Aaron Pico has spent his entire career in the spotlight, starting his professional run with incredibly high expectations.
A few early defeats led many to lose faith in what the featherweight prospect could ultimately accomplish, but a current six-fight winning streak has quite a few jumping back on the bandwagon.
"I felt really good," Pico told MMA Underground. "I'm really happy with my performance. Just some slight things that I feel I could have done better, but overall, I give myself an A, and I'm really proud of us, my team, because it was a long training camp, and it was just a good night.
"I felt really good out there. I saw everything, and, you know, there's not much to critique other than just the little details, but I'm really happy with the performance, for sure."
Pico (10-3 MMA, 10-3 BMMA) spent the majority of his latest training camp preparing to face Jeremy Kennedy, who was ultimately forced to withdraw from the meeting just one week out. Edwards stepped in on short notice, leaving Pico scrambling to prepare for a new foe. But unbeknownst to most, that wasn't the only adversity he was dealing with in the days ahead of the April contest.
"It was a little bit scary because when I had to fly in on Friday because we had a press conference on Monday in LA, I had such a bad ear infection on the plane that my ears were hurting so bad on the plane, it put me in tears," Pico said. "I got off the plane. I called my brother because my brother works in the ER. I said, 'I need to get to the hospital. Something's wrong with my ears.'
"Luckily he got me in and I saw the doctor and I had a double ear infection. I swear I couldn't hear for like a whole week. I felt like I was underwater. My ears were aching, and I couldn't hear anything. Even when we were hitting pads and stuff like that during fight week, I said, 'Coach Gibson, you're going to have to speak up because I can't hear anything.' It felt like I was underwater. Finally, on fight day, my ears started to clear a little bit. But yeah, it was horrible. I was in so much pain all of fight week and on antibiotics, it was a nightmare."
With the win, Pico now stands as the No. 4 contender in Bellator's official featherweight rankings. It's a position he always expected to be, it just took a little bit longer than he might have originally anticipated. Still, Pico wouldn't change a single thing about the journey.
He heard the doubters, but now he believes he's building a track record for himself that's getting impossible to deny.
"I heard everything," Pico said. "I had so many DMs saying I have no chin now, that I wouldn't be champion. I had people laugh at me, people saying, 'Oh, my God, what's this guy doing?' It is what it is, and it just comes along with it. Even when you're winning, you get people that talk. It was definitely rough, but basically, I just didn't listen to the noise and was in the gym, as simple as that.
"I mean, people can say, 'Well, you've got to do this. You've got to do that.' The fact of the matter is, you've got to get better. You've got to look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'What do I need to work on? I need experience. I need time in the gym. I need time in grappling and my boxing and the wrestling and being able to put it all together, and the most important thing that you can't really train for and you can't pay for anything like that, it's just time in that cage with those lights on and the pressure of the fight and the fight week and the crowd.
"It's a scary thing having to jump back in there, especially after two losses. You're getting knocked out. Do I have a chin? Do I not have a chin? But I'm confident in myself. I'm confident in my coaches. They reassured me that, 'Hey, listen, everything's going to be fine. You just have to basically enjoy the process, trust in it, and you're going to make it.'"
The process appears to be working just fine, and Pico is now in line for a very big fight next time out, one that could conceivably put him in line for a title shot in the very near future. Still just 25 years old and only now approaching his athletic prime after five years in the promotion, Pico's future seems as bright as ever, despite a couple hiccups along the way.
And while Pico has remained relatively quiet about his career goals during what amounted to a rebuilding run following a pair of 2019 losses, the Jackson Wink MMA process is now ready to embrace his goals.
"I'm definitely starting to get that bug where I want that belt around my waist," Pico said. "I really do. I can feel it. ... I want that belt around my waist. I want to be in those title fights. I want to defend my belt. I want to be recognized as one of the best fighters in the world, so I'm knocking at the door now. It's an exciting time to step on the gas pedal and go out there and do it.
"I feel I can be Bellator world champion."
To hear the full interview with Pico, check out the video above.
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.