Billed as the top prospect in MMA history, Aaron Pico will make his MMA debut Saturday at Madison Square Garden – Orange County Register

LOS ANGELES — Aaron Pico has carried the nickname “Cheeks” with him into every competition since he was 4 years old.

“I was a big baby,” he said. “My mom started calling me ‘Cheeks’ and the name just stuck.”

He said his mom no longer calls him by the affectionate nickname, maybe the first sign things are all business now.

Pico will kick off Saturday’s Bellator NYC pay-per-view card against Zach Freeman from Madison Square Garden. If you think the stage is too big for the 20-year-old’s professional debut, then you don’t know Pico.

Through his international wrestling career, he’s handled faraway places like Japan, Serbia, Hungary and Ukraine.

“It has been a long time coming,” Anthony Pico, Aaron’s father said. “I’m excited for it. He’s worked a long time. This is what he’s always wanted.”

Even when he was a freshman at St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Pico was focused on representing the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics. He qualified for the Olympic Trials, but came up short in the best-of-three finals against Frank Molinaro.

“That was very hard for me,” he said of the disappointment. “But I’ve moved on …what was hardest for me was watching the opening ceremony and the Games. I also had to have knee surgery on top of that, I got hurt and it was a pretty hard year and my focus was kind of just getting back to start fighting.

“It definitely ate me up inside, but I felt like I was going to go on to bigger and better things.”

Anthony Pico said failing to make the Olympics team was a “blessing in disguise” for his son. It allowed him to heal and start on this road toward his MMA debut.

Pico was signed by Bellator in 2014 to what was announced as a “long-term contract.” The contract allowed Pico to chase his dream of making the U.S. Olympic team.

Bellator MMA President Scott Coker was made aware of Pico by Bob Cook, who had found Coker fighters during their Strikeforce days, including Daniel Cormier, Tyron…

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