For avid rider Pico, there's no horsing around ahead of Friday MMA fight

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Jun. 10—ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For Aaron Pico, "riding time" has a double meaning.

In wrestling, the term describes the amount of time one combatant controls the other on the mat during a match. As a wrestler, at age 19, Pico narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics in 2016.

Pico now competes in MMA and trains in Albuquerque at Jackson-Wink. Though an advantage in riding time doesn't directly affect MMA scoring, as it does in wrestling, the longer an MMA fighter can maintain an advantage on the ground, the better.

But, for Pico, "riding time" also means the hours he's able to spend with one of his horses, Canelo or Corleone. An accomplished horseman, he uses his time in the saddle for relaxation and stress relief.

"(Riding) definitely keeps my mind off of fighting, and I'm lucky I have something that I can escape from fighting for a little bit," Pico said in a recent phone interview. "And I'm just happy that it's horses and not anything else."

This week, though, Pico (7-3) is focused on fighting and not anything else. He's scheduled to face Englishman Aiden Lee (9-4) on Friday in Uncasville, Connecticut on a Bellator card at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Every fight, of course, is important for Pico.

He was signed by Bellator amid significant hype at age 17 in 2014 — three years before his actual debut — because of his wrestling background. But, entering the sport at age 20 with no prior experience, he lost three of his first seven fights.

Now riding a three-fight winning streak, standing at No. 6 in the Bellator featherweight rankings, he nonetheless can ill afford another loss.

While giving Lee all due respect, Pico is confident that won't happen.

"I think we've studied him very, very well, and we have so many weapons that we can use against him," he said. "But make no mistake, he's definitely a dangerous fighter and I'm very well aware of that. I'm not taking this guy lightly, for sure."

Lee, at 6 feet, will step into the cage on Friday with a 4-inch edge in height and approximately that in reach. Pico believes he can turn those apparent disadvantages into a plus.

"I don't think it's gonna be much of a problem," he said. "... In fighting guys that are long and lengthy, getting on the inside is probably the best thing because you don't want to be on the end of their punches.

"For me, fighting in the clinch and giving shots on the inside works to my advantage, so I think it'll be fun, for sure."

If he can take Lee to the ground — riding time — so much the better.

Pico began riding horses in his native Southern California. After moving full time to Albuquerque to train at Jackson-Wink, he brought Canelo and Corleone with him.

"I try to ride every day when I'm not in (training) camp," he said. "When I'm in camp I ride a couple of times a week.

"(Riding) is a huge passion of mine and something I want to keep being good at — being able to really ride a horse," he said. "... I look forward, after my (MMA) career, being involved with horses."

One of his passions, Pico said, in no way detracts from the other. Since his last fight, a victory by second-round TKO over John De Jesus on Nov. 12, he's put in countless hours in the gym. Even a COVID-19 infection in April — he had debilitating symptoms but was not hospitalized — could keep him out of training for long.

"I feel like I've improved dramatically since my last fight," he said. "... That's the goal. That's what you want, is to improve every every single time you step in that cage.

"I'm young. I'm 24 years old. I feel like I have so much more to grow. ... I've got the best coaches by my side, willing to share their knowledge with me. I'm very fortunate, and I'm just gonna absorb it like a sponge as much as I can."

Friday

Bellator 260: Douglas Lima vs. Yaroslav Amosov, Aaron Pico vs. Aiden Lee, several other fights. Showtime, 7 p.m.

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