Two-time New Jersey state wrestling finalist. It’s brought up on UFC broadcasts to indicate how good Kurt Pellegrino’s wrestling is, but he hates it. He hates it because he was runner up. He hates it because he’s not the champion.
“There’s not a day that goes by in my life that I don’t think about what I could or should have done,” said the 31-year-old. “There’s not a day! I hate the fact that I’m a two-time New Jersey state runner up.”
The Point Pleasant native never had designs to be in the UFC when he started fighting, let alone the champion. After hitting the 3-3 mark in the UFC, which included high-profile losses to Joe Stevenson and Nate Diaz, “Batman” tuned in. Like it was his dream to be state wrestling champion, he needed to feel that way about being in the UFC too.
“I never wanted to be [UFC Lightweight Champion] before,” he said. “I was just happy and complacent and being a UFC fighter.”
Pellegrino was reminded of his dad working as an 18-wheeler and bus driver and his mother as a crossing guard. Their blue-collar efforts gave him advantages they couldn’t afford. “I wanted to be state champ and he wanted to make sure I could do that,” said Pellegrino of his father. His parents worked so that all he had to worry about was surfing and wrestling. More importantly, winning.
Refocusing on the desire to be a champion resulted in two-pair winning streaks as Pellegrino pulled decisions over Thiago Tavares and Josh Neer and rear-naked choke submissions on Rob Emerson and Fabricio Camoes.
“I’m feeling very good about myself,” he said of his spot in the lightweight class. “I’m very happy to be in the driver’s seat right now.”
Australian George Sotiropolous puts a five-fight streak versus Pellegrino’s at UFC 116 live from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nev. this Saturday night. Pellegrino has sharpened his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with ADCC Champion Marcelo Garcia to prepare for Sotiropoulos’ 10th Planet game yet the fight is a lot simpler than the chess match that may unfold in the Octagon for Pellegrino.
While an MMA fight can end hundreds of ways, Pellegrino asserts it won’t end with him submitting. “I’m not gonna tap out,” he said. It’s what he tells his students at Pellegrino MMA at 1716 Main St. in Belmar, NJ: “If you have time to submit, then you have time to get out of it. It takes more time to tap than anything else, to show that you don’t want to fight. And that’s how I feel.”
Pellegrino’s philosophy is “it ends how you make it end.” He instructs his fighters that it starts in the small shows and ends in the UFC and what that means is their decision. Pellegrino, like his parents, knows to lead by example. He wants his family, friends, students and fans to know, “I fight for every single one of you guys. When its over, the reward will be great because there will be a belt hanging over the enter and exit sign” at Pellegrino MMA.
“George Sotiropoulos isn’t motivating me,” said the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. “He’s just another person in my way to achieve my goal.”
Pellegrino admits he can be abrasive when competition nears because he’s so single-minded on getting one step closer to his dream of being UFC Lightweight Champion. Despite constant rough scraps, including winning a fight against Alberto Crane with his teeth kicked through his lip, Pellegrino doesn’t want a badass reputation even if he bests a fellow contender in Sotiropoulos.
“I’m not a fighter. I was a wrestler. I was a nice kid. I don’t want to get into a fight,” he said. “I don’t want to be known as Kurt Pellegrino the fighter. I want to be known as Kurt Pellegrino the nicest guy in the world that you can go up to and talk to and he’ll just want to hang out with you.”
Read more about Pellegrino on pg. 42 of the June issue of FIGHT! Magazine.