Kurt Pellegrino: It Made Me Realize I Care

(Batman straight robbin Thiago Tavares at UFC 88)
("Batman" straight robbin' Thiago Tavares at UFC 88)

By FIGHT! contributor Jeff Harder

After he lost to Nate Diaz in April 2008, Kurt Pellegrino stopped caring. The fact that he wasn’t in tears and wasn’t having trouble sleeping—that the loss flat out didn’t bother him—had Pellegrino doubting his ambition. “I’m not going to fight if I don’t give a shit,” he says. The way Pellegrino saw it, he had one last chance to win or lose. The UFC lightweight left his academy in Florida; he and his wife, Melissa, put their house on the market; and he picked the toughest opponent offered up by UFC matchmaker Joe Silva: Thiago Tavares. Training was often tough precisely because he wasn’t sure if he had the desire to fight anymore. But the results were undeniable: he beat Tavares by unanimous decision at UFC 88 last September, earning Fight of the Night honors and having what he considers the best fight of his career. “Fighting Thiago,” he says, “made me realize that I care.”

Spurred by his subsequent submission win over Rob Emerson last February and a new mentorship under Kenny and Keith Florian’s stable of coaches, Kurt “Batman” Pellegrino, a 30-year-old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, is ready to carry the momentum into his next fight against Josh Neer, scheduled to open the televised card of UFC 101 on August 8. “I’m ready to write a whole new chapter in my life,” he says.

Pellegrino prides himself in his toughness, but the Florians have helped him re-learn the value of technique—vital to beating the durable, heavy-handed Neer. Were the fight to take place before his post-Diaz epiphany, Pellegrino says it would look something like “two morons who stand in the middle of the cage and slug.” There’s two ways to beat Neer, Pellegrino says: bring a baseball bat into the cage, or fight the smarter, more technical fight. “Keith called me last night and said, ‘When I get to Philadelphia on Tuesday, me and you are gonna spend an hour working on technique.’ Four days before the fight and we’ll be working on technique still.”

The 14-week camp has largely been split between the Florian’s home base of Sityodtong USA in Somerville, Massachusetts, and Kurt Pellegrino’s MMA Academy in Belmar, New Jersey, the school Pellegrino opened last September. WEC Bantamweight champion Miguel Torres has been a fixture of the training sessions. He’s paid extra attention to his diet, strength and conditioning, and spending much of his time away from his wife and two-year-old daughter.

Fighting a little more than an hour away from his home in front of friends and family—Pellegrino says he sold 287 tickets to UFC 101 inside of a day and a half—should provide him a distinct advantage. Coupled with the best training of his life, he says he’s ready for anyone. “I could fight Brock Lesnar or Fedor Emelianenko (on August 9)…and I just don’t believe at this moment in my life that I could lose,” he says.

After the fight, Pellegrino plans on spending much-needed time with his family, and climbing back in his gi and rolling with his students in Belmar. Eventually, he’d like to coach one of his 200 students into a UFC career and corner him for his first fight. He’ll be in the next edition of the UFC video game. He says he wants stay with his employer as long as they would like to have him. But Josh Neer comes first, and Pellegrino cares too much about fighting to finish it quickly.

“I don’t want to be cheated—I don’t want to finish him in the first or second round,” he says. “I want to feel 14 weeks of a training camp in three five-minute rounds.”

Go here to read what Josh Neer has to say about the fight.

FIGHT! Fans: Do you think Pellegrino’s technical jiu jitsu will overcome Neer’s brawling style?

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