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Sports Illustrated Notebook: Aaron Pico re-signs with Bellator

Ahead of UFC 273 and Bellator 277, storylines on Aljamain Sterling and Gilbert Burns are also worth keeping an eye on.
aaron-pico

Aaron Pico re-signs with Bellator

Aaron Pico has signed a multi-fight, multi-year deal with Bellator, Sports Illustrated has learned.

Pico (9-3 MMA, 9-3 BMMA) is one of the brightest rising stars in all of MMA. His next fight takes place at Bellator 277 on April 15, where he seeks to extend his five-fight win streak in a featherweight bout against Jeremy Kennedy. The 25-year-old is part of Bellator's long term plans, and the new deal should further illustrate the promotion's commitment to Pico.

Gilbert Burns is not intimidated by Khamzat Chimaev

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Khamzat Chimaev has completely dominated his four fights in the octagon.

Most recently, Chimaev (10-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) ragdolled a ranked opponent in Li Jingliang, opening the fight by picking him up and carrying him directly in front of UFC president Dana White. That was followed by three minutes of pure punishment for Li, who was defeated by TKO.

Gilbert Burns is confident there will not be a repeat of that in Chimaev’s next bout.

"It's going to be different," says Burns, who is set to meet the undefeated Chimaev in a welterweight bout next week at UFC 273. "Every single guy he's fought isn't my caliber, doesn't have the same power in their hands or the experience. This will be very tough – it won't be an easy fight, but I'm confident I will get the win.”

Burns (20-4 MMA, 13-4 UFC) is ranked third in the welterweight division, a spot that No. 11 Chimaev covets. Burns has also won seven of his last eight, with the only blemish suffered against reigning welterweight champ Kamaru Usman. He and Usman brought out the best in each other in their UFC 258 main event, which Usman won by third-round TKO. There were moments, particularly in the opening round, where Burns appeared to be on the verge of crowning himself the new champ.

"I learned so much in that fight," says Burns. "I had the champion hurt a couple times, but I wasn’t able to capitalize. He did a very good job of staying calm and embracing what he does so well. I do feel like it’s a lost opportunity, but I'll get working to get back to that position.

"For me, I'm not done. I have a goal to accomplish. I want to become champion and I'm not going to stop until I do. I know my window is closing – I'm 35 years old, so I'm putting in a lot of work to accomplish that. April 9 is another step on my journey to get that belt."

Chimaev is an incredibly skilled opponent, and Burns believes it will take a combination of elite jiu-jitsu, grappling, wrestling and striking to win the fight.

"He wants to grapple, I want to grapple," says Burns. "We're going to strike, no doubt, but we're going to grapple.

"It's another tough opponent, just like my past four or five fights. This is another tough guy. But it's not about my opponent anymore. It's about me. I’m motivated to compete.”

ONE Championship unveiling a new naming convention

ONE is rolling out a new naming convention in its preparation to launch across the United States and no longer will be proceeding with the subtitled event names.

This change, Sports Illustrated learned, will begin April 22 with the "ONE: Eersel vs. Sadikovic" card.

Tim Johnson seeking an end to two-fight losing streak in Bellator

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Returning to the cage for the first time since leaving Moscow in defeat, Tim Johnson enters his next bout hungry to reestablish himself in the heavyweight division.

Johnson (15-8 MMA, 3-4 BMMA) has the perfect opportunity for that on April 15 at Bellator 277. He fights No. 4 Linton Vassell, who is ranked a spot ahead of Johnson. A victory in this bout is exactly what he needs to end his losing streak and reassert himself into the title picture.

“A win here is very important to get back on track,” says Johnson. “He’s four, I’m five, so this is pretty important if I want to get that next title shot.”

After an impressive three-fight win streak, Johnson lost back-to-back fights, first to Valentin Moldavsky for the interim heavyweight title last June. He was then knocked out last October by the legendary Fedor Emelianenko in a fight that lasted only 106 seconds.

“The fight with Fedor reminded me I’m not a knockout artist, and you see what happened against a knockout artist,” says Johnson. “Fighting Fedor, especially in Moscow, that’s an experience most people don’t get to have. We had a pretty good game plan and a good avenue to victory, but I threw that game plan out a minute into the fight and paid for it.”

The priority for Johnson now shifts to Vassell (22-8 MMA, 10-5 BMMA), a talented fighter and winner of his last three fights.

“All my focus is on this fight,” says Johnson. “This is one of the top cards of the year. If everything goes right, I’ll get my hand raised.”

Aljamain Sterling makes for tempting underdog

Aljamain Sterling is the reigning UFC bantamweight champion, yet he is entering next week’s bout against interim champ Petr Yan as a sizable underdog.

Bovada currently has the odds on a moneyline victory for Yan at -550 and Sterling receiving odds of +380. Sterling did struggle in his last fight against Yan, en route to a certain defeat until Yan got himself disqualified for landing an intentional illegal knee to the face.

While Sterling hasn’t competed in the octagon in 13 months, he is an extremely appealing underdog entering his title unification bout.

Nate Diaz bringing out the best in Hunter on Twitter

Unbeknownst to Nate Diaz, he is creating some really amusing content on Twitter with Hunter.

And no, it’s not the UFC’s Hunter Thompson, though that is Diaz’s intended recipient. Diaz is tweeting Twitter user @Hunter, who has been remarkably funny in his replies to the UFC star.

Here’s hoping Hunter gets a chance to watch Diaz’s next fight.

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.