Aaron Pico can make people believers with a win at Bellator 206

Aaron Pico
(Getty Images)

One year, three months and a handful of days after his inauspicious debut at Bellator NYC, Aaron Pico will step into the cage opposite Leandro Higo this weekend, throwing himself into the deep end of the featherweight talent pool.

Heralded as a generational talent and signed by Bellator MMA long before he was ready to make the transition from wrestling to mixed martial arts, the promotion committed a ton of marketing muscle to the 22-year-old’s debut last summer. And fans and observers waited with baited breath to see what all the hype was about.

Twenty-four seconds later, “The Next Big Thing” had been choked out by journeyman Zach Freeman, leaving many to wonder if all the years of talking up Pico’s elite potential was simply hollow promoter-speak.

There were legitimate reasons to be concerned, too.

While his success in various combat sports disciplines was part of the package that had many convinced Pico was destined to become an elite mixed martial artist, his top achievements in boxing and pankration came years earlier, when he was still competing within the junior ranks. Additionally, as much as he experienced success while wrestling in the senior ranks as a teenager, he fell short of qualifying for the Olympic team, making his greatest accomplishment on the mats his Cadet World Championships win in 2013.

As much as success in the junior ranks can often be a precursor to achievements in the professional ranks, there have been innumerable young stars in both individual and team sports who excelled in their youth and never managed to replicate that success when they graduated to the next level and they were remaining in the same sport.

Pico was attempting to do so while changing sports and although the individual elements were there and looked great packaged together, his first foray into the cage showed that being heralded as a generational talent and living up to that advanced billing are two completely different things. And that even exceptional prospects need experience and seasoning.

That is what this past year has been about for Pico, who has collected three first-round stoppage victories over the last 12 months heading into Saturday’s pairing with Higo.

There is no denying the performances have been impressive, as each of Pico’s victories has produced a highlight reel finish. However, they have also garnered him just over five minutes of in-cage experience, while taking on a trio of fighters with good records built by beating subpar competition.

On one hand, those performances highlight the elements that justify the hype surrounding the Whittier, California native — the power, speed, athleticism, and ability to blend it all together and develop quickly — and the fact that he made quick work of Justin Linn, Shane Krutchen and Lee Morrison is precisely what you want to see from someone in his position.

On the other hand, storming through opponents that you “should beat” doesn’t necessarily afford you the opportunity to work through adverse situations in the cage; to make mistakes, make adjustments and find a way to tough out a fight when the fact that you’re the far superior athlete isn’t enough to get you through.

That’s what makes Saturday’s meeting with Higo so intriguing.

One thing that works in Pico’s favor is the fact that he’s training alongside a group of seasoned, experienced, elite fighters at the Treigning Lab in Orange County, California.

Working with a group that includes UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw, perennial featherweight contender Cub Swanson, the recently-retired Jake Ellenberger and fellow Bellator rising star Juan Archuleta. Andcontinuinginuing to get guidance and direction from the likes of “Bang” Ludwig, Freddie Roach and UFC “Double Champ” Daniel Cormier. All of this ensures that Pico is getting the strong coaching and training that he needs to maximize his potential, but it doesn’t guarantee that he’ll get there or do so without stumbling.

Very few fighters navigate this sport without experiencing setbacks, and quite frequently the early struggles of future stars come in spots where they’ve taken on too much, too soon.

And that’s the concern with Pico heading into this weekend’s contest.

Less than 18 months into his professional career, the recently-turned 22-year-old is graduating from facing regional fighters with inflated records to taking on a bona fide who has challenged for championship gold in two of his first three appearances under the Bellator banner.

While Pico is the fighter everyone is talking about from this pairing heading into the bout, Higo is the more tested, more proven, and more established member of the tandem, and very much capable of handing the upstart his second loss in five appearances.

A protégé of the Pitbull Brothers, the 29-year-old is a former RFA and LFA bantamweight champion, who has victories over the likes of Terrion Ware, Melvin Blumer, Steven Peterson and Joe Taimanglo. Although he’s just 1-2 inside the Bellator cage, the two setbacks came against former bantamweight champ Eduardo Dantas (by split decision) and the current ruler of the 135-pound weight class, Darrion Caldwell.

Higo is more skilled and more talented than anyone Pico has shared the cage with to date and represents a high-risk, high-reward assignment for the highly-regarded prospect.

If he can march into the SAP Center in San Jose on Saturday night and extend his winning streak to four by turning back Higo, the memory of his debut loss to Freeman will continue to fade and the number of people ready to believe the hype and go all-in on Pico’s potential will grow exponentially.

If he comes up short, however, there will be more questions about the course his career has taken thus far, his ability to compete against quality talent and whether declaring him a future superstar before he’d even set foot in the cage did the skilled, but unproven upstart more harm than good.

Five fights and less than 18 months into his professional career, Aaron Pico is already at a crossroads.

The only way to see which way he goes from here is to tune in Saturday night and see what happens.