UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Although the coronavirus pandemic brought an unexpectedly long layoff for the Bellator roster, Aaron Pico has used the six-month break in a positive way.

Pico’s story in MMA has been well documented at this point. He made his debut at 20 and was touted as perhaps the biggest prospect in the sport’s history. The past three years haven’t panned out as expected, though, with mixed results and some brutal knockout losses.

There have been some big wins, too, as well as multiple changes in scenery. Pico (5-3 MMA, 5-3 BMMA) said he’s extremely comfortable after completely settling in with Jackson Wink MMA in Albuquerque, N.M., and now he’s ready to thrive going into his featherweight matchup with Solo Hatley Jr. (8-2 MMA, 1-0 BMMA) on Friday at Bellator 242.

“I have had a lot of time to really spend with the coaches at JW and have really, really grown as a martial artist,” Pico told MMA Junkie on Wednesday. “I’m very happy with where I’m at mentally, and I’ve just got to go out there Friday night and compete, which I’ve done all my life. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”

Pico said when he started his fighting career he “didn’t know (expletive)” about what it really meant to succeed in MMA. He said he relied heavily on raw talent and his wrestling background, but now all of that has changed.

For Pico, there are lessons to be learned from all the fight game. He said he’s looked at one person specifically of late, though, and pointed to UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman as someone he wants to mimic himself after. Pico said he recognizes Usman may get some heat to his approach in fights, but the results are undeniable, and Pico sees value.

“My favorite fighter right now is Kamaru Usman, and I really, really watch a lot of tape on him,” Pico said. “Yeah, he doesn’t get a lot of knockouts, but he wins. He wins, and he gets out of the fight and is healthy, and that’s something I put in my head. Of course I want to be exciting, but I want to win. That’s the most important thing. I want to get the W and whatever it takes to do that, I will do it. I want to be smart. I don’t want to get hit, and I want to go home and have no marks on me and be healthy.”

Pico, 23, said he thinks his style is naturally conducive to excitement, but he’s no longer going into the cage with the mentality that he needs to produce a highlight. He expects that mindset to pay off against Hatley at Bellator 242, which airs on Paramount and streams on DAZN following prelims on MMA Junkie.

“I’ve got to be smart,” Pico said. “I really want to have a good, healthy career. That’s the biggest thing I’ve been talking with the coaches – use my skills, be smart. If the knockout is there, great. But I’m not going to be like, ‘I have to get the knockout.’ The most important thing is my health, my safety and outclassing my opponent. If that’s a knockout, if that’s taking him down and ground-and-pounding, I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”