Aaron Pico is no stranger to having a target on his back.
After a dominant amateur wrestling career and a junior Golden Gloves title, Pico signed with Bellator MMA and quickly became the most hyped 0-0 prospect the promotion -- and perhaps even the sport -- had ever seen.
But the hype was slowed down nearly as soon as Pico entered the Bellator cage for the first time as a 21-year old in November 2017 at Madison Square Garden, when he was submitted in 24 seconds by Zach Freeman.
Seven fights later, Pico (5-3) looks to continue working his way back against Chris Hatley in a featherweight bout at Bellator 242 on Friday night at Mohegan Sun. The event, the promotion's first since Feb. 22 because the COVID-19 pandemic, is headlined by a bantamweight fight between Sergio Pettis and Ricky Bandejas.
“I’ve come a long way from when I first started,” Pico said Wednesday on a conference call. “I watch those fights and I took so many unnecessary risks. But I’m glad I made those mistakes and hope not to make them again.”
Pico began training in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at Jackson Wink MMA before his last win in January. He credits the coaches there with taking his game to the next level.
“I feel like I’ve evolved a lot and I'm still growing,” he said. “I love the coaches there. I’m just in the gym working on becoming a better fighter.”
His opponent Hatley (8-2), who defeated highly regarded Gaston Bolanos in his Bellator debut in February, is looking to add another big win to his resume and to prove that he belongs at the top of the division.
“I saw the commercial on TV today to promote the fights and they mentioned the main event and the return of rising star Aaron Pico,” Hatley said. “I was expecting it to say it was against me but it just ended right there.”
Pico said he’s done his best to block out the outside noise and that his mentality has changed as much as his skills since his early fights.
“The losses used to eat me up big time,” Pico said. “I used to be so pissed that I lost but I don’t think I’d be the fighter I am today without those losses.”
Friday night he’ll get another chance to show just how much he’s improved.
“He has nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Pico said of his opponent. “I just need to use my skills and be smart and do what I need to do to win.”
Bellator 242 fight card
Main Card, Paramount, DAZN, 10 p.m. ET
Ricky Bandejas vs. Sergio Pettis
Jason Jackson vs. Jordan Mein
Tywan Claxton vs. Jay Jay Wilson
Aaron Pico vs. Chris "Solo" Hatley Jr.
Prelims, YouTube, DAZN, 8:45 p.m. ET
Mark Lemminger vs. Jake Smith
Cass Bell vs. Raufeon Stots
Ras Hylton vs. Rudy Schaffroth