Even when his much-hyped debut fight went bust, Aaron Pico still had his horse, Canelo, to call on for comfort.
Whittier's Pico, who returns to action Saturday night at Bellator 192 at the Forum, is a decorated amateur wrestler and such a promising boxing talent that he is trained by seven-time trainer of the year Freddie Roach.
Rising to a Nike endorsement deal by age 21 requires a rigorous training regime, but Pico also ensures he can steal moments away from his craft to devote to horses, which he's cared for near his home since childhood.
His personal horse is named Canelo, after the superstar boxer, former two-division champion Canelo Alvarez of Mexico, whom Pico grew up idolizing.
"I actually didn't even name him that," Pico said laughing.
"When I went to go see him, I asked what his name was and they told me it was Canelo. I said, 'Oh, my God! I'll take him! I'll take him!' It was the best decision I have ever made. He and I are so close. I'm with him every single day, seven days a week."
Pico said he awakes each morning at 5:15 or earlier to ensure that even the mandatory chore of roadwork doesn't interrupt his two hours with Canelo.
"It's my favorite thing to do. It balances out training. Of course, I'm always thinking about MMA, but with those two hours that I'm with my horse, I really don't think about anything but having a good time," Pico said. "I'm very fortunate that I found a passion that I truly love."
Few mixed martial arts prospects enter the cage with as much buildup as Pico.
He closed a stellar run as an amateur wrestler by winning several championships and medals across the globe while competing in various wrestling disciplines, winning the U.S. national championship in all three styles.
He's also an accomplished amateur boxer and was the 2009 national junior Golden Gloves champion.
Under Roach, he sparred and trained for eight weeks in the fall with the legendary former four-division world champion Miguel Cotto.
"I'm absolutely 100% interested in competing in a professional boxing match. I love boxing. I'm obsessed with it. I watch it every day, and boxing will definitely be in my future," Pico said.
"I'm surrounded by some of the greatest boxers in the world when I'm at Wild Card gym."
Pico headed to his Bellator debut last summer with the buzz of being MMA's next great superstar.
Hype lost to reality when Pico was submitted by Zach Freeman in just 24 seconds of the first round in front of a large Madison Square Garden crowd at Bellator 180 in June.
A humbled Pico returned to the training grind and fulfilled the lofty expectations in his second fight, producing a knockout-of-the-year candidate by flooring Justin Linn in the first round with a flawless left hook that made Roach beam with pride.
"I knew with all of the type of skills that I had, that [the first loss] wouldn't define me. It was just 30 seconds. Obviously it was embarrassing, but I knew I had so much more," Pico said.
"So many great things came out after that loss that I'm very thankful for. I'm actually happy that the loss happened. It led me to people that have changed my life and have done a lot for me. I met Freddie Roach and started working with him; I started working with [MMA fighter] Antonio McKee and all the guys at the Body Shop. I had my family's support, and I knew I was going to come back from it and I knew it was just a matter of time."
Pico (1-1) returns to the Bellator cage Saturday night when he meets Shane Kruchten (12-3) on the main card of Bellator 192.
The new Paramount Network (formerly Spike) will televise the card headlined by a heavyweight tournament fight between former UFC light-heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and former UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen, along with a welterweight title fight between champion Douglas Lima and Rory MacDonald.
At the Body Shop in Lakewood, Pico trains alongside Bellator products Kevin "Baby Slice" Ferguson, son of the late Kimbo Slice, Compton's Joey Davis, Bob Sapp and childhood friend A.J. McKee Jr.
Pico and McKee grew up together and count hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar as a childhood friend.
McKee also is another highly touted prospect of whom Bellator President Scott Coker is very fond, but don't expect a clash between the two friends.