The MMA landscape is not shy of headlines following the activity of this past weekend.

Over a 48 hour period that entailed five notable events, the UFC, Bellator, WSOF, Cage Warriors, and Legacy FC collectively demonstrated the drawing power that MMA continues to exhibit and develop in 2014.

Among the title fights, grudge matches, and fight announcements that populated these shows, one piece of concluded business that Bellator announced on its Spike TV broadcast almost flew under the radar. At Bellator 131, the promotion announced the signing of combat sports prospect Aaron Pico to a long-term contract.

While elite athletes have migrated to mixed martial arts with impressive resumes before, boasting accolades including Division I All-American status, World Championships, and Olympic medals, Pico is perhaps an even rarer talent than the likes of Josh Koscheck, Holly Holm and even Ronda Rousey.

The 18-year-old has excelled in two different sports, claiming the FILA Cadet World Championship in freestyle wrestling at 139 pounds and a Junior Golden Gloves national championship in boxing among a litany of prestigious accomplishments.

Such a unique hybrid skill set, combined with Pico’s young age, prompted Bellator to redefine the traditional contract model in mixed martial arts and sign the young standout at least two years ahead of any professional debut. While specific details of the agreement have not been revealed and it is unconfirmed exactly how Bellator is compensating Pico, the contract’s structure allows Pico to immediately focus himself on ambitions for 2016 Olympic participation in amateur wrestling, before the highly touted prospect embraces a career in mixed martial arts.

In a sport where many competitors are only as notable as their last performances, and typically compensated on recent form, the contract itself is a revolutionary concept. Pico’s agreement with Bellator is a rare spectacle of patience and long-term planning that could change the climate of recruitment in MMA as we know it. As the UFC continues to dominate the sport’s global market share, it shines like a beacon of light as ‘the big show’, where talents in their prime can earn their largest paydays.

Recognizing this trend, characterized by the likes of Eddie Alvarez and Hector Lombard forfeiting their Bellator world championships for Zuffa’s greener pastures, the Viacom-backed promotion is making concerted efforts to recruit its own elite talent at a younger age and cultivate them into tomorrow’s tops stars.

In the narrative of mixed martial arts’ rapid legitimization that has occurred over the last twenty years, the development contract reflects a new outlook on talent acquisition geared towards long-term investment. True to MMA’s global appeal, the deal parallels the likes of soccer, rugby and other mainstream sports abroad, where professional outfits nurture talent from a young age to profit from their future success.

Bellator President Scott Coker’s dynamic approach is one that first started under his predecessor Bjorn Rebney, who signed the likes of Shawn Bunch and Chris Honeycutt. Like Pico, both talents made their name is wrestling, holding All American titles, a Pan American championship, and US Olympic alternate status between them.

Under this agenda, Bellator is asserting a more active role in scouting new roster additions that continues to separate itself from the UFC’s adopted model of operations. Like Bellator’s original tournament format and existing ramp walkway, the promotion’s recruitment strategy strengthens its own brand in the process, creating an alternative MMA product in every sense of the word.

Any concerns over letting young talent pursue high profile goals outside of mixed martial arts while under contract are alleviated by the residual benefits of press exposure Bellator stands to claim from Pico’s success, which has already earned the young man a Nike sponsorship.

Banking on a surge of media interest surrounding dual-sport athlete Pico ahead of an Olympic campaign, Bellator can stake a claim in the athlete’s development, as well as promising a lucrative future for him. The company’s positioning would translate to positive PR among viewers and professional mixed martial artists looking for a considerate home to ply their trade.

The wide array of benefits Bellator could collect from Aaron Pico’s potential justifies any investment the organization makes in the short term. Depending on the long-term outcome, it will be interesting to see if the ‘development deal’ concept remains exclusively reserved for the most special wunderkinds, or whether Pico’s contract will mark a revolution of general amateur athlete talent acquisition in the sport over the coming years.

About The Author

Aidan O'Connor
Staff Writer

A native of Maidstone, England, Aidan has been covering MMA in a news or feature capacity since 2010. In addition to writing for The MMA Corner, Aidan also runs the MMAmusing Twitter account and enjoys the sport as an avid enthusiast. A graduate in English and American Studies, he currently works in marketing and public relations.