Kurt Pellegrino’s order comes up number one at Wawa’s sandwich shop. He looks over at his wife Melissa—his high school sweetheart and mother of his daughter Priscilla—and says, “If it would have been number two, I would have walked away.”
At 21 years old, Pellegrino, a natural 155 pounds, bloated up to 206 pounds, and rolled out of bed at 7:19 a.m. every day to punch the clock as a public works employee, all while keeping a full drinking schedule. Trading digs with colorful coworkers at an easy gig was a fun way to pass the time, but Pellegrino felt about that job like he did all others—he would rather be competing.
When his cousin Ken hired and fired him from a cheesesteak gig on the Jersey shore, Kurt recalls, “I needed to be fired because my head was into wrestling and not into making cheesesteaks.”
The Point Place native was a two-time New Jersey state high school wrestling championship finalist. He was in college just long enough to rank eighth in the country at his weight. However, his struggle with dyslexia his first semester led to his failure of four out of five classes, which halted his dreams of being a gym teacher and wrestling coach.
With the job not cutting it, he decided to dive into the unfamiliar sport of mixed martial arts to satisfy his competitive edge. “I was a wrestler. I was a nice kid. I didn’t want to get into a fight,” he says.
But he did, defeating fellow future UFC fighter Mac Danzig at WEC 4 by decision in 2002 in his debut. He earned his way into the UFC on a five-fight winning streak, trying to hang at 170 pounds because 155 pounds had been abolished. He dropped his promotional debut to Drew Fickett, who was solid at 194 pounds on fight night, opposite Pellegrino’s generous 168 pounds. When the UFC reinstated the lightweight division, he moved down and found success against opponents his size before losing to Joe Stevens on in a number-one contender match.
Alberto Crane kicked his tooth through the bottom of his lip in his next outing, but that wasn’t enough to stop Pellegrino, who fought for six minutes that way en route to a TKO victory. On the wrong end of a highlight reel triangle choke against Nate Diaz, Pellegrino was reminded how much he hates the thought of being second best at anything.
Pellegrino prioritized the UFC lightweight title as his goal, resulting in a four-fight winning streak, which he’ll put up against George Sotiropoulos’ hot five-fight streak at UFC 116 in Las Vegas in a 155-pound contender match.
“Batman” vows to go out on his shield like a Spartan warrior if that’s what it takes to be number one. Pellegrino wants to be the best father, husband, fighter, and trainer. He wants to be a lot of things. Number two is not one them.