Florida. A couple years ago. Before rebooting his mixed martial arts career in his native New Jersey, Kurt Pellegrino was living and training in Florida, and just happened to run into someone who would change his outlook on a lot of things relating to life and his run towards a UFC lightweight title.
“I saw this guy with a mean, old grizzly beard and I said ‘that guy’s a somebody, I’m gonna go talk to him,” remembered Pellegrino. That somebody was Tim “Bone” Moynihan, a wrestling coach who wound up being a lot more than that to the Jersey native.
“He was the guy that would motivate me and give me talks,” said Pellegrino.
Fast forward to the present day, and following the announcement of his UFC 116 fight against George Sotiropoulos this weekend, Pellegrino was taken aback by the reaction he got from those who doubted his ability to win the bout. As if on cue, a text message came in from Moynihan:
“A few UFCs ago, all you wanted was a second chance. You fought your way back. Now you have your second chance to beat a kid that beat the kid that beat you. Circumstances are very much the same, ironically. Forget about winning and losing and prior pain. Face the challenge. Success is measured by obstacles you overcome.”
Kurt Pellegrino wasn’t going to get mad anymore. He was going to get even, and the only way he knows how to get even with the doubters and naysayers is by winning. And if you’re in his path, get out of the way.
“I’ve never been so motivated for a fight in my life,” he said. “I think everyone’s counting me out, and the last time somebody counted me out, I ended up destroying Thiago Tavares. I think that was the first time in my whole life that nobody gave me a chance. So for someone to count me out and to say I can’t do it makes me want to go more. I was told that (his most recent opponent) Fabricio Camoes is tougher than Hermes (Franca). And from my own training partners, they said, ‘Kurt, this guy is really good man.’ Well, I’m gonna finish him. ‘No, man, come on, you know how good he is.’ Yeah, I’m gonna finish him now. I’m not saying it because I’m being cocky. I’m saying it because keep telling me how great somebody is, and I’m gonna prove you wrong. I have people telling me ‘Kurt, this guy has great jiu-jitsu, his cardio is phenomenal, he constantly goes forward,’ and I go ‘then guess what, there’s going to be fireworks, because I’m not backing up once. I’m going in there on my shield, and I’m going out on my shield. Don’t ever count me out.”
Pellegrino, 31, is just getting warmed up, and when he’s this amped up and animated, it usually results in a bad night for his opponents. And while there is perhaps no one in the game who invests as much emotionally into each fight, Pellegrino claims that he doesn’t feel the pressure to perform this weekend like he has in the past.
“I have no pressure on me,” he said. “I don’t care if I win or lose and that’s what makes me so dangerous right now. Every thought I’ve had since I moved back to New Jersey has been do or die. Thiago was my career. I couldn’t even train for that fight. I would drive to the gym and cry on the way to the gym. I’m living with my wife’s mother and father, I’ve got to win this fight. That was the only time I had the pressure. Everyone else was I want to win so bad so I can prove to everyone that I can do it. Now I have no pressure. The guy who has pressure right now is George. He’s the one who’s supposed to whup my ass.”
That Sotiropoulos has soared up the rankings and into the favorite slot in this fight after his stellar win over Joe Stevenson in February is part of what’s irking Pellegrino, especially since MMA math dictates that since Sotiropoulos beat Stevenson and Stevenson beat Pellegrino, then Sotiropoulos beats Pellegrino on July 3rd.
“He beat Joe Stevenson, Joe Stevenson beat me,” said an incredulous Pellegrino. “All of a sudden he beats Kurt Pellegrino. That’s not gonna happen because this guy you’re talking with is light years better than the guy that fought Joe Stevenson and that fight outcome would never be the same again.”
Since the loss to Stevenson at UFC 74 in 2007, Pellegrino has been on a tear, winning five of six bouts, including four in a row, with the only loss coming via submission to Nate Diaz in April of 2008.
“People think I hate Nate Diaz,” said Pellegrino. “No, I don’t hate Nate Diaz. Nate Diaz taught me a valuable lesson. Train real hard, do cardio, never give up, and I will never tap again. So if my arm gets caught, for all the millions of viewers out there, close your eyes, because I’m going to let it break.”
It’s this intensity that has made Pellegrino a favorite among both fans and media, but this is no publicity stunt; this is who he is, and he’s not afraid to let his competitive spirit do the talking for him and let the chips fall where they may.
“There’s no one who’s gonna run game on me and I’m gonna be like ‘wow, I can never beat that guy,’” said Pellegrino. “Drew Fickett, I know I can beat Drew Fickett. Joe Stevenson, I know I can beat Joe Stevenson. Satoru (Kitaoka), I know I would smash him. Nate Diaz, I know I would beat Nate Diaz. No one in this sport has beaten the s**t out of me to make me say I would never beat that guy. If they beat me, I’m not taking away their wins. I just don’t think they could do it again.”
Yet strangely enough, after all of this, Pellegrino has no ill feelings towards Sotiropoulos. In fact, he was kind of surprised when the fight was brought to his attention.
“He wanted to fight me, he chose to fight me,” said Pellegrino. “I thought we were kinda friends, but he chose to fight me, and I was actually in shock that he wanted to fight me. Why does he want to beat me up, what did I do to him?”
He chuckles, a brief moment of levity in the midst of a grueling training camp. He even throws it out there that if Sotiropoulos wants to engage him in a game of chess or backgammon before the fight, he’s available.
“It’s only business on the day of the fight,” he says. But despite the lack of bad blood, there is no mistaking the seriousness of the fight to both corners, and as Pellegrino gives his final assessment of the bout, it’s as if he stops talking to his interviewer and instead turns to face his opponent, sending him a message that he hopes is received loud and clear.
“I don’t want to disrespect George Sotiropulous, who I think is a great person,” said Pellegrino. “I want him to have the best fight on his hands, so that if he wins, he can say I beat the best Kurt Pellegrino in the world. And if I defeat him, I want the same thing… And I’m not looking forward to wrestling you; I already know I’m better. I just want to punch you and I want you to punch me too, and I want you to prove me wrong and that you can run a clinic on me. I’m not afraid of rubber guard, I’m not afraid to get punched in the face, I don’t care how this fight ends as long as me and you have a complete and utter battle. And don’t worry about arm submissions or leg locks; I will not tap, therefore I can still go after you, break it. If you get my throat, don’t worry about me tapping; just don’t tap to me either – go to sleep. Let’s show them how real black belts do it. Because I’m a real black belt and I don’t tap anymore. I want the same respect. Go to sleep. Fabricio Camoes ruined my fight because he tapped. Don’t tap, I won’t tap to you either, and let’s give everybody what they want. I am charged up and ready to get into a fist fight July 3rd.”