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Aaron Pico: 'I'm physically and mentally ready to become a champion' ahead of Bellator 286

Ahead of Saturday's clash with Jeremy Kennedy, Pico believes he's finally ready to challenge for Bellator gold.

For Bellator's Aaron Pico, the time for rebuilding is done. As the 26-year-old featherweight prepares for a weekend showdown with fellow top-ranked contender Jeremy Kennedy, Pico says he's ready to fight for a title.

"I'm physically and mentally ready to become a champion," Pico told MMA Underground. "Before, if you would ask me, I wasn't ready mentally and physically, but now I feel I have all the tools to be a great champion.

"I don't want to be a good champion. I want to be a great champion. I don't want to just win the title and not defend. I want to defend my belt as many times as I possibly can, and the most important thing, I'm ready mentally, and my team is ready."

A lifelong martial artist, Pico was a standout athlete as a junior competitor, making waves in both wrestling and boxing before ultimately turning his attention to mixed martial arts. However, the highly touted prospect suffered a shocking submission loss in his professional debut and stood at a rather pedestrian 4-3 after his first two years in the sport.

Undeterred, Pico remained steadfast in his chase of championship gold and has since rattled off six consecutive victories, including three knockouts and two submissions.

On Saturday, Pico (10-3 MMA, 10-3 BMMA) meets fellow contender Kennedy (17-3 MMA, 2-1 BMMA) on the Showtime-broadcast main card of Bellator 286 (10 p.m. ET), which takes place at California's Long Beach Arena. Training under the watchful eye of Brandon "Six Gun" Gibson at New Mexico's famed Jackson Wink MMA, Pico believes he's ready to send a message with his performance.

"I feel really good," Pico said. "I feel training camp was excellent. It was very difficult, hard. There's just no way around it. I trained super, super hard, and I've had my good days, my bad days, but it all makes sense because I feel amazing right now, so it was all worth it."

The two featherweights were originally scheduled to meet in April, but Kennedy suffered an injury in the final stages of training and was forced to withdraw from the contest. Pico would go on to pick up a win over late replacement Adli Edwards.

Pico said he wasn't necessarily looking to schedule another date with Kennedy but was happy to do so when his manager, Dominance MMA head Ali Abdelaziz, told him the promotion's plans.

"To be honest with you, I didn't really care," Pico said. "I'm happy Adli Edwards stepped up. It was a great fight for me, and I just got a phone call from Ali saying, 'Hey, you're fighting Jeremy Kennedy,' and I said, 'OK, no problem.' It was nice because I've been preparing for him for months and we just got right back to work, so, yeah – no big deal."

In Kennedy, Pico faces a Canadian veteran whose career hasn't been followed with the same type of fanfare as his own but who has quietly amassed a rather impressive career record while fighting for a variety of the sport's top promotions. Pico is aware of the challenge Kennedy presents but believes he's more than prepared for the task.

"Tough guy, for sure – a veteran," Pico said. "He's fought in the PFL, UFC, obviously Bellator, but I believe we're on a different level. I'm evolving, I'm getting better, and I think my pressure, pace, my power is going to be a little too much for him – but make no mistake, this guy is a great fighter and we've got our work cut out for us, but we're excited."

Bellator 286's main event sees reigning featherweight champ Patricio "Pitbull" Freire (33-5 MMA, 21-5 BMMA) put his title on the line against Hungarian contender Adam Borics (18-1 MMA, 9-1 BMMA. Should Pico make a statement with his performance earlier in the night, it could go a long way towards lining up a shot at whoever walks away with the title, and he's keenly aware of that possibility.

Pico doesn't want to assume anything at this point in his career, but after suffering a few disappointing setbacks to begin his professional run, he thinks it's time to deliver on all previous expectations.

"Let's get past Jeremy Kennedy," Pico said. "I'm not looking like it's going to be easy. It's going to be very difficult, but when that time comes and the phone rings for me to fight for a world championship fight, we're all going to be ready."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.