WHITTIER (CBSLA.com) — If you don’t already know who Aaron Pico is, know this: Plenty of people are investing money to turn him into a household name.
Pico is considered to be a fighting phenom, in both wrestling and mixed martial arts. He is such a prospect that he is already seeing green while pursuing Olympic gold.
“My ultimate goal is to be an Olympic champion,” Pico told KCAL9’s Jeff Nguyen.
The Whittier native who’s a high school junior has a sponsorship deal with Nike. He’s also endorsing a line of active wear called Dethrone. At 18, he’s also signed a long-term contract with the Bellator mixed martial arts league.
The company is allowing him to pursue his dreams to qualify and compete as a wrestler in the 2016 Olympics before he even steps into the cage.
“He will become, I believe, one of the biggest stars in MMA,” Bellator President Scott Coker said. “You could equate him to like a Tiger Woods or Lebron James.
Here’s why: Pico was undefeated as freshman and won the state championship for St. John Bosco High School. And he’s been beating world-class wrestlers in international competition.
“I’ve been looking for that type of kid all my life,” said his coach, Valentin Kalika, a former national Ukrainian champ.
Pico isn’t just an accomplished wrestler; he’s also a Golden Gloves boxer.
Nguyen asked Pico if focusing on wrestling will prepare him for MMA.
“Absolutely,” Pico responded. “Being an MMA fighter, it’s so hard nowadays to step in the cage and not know wrestling.”
His mother, Gina, is a registered nurse. She supports his wrestling, which started at the age of 4, but has concerns about his decision to go into mixed martial arts.
“When you’re a mother and you have a child, and you think what are they going to do as a career path, you don’t think they’re going to be a fighter or an MMA fighter for that matter,” she said.
Pico’s Olympic pursuit is helping his mother to buy some time before his first MMA fight. She said she will not be ringside when that time comes.
Pico’s father, Anthony, has had to defend his son’s MMA aspirations to their relatives.
Pico’s parents tried to get him into horseback riding and motorcycles — but they quickly learned his heart was elsewhere.
When you talk about a motocross rider, it’s very, very dangerous,” his father said. “Race car, it’s very dangerous. You’re 19 years old, this is no different. There are a lot of things equally dangerous or possibly more dangerous.”
Bellator isn’t saying how much Pico’s deal is worth. But he stands to make more money once he starts competing.
Coker explained Bellator’s reason for signing Pico now.
“Well, once he hits the Olympics, then everybody is going to want him, right? So we’ve already made the investment,” Coker said.
The family’s garage has been converted into a pugilistic man cave, complete with punching bags.
Pico admits boxing was his first love, but his wrestling coach has helped him to realize his potential in a sport that may not be as lucrative.
“You can definitely make more money in boxing, but who says I mean there’s always got to be that first person to change it,” Pico said. “And you never know in the future, MMA, it could be the number one sport. I mean why can’t I be that guy to change it?”
What will likely not change is his career path, which his mother hasn’t fully embraced.
“It’s not my dream. It’s Aaron’s dream,” she said. “I may not particularly have chosen that. But that’s not my life. That’s Aaron’s life.”
Titan Mercury Wrestling Club and USA Wrestling are covering the costs of Pico’s travel, training and coaching expenses to help him qualify for the Olympics. His endorsement deals elevate him to professional status, making him ineligible to compete at the high school and college levels.