There are two things Kurt Pellegrino hates more than Rashad Evans and Quinton Jackson loathe one another: Losing and quitting. The UFC lightweight contender owns Kurt Pellegrino’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Belmar, N.J., where he explains to students how and why losing sucks. Winning is the easy part, he preaches. You emerge from a fight victorious and you’re done with it. To lose is to accept failure, and Pellegrino is at a point in his life where failure is lethal.
“I can’t have it,” Pellegrino told Heavy.com. “I’m 31 years old. I’m on a four-fight win streak. Losing is not an option for a 31-year-old guy that’s had 12 fights in the UFC. I can’t even speak about it. It’s starting to piss me off.”
Even if George Sotiropoulos proves to be the better man in their UFC 116 fight, one that will have major implications on the lightweight title picture, and even if Pellegrino one day looks defeat dead in the eye and loses that stare down, the only way “Batman” will fall is with honor. The native of Point Pleasant, N.J., has been tested for much of his life. The day he made it his goal to compete in the UFC, nobody – neither his parents nor his brother – supported him except his soul mate Melissa, together for more than 11 years, married for three and at his side when Kurt moved to Coconut Creek, Fla., to train at American Top Team. The last time he lost a fight, April 2, 2008 to Nate Diaz via triangle choke, Pellegrino, his career at a crossroads, decided it was time to leave ATT and come home. Herniated discs forced him out of a marquee matchup with Frankie Edgar, another New Jersey Region 6 high school wrestling star, at December’s Ultimate Fighter 10 Finale. He overcame the pain using Ongoing Active Release Therapy and now only requires frequent massages.
Responding to adversity, Pellegrino recovered from losing two of three and takes a four-fight winning streak into UFC 116 with a message for his opponent. You can snap his arm in half, bend it out of proportion or try and rip it from its socket. He may scream, but won’t be yelling uncle.
“The only problem for George is I will not tap. I don’t want to tap to anyone,” Pellegrino said. “And if I’m George, I don’t want you to tap to me either. It’s more of an honor to go to sleep. Fabrico (Camoes) was strangling me to death and I had to use the last resort to get out. I tell my students the same thing. If I’m going to lose I would rather lose going out on my shield. You get more respect that way.
“I have students who fight for me and I tell them every single time if you tap to a choke I will not let you train with me or compete for me. You’re not going to die. You’re going to be put to sleep, and I would have the biggest honor to wake you up because you died for me.”
In 19 MMA fights Pellegrino (15-4 MMA, 7-3 UFC) has tapped three times, including Diaz’s triangle choke that led to an overhaul of his camp. To prepare for Sotiropoulos, in addition to training with Keith and Kenny Florian, his MMA coaches for three years and counting, Pellegrino worked with three-time ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) champion Marcelo Garcia during private sessions in New York City. Reviewing tape of Sotiropoulos’ ground game, Garcia turned to Pellegrino and noted that nothing his opponent does is special. He then looked Pellegrino, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt since 2005, and said yours isn’t so special either.
“But I believe him,” Pellegrino said. “We dissected it and worked on everything George does. I know everything George is gonna do and I have the layout of everything that he’s gonna do. If he reads this article, work on something different. I’ve got your game down and it’s not gonna work.”
Sotiropoulos (12-2 MMA, 5-0 UFC) has won his last six, most recently a unanimous decision win over Joe Stevenson in UFC 110’s Fight of the Night. The Australian advanced to the semifinals of The Ultimate Fighter 6 and dominated Stevenson enough to impress Dana White, who said afterwards that Sotiropoulos was “in the mix” for a title shot.
It’s not quite enough to impress Pellegrino (15-4 MMA, 7-3 UFC). He holds Sotiropoulos in high regard – Stevenson handed “Batman” his first UFC defeat in August 2007 – but the road Pellegrino has traveled is longer and a bit more arduous. Joe Daddy stands as Sotiropoulos’ biggest win. Pellegrino’s resume includes victories over Camoes, Thiago Tavares, Josh Neer, Junior Assuncao and in his MMA debut a decision win over future TUF 6 winner Mac Danzig at WEC 4 in 2002.
“It’s a very tough fight, but I don’t think George has fought anyone in the UFC,” Pellegrino said. “His toughest fight was definitely Joe Stevenson and I commend him for beating Joe, someone who beat me early in my career. I have a lot of people in my win column that he doesn’t have and I’m taking all that experience into this fight.”
Another win and Pellegrino will be a step closer to a title shot. Just don’t bring that up to him yet. The winner of Kenny Florian vs. Gray Maynard at UFC 118 is next in line to fight the champion, the one who will emerge victorious from the Edgar-B.J. Penn rematch the same night. These days Pellegrino is driving around in new wheels bestowed by All-American Ford (Old Bridge, N.J.) and dressing to impress with Ecko Unlimited’s clothing line. What he cares about is giving thanks to his sponsors and not trying to break down any numbers.
“When I’m No. 1 I’ll let you know how it that feels,” Pellegrino said. “Until then, George and I are going to fight on July 3 and I’m going to have my hand raised. That’s my job. If that gets me a title shot, so be it. But until then I’ll fight whoever Joe Silva puts in front of me.”
He knows there’s no other choice and can’t bear the thought of the alternative.
“I don’t want to lose,” Pellegrino said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get back to where I am today if I do. I always tell people get in the best shape of your life because I promise you I will be in mine. I want to knock him out and I want to submit him. I want to finish this fight. I don’t want this to go to a decision. I mean it. I’m going to do it.”