace. I have my game plans and the things I’ll be looking for, but there’s no secret how I fight it.
“Go ahead, put the pressure on him, knock him down. If he tries to get up, hold him down. Do it as tired as possible.
Ultimately, though, Pico said, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is. Its objective remains the same.
“My mission is just to be the best in the world,” he said. “And that’s what I focus on every day.”
A NICKAL’S WORTH: Bo Nickal, a former Rio Rancho High School wrestler who won three NCAA wrestling titles at Penn State, won a UFC contract this week after defeating Donovan Beard via first-round submission (triangle choke) on the series Contender by Dana White.
The only question: why did it take so long?
Seven weeks earlier, Nickal (3-0), a middleweight, defeated Zack Borrego via first-round submission (rear naked choke) on the previous DWCS. But White at the time opted out of offering Nickal a contract, instead offering him another hit on the Contender Series.
Nickal took the snub in stride and Tuesday left White almost no choice with his destruction of Beard.
“Welcome to the UFC bro,” White said.